Izvestia, Russia

'Overloaded' With U.S. English as the Language of Diplomacy


"The flowering of diplomacy was in no small measure associated with choosing an effective international language for negotiations and treaties. Now the American language of diplomacy reigns, which is anything but an instrument that uses words with geometric precision."


By Maxim Sokolov


Translated by Yekaterina Blinova


March 12, 2009


Russia - Izvestia - Original Article (Russian)

Secretary of State Clinton makes a peace offering to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a meeting in Geneva, Mar. 6. The gift - a button marked 'reset' in English, was meant to convey a new beginning. Unfortunately, the Russian word on the button, 'peregruzka,' means 'overload.'


BBC NEWS VIDEO: Secretary Clinton seeks to 'reset' relations with Russia, Mar. 6, 00:02:19WindowsVideo

The faux pas in Geneva, where Condoleeza Rice's successor Hillary Clinton gave Foreign Minister Lavrov a symbolic button with the inscription “Overload” instead of the more appropriate word “Reset” resulted in many interpretations. In fact the Russian language is fairly complex. Russian has something called a confix, i.e., a word formed by a prefix plus a suffix, where both components necessarily exist together. For example, “re-root-ing.” Besides that, a prefix can be added to a word with a confix, which is something quite difficult for foreigners to understand. Perhaps during the preparation of the U.S. State Department's surprise gift, a native Russian speaker couldn’t be found.


There have certainly been similar and even more interesting such instances in the history of diplomacy. During the 1960s when London decided to "reset" Russia-British relations and thaw the old ice, the head of Britain's Foreign Office, heeding the advice of Russia experts, happily greeted his Soviet colleague Andrei Gromyko by exclaiming, “Hey, Andryushka!” [this is like saying 'hey Andy,' which is extremely informal]. Contrary to the expectations of Britain's experts, the exclamation "Andryushka" didn't reboot relations, but took the Soviet minister aback - although relations didn't suffer significantly. This is why one shouldn't look for any scintillating signs coming out of the situation with Hillary. After all, the Department of State is as much a budget office as anything else. [In other words, its bean-counting skills are as good or better than its diplomatic ones].



The real question, rather, is about the condition of the modern language of diplomacy, full of redundant metaphors that inevitably result in numerous interpretations. Diplomats of the past expressed themselves with much greater clarity. It's enough to compare the metaphorical “restart” announced by the U.S. Vice President Biden at the Munich Conference in February, which everyone interpreted to their own liking, and the old formula that carries the same meaning:


“Sigismund and we, the lords, wish …

Already to forget this rivalry with Moscow.

King Batur and Czar Ivan clashed …

Let that conflict be on their souls!

But you are starting a new dynasty …

and Your Majesty doesn’t need …

To bother with that old quarrel”


[From a work of Leo Tolstoy called Czar Boris, unavailable in English].



Then of course, one must negotiate the conditions under which the quarrel will be a thing of the past - but that's what the diplomatic machinery is for - to haggle.


The flowering of diplomacy in the old days was in no small measure associated with choosing an effective international language for negotiations and treaties. Initially, it was Latin (a dead language which has tried and true expressions and terms of precision - this was ideal). Later, Latin was replaced by French, about which, when this too receded into the past, a British diplomat wrote nostalgically: “If precision is one of the most important qualities of diplomacy, one must regret discarding one of the most precise languages ever invented by the human mind as a means of negotiation.”


Now the American language of diplomacy reigns, which is anything but an instrument that uses words with geometric precision. It is distinguished by its abundant use of metaphors. Wherever you look, there are more: decisive power, torch of freedom, or many others of similar effect. Official persons incessantly “enjoy” and “feel a sense of pride” over any and all natural and social events [in other words, events they have nothing to do with]. When one speaks of a national language, complaints of this type are out of place. But what else can one do in such an unfortunate situation [i.e.: when American English is the international language]. Especially considering that, while complaining of high-flown metaphors, we haven't yet tried the Latin American variety of Spanish as an international language of diplomacy. Such a thing would make us miss the “decisive power” of American English. But recognizing the status quo, it's necessary to take note of the features of today's international language without pulling one's hair out over American metaphors. After all, one still has good old “détente” to turn to.













































[Posted by WORLDMEETS.US March 23, 11:14pm]