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Ctrl-Alt-Del the world

15/06/2012

Even when you are a global superpower; even when you have an intelligence budget in the gazillions; even when you’ve been warily and obsessively studying a secretive foreign power for decades; even when you have an army of accomplished linguists, trained to analyse and interpret the slightest elliptical or idiomatic nuance of every statement, speech, overheard aside, intercepted email and bugged telephone conversation; even with seemingly limitless resources, you can still end up with your face full of metaphorical omelette!

In early March of 2009 the Obama administration was six weeks into getting its legs under the table, and still familiarising itself with all the exciting new toys and expertise at its disposal. High on power, therefore, some bright spark had a plan to break the diplomatic ice with the Russians with a joke.

It’s very hard to make a successful cross-cultural joke at the best of times. There was, for example, the utter bemusement of the Dalai Lama (and the pained embarrassment of everyone else) last June when a giggling, buttock-brained Australian journalist tried this one on him: “So the Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop and says, “Can you make me one with everything?”

Anyway, at an awkwardly-staged press conference in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton turned towards Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with her big, plastic smile.

“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,” said Clinton, presenting Lavrov with a yellow box with a big red button, which they jointly pressed with rather forced laughter on both sides. The box bore the words “peregruzka” and “reset”. Joe Biden had first floated the idea of “resetting” the relationship at a security conference in Munich the previous month.

As you can see, the bright yellow box looked like something that Wile E. Coyote might have mail-ordered in a panic from Acme Corporation for his endless, witless, fruitless, doomed-to-failure pursuit of the crafty Road Runner. The simile is achingly appropriate, for the end-result was much the same. The prank blew up in Clinton’s face, and Lavrov went “Beep beep”.

Clinton said confidently to Lavrov, “We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?” They couldn’t have worked all that hard, frankly, as they hadn’t even managed the simple courtesy of putting “peregruzka” into Cyrillic script!

“You got it wrong,” Lavrov deadpanned in faultless English; he also speaks French and Sinhala. He gently told Clinton that “peregruzka” (перегрузка) meant “overcharged”. The word for reset would be “perezagruzka” (перезагрузка).

Ah well, as Dr. Strangelove taught us, there’s always room for a little humour between players of the Doomsday game.

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One Comment
  1. Andreas permalink

    Emailed!

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