Simultaneous Intepreters, Cultural References and Chinese Whispers

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When you are involved serious, multilingual meetings in which simultaneous interpreting takes place, one piece of advice we always give people is to stay away from cultural references, idioms, and sayings. A recent news story illustrates why….

When Vladimir Putin made a statement about Edward Snowdon, who is currently residing in his country’s airport, he dusted off an old Russian saying.

He compared the hunt for the American “traitor” with shearing a piglet:

“A lot of squealing but not much wool”

Imagine the poor interpreter trying to quickly translate that concept into English! According to the Express, it is not uncommon for Russian leaders to use real or assumed maxims derived from the countryside.

Nikita Khruschchev was notorious for his use of old Russian sayings – and cursed for it by his interpreters.

During a meeting at the United Nations, Khruschchev once said:

“As we say in Russia, when the cow gives bad milk
the farmer’s wife beats the haystack with a long broom.”

This had to be translated from Russian into English, and then the English translation was used by the other interpreters working that day to translate the message into the other languages spoken by the other leaders present in the meeting.

Sounds familiar to a game of Chinese whispers, doesn’t it?

Well, in fact, this is more or less what the translation of the saying turned into. The Russian-English interpreter suspected that Khruschchev implied that shady things were happening. As he was an avid Shakespeare fan, he translated the phrase with “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark.” The English-Danish interpreter (hungover, apparently), translated this sentence as “And moreover, Denmark is a rotten state.” This made the Danish ambassador jump up from his chair. In disagreement, he shouted: “I protest at this wanton slur upon my country.”

Sounding like a comedy now?

The General Secretary, who had heard the phrase in yet another language, had no idea what the Danish ambassador was talking about. Neither did Kruschchev. He protested: “But I never even mentioned Denmark.” Eventually, the whole situation was sorted out: the two interpreters, however, were sent on extended leave.

Ah, the hilarious situations that can arise due to poetic language and translation… one of the reasons we love our jobs!


If you ever work with an interpreter, make their lives easy and avoid sayings, idioms and slang; they are notoriously hard to translate, especially on the spot.

Check out our article – Tips on Working with an Interpreter – for more tips.

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