Language Spats.

David Shariatmadari, whose linguistics-related pieces in the Guardian have been featured at LH before (e.g., here), has a random collection of accounts of dustups involving words, usage, and translation; most of them will be familiar to frequenters of the Hattery, but he writes enjoyably and has a sensible (i.e., anti-peever) approach, so the link is worth checking out. A couple of items of particular interest to me:

An interesting sub-genre of language controversy is the tiny translation error that has gigantic geopolitical ramifications. In 1956 Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev told western ambassadors at an event in Moscow My vas pokhoronim!, using a Russian idiom that means roughly “we will outlast you” – in other words, that communism would prevail in the long run. Against the background of a nuclear arms race, the English translation, “we will bury you”, took on an altogether more sinister meaning, particularly when it was splashed across the front pages of western newspapers. Five years later the Cuban missile crisis brought the Soviet Union and the United States to the brink of nuclear war.

Of course it’s absurd to suggest that a phrase used in 1956, however much publicity it got at the time, somehow brought about the Cuban missile crisis, but that’s what journalists are paid to do (if you stick to facts, who will buy the paper?); what interested me was that the English phrase, which I had vaguely supposed was not a literal translation, does in fact represent what Khrushchev said: «Мы вас похороним» (English Wikipedia).

Richard Nixon was foxed by elaborate Japanese politeness in 1969. Prime minister Eisaku Satō visited the White House amid a trade row over textile imports. Nixon’s job was to get him to agree to restrict them. According to the New York Times, “Mr Sato replied as he looked ceilingward, Zensho shimasu. Literally, the phrase means: ‘I will do my best,’ and that’s how the interpreter translated it. What it really means to most Japanese is: ‘No way.’” When the Japanese government did precisely nothing, Nixon was furious, branding Sato a liar.

I’m curious to what extent the Japanese phrase can be construed as “No way”; my Common Usage Dictionary has “zénsho suru to manage tactfully,” but I can imagine that in practice “[I will] manage [it] tactfully” might represent a polite refusal, and I am hoping the Japanese-speakers among us can clarify. Thanks, Lars!


  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    It doesn’t seem to be a “Russian idiom” at all. However, there does seem to be a Gricean implicature at least of “we will outlast you” …

    Presumably the Russian idiom thing was just a post-factum attempt at damage control by less shoe-banging Soviet factions.

  2. It doesn’t seem to be a “Russian idiom” at all.

    Yes, I should have clarified that; thanks for doing so!

  3. AJP Crown says:

    I liked the Nixon Japanese bit and thought of passing that article on to you but was too depressed once I’d read a couple of ‘Decimate really means’ -type comments. The author’s pushing his book, at the bottom. I don’t like that. The Guardian should just give the book a review.

  4. Never read the comments.

  5. Anecdote 1: I have a vague recollection that we discussed it chez Hat or maybe it was at the Log. Anyway, I am not sure what does and what does not rise to the level of idiom, but it is a well-used way to say either “outlast” or “kill” as well as straight up reference of burial arrangements.
    Also, I don’t see that Mr. Shariatmadari is saying that the Cuban crises was a direct result of the (mis-)translation. He is basically saying that the “kill” interpretation was plausible in light of the later events.

    Anecdote 2: I have read somewhere about the reverse occurrence of the same cultural subtlety. Allegedly, Douglas MacArthur was asked by some Japanese delegation to allow something or other (maybe it was some memorial service or some such, my memory is hazy on this point) and answered that he would think about it. The reply was duly literally translated and the delegation left entirely convinced that that something is out of the question. Then after a little while they were surprised that MacArthur allowed whatever it was they have asked for, apparently after indeed thinking it over.

  6. I don’t see that Mr. Shariatmadari is saying that the Cuban crises was a direct result of the (mis-)translation. He is basically saying that the “kill” interpretation was plausible in light of the later events.

    OK, I had read “the tiny translation error that has gigantic geopolitical ramifications” as implying causation, but I can see that I may have been hasty.

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    The politeness thing used to catch me out in West Africa, especially to begin with. You don’t tell the boss he’s wrong, even (or perhaps especially) if he transparently is (and I often was.) I had to learn to ask questions in a way that didn’t come across as expecting one particular answer, so that my staff were able to tell me what what was actually going on without feeling that they were being impossibly rude.

  8. I had a terrible problem with it in Taiwan. I went there having been promised a job teaching at Taida (and got my visa on the strength of the letter offering me the job), but once I got there it turned out there wasn’t actually a job. But it took me a ridiculously long time to figure that out, because nobody would tell me; they kept saying “So-and-so is away on vacation” and “There is a delay on account of new regulations” and so on, waiting for me to figure it out. Finally a local grad student explained it to me (and helped me get a job at Tamkang: thanks, Ming-huei!).

  9. In English “you’ll bury us all” is idiomatic but no other pronoun combination is; and it’s usually a transparent lie told to someone elderly. I can see Ike saying it genially to Nikita and pleasing both sides.

  10. SFReader says:

    “I’ll kill you for that!” is an English idiomatic expression which does not signify murder intent…

  11. Stu Clayton says:

    DAs tend to see it differently.

  12. zensho suru basically means ‘I’ll try’. It doesn’t imply either that you’ll definitely succeed or that you’ll definitely fail. It certainly doesn’t mean ‘no way’, though there are probably circumstances where you get to make Gricean inferences from the speaker’s failure to straightforwardly promise to do something (“don’t eat this cookie, okay?” “I’ll see what I can do”).

  13. Online usage guides suggest that zensho suru is a useful phrase precisely because of its ambiguity, and they suggest using alternative expressions if you want to make a clear statement about what you plan to do.

    Zensho suru seems to have emerged as bureaucratese during the Shōwa period — Nihon kokugo dai jiten gives a cabinet memo as its earliest cited usage, and it also quotes the following passage from a 1955 novel by Hotta Yoshie:

    追々にそうするつもりだ、とか、研究中だ、善処する、とかと議会の答弁のようなことしか云わないことであった “The only things he said were like parliamentary replies: ‘we intend to do this going forward,’ or ‘the matter is being investigated, we will take appropriate measures (zensho suru).'”

    The Shin Wa-Ei dai jiten gives the following example sentence, suggesting that a cross-cultural context is not needed for the ambiguity of zensho suru to produce misunderstanding:

    あいつは前向きに善処すると言っていたのに、何もしてくれていない。 “He told me he would deal with the matter appropriately (zensho suru), but he hasn’t done anything.”

  14. I can understand why you’d think someone’s approach is sensible if they criticise those who oppose something you favour. But equating such an approach with “sensible” goes further than I would go. Those who oppose something you also oppose — are they peevers, too? And their critics — are they all sensible, too?

  15. Is it really true that “you’ll bury us all” is idiomatic with that choice of pronouns but not with any other? That strikes me as an unusual property for an idiom to have. Anyway, to judge from Google hits, “I’ll bury you all” seems to be at least as prevalent, sometimes in the elaboration “I’ll bury you all and dance on your graves”.

  16. Stu Clayton says:

    The phrase “you’ll bury us all” does not offer a choice of pronouns. It is what it is. Structurally similar phrases such as “they’ll bury them all” may be obtained by switching pronouns, but for that reason are different phrases. Only the first one is an idiom in the sense of a traditional expression (in the context given by mollymooly). All of them make sense and are grammatically spotless, and so are examples of idiomatic English.

    You may be thinking of “snowclones”, which are phrases that are produced from phrases old or new used as structural templates.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    “Idiomatic” means “people actually say that”; it’s a subset of “makes sense and is grammatical”.

  18. Thanks to Norvin, DMT, and juha for the zensho suru info!

  19. Bury just has a secondary meaning in English of see dead and interred. There are no peculiar restrictions on how the word can be used in this sense. When I first heard of Khruschev’s quote, I thought the intended meaning was in fact the most natural interpretation of the English translation.

  20. The phrase “bury you” doesn’t immediately make me think ‘outlast’, but for something like “she buried four husbands,” sure. Though that could sound a bit threatening itself, if you’re saying it warningly to Husband #5…

  21. In English “you’ll bury us all” is idiomatic but no other pronoun combination is

    Disagree. There’s a Terry Pratchett joke (in, I think, “Witches Abroad”) that says of a redoubtable old woman “She had buried four husbands, and at least three of them had been dead when she did so”. The joke wouldn’t work if the idiomatic meaning of “she had buried four husbands” wasn’t “she had outlived four husbands”. (The second joke is that you later discover that her fourth husband is in fact undead.)

  22. I would further say that “I will bury you” is not an idiomatic English phrase meaning “I will kill you”.

    I’d say it could have one of three meanings – either “I will outlive you” or “I will, literally, put you in a hole and fill it up with earth” (which I suppose could be a very precise threat of death) or “I will overwhelm you”. You could imagine a lawyer saying to his opponent “You want to see some precedents for this argument? Prepare to be buried!”

  23. Yeah, I agree.

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