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Kto Vinovat? Who’s to blame? The “reset” mistranslation whodunit

When Hillary Clinton held her first meeting as secretary of state with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov Friday in Geneva, with an ambitious agenda of bilateral nuclear treaty renegotiations, a possible U.S. compromise on missile defense, and Russian arms sales to Iran, she sought a gesture to thaw the relationship between the two former Cold ...

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When Hillary Clinton held her first meeting as secretary of state with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov Friday in Geneva, with an ambitious agenda of bilateral nuclear treaty renegotiations, a possible U.S. compromise on missile defense, and Russian arms sales to Iran, she sought a gesture to thaw the relationship between the two former Cold War adversaries that had grown increasingly chilly in recent years, particularly in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Georgia last summer.

Reflecting the Obama administration’s intent to “reset” relations with Moscow (a term first prominently used by Vice President Joseph Biden at the Munich security summit last month), Clinton gave Lavrov a mock “reset” button, with the Russian word peregruzka written on the side, as a kind of light-spirited gag gift. Problem was, as Lavrov and media reports subsequently noted, the translation was slightly off, and the button Clinton delivered actually translated to something closer to “overload,” rather than perezagruzit, “to reset.”

Oops.

While the Russian foreign minister seemed to enjoy needling Clinton about the mistranslation, and the potentially awkward mistake did not seem to further imperil relations between Moscow and Washington, it’s still worth asking: Who goofed? After all, in Russian, Kto vinovat? — “Who’s to blame?” — has been, since Soviet times, the key question.

U.S. government officials were hesitant to point fingers, at least publicly. A State Department spokesman told The Cable he had no idea and had not heard anyone else ask the question, hinting perhaps that it was a story hardly worthy of pursuit.

Other State Department sources insisted that Foggy Bottom’s area specialists and premier Russian speakers — among them Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns, who was in Moscow last month, Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried, and his deputy Ian Kelly, were not the culprits.

Pressed, State Department sources suggested it might have been a communications staffer in the secretary’s office. “But [Clinton] was amused and not annoyed,” one source stressed.

One former senior official said he questioned whether the gag gift, even had it been properly translated, was appropriate. “It’s a pretty important relationship. This risked having it become an attention grabber. They might have been more serious about it.”

But others said to lighten up.

“Not sure where the translation came from, but the fact is we screwed up in not catching it before meeting,” said one senior U.S. government official. “I guess that’s one of perils of gag gifts. Anyway — we made a mistake, no excuses.”

“All taken in good humor by both Clinton and Lavrov,” he added.  The “meeting itself was one of more productive I’ve seen in recent years.”

Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

When Hillary Clinton held her first meeting as secretary of state with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov Friday in Geneva, with an ambitious agenda of bilateral nuclear treaty renegotiations, a possible U.S. compromise on missile defense, and Russian arms sales to Iran, she sought a gesture to thaw the relationship between the two former Cold War adversaries that had grown increasingly chilly in recent years, particularly in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Georgia last summer.

Reflecting the Obama administration’s intent to “reset” relations with Moscow (a term first prominently used by Vice President Joseph Biden at the Munich security summit last month), Clinton gave Lavrov a mock “reset” button, with the Russian word peregruzka written on the side, as a kind of light-spirited gag gift. Problem was, as Lavrov and media reports subsequently noted, the translation was slightly off, and the button Clinton delivered actually translated to something closer to “overload,” rather than perezagruzit, “to reset.”

Oops.

While the Russian foreign minister seemed to enjoy needling Clinton about the mistranslation, and the potentially awkward mistake did not seem to further imperil relations between Moscow and Washington, it’s still worth asking: Who goofed? After all, in Russian, Kto vinovat? — “Who’s to blame?” — has been, since Soviet times, the key question.

U.S. government officials were hesitant to point fingers, at least publicly. A State Department spokesman told The Cable he had no idea and had not heard anyone else ask the question, hinting perhaps that it was a story hardly worthy of pursuit.

Other State Department sources insisted that Foggy Bottom’s area specialists and premier Russian speakers — among them Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns, who was in Moscow last month, Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried, and his deputy Ian Kelly, were not the culprits.

Pressed, State Department sources suggested it might have been a communications staffer in the secretary’s office. “But [Clinton] was amused and not annoyed,” one source stressed.

One former senior official said he questioned whether the gag gift, even had it been properly translated, was appropriate. “It’s a pretty important relationship. This risked having it become an attention grabber. They might have been more serious about it.”

But others said to lighten up.

“Not sure where the translation came from, but the fact is we screwed up in not catching it before meeting,” said one senior U.S. government official. “I guess that’s one of perils of gag gifts. Anyway — we made a mistake, no excuses.”

“All taken in good humor by both Clinton and Lavrov,” he added.  The “meeting itself was one of more productive I’ve seen in recent years.”

Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Laura Rozen writes The Cable daily at ForeignPolicy.com.

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