Language is a tricky thing. I started talking when I was about three years old and I’m still talking, usually in what I believe to be English. Other people talk to me in the same language. Yet scarcely a day goes by without some kind of misunderstanding, usually trivial, about what somebody has said, or meant, or implied. Unfortunately, I learned an older, more primitive version of our language and, as Oscar Wilde remarked, Britain and America have everything in common except their language, so everything is translation for me. It’s not just a matter of different words, like French fries for chips, but of style and emphasis. British English tends to understate some things just a tiny bit, while American English overstates everything to an amazing, incredible, and extraordinary degree.
Everyone knows this, but it gives cause for concern about those big international meetings where important things are decided between people who speak completely different languages, and are linked only by an interpreter. Translation, especially simultaneous translation, is a highly skilled art, and far from infallible. Split second decisions about the meaning of words can make a big difference.
Adding to the difficulty, not every negotiator is even good at understanding it or speaking his own language. English is a complicated and subtle tongue, and has a huge vocabulary of words that are frequently ambiguous. How often do we grope for a word, and find exactly the wrong one? Sophisticated language skills are essential in negotiation, which is why a highly disciplined form of diplomatic language arose in the thirteenth century and why, for four hundred years, the language of diplomacy was the same all across Europe. Every educated person spoke French as well as their own language, so no translation was needed.
Diplomatic language, which is a kind of translation in itself, is not only for diplomats. It is essentially the same as polite language, and it oils the wheels of human relationships. How many wars, divorces, and bankruptcies have been precipitated by the wrong word at the wrong time? We need an inner censor because the uncensored mind is often crude, hasty, and thoughtless. Our whole civilization is based on not saying what we think. But it is precisely these evasions and delicate shades of meaning that cause problems in translation.
It is impossible to guess how many funny, silly, and sometimes catastrophic misunderstandings may have happened in international meetings over the years. One famous example was the statement by Russian President Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 that was translated as: “We will bury you.” This turned the heat up on the cold war, but what he really said, in Russian, was: “We will outlast you,” which sounds far less threatening. The Bible is a translation of a translation of a translation of an oral tradition, and scholars have been disagreeing over what it really says for a thousand years. Men have been burned, beheaded, or have gone to war over one interpretation or another.
We depend on the interpreters, those fragile human links, to get it right, and must hope that they don’t have agendas of their own. The fact is that we don’t know, and we can’t know. We can only trust that those who negotiate in important international meetings understand the pitfalls of translation and, when it comes to the big decisions, follow the wise advice of Theodore Roosevelt: speak softly, and carry a big dictionary.