Diplomacy Lost in Translation

Dynamic Language | August 21, 2015

Professional translation and interpretation require a lot of skill; just check out our other blog posts on interpretation and translation certification training. In the realm of diplomacy, it is even more critical that statesmen’s messages get across clearly. Below are a few comical examples of when diplomats’ messages got lost in translation:

  • At the Berlin Wall in 1963, John F Kennedy delivered one of his most famous and well-received speeches of all time. In order to show solidarity with West Berlin in the face of communist encroachment, he said the famous phrase, “Ich bin ein Berliner” — “I am a Berliner”. Germans who were born in Berlin would have said “Ich bin Berliner.” His usage of the determiner “ein” made it so they would understand he wasn’t born in Berlin, but empathized with them. However, the word Berliner also has the double meaning of a jelly doughnut, so his message also could have been translated as “I am a jelly doughnut.


  • In December 1977, Jimmy Carter visited Poland with a freelance US State Department Polish translator, Steven Seymour, who was being paid $150 a day. Although Seymour was highly skilled at translating written Polish, he lacked interpreting experience, and made several unfortunate mistakes that made Carter’s speech nearly incomprehensible to Poles. For example, when Carter said that he wanted to know what Poland’s desires for the future were, the translator told the audience that Carter was interested in learning more about their carnal lusts.
  • Hillary Clinton met with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Russia in 2009. As a nice gesture from the Obama administration, she brought a button symbolizing a fresh start to US-Russia relations that was supposed to say “reset.” The Russian word for reset is перезагрузка ‘perezagruzka.’ However, it was miswritten as перегрузка ‘peregruzka,’ which means overcharge. Fortunately, both diplomats had a sense of humor about it.


  • When Jacques Chirac referred to the decision of some European countries to support the US in the 20013 invasion of Iraq, he said, “ils ont manqué une bonne occasion de se taire.” This was originally mistranslated by some American sources as “they missed a good occasion to shut up,” but the more accurate translation would be “they missed a good occasion to remain silent.”  
  • In 2009, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek delivered a very impassioned speech to the European Parliament criticizing US economic policy. Although his speech was already highly inflammatory, it was intensified by the mistranslation of “bonds” to “bombs.” He therefore implied that the United States was financing itself solely on the sale of explosive weapons, rather than a type of debt security. 


  • Agence France Presse misquoted UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the secession of South Sudan in 2010. While he meant to say that the UN would work to avoid any negative consequences of a secession, he was quoted as saying that the UN would work to avoid a secession, which would have been staunchly opposed to the UN’s policy at that time. Sudan’s southern leaders proceeded to write harsh letters against the Secretary-General, and ultimately needed some reassurance that the UN would support their independence.



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