Did you know that if you translate “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” into Russian, it becomes “the vodka is agreeable but the meat has gone bad”? Literal translations can be tricky that way.
It seems that no translators were harmed in the manufacturing of Hillary Clinton’s “reset” button, which she presented to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Friday.
“We worked hard to get the right Russian word,” Clinton addressed Lavrov in a deliberately slow voice, as if talking to a special-needs child. “Do you think we got it?”
“You got it wrong,” Lavrov answered in fluent English. “This says ‘peregruzka,’ which means overcharged.”
Well, it looks like somebody used a cheap electronic translation program. But it could be worse. I once came across a website that advertised its automated translation service with an example of a label from a jar of pickles, informing Russian consumers that it contained condoms.
Talk about food safety! That’s what you get when you translate “preservatives” without as much as a human touch.
Incidentally, Hillary Clinton’s linguistic episode in Geneva also clarified the translation of the Obama administration’s term “worked hard,” which in plain English means “did half-assed job.”
News reports would make us believe that Hillary’s philological mishaps ended right there. Not so. After the two top diplomats stopped laughing, Clinton quipped: “We won’t let you do that to us, I promise.”
That may have sounded sharp in English, but in Russian it came out even goofier than the wrong label on the red button.
Mrs. Clinton’s clever comeback implied that she understood “overcharge” in terms of charging too much money. We may even credit her with referring to the difference between an observed market price and a price that would have been observed in the absence of collusion, which was what many suspected the oil-producing nations were doing last year. In that sense, and only in that sense, was Hillary’s comment meaningful and amusing.
The problem is that the word “peregruzka” has nothing to do with economics. As students of foreign languages well know, most words have multiple meanings, and their combinations almost never coincide in different languages. Thus, the English word “overcharge” may mean many things to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but they are all translated into Russian by completely different words that are not interchangeable. In economic terms, “overcharge” becomes “obschitat’” or “zavysit’ tsenu” — but never “peregruzka.”
Perhaps, the embarrassment could be avoided if Lavrov had translated it literally, as “overload.” But in the context of a red button, he chose a more specific electrical term “overcharge,” meaning “too much amperage in the circuit.”
As a result, to the Russian-speaking audience, Hillary’s retort “We won’t let you do that to us” could only mean one thing: “Americans won’t let Sergey Lavrov give them too much amperage.”
The confusion could also be avoided if, instead of Hillary Clinton, the job of Secretary of State was performed by a professional — like Condoleezza Rice, who speaks fluent Russian, and who wouldn’t have opted for the lame plastic button because this joke doesn’t work in Russian to begin with.
Russian is a rich and flexible language with versatile descriptive means, but it just doesn’t have a short universal word that embraces all the meanings of the allusive English “reset.” The word “perezagruzka” (“reload”), which later was claimed to be the right term, comes off just as awkward and uninspiring as any other possible translation. Anyone with a sense of the Russian language could’ve told Clinton that the gag was a dud.
Other reports indicate that “Hillary Clinton raised eyebrows on her first visit to Europe as secretary of state when she mispronounced her EU counterparts’ names and claimed U.S. democracy was older than Europe’s.” In one particular case, she kept referring to European Commission External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner as “Benito,” invoking the memories of Mussolini.
This looks rather ironic, considering that the current leaders in Washington had come to power by accusing their conservative predecessors of being pig-headed and deaf to other cultures and nuances. Turns out, they were merely projecting their own image on their opponents, given that they themselves can’t even distribute party favors to foreigners without a screw-up.
But let’s not be too hard on Hillary — according to her, the button was also a gift of friendship from President Obama and Vice President Biden. All things considered, the gaffe was the result either A or B:
A) The Obama administration is made of pig-headed, tone-deaf people, who don’t expect other cultures to have nuances — and so they don’t bother to consult with experts.
B) Experts chosen by the Obama administration are incompetent sycophants who got hired because they were political hacks, or as a result of favoritism, nepotism, or affirmative action — and they will uncritically ramrod their bosses’ ideas even if it’s contrary to reality and common sense.
Either way we’re screwed.
Why couldn’t have Hillary consulted with someone competent — like me, for example? Without overcharging, I would’ve advised her to give Lavrov the People’s Cube instead of the button.
It requires no tricky translation and is easy to understand in any language or culture. Remember Hillary’s campaign speech about “invisible Americans?” Well, if you translate “out of sight, out of mind” into Russian, you will get “invisible lunatics.”
Which accurately describes what competent people in this country have become since the last election.