So how did it come about that the U.S. secretary of state gave a gag “reset” button to the Russian foreign minister, but the Russian word inscribed on the small box by the State Department turned out to mean “overload” instead?
Well, let’s ask the State Department.
“We received your inquiry in the DOS Press Office; however, I will not be providing you with comments re: the English-to-Russian translation (‘Reset’) topic,” department spokesman Fred Lash wrote in response to an e-mail query.
Best, then, to track down the department’s official statement on the error. “There was, to the best of my knowledge, no statement issued regarding this,” Mr. Lash wrote.
Well, then, is there anyone else we could talk to? “No … am not going to be able to provide anyone to discuss this,” the nonspeaking spokesman wrote.
The gaffe occurred last Friday, when Mrs. Clinton met with her counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in Switzerland. There, she presented him with the lighthearted gift, intended to symbolize the Obama administration’s desire to begin a new relationship with Russia or, as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has said, to press the “reset button.”
But instead of the Russian word for “reset” - “perezagruzka,” which also translates into “reboot,” the small black-and-yellow box with the red button said “peregruzka,” which means “overload” or “overburden,” as with an elevator or a schedule.
“You got it wrong,” Mr. Lavrov said with a tight smile, but he gamely joined Mrs. Clinton in jointly pushing the “overload” button. Later, he seemed to relish bringing the fiasco back up.
“We have reached agreement on how ‘reset’ should sound in both Russian and English,” he said during a press conference.
A few minutes later, he even made a joke about the underlying irony of the gift itself - after all, the United States and Russia spent more than 50 years worrying that the other would “push the button” to launch a nuclear strike.
“I do hope that Russia and the United States and other countries would never ever push any other buttons associated with initiation of destructive hostilities,” he said with another tight smile.
Although the networks aired small segments on the debacle Friday, no media ever sought an explanation, or, more importantly, what steps the State Department was taking to make sure it didn’t happen again. Even after the secretary returned, not one reporter has asked about the episode during the department’s daily briefings.
“This is another clear example of the double standard that exists,” said Roger Aronoff, a media analyst for Accuracy in Media. “If this had happened in the Bush administration, to President Bush in particular or even to Condi Rice, it would have gotten a whole lot more publicity and ridicule by the mainstream media.”
Then again, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would likely have caught the mistake - she’s fluent in Russian.
Rich Noyes, research director for the Media Research Center, has an easy explanation for the quick disappearance of the fiasco. “It was a weekend story, and so it didn’t get huge coverage,” he said, but he added that the mixup doesn’t jibe with the positive coverage of Mrs. Clinton’s trip, which “has been all about how she’s going to give us a fresh start.”
The U.S. media have all but ignored the gaffe, but the Russian media have had a field day with it. The newspaper Kommersant ran a picture of the red button alongside the words: “Sergei Lavrov and Hillary Clinton pushed the wrong button.” A correspondent for Russian NTV television called it a “symbolic mistake.”
Mrs. Clinton certainly isn’t the first U.S. official to blunder when trying to say something in a foreign language.
In Warsaw, President Carter’s translator, trying to relay to Poles that the president “understood their anxiety,” stated that the president desired them sexually.
Still, Irene Frishman, managing director of Language Solutions International in New Hampshire, found Mrs. Clinton’s error hard to understand.
“So Hillary Clinton went to Russia using garbage translators?” the native of Russia said. “Ha. This is not a difficulty in the translation, but rather the person who did the translation was simply not qualified for the job. Tell her we will help next time.”
• E-mail Joe Curl.