09 February 2013

Khruschev, Ahmadinejad, Clinton, Roosevelt

At the height of the cold war, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech in which he uttered a phrase that interpreted from Russian as "we will bury you." It was taken as chilling threat to bury the U.S. with a nuclear attack and escalated the tension between the U.S. and Russia. However, the translation was a bit too literal. The sense of the Russian phrase was more that "we will live to see you buried" or "we will outlast you." Still not exactly friendly, but not quite so threatening.
I find that very interesting, because in the 50+ years I've heard the story of Khruschev's speech, I've never heard this interpretation of it.  I am however aware that a similar thing may have happened during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech to the United Nations several years ago:
..this was the man who, in 2005, generated wide outrage in the West for suggesting that Israel should be "wiped from the map." But even that case said as much about our limited understanding of him and his context as it did about Ahmadinejad himself. The expression "wipe from the map" means "destroy" in English but not in Farsi. In Farsi, it means not that Israel should be eliminated but that the existing political borders should literally be wiped from a literal map and replaced with those of historic Palestine. That's still not something likely to win him cheers in U.S. policy circles, but the distinction, which has been largely lost from the West's understanding of the Iranian president, is important.
In 2008 Hillary Clinton was less vague in her pronouncement:
Yesterday, as the BBC reports, she "was asked how she would respond if Iran launched a nuclear attack on Israel. She replied that: "If I'm the president, we will attack Iran... we would be able to totally obliterate them."
And this from President Theodore Roosevelt speaking of Cuba:
"I am so angry with Cuba that I would like to wipe its people off the face of the earth."
Khruschev quote from Mental Floss, via Neatorama.


  1. Interesting post, Minnesotan, thoughtful and thought-provoking. Even precisely translated colloquialisms and aphorisms may well be misinterpreted by those of a different ethnic, cultural or even regional background.

    That said, in fairness to all sides it behooves the speaker then to ensure they use language and phrases which are descriptive without that context. Maybe the UN should have a question period after speeches. "Can you rephrase or explain what you meant by 'bury you', Mr. Kruschev?

    As to your quote from Hillary, I don't see that she was any more (or any less) clear. She was obviously (to any Westerner who knows the history of the US, not even just English speakers) saying she would obliterate them militarily, not literally obliterate the entire country. But by not being precise, I'm sure in Iran it was read as...obliterate.

    As to Iran and Israel, you say "not that Israel should be eliminated"...but that also is in fact literally what he desires (eliminated by being 'delisted' as a country, not existing any more, which threat I'm sure Americans would rise to were it made against them) where you were I think intending to say "not that Israel and its peoples should be physically destroyed, bombed, all its people killed".

    It's easy to see how this problem exists, it is very hard to be precise enough the meaning is unequivocal!

    As to Roosevelt, this was a private correspondence to a friend, so not sure it really counts, intemperate (at best) though it is.

  2. In a similar vein, I read that phrase "Death to America" does not have the same connotation in the Middle East as it does here in the US. Here it sounds like a death threat. There it is more of a curse, like "F*ck America". The story I heard was the cab drivers yelling "Death to traffic" during a trip. Actually, it is easy to google that phrase and find the source:


  3. I find that very interesting, because in the 50+ years I've heard the story of Khruschev's speech, I've never heard this interpretation of it.

    Many, many moons ago in college, my Russian teacher explained the phrase exactly this way.

    1. That's interesting. I'll bet very few people of my generation have ever heard it. More people should.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...