[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]
Poetry is what gets lost in the translation – Robert Frost
This quotation is one of those handy catch-all phrases that scholars love to use to explain – and often excuse – people’s inability to capture the essence of a statement when it’s translated between languages and cultures. Examples of miscommunication between peoples are everywhere.
One of the most startling examples of the limits to cross-cultural communication occurred during US-Russian nuclear talks. Disarmament expert Geoffrey Forden writes:
‘It turns out that when the US START II treaty negotiators tried to explain to their Russian counterparts the need for a “strategic reserve” of nuclear warheads, they called it a hedge. The Russian interpreters alternately translated that as either “cheat” or “shrub”.’
You can imagine the confusion and consternation this would have caused. More than poetry was at stake in this particular translation.