It was in 2008 when US President Barack Obama said to his adoring public in Dayton Ohio, “I don’t speak a foreign language. It’s embarrassing!”
But according to Parnohadiningrat Sudjadnan, the Indonesian Ambassador to the US, Obama may actually speak passable Bahasa, a language spoken in Indonesia and Malaysia. “When prominent Indonesians visit the US, the first person they want to meet is Obama. Back home, people think of him as one of us, or at least one who understands us.” He added that they were delighted to find that Obama speaks passable Bahasa.
Whatever the truth may be, it just shows that with knowledge, or at least some interest in the language of a different nation, its people will resonate. Despite the apparent dominance of the English language worldwide, it is said that majority of the world’s population still prefer to trust information in their own language. However, it is important that the use or delivery of messages in the foreign language be targeted correctly, and done right – especially in world politics, where unintended misunderstanding through mistranslation or mispronunciation could damage the relationship between at least two nations.
Take for example when the previous UK Prime Minister Tony Blair tried showing off his linguistic skills in his early days, by taking on a joint conference with the then French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin. When the newspaper The Times asked what he thought of Jospin, he bravely attempted to respond in French, “I admire Lionel Jospin, although we have differing views.” Unfortunately, his own lingo failed him, as the locals heard it as “I desire Lionel Jospin in many different positions.”
And what about Hillary Clinton’s present to the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov? In Geneva, she gave him a ‘reset’ button on a piece of wood to signify a new start to the two country’s relations, with the word ’перезагрузка’ carved alongside the button. Clinton slowly said, as though purposely so that Lavrov could understand her – “We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?”
In fluent English, Lavrov replied, “You got it wrong. This says ‘peregruzka’, which means ‘overcharged’.”
And if this wasn’t bad enough, Clinton’s linguistic bloop in Geneva didn’t just end there. Coincidentally, they also attempted to clarify the translation of the Obama administration’s term ‘worked hard’ – words where back into plain English meant ‘half-(another word for donkey)ed job’. When others had stopped laughing, Clinton just had to add another phrase, “We won’t let you do that to us, I promise.”
Hats off to Clinton for trying, but this phrase, sounding seemingly sharp in English, turned out to be another laugh-out-loud Russian translation. Just like the blatant translation of the English saying ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ into Russian, it would translate back into ‘the vodka is agreeable but the meat has gone bad’. And the lesson Hilary Clinton has painfully learned and should be noted by others? Just don’t use that electronic program, or turn to some scholar with a foreign language dictionary in their hands to do the work for you. No matter how much cheaper or how much more expensive, chances are that a native translator or interpreter is far more accurate (and with cultural awareness, even better).