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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Little Help From My Friend -- Mr. Dell

Помощь: help, aid, assistance

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Oh, boy: there's a spring thaw in U.S.-Russian relations. Folks are meeting and talking more often. Good thing? Absolutely. Guaranteed to be successful? No way.

This seems like a good time to revisit the exchange between Michael Dell, chairman and CEO of Dell, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Davos earlier this year. It's an excellent example of the perils of cross-cultural and interpersonal communication and the limitations of interpretation.

To my ear, Dell made a classic American sales pitch to Putin.

1. Establish that you are on the same wavelength: "I completely agree with you."

2. Flatter: "You've made some pretty considerable progress ... take advantage of that great scientific talent that you have."

3. Suggest you have something to offer: "There is still room to further utilize the IT sector."

4. Make your pitch: "How can we as an IT sector help broaden the economy?"

The whole speech could be condensed to: Wanna buy some of our computers?

Here the word "help" is from the lexicon of salespeople and shop owners. When they ask, "How may I help you," they really mean, "What can I sell you?" The interpreter, however, rendered Dell's question literally: Как мы можем помочь вам расширить экономику?

How did the pitch go over? Not well. Putin responded testily: " ... нам не нужно помогать. Мы не инвалиды" (We don't need help. We're not invalids). Here the tape of the translation has a long pause before the word "invalids," as if the interpreter ran a search program on the internal PC that is his brain, deciding between the derogatory "invalids" and the politically -- and morally -- correct "disabled people." I think he chose correctly. Putin meant инвалиды (invalids) in the now-pejorative sense of weak and helpless people.

Then, after a pause, Putin clarified in more neutral language: Реально нужно помогать бедным, нужно помогать людям с ограниченными возможностями ... пенсионерам ... [и] развивающимся странам (Actually, you should give aid to poor people, to people with disabilities ... to pensioners ... [and] to developing countries"). Here the interpreter got a bit muddled and muttered about people with limited mental capacities (or so it sounded). Putin then went on to criticize international aid programs.

Putin's reply might be condensed to: We don't need any handouts. We're not weak and helpless. Besides, Western aid is not a blessing but a curse.

This was a textbook unsuccessful communicative act. Dell isn't going to get a big fat contract. Putin looked defensive and uncooperative. I don't think either wanted that outcome.

The problem in part was the word "help." Dell meant it as a "product for sale," but Putin understood it as "Western aid." What if the interpreter had translated Dell's question differently: В чём мы можем оказаться полезными? (How might we be useful?). This is the sort of thing you come up with after analysis and professional discussions.

Perhaps such a translation might have smoothed over the communicative process, but perhaps not. It seems that the deeper problems were interpersonal and intercultural. In a purely American context, a CEO with a high opinion of his goods and services could make this kind of pitch to a leader and expect to at least get to first base. But in the Russian context, this kind of pitch struck out.

It sure makes translators and specialists in cross-cultural communication want to ask: Господа, чем вам помочь? (Gentlemen, how can we help you?) Call us before your next meeting.

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