The U.S. Presidents and First Ladies who spoke a foreign language.

February 12, 2015 § 15 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In a few days Americans will observe Presidents Day, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about those American Presidents, and their spouses, who spoke more than one language. It is common knowledge around the world that many Americans do not speak a foreign language, yet, almost half of the forty four men who have been President of the United States spoke, or at least had some knowledge of a language other than English.

Much of what we know about Presidents’ and First Ladies’ fluency in foreign languages came to us through testimonials and documents, and not all of it is undisputed. There is no doubt that Thomas Jefferson spoke fluent French, but his claim that he could speak Spanish seems unlikely. According to a documented conversation he had with John Quincy Adams, Jefferson said that he had learned Spanish in 19 days while sailing from the United States. He probably understood and read some Spanish (He used to say that he had read Don Quixote in Spanish) but that did not make him fluent.

At the beginning of the United States the White House was occupied by many intelligent men who enjoyed reading and learning. In those days many intellectuals learned to read in foreign languages in order to have access to certain scientific and literary works. This probably was the level of expertise that many of the Presidents had. Thomas Jefferson spoke French, and he could read and perhaps write and speak some Greek, Latin, Italian and Spanish.

President John Adams lived in France and became fluent in French. He could also read and write some Latin. His son, President John Quincy Adams spoke French very well, and had a decent Dutch as he went to school in The Netherlands and his wife spoke it. As an adult he learned some German when he was Ambassador to Prussia, and he also read and wrote some Greek and Latin. President James Madison also wrote and read in Greek and Latin, and his Hebrew was fairly decent.

President James Monroe and his entire family spoke excellent French, and it was common to hear the entire family having their conversations in French. President Van Buren was born in New York, but his first language was Dutch. He learned English later in life as part of his education. He also learned some Latin when he was studying English. Presidents Tyler, Harrison, Polk, Buchanan, Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur knew how to read and write Latin, Greek, or both.

Despite having a “German-like” accent, President Theodore Roosevelt had an almost fluent French (He confessed that verb conjugation and gender were not his strong points) and he spoke some German. President Woodrow Wilson learned German in college but was never fluent. On the other hand, President and Mrs. Hoover were fluent in Mandarin Chinese. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke German and French. He also studied some Latin.

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton speak some Spanish and German respectively, but neither one of them can be considered as fluent. President George W. Bush speaks some Spanish and because of his years in Texas, next to the Mexican border, he understands even more. As far as President Obama, it has been said that he has a little understanding of Bahasa Indonesia.

There are a few First Ladies who could speak a foreign language. The first one that comes to mind is Elizabeth Monroe, spouse of James Monroe who spoke French with fluency. John Quincy Adams’ wife, Louisa, was the only First Lady born in a foreign country (England). She spoke good Dutch.   Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge, worked as a teacher of deaf students, and was the first lady who knew American Sign Language).

Herbert Hoover’s wife, Lou Hoover, was the first woman to graduate from Stanford University with a geology degree. She also spoke Mandarin Chinese fluently. Jacqueline Kennedy lived in France and spoke very good French. She also knew some Spanish. Finally, Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon’s wife, spoke some functional Spanish.

Now you know, or perhaps confirmed or debunked a prior understanding about the foreign languages spoken by America’s First Families. I understand that this post is probably too generous about the proficiency level of some of our Presidents and First Ladies, and when we compare them to the extensive knowledge of foreign languages that other Presidents and Heads of State have, we are probably far from the top of the list; however, some of our First Families were really fluent and we should acknowledge them here. I now invite you to post your comments about the foreign language knowledge of our American Presidents and First Ladies, and I ask you to share the names and languages fluently spoken by Presidents and Heads of State from other countries.

The biggest interpreting mistakes in history.

January 9, 2015 § 40 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreting is a very difficult profession. It deals with the widest variety of themes and subject matters, and it completely depends on the human brain. All professional interpreters have made mistakes at one time or another, and we will make some more before our careers are over. Fortunately, good interpreters know how to recognize a mistake, and have the professional honesty needed to own their mistakes and correct them. We all know how to correct a blooper from the booth, with a physician, or on the record in court cases. This is enough in most cases, and we have professional liability insurance for those bigger errors we can make while practicing our profession. Most goof-ups do not go beyond a correction, an apology, and a good dose of embarrassment. Unfortunately, every once in a while an interpreter makes a mistake that can literally impact the entire world. I know that there are many more examples of these catastrophic interpreting mistakes, and I am even aware of many more than the ones I have included in this post. To decide what to include, and to drive home the point that none of us are safe from making an error of this magnitude (and that for that reason we must be alert at all times) I considered the relevance of the mistake, and the variety of interpreters who made them. These are the biggest interpreting mistakes in history that made my list:

In 2006, according to the interpreter’s rendition, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be “wiped off the map”. It was learned later that what he actually said was “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time”. Regardless of your opinion about this statement, it is clear that its reach was different from what the interpreter understood. In a region of the world as delicate as the Middle East a mistake of this magnitude can have huge implications.

To continue with more presidents, in 1976 U.S. president Jimmy Carter spoke to a Polish-speaking audience and opened his remarks by saying: “I left the United States this morning”. The interpreter’s rendition was: “When I abandoned the United States”. Those present laughed at the obvious mistake, but things got more complicated later during the speech when the president said that: “…I have come to learn your opinions and understand your desires for the future…” The rendition by the same interpreter was: “I desire the Poles carnally…” and then the interpreter went on to criticize the Polish constitution. Of course these mistakes should never happen at that level, but sometimes they do.

This reminds us of the famous blooper during Nikita Khrushchev’s speech at the Polish Embassy in Moscow when he was interpreted as saying, in reference to the United States and the Western World at the highest point of the Cold War: “We will bury you”. Now we all know that what he really said was: “We will outlast you”, and we all know of the consequences that this poor rendition generated during such a tense time in history.

In July 1945 after the United States issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding the surrender of Japan in World War 2, Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki called a press conference and in a statement he said: “No comment. We are still thinking about it”. Unfortunately, the interpreter’s rendition was: “We are ignoring it in contempt”. We all know what happened next.

In 1980 Willie Ramírez, an 18-year old, was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state. At the time of admission, an interpreter made a mistake and translated the Spanish term “intoxicado” which means poisoned or having an allergic reaction as: “intoxicated”. Willie, who was suffering from an intercerebral hemorrhage was only treated for an intentional drug overdose. As a result, he was left quadriplegic.

St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators, studied Hebrew so he could translate the Old Testament into Latin. His translation contained a famous mistake, When Moses comes back from Mount Sinai his head has “radiance”, in Hebrew: “karan”; but because Hebrew is written without vowels, St. Jerome read: “keren” which means “horned”. Because of this mistake we have many paintings and sculptures of Moses with horns.

Finally, we all remember Thamsanqa Jantjie, the Sign Language interpreter at the Nelson Mandela funeral. He made meaningless Sign Language motions during the ceremony for unknown reasons. He has since been committed to a psychiatric hospital for schizophrenia.

The lesson is clear. As professional interpreters we have to protect our profession from paraprofessionals, “wanna-be interpreters”, ignorant clients, and unscrupulous agencies, but we also have to watch what we do and say. Nobody is above error, so our only choice is to continue to practice and study, to honestly decline those assignments that we are not ready for, and to look after our colleagues in the booth, the courtroom, the negotiations table, or any other venue where we may be providing our services. I now invite you to share with the rest of us other interpreting mistakes, big or small, yours or a colleague’s, in the spirit of helping our colleagues so that we all learn from each other’s mistakes.

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