Presidential Language Problems

Jimmy Carter

In 1977, US President Jimmy Carter made a stopover in Poland to deliver a major speech on peace and human rights. The interpreter selected by his officials was born and educated in Poland and had some interpreting experience, so at the time seemed like a good choice for this assignment. Without any advanced notes of the speech and in freezing rain, the young interpreter made a reasonable job, but managed to suggest that Carter had left the US permanently and that his love of the Polish people was more carnal than presidential. Still, the main intent of the message was clearly conveyed and these slips of the tongue would probably have gone unremarked if it had not been for certain Polish journalists stirring the pot. They told their US counterparts that, according to the interpreter, Carter was lusting after the Polish people and would never return to the US The reports of the alleged gaffes went truly global and caused a major scandal in Washington. Presidential interpreter Harry Obst also caused outrage when he judged that in the political context it would be judicious to translate Jimmy Carter’s statement made in a speech in Frankfurt: “We pray that Germany will be reunited one day” by “We hope that Germany will be reunited one day”. There was fury among Germans at his use of ‘hoffen’ instead of ‘beten’, because the intention of the President’s aspirational message had been weakened.

George W. Bush

Another legendary gaffe is said to be courtesy of President George W. Bush, when he mispronounced the name of the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, calling him “Ansar”. In Spanish this word also has the meaning of “goose”. Hillary Clinton will no doubt be very sensitive to the perils of mistranslation. Her experience of the infamous “reset” switch incident ( clinton-reset-button-gift-to-russian-fm-gets-lost-in-translation/) will have taught her that even a minor spelling error can turn a well-intentioned gesture into a global joke, with incalculable political and diplomatic consequences.

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