When it comes to speculations about the Russian president’s love for Trump, Western observers are lost in translation
By Olga Kuzmina
July 27, 2016
The massive leak of emails from the Democratic National Committee, likely the work of Russian hackers, has fueled speculations that the move was an attempt by the Russian government to boost the chances of its chosen U.S. presidential candidate, Donald Trump. This view stems from an off-the-cuff response Russian President Vladimir Putin gave to a foreign journalist in December about his supposed admiration for Trump. Putin’s response has been widely translated in various ways by Western media. One outlet said Putin called Trump “a really brilliant and talented person.” Another claimed that Putin described Trump as “outstanding and talented,” even as the video accompanying the article gave Putin’s statement as a more modest “very bright.”
But did Putin really bestow glowing praise upon the Republican presidential nominee? Language matters in politics, and the Russia watchers who possess a native knowledge of the language have a responsibility to point out that we’re in a serious case of being lost in translation.
What Putin actually called Trump in Russian is “ochen’ yarkiy chelovek,” which literally translates to “a very bright person.” Unlike the English word “bright,” the Russian yarkiy does not connote intelligence; rather, it means someone who is colorful, flashy, showy, an individual who makes himself stand out from the crowd. The more colloquial translation is “a colorful character,” a phrase that in the Russian carries a note of bemusement. Putin added that Trump is also “talented (talantlivyi), without a doubt.” He then went on to say that “regarding [U.S.] internal politics and the turns of phrase [Trump] employs to boost his popularity, I repeat that it is not our business to assess that aspect of his performance.” Taken as a whole, the statement suggests that Putin recognizes the theatrical component of Trump’s campaign, and chose not to comment on the contentious impact that Trump and his statements have had on American politics.
What Putin did not call Trump is “outstanding” (vydayushchiysya), “brilliant” (blestyashchiy or genialnyi), or any other adjective used to describe superior intellect (Trump himself boasted that Putin called him a “genius”). The rampant proliferation of words synonymous with what was already a shaky translation from the Russian has resulted in a significant stretch of meaning, accompanied by inflated speculations about the extent of the Putin-Trump bromance.
Even the more astute Western journalists have fallen into this trap. Prominent CNN host Fareed Zakaria, during a moderated discussion with Putin at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June, asked the Russian president: “you said that Donald Trump is a brilliant, talented, and smart candidate. What is it exactly about Donald Trump that made you say this, and do you still have these views?”
After a ripple of laughter from the (largely European) audience, Putin responded: “you are known in our country not only as a media host… but also as an academic. So why are you jumbling my words? I said in passing that Trump is a bright (colorful) candidate. Do you not find him to be so? I do. I did not ascribe any other characteristics to him” (he forgot about the “talented” part). The problem, Putin told Zakaria, was that the latter was “letting his ‘journo’ side take over his ‘analyst’ side.”
The popular argument that Putin would favor a Trump presidency to that of Hillary Clinton is not unfounded. If anything, it seems even too obvious a conclusion to make. During her time as Secretary of State, Clinton repeatedly adopted positions that pressed on Moscow’s sore spots: most notably, she pushed for the NATO-led military intervention in Libya despite Russian protests, and accused Putin’s party of rigging the country’s 2011 parliamentary elections. Since leaving the State Department in 2013, Clinton has compared Putin to Hitler over Russia’s actions in Ukraine and said the West has to stand up to Putin’s bullying in Syria.
Whatever one thinks of Clinton’s policy stance at home, the point is that she doesn’t look like a promising partner if you’re sitting in the Kremlin. By contrast, Donald Trump has arrived carrying no foreign policy baggage, and announced that he would shift the focus from bolstering NATO to fighting terrorism – something long supported by the Russian foreign policy community – as well as pursue improved relations with Russia. His more recent comments denigrating NATO must have sounded like music to Moscow’s ears, where the alliance is widely seen as the main irritant in Russia’s relationship with the West.
The pontifications of Western observers about what Putin really “thinks” or “wants” or “believes” sound all the more vapid given the Russian president’s typically restrained commentary about international developments. A good recent example is the Brexit referendum, which was widely described as Putin’s dream come true (“it is a truth universally acknowledged,” wrote one commentator for The Telegraph, “that insofar as world leaders brood on the possibility of Brexit, Vladimir Putin alone rubs his hands in glee”). What Putin actually said when posed the question on Brexit, following some comments about its potential pros and cons, was that he “will refrain from offering my opinion, because I don’t think it would be correct for me to do so… this is only the business of the EU and the people of the UK.”
The expert community can and should discuss whether specific events play into Russia’s interests, but these discussions carry weight to the extent that they are rooted in concrete statements, historical events and past diplomatic experience. We can also analyze Putin’s personal opinion on various matters. But to do so, we should first make sure that a) Putin voiced an opinion to begin with and b) that we translated it correctly. Otherwise, we’ll be left to argue with our self-invented Russia, while the real one is busy planning its next move.
Olga Kuzmina is a Program Associate at the Center on Global Interests and a member of Eurasia Foundation’s 2016-2017 Young Professionals Network. Find her on Twitter at @OlgaKuzminaDC.