Thursday, February 7, 2013

For Linguistic Kindness and Sanity: Case Study 2 in Politics

The last post discussed the urban legend surrounding President Kennedy's 1963 Berlin speech, a case study that revealed a potential lack of both linguistic kindness and sanity in the way it has been misused.

By contrast, the linguistic sanity of today's case study (i.e., the linguistic point that teachers and translators will draw from a mistake) is indisputable. We can learn much, however, about linguistic kindness.

The Story
At the beginning of the Obama administration, like at the beginning of every administration, everything was fresh and everyone was looking for change and renewal. Specifically in the area of foreign policy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Russia and conveyed to her Russian counterpart that the U.S. wanted to "reset" the relationship. She gave him a gift of a mock reset button that said "reset" in Russian. The problem, however, is that the Russian word chosen to print on the button actually means "overcharged."

Highly embarrassing, yes, and you can check out the story at BBC, because I can verify none of the details, 1) never having examined the button gift and 2) knowing absolutely no Russian anyway to be able to check the translation. But how should we respond, had this happened in 2013, our year of linguistic kindness and sanity?

Linguistic Sanity
Unfortunately, the linguistic sanity of the story and its humor are indisputable. It provides a good example of botched translations. It also raises the question of how extremely rich multinational corporations cannot get better translation services. (If the U.S. State Department is not technically a multinational corporation, it is arguably even richer and more powerful.)

Linguistic Kindness
In spite of the humor, however, linguistic mistakes should not, we repeat, become grounds to mock someone's character or politics. Whatever one thinks of the Obama administration's foreign policy, Hillary Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State, or even the success or failure of the so-called "Russian reset," the admittedly funny translation error should have no bearing whatsoever on those judgments.

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