David Bouchier: Lost In Translation

Mar 4, 2019

Language is a tricky thing. I started talking when I was about 3-years-old, and I’m still talking, usually in what I believe to be English. Other people talk to me in the same language. Yet scarcely a day goes by without some kind of misunderstanding, usually trivial, about what somebody has said, or meant, or implied. Unfortunately I learned an older, more primitive version of the language and, as Oscar Wilde remarked, Britain and America have everything in common except their language, so everything is translation for me. 

This is a familiar fact, and not interesting in itself, but it gives cause for concern about those big international meetings where hugely important things are decided between people who speak completely different languages, and are linked only by an interpreter. Translation, especially simultaneous translation, is a highly skilled art, and far from infallible. Split second decisions about the meaning of words may make a big difference.

Adding to this difficulty, not every negotiator even has a full command of his own language – either understanding it or speaking it. English is a complicated and subtle language, and has a huge vocabulary of words that are frequently ambiguous. Sophisticated language skills are essential in negotiation, which is why a highly disciplined form of “diplomatic language” arose in the 13th century, and why for 400 years the language of diplomacy was the same all over Europe. Every educated person spoke French as well as their own language, so no translation was required.

Diplomatic language, which is a kind of translation itself, is not only for diplomats. It is essentially the same as polite language, and it oils the wheels of human relationships. How many wars, divorces and, bankruptcies may have been precipitated by the wrong word at the wrong time?

We need an inner censor, because the uncensored mind is often crude and thoughtless. Our whole civilization is based on not saying exactly what we think. But it is precisely these evasions and delicate shades of meaning that cause problems in translation.

It is impossible to guess how many funny, silly, and sometimes catastrophic misunderstandings may have happened in international meetings over the years. One famous example was the statement by Russian President Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 that “We will bury you,” which turned the heat up on the Cold War. It turns out that what he really said, in Russian, was “We will outlast you,” which sounds far less threatening. People have been disagreeing over translations of the Bible for a thousand years, and men were burned, beheaded, or went to war over the merits of one version or another.

We depend on those fragile human links, the interpreters, to get it right, and must assume that that they don’t have agendas of their own. The fact is that we don’t know, and we can’t know. We can only hope that those who negotiate in important international meetings understand the pitfalls of translation and, when it comes to the big decisions, follow the wise advice of Theodore Roosevelt: speak softly, and carry a big dictionary.

Copyright: David Bouchier