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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE WORD'S WORTH: Tricky Translation Can Get Politicians' Goat




"Nad nami Allakh, pod nami kozly," said acting President Vladimir Putin, citing a Chechen slogan at a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Saturday. "Above us is Allah, under us are goats," Vladimir Putin's simultaneous interpreter translated.


Sinkhronny perevod, simultaneous interpreting, is a tricky job, but without it there would be no international diplomacy. Even politicians who can speak other languages would usually prefer to speak their native tongue, so as not to be disadvantaged or to look foolish.


We often see politicians with different native languages busy chatting away without interpreters; NTV television showed Putin and Blair discussing something together on Saturday with no one within their immediate vicinity, and presumably they were speaking English.


Certainly, Putin - eto tebe ne Yeltsin, Putin is no Yeltsin - as is well known, he speaks fluent German, and no doubt at least a smattering of English.


But in official situations, Putin speaks in Russian, and at his shoulder there is always a perevodchik, an interpreter, to put his words into the appropriate language, with varying degrees of success.


Kozyol does have the primary meaning "goat." But if you have a good, modern and non-prudish lexicon you will find the second meaning, which is a grievous insult. Perhaps the interpreter suffered from izlishnyaya stydlivost', excessive modesty, and could not bring himself to translate this neprilichnoye slovo, rude word, with a good English insult such as "bastard," though the Russian expression is much stronger. Instead, he confused the British delegation with a literal translation. After Putin's statement, there was a protracted silence, during which the two sides tried to sort out the confusion. Is that the best the Chechens can call the Russians - goats?


Another such misunderstanding saw the British delegation being asked by the Russians about the treatment of their army officers.


"What would you do to an officer who did this?" they inquired to which the British answered: "He would be fired." This was translated as, "He would be shot."


The profession of interpreter does not require just an excellent knowledge of at least two languages, but also demands that one be well-versed in the terminology of the subject at hand, and often the ability to anticipate what the person is going to say. Not for the faint-hearted, as many a diplomatic misunderstanding has arisen from a mistranslation.


Yeltsin was in many ways a gift to simultaneous translators, as his lengthy pauses gave time to find the right translation. With the quick-thinking and certainly faster-talking Putin in charge, however, translators need to be on their guard - or risk another kozyol-type debacle.