How Russians Interpret Obama

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Инаугурационная речь: Inaugural speech

After Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg -- now considered to be one of the finest orations in U.S. history -- the critics gave him mixed reviews. One critic called his words "silly, flat and dishwatery utterances," while another called it "a perfect gem, deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression." So far, President Barack Obama's speech has gotten the same treatment, with one writer referring to his "soaring rhetoric"; others calling it "flat rhetoric." I guess we'll have to wait until all the scores are in.

Meanwhile, translators couldn't wait for someone to provide commentary and sort out the allusions, which ranged from the Bible to Thomas Paine to a Depression-era song ("Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.") Judging by the outraged comments in the Russian blogosphere, the initial simultaneously interpreted versions of Obama's speech on Russian television and radio left much to be desired. I didn't hear them, but knowing how hard that work is, снимаю шляпу (I take off my hat) to the interpreters who gave it a go.

But when I read the printed versions of the speech, I put my hat back on.

One problem for translators was the list of American values Obama called upon Americans to return to -- "hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism." They were variously rendered as: трудолюбие и честность, отвага и справедливость, терпимость и интерес к миру, преданность и патриотизм (diligence and honesty, courage and justice, tolerance and interest in the world, devotion and patriotism); and работа и честность, смелость, ответственность, лояльность и патриотизм (work and honesty, courage, responsibility, loyalty and patriotism). Not quite a perfect match.

In another passage, one translator had some problems with English verb forms and may not have known American society very well. Obama said, "A man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant," which came out in Russian: человек, отец которого приехал в эту страну и которому ещё 60 лет назад не разрешили бы работать в ресторане (a man whose father came to this country and who even 60 years ago would not have been allowed to work in a restaurant). Americans know that he could have gotten a job there; he just couldn't have sat at the counter.

A few passages got cut or rewritten. "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." Here translators seemed to confuse "cling" with "climb" and choked over "dissent." One translation left out the "silencing of dissent" altogether: Те правители, которые идут к власти при помощи коррупции и обмана, должны знать, что они находятся на неверной стороне исторического развития. Но мы готовы протянуть вам руку, если вы готовы разжать свой кулак (Those leaders, who come to power through corruption and deceit, should know that they are on the wrong side of historical development. But we are ready to extend a hand if you are ready to unclench your fist). Another translation seemed to confuse dissent with decency: Те, кто поднимаются к власти при помощи коррупции и обмана, затыкая рты приличию ... (Those who climb to power through corruption and deceit, muzzling decency ... )

Or maybe that was a Freudian slip? In any case, I hope that Russians will wait for a better translation before they judge the new U.S. president.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.