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Obama’s Address to the Muslims

Abe has discussed the difficulties Obama must face in choosing a Muslim capital for a possible foreign policy speech, but I wonder about the general efficacy of an address delivered to an audience that does not speak the same language as the orator. No matter how good a speech Obama might deliver, real-time translators simply cannot reproduce the nuance and style of his rhetoric. This is a shame since oratorical skill is one of the most essential tools of the statesman.

In fact, while President Reagan’s “evil empire” speech was strongly criticized as needlessly inflammatory by many in the English-speaking world, the phrase itself caused little stir in the Soviet Union, since the Russian translation lacked the potent alliteration. Likewise, the most celebrated part of President Kennedy’s 1963 speech in West Berlin occurred when he switched to German: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” It’s also worth remembering that just before uttering that immortal phrase JFK also quoted Latin, which would have been widely understood by educated Westerners around the world: “Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was civis Romanus sum [I am a Roman citizen].”

Were Obama to deliver his speech in Jakarta, might it be the perfect opportunity for him to demonstrate the language skills he allegedly picked up while living for four years as a child in Indonesia? After all, according to Time magazine, the Indonesian ambassador to the U.S. had this to say about Obama: “Back home people think of [Obama] as one of us, or at least one who understands us,’ he says, adding that they are delighted to find that Obama speaks passable Bahasa, the language spoken in Indonesia and Malaysia.” In contrast, Obama himself has claimed, “I don’t speak a foreign language. It’s embarrassing!” But recall that John Kerry also pretended not to be fluent in French while running for President. For American politicians, a lot of learning is a dangerous thing. As Adlai Stevenson lamented during a 1954 speech at Harvard, “Via ovicipitum dura est, or, for the benefit of the engineers among you: The way of the egghead is hard.”

Whether Obama can or wants publicly to speak Indonesian, his administration—and all future ones, for that matter—might consider having government “tribunes” (the higher ranking, the better) publicly deliver rhetorically accurate translations of the President’s most important speeches, with a focus on politically important languages, such as Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu. At the very least, the administration should provide an eloquent pre-recorded voice-over for broadcast.


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