Foreign correspondents, and their editors, have long wrestled with translations of newsworthy words from one language to another — both those quotable quotes from colorful personalities, and the jargony langue de bois of international bureaucrats and businessmen.
We like to think of ourselves at Worldcrunch as experts in the field, and watched with some amusement as our colleagues around the English-speaking world handled the latest doozy from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Responding to U.S. criticism about his heavy-handed crackdown on the drug trade, the 71-year-old leader switched from English to his native Tagalog language to call President Obama "Putang ina" and said he would swear at him in person at an upcoming meeting. Most of the press translated the slur as "son of a bitch," though others went for the more literal "son of a whore." Either way, it led to the swift cancellation of a scheduled Duterte-Obama encounter, and recalled similar jibes that the new Filipino President has aimed at the Pope and head of the United Nations in recent months.
But even more disturbing are the consequences of Duterte's language on the streets of the Philippines, a troubled country of more than 100 million. Speaking to television reporters in June, shortly after his election victory, he sent this message to his citizens, should they witness drug activity: "Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun ... you have my support," he said. "Shoot him the drug dealer and I'll give you a medal." In the months since, more than a thousand extrajudicial killings have been recorded, with scant prosecution of the would-be vigilantes.
Soon after Obama cancelled his bilateral meeting with Duterte, the Philippines government put out a statement in English about the comments, expressing "regret that it came across as a personal attack on the U.S. president." Yes, in Paris that is called langue de bois — literally "wooden language." Obama's plain-speaking vice president would call it malarkey.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR TODAY
- ASEAN summit kicks off in Vientiane, Laos.
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