Перегрузка ≠ перезагрузка

by Don  

Last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The Obama administration wants to “push the reset button” on relations with Russia, and someone had the cutesy idea of presenting Lavrov with a large button with the word “reset” printed on it in Russian and English. The word they printed on it was перегрузка, which, alas, does not normally mean reset. It can mean “cargo transfer” or “overload,” but it can't mean “reset.” (Lavrov said it meant “overcharge,” which probably caused a lot of confusion. It doesn't mean charging too much money.)

Secretary Clinton said “We worked hard to get the right Russian word.” Oh, really? You worked hard to get one word right? And you still failed? If you had asked one single Russian person, you could have had it right. Would that really have been so much work? If they worked really hard and still couldn't get a single word of Russian right, I'm not sure there is much hope for improvement over the previous eight years of pathetic foreign policy blunders.

One might think that had former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice been involved, she might have caught the error since she spoke some Russian. The American press has often stated that she spoke fluent Russian, but quotes in the Russian press indicate that her spoken Russian was only mediocre. Would she have caught an error in a non-political word? Probably not.

Okay, now that I have had my obligatory moment of cynicism, there is a kinder angle. One word for reset is перезагрузка. All it would take was a typographical error of leaving out the middle -за- to end up with перегрузка. An embarrassing error, yes, and a sign that the cutesy prop was likely part of a last minute effort, not an actual bit of careful diplomacy. That said, I think I can still give the current administration the benefit of the doubt.

Photo of Clinton's reset button. To add insult to incompetence, the Russian word was printed in English letters. How tacky is that?

Follow-up, Tuesday, March 10, 2009: I have now heard from several sources that some Russians will use перегрузить instead of перезагрузить in the meaning of “reboot a computer”; the corresponding noun form would be перегрузка instead of перезагрузка. Other more stylistically careful Russians respond and say, “Oh, no, you can't ever say that in that meaning.” I place this dissonance in the same category as the English error, “I itched the back of my hand until it turned red.” Standard English requires “scratched” not “itched” in this context, but I have heard (less educated) native speakers of English say it. To my ear it sounds absolutely wrong, but some people say it. So the appearance of “peregruzka” on Clinton's rest button may have had one of two sources: a typo for перезагрузка, or her informant might have been someone who thought, “Well, sometimes we say it перегрузка” and just made a lousy stylistic choice.

Follow-up, Tuesday, March 19, 2009: Amusing spoofs on the button are appearing all over the web.

Follow-up, Saturday, October 31, 2015: here's another article that references the incident.


Comment from: Irina Primakova [Visitor]

This could happen ONLY in the US where there is no respect for professional translators!! Most of the US State Department’s Office of the Language Services’ staff does not have even an undergraduate degree in either linguists or translation studies. As long as they continue to think that anybody who speaks two languages can translate - we will continue to be an object of global ridicule.

09/05/10 @ 08:57
Comment from: Russian speaker [Visitor]

The use of the verb “перегрузить” in that meaning is apparently inappropriate, but some may still use it as jargon (like мама (mommy) for a motherboard).
They should have just looked at the Russian name for the movie “The Matrix Reloaded” - “Матрица: Перезагрузка".

04/25/09 @ 10:50

while it’s within the realm of the possible, no way is it probable that someone would accidentally leave out the middle two letters, a prefix, in a word. it couldn’t really be a typo.

i would say ONLY a native russian speaker would make this error. it’s an error by analogy–re–>пере + load–>грузить. We don’t really say “reload my computer” (maybe “reload the program” and certainly “reload the web page"), but a native speaker of russian who has spent a lot of time in the US might come up with such a word, then translate it verbatim into russian.

03/18/09 @ 10:07
Comment from: Edgar [Visitor]

You presented an excellent explanation of the possiblities. Yes, I have been in Russia when Condi visited and she never spoke Russian, at least at those activities on TV.

03/11/09 @ 14:14

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