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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 September 2007, 17:36 GMT 18:36 UK
Diplomats face language barrier
By Helier Ying-wah Cheung
BBC News

Richard Woolcott, copyright not specified
Mr Woolcott said mistranslations happened "quite frequently"
Australian politicians are known for their outspoken opinions, and when translated into other languages the results can be hilarious, as a former diplomat's new book illustrates.

Undiplomatic Activities, by Richard Woolcott, describes a catalogue of diplomatic mistranslations and mishaps, many of them involving Australians.

When former Australian PM Bob Hawke once spoke in Japan, interpreters apparently translated "I am not here to play funny buggers" as "I am not here to play laughing homosexuals".

And when Australian Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd worked as a diplomat in China earlier in his career, he is said to have translated his ambassador's speech on the close relationship between Australia and China as: "Australia and China are enjoying simultaneous orgasms in their relationship."

Missing the joke

Speaking to the BBC News website, Mr Woolcott explained that the book was "essentially humorous", and that the individuals involved in the mistranslations were often people he knew well from his job.

Former Australian PM Bob Hawke
Interpreters struggled to translate Mr Hawke's phrase "funny buggers"
Of course it is not only Australian diplomats who can fall foul of the language barrier.

Mr Woolcott recalled witnessing one memorable translation when a former foreign minister of the Philippines told a long joke at a banquet in Seoul, South Korea.

"The Korean interpreter was lost, but did not show it. He uttered a few sentences and the audience laughed and applauded," Mr Woolcott wrote in his book.

After the minister complimented the interpreter on his translating skills, the interpreter confessed what he had really said.

"Frankly, minister, I did not understand your joke so I said in Korean that the minister has told his obligatory joke, would you all please laugh heartily and applaud," he admitted.

Mr Woolcott said that such mistranslations happened "quite frequently".

"I've been an interpreter myself, and it's hard to get the nuances sometimes."


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