Does the State Department have any competent Russian linguists?
March 2009

Commentary by Rick Francona


Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Evidently not. Last week's debacle in Geneva was proof of that. If you have not seen any of the late night talk shows or haven't seen the news for a few days, here is what happened. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who speaks no foreign languages herself, met with her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, who is fluent in English, French, and Sinhala (Sri Lankan) as well as his native Russian.

Clinton: "I would like to present you with a little gift that represents what President Obama and Vice President Biden and I have been saying and that is: 'We want to reset our relationship and so we will do it together.' We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?" Lavrov: "You got it wrong."


The word over the button is peregruzka - Russian for "overcharge. The word they wanted is perezagruzka. It gets even better. The Russian word on the button is written in the Roman alphabet - Russian is written with the Cyrillic alphabet.

Okay, it was a small gaffe. Mr. Lavrov laughed it off and did not embarrass Mrs. Clinton further. Mrs. Clinton should take this as a symptom of the incompetence that is rampant at State Department. These are the same people that I pilloried a few years ago when they complained that they might be sent to Iraq. See my article, What is the favorite wine over at State Department? 

Mrs. Clinton needs to clean house over at State. The State Department is located in the area of Washington called Foggy Bottom - aptly named, sitting around on their butts in a fog. First up would be the chief of the interpreters. How can the world's only superpower be taken seriously if it cannot translate a few Russian words? This is not simultaneous translation, which - trust me - is intense. This is merely using a dictionary.

Language training needs to be a bit higher on the priority list over there at State.
 

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