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Language Incompetence Gets in Diplomacy’s Way — Again

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in Language Connect

Just a few months ago, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton faced the aftermath of a cringe-worthy linguistic faux pas, when she unknowingly presented a gift with a translation error to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia. Yesterday, she suffered humiliation again, this time apparently due to a mistake by her interpreter.

When a French-speaking Congolese student asked Hillary what the president thought about a foreign policy issue, the interpreter rendered, “What does Mr. Clinton think, through the mouth of Mrs. Clinton?” Without knowing which president (Clinton or Obama) the student was referring to, the interpreter apparently took it upon herself to specify the Secretary of State’s husband instead of the current president.

The unfortunately misinterpreted question provoked a strong reaction from the normally calm and collected Secretary of State. As a result, Clinton’s response to the student has been the focus of headlines across the world — quite a shame, since this detracted attention from the real issue she hoped to highlight — the plight of children and women who are victims of sexual violence in Congo.

We’ve written before about the problems that can ensue when a single word is rendered incorrectly from one language to another, not just when nations come together to discuss important issues, but in business dealings as well.

What is the potential cost of linguistic gaffes such as these? Opportunities to shed light on an important human rights issue are priceless, rare, and fleeting. Until organizations can truly grasp the importance of having high-quality translation and interpreting resources available, situations like these — as unfortunate as they may be — will continue.


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