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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Australian Diplomat Looks Back on Laughs

CANBERRA, Australia -- In the world of international diplomacy, the best chosen words or phrases can leave an audience laughing, bewildered or simply lost in translation, if the experience of Australia's former top diplomat is any guide.

A new book by Richard Woolcott, who ran Australia's foreign service for four years, points to the pitfalls of translating thoughts into different languages.

Take the Australian diplomat in France who tried to tell his French audience that as he looked back on his career, it was divided in two parts, with dull postings before life in Paris.

"When I look at my backside, I find it is divided into two parts," Woolcott quotes the diplomat as telling his highly amused audience.

Extracts from Woolcott's book, "Undiplomatic Activities," have been published in the latest Bulletin magazine, although the book has yet to be formally released.

Woolcott recalled a speech he gave on a visit to Palembang shortly after he had arrived on a posting in Indonesia.

"Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of my wife and myself, I want to say how delighted we are to be in Palembang," he said in English. The interpreter said something entirely different:

"Ladies and gentlemen, on top of my wife, I am delighted to be in Palembang."

Woolcott said former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke left his Japanese audience bewildered when he used the Australian colloquial phrase "I am not here to play funny buggers" to dismiss a trivial and pesky question from Japanese lawmakers.

"For Japanese interpreters, however, this was a real problem. They went into a huddle to consult on the best way to render 'funny buggers' into Japanese," Woolcott wrote.

The interpreters told him that they had then told the audience, "I am not here to play laughing homosexuals with you."

Australia's Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd is regarded as a master of Mandarin. But his language skills were far from perfect as a young diplomat in 1984, when he interpreted his ambassador's speech on the close relationship enjoyed by Australia and China.

"Australia and China are enjoying simultaneous orgasms in their relationship," Woolcott quoted Rudd as telling the audience in Mandarin.

Woolcott said the best interpretations sometimes involved no translation at all, such as the unidentified Asian minister who told a long joke at a banquet in Seoul.

"The Korean interpreter was lost, but did not show it. He uttered a few sentences, and the audience laughed and applauded," Woolcott wrote.

After later being complimented on his translating skills, the interpreter confessed to the real reason for the laughter.

"Frankly, minister, I did not understand your joke, so I said in Korean that the minister has told his obligatory joke, would you all please laugh heartily and applaud."