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Price of Misinterpretation: a War?

On Friday, February 28, 2014, after Russia had begun deploying its troops in Crimea, Ukraine, US President Barack Obama made an address, expressing deep concerns about Russia’s military involvement in the region. One sentence he used was, “There will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.” This caused an extremely negative reaction from the Russian parliament, because translated into Russian, Obama’s words appeared very aggressive. Obviously, this is primarily a matter of political reading of the policies of the other party: the Russian side heard what they wanted to hear. However, one might also look at this misinterpretation from a purely linguistic perspective.

“There will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.”

The way I see it, this sentence was not meant to be too offensive. Firstly, stating that Russia will have to face costs is stating the obvious: of course, there will be all kinds of costs should a war begin. Secondly, the formulation is very generic. It does not mean that US is going to make Russia pay for this intervention, nor does it specify what kind of costs or how much those costs will be. It sounds more like a non-aggressive warning, a very diplomatic one, especially given that US was not considering any sanctions against Russia at that moment.

“Russia will pay dearly for any military intervention in Ukraine.”

But this is how this phrase was translated into Russian and presented by many Russian media (“дорого заплатит” in Russian). Although the meaning is the same, the difference in the tone is critical. Whereas Obama’s words sound to me like a non-aggressive warning, this translation is an outright threat. It sounds as if Obama is promising to punish Russia and that the measures taken against Russia will be very harsh.

Consequences of inaccurate translation

No wonder that this phrase was taken very seriously in Russia. Infuriated by seeing it mentioned in many media, the Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian parliament) announced that this was an insult to Russian people. Their first response to this offense was a suggestion to oust the US ambassador from Russia. Another consequence is indirectly fueling a war. Even if Putin did not intend to wage war, this kind of offensive rhetoric coming from the superpower that the Kremlin has never been fond of could add to Putin’s resolve.

In conclusion

There is no doubt that Obama’s words were misinterpreted by the Russian media intentionally in order to use them as anti-US and pro-war propaganda. The Russian parliament heard what they wanted to hear (after all they had voted unanimously to authorize deployment of troops in Crimea), but this is an interesting example of misinterpretation anyway. It turned a diplomatic phrase into a threat, potentially with dire consequences. A good example of how difficult the art of translation is and how important it is to be careful about it.

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One comment

  • Kos Ivantsov says:

    Many times translator’s task is to make the client successful. In this case it was very efficiently done with the use of just one word. God, have mercy on Ukraine!

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About the Author

Roman Mironov
Roman Mironov
CEO & Founder

As the founder of Velior, Roman has had the privilege of being able to turn his passion for languages into a business. He has over 15 years of experience in the translation industry. Roman has helped dozens of clients increase sales by making their products appealing for speakers of other languages.