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Lost in Translation while Posted Abroad

Working as a U.S. diplomat overseas requires patience, composure, and the ability to communicate cross-culturally. Oftentimes, diplomats can speak multiple languages, or use interpreters to make their opinions known to another party. However, as is the case with any linguistic encounter, misunderstandings and miscommunication can often occur.

In interviews with Charles Stewart Kennedy, Hans N. Tuch (interviewed in 1998), Richard P. Butrick (1998), John M. Evans (2009), Francis Terry McNamara (1993), and Richard A. Dwyer (1990), all recount humorous incidents involving language mix-ups.

See also Wives Gone Wild for another embarrassing example. Go here to read about JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.


Watch where you aim that thing

Richard Butrick, Consular officer, Valparaiso, Chile, 1921-1922 

BUTRICK: [Valparaiso] was a “break-in” post for me and I learned a lot of practical matters there. As an example, I acquired a hand gun and it was necessary to register it in the mayoralty. There were seven men and three women in the secretariat waiting in the reception room.

I strode up to the receptionist and explained what I wanted. He arose and said loudly, “El senor vice consul americano desea permiso para llevar su pistola.”

The 7 men broke out in raucous laughter. The 3 women bowed their heads and smiled.

I asked the secretary, “Enrique, what in the world did I say?”

He replied, “You asked for a permit to carry your penis.”

He then issued me a “certificado para cargar revolver.

Everybody’s a critic

Hans Tuch, Voice of America in Moscow, 1958-1961

TUCH: When Nikita Khrushchev returned for a second visit to the exhibition — the first had been with [Vice President Richard] Nixon — his interpreter got lost in the crush of the crowd that surrounded the Chairman as he viewed the display of American art.

I was one of the people escorting him, and I was corralled into amateur interpreting duty. All went well as Khrushchev examined the nineteenth and early-twentieth century American paintings.

When, however, he came upon a work by John Marin, and I explained the title “Sea and Sky,” Khrushchev remarked, “It looks as though (pardon the expression) someone peed on the canvas.”

Stuttering, I translated. I said, “The Chairman said it appeared to him that a little boy had made a puddle on the canvas.”

Khrushchev inquired and was told how his comment had been interpreted into English, whereupon he admonished, “Please interpret the Chairman correctly,” and I did.

(Go here to read more on the Nixon-Khrushchev kitchen debate.)

In Russia, Joke’s on YOU

John Evans, Ambassador to Armenia, 2004-06

EVANS: The most famous political jokes in Armenia had always been those involving Radio Armenia. Now, these were… a Soviet phenomenon; they were concocted no doubt by various people, who knows who makes up jokes anywhere, but they were very popular in Moscow in the Soviet days and they made fun of Soviet life.

And some of the jokes did continue but they changed their focus; they weren’t so much any longer jokes about the political system, they were bitter jokes about the terrible economic conditions.

Now, I’m wearing a tie today which has a chicken and an egg on it….One of the jokes was “which came before, the chicken or the egg?”

And the answer was, “Before, we had both chickens and eggs.”

(Read more from Ambassador Evans’ account on Armenia.)

Bless you?

Terry McNamara, U.S. consulate in Elisabethville, Congo (capital of the rebel province), 1961-1963

McNAMARA: During that second bout of fighting [in the Congo], the Swiss honorary consul suddenly arrived breathlessly at our consulate declaring that the French consul, Lambrouscini, “has just been blessed in front of the synagogue!” He said this in English.

I said, “Blessed?” I had visions of the rabbi holding a ceremony with Lambrouscini on his knees.

Finally, I realized the Swiss had confused English and French. What he meant was blessé, wounded. After calming our Swiss colleague, we found that the French consul had been wounded in the arm in front of the synagogue.

(Go here to read McNamara’s risque account of the crazy train trip through the Congo.)

For the firmness that feels good at night…

Richard Dwyer, Deputy Chief of Mission, Chad, 1974-77

DWYER: The French Ambassador had our new Ambassador and the whole Embassy over for dinner shortly after their arrival. Our Ambassador [Bill Bradford] decided to reciprocate and we had the whole French Embassy staff over for a lovely dinner.

Jody Bradford, who was an effervescent, attractive, active, good looking blond woman, who was great fun, had at the time pretty rusty French, but this didn’t stop her from using it.

Here we were having drinks before dinner and the French Ambassador’s wife and Mrs. Bradford were talking.

Jody grabbed me by the arm as I am going by and says, “Dick, what is the French word for mattress?”

Thinking quickly I said “matelot” and went on my way.

The French Ambassador’s wife had said, “How are you getting on in Chad?” And Jody had said we love it.

“The only problem is,” she said, “that we have the most uncomfortable bed in the world and we have finally gotten a new mattress for it and it is nice and firm and has made all the difference in the world.”

Now I had just told the Ambassador’s wife that the French word for mattress was “matelot,” which happened to be sailor and not “matelas” which was mattress.

A series of giggles came out of the circle surrounding my Ambassador’s wife. Unfortunately, she couldn’t figure out what was so funny, but the new firm “matelot” made all the difference to her happiness in Chad.

Fortunately she had a wonderful sense of humor.