Editor at Large Policy Politics

A Victory For Eloquence

President Obama

Congratulations, President-Elect Obama!

Editor at Large Policy Politics

Of Course McCain Knows Who Zapatero Is…Right?

I’ve listened to the English interview that John McCain did with Yoli (Yoly, if you read the Washington Post account) Cuello of Radio Caracol. The Republican presidential candidate does do a good job of acting as if he knows exactly what he’s saying, although he does hit those talking points annoyingly hard.

It’s only if you study the transcript that McCain really does seem as if he might be mistaking Zapatero for a leader from somewhere in the southern hemisphere:

…all I can tell you is that I have a clear record of working with leaders in the hemisphere that are friends with us, and standing up to those who are not, and that’s judged on the basis of the importance of our relationship with Latin America, and the entire region.

The newsworthy part is that even after Cuello ensures that McCain understands that she’s talking about Spain, an issue that her director notes she was encouraged to ask about because “we’re owned by this big company in Spain,”, he repeats the same answer:

I am willing to meet with any leader who is dedicated to the same principles and philosophy that we are for human rights, democracy and freedom, and I will stand up to those that do not.

Bush Between The Lines

George W. Bush has never met with President Zapatero personally or invited him to the White House. Zapatero’s Socialist party (PSOE) wrenched power from the conservative Popular Party (PP) after the Madrid bombings occurred just before the election. I remember the masses of people who turned out in Barcelona’s Plaça Catalunya to protest when they thought the PP was stonewalling the investigation. I was among them.

Once he took office, Zapi pulled Spain’s troops out of Iraq, just as he had promised. And Bush gave him the cold shoulder.

Does McCain’s canned response hide an explicit message to his supporters? Can they count on him not just to continue Bush’s grudges, but to increase them?

The Spanish Catch It

Not only is McCain being ambiguous here, he seems to be flip-flopping as well – but you wouldn’t know it unless you read the Spanish newspaper El País.

That’s why I’ve translated some relevant coverage from Spanish into English here for your enjoyment. El País is owned by the same “big company in Spain”, Grupo Prisa, that controls Radio Caracol.

These declarations from McCain contrast with the ones he made to EL PAÍS last April, when he said that, “it’s time to leave behind discrepancies with Spain.” He added, “I would like for [President Zapatero] to visit the United States.” Yesterday diplomatic media attributed the Republican candidate’s attitude to confusion, since the interview centered on relations with Latin America and the reporter had to remind him that Spain is a European country when he insisted on using Mexico as an example. In the best case it would be evidence of his ignorance with respect to Zapatero.

The emphasis on that last quote is mine, of course. As Kos says, you can’t make this stuff up.

Editor at Large German Translation Policy Politics Written English

Translation Lesson: Sometimes an Enabling Act is just an Enabling Act

Even when it seems like the silliest term you’ve ever heard.

The Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz in German) was passed by the Reichstag (Germany‘s parliament) on March 23, 1933 and signed by President Paul von Hindenburg the same day. It was the second major step, after the Reichstag Fire Decree through which Adolf Hitler obtained plenary powers using legal means. The Act granted the Cabinet of Germany the authority to enact laws without the participation of the Reichstag for four years.

And I thought this choice was far too simple to be the right one…good thing I made it anyway.

Editor at Large Politics Spoken English

The Obamas: When Grammar Gets Political

Obama pulled ahead of Hillary Clinton in the superdelegate count two days ago, and is poised to bag a major endorsement this evening in the U.S.

So when Edwards takes the podium after I’m fast asleep in Berlin, take a moment to consider Obama’s latest grammar mistake, memorably noted by Radio Free Mike.

The senator from Illinois distanced himself once and for all from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright during a press conference, with an even-tempered and eloquent kiss-off. However:

…he was somebody who was my pastor, and married Michelle and I, and baptized my children…

Ahem. That would be Michelle and me, wouldn’t it?

It’s not the first time that Obama has mixed up his pronouns. He seems to have a penchant for this particular error, one his wife, Michelle, has also made.

Michelle, on the other hand, has also done exactly the opposite:

Let me tell you who me and Barack are…

There is a telling difference between the mistakes being made here. While both of the Obamas made the same “for I” mistake, when talking about Reverend Wright, only Michelle made reference to “me and Barack” in a subject context and only then when refuting accusations of elitism.

If ever there was a mistake made by grammar elitists, the “for I” mix-up is it. Using a subject pronoun (“I”) when the context calls for an object pronoun (“me”) is over-correction, the result of hundreds of well-meaning grade-school teachers and bifocaled aunties reminding you that it’s not “me and Susie went to the bathroom” but “Susie and I.”

It’s interesting, then, that Michelle seemed to be aware of this class distinction in her own speech, saying moments later that she is the product of “a working-class upbringin[g].”

Obama, on the other hand, gets caught in the grammar mistakes of the elite. But what else is there, really, to ding him for? The man’s an outrageously eloquent speaker. Take a look at what else came out of his mouth at the press conference on the Wright debacle:

What particularly angered me was his suggestion somehow that my previous denunciation of his remarks was somehow political posturing.

I gave an audible “wow” when YouTube-sized Obama spoke these words to me. When you get rid of the repetition, this is an impressively wordy statement to make off the cuff during a press conference.

Indeed, is it too impressive? Should Barack take a page from Michelle? I got laughed at in junior-high detention when I said I didn’t know the “procedure”. Hillary trounced Obama among working-class West Virginia voters yesterday—who can guess what the electorate will make of him and his verbosity in November?

Editor at Large Policy Politics Subject-Specific

Fielding Media Inquiries

This is why today’s entry is so short.

Editor at Large Politics Subject-Specific

One-Joke Post

As research on disoriented vs. disorientated continues, I bring you this sign of the times. I received the e-mail below from the professional translators’ association I belong to on the Internet:

Dear Community, invites you to the first online “Introduction to Bankruptcy Terminology” course.

This course offers a one-on-one, 3 hour online training session on bankruptcy translation, covering the largest areas of the topic.

Wow. Is the global picture really that bleak?

Editor at Large Politics Written English

S/he, Zey, Yo…How Do We Get Her Into English?

There has been quite a kerfuffle lately (and I’m only allowed to use that word because of the type of blog this is) over the long search for unmarked ways of expressing gender neutrality in English.

More specifically: when you want to talk about everybody’s hats, do you use the traditional masculine his–Everyone has his hat–or do you adopt the gender-neutral but grammatically dubious their?

I try to avoid the situations altogether, rewording sentences to remove any temptation to choose one way or the other. But, for the record, I think that using “their” is the closest solution we have right now. This is one of the few areas in which I disagree with my gurus Strunk and White–as Geoff Pullum so concisely rebuts them (emphasis mine):

Is it your brother or your sister who can hold his breath for five minutes?

In any case, the quest for a more inclusive pronoun in English pales in comparison to the struggles that countries with more gender-dependent languages must undertake, countries in which the words themselves exclude women by their very nature. And even the folks in these countries are making changes, so this language conservatism in English should go right at the window, as far as I’m concerned. If singular “they” was good enough for Jane Austen, it’s good enough for me.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about the two non-English cultures I’m most familiar with, Spain and Germany, and how their speakers are taking gender inclusion in language into their own hands, clunky though it may be.

Editor at Large Politics

Obama, Ambassadors, and Me

Writing political speeches is a cloak-and-dagger profession that is all cloak and no dagger. Speechwriters are the unsung heroes of the campaign season–propriety prevents them from claiming credit for their work, and they are rarely acknowledged by their august employers.

To me, sitting in Berlin and writing my little English blog, they are as sidereal as celebrities. Someday I hope to join their ranks.

That’s why I dared to speak to a former US Ambassador after he delivered an hourlong assessment of the current situation in Afghanistan. The Iranian Ambassador to Germany presented a retort. The Afghani Minister for Education added his own judgement. I sat on my hands.

At the end of the evening, standing by the door, I found myself face-to-face with the US Ambassador. Cringing, I asked him–no, I couldn’t ask. I complimented his speech.

Then I hedged: “I’m trying to break into speechwriting, and ghostwriting, and I know that you’re now retired as a diplomat, and I know this is an awkward question–”

And then I just came out and said it. I asked if he had written his speech himself.

The former US Ambassador’s answer was cheerful, even generous. He had written the speech himself, and even showed me all of the last-minute changes he’d made as a result of conversations just prior to taking the podium. Green carets and cross-outs blotted the page.

Only as an independent could he have altered his prepared words so freely.”If I were still representing the Department of State,” he said, someone else might have written my speech.”

I make this point because of Barack Obama’s speech this week, called the best this year by NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof. Although the jury is still out, it looks as though his oration Tuesday will work to his campaign’s advantage. In the speech, Senator Obama addressed the controversy over his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah White, whose fiery sermons have been burning up YouTube for a week. The Democratic presidential candidate faced the accusations directly while at the same time reminding the public of the personal racial divides he has transcended in his own life.

Eloquent speeches like this one have played a large role in Obama’s audacious rise, particularly among young people. But it’s not only the quality of Obama’s speeches that stands out: it’s his campaign’s willingness to share the credit for them. I know that his chief speechwriter Jon Favreau is twenty-six years old, thanks to a profile which appeared in the New York Times in January. I know that David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign mastermind, says that “Barack trusts him.” Perhaps the senator’s background as a lawyer, academic and independent author gives him the confidence to acknowledge the support team that most other politicians play down.

Parenthetically: A Cambridge professor of mine first worked at the White House as a speechwriter in the Nixon administration. His worst mistake? Running up to his boss immediately after a speech, in front of the entire Beltway audience, and audibly thanking the official for keeping in a paragraph that the neophyte had written. Kiss. Of. Death.

I’ll get into the substance of Obama’s speech in a later post, as I monitor reactions on and off the web. Today I just want to celebrate the fact that such an excellent speaker can still admit that he gets a little help.

Confidential to editing nerds: yes, the title of this post uses a serial comma. We’ll get into that some other time.

Editor at Large Politics U.S. vs. U.K.

What’s in a Name? A Jail Sentence, in Germany

Via Language Log:

American Ian Thomas Baldwin, PhD., is a researcher at one of the German Max Planck Institutes, a prestigious network of institutions which carry out cutting-edge research for the public good. Baldwin has been using his “Dr.” title with pride for two decades.

Now he’s facing criminal charges. The Washington Post explains:

Under a little-known Nazi-era law, only people who earn PhDs or medical degrees in Germany are allowed to use “Dr.” as a courtesy title.

The law was modified in 2001 to extend the privilege to degree-holders from any country in the European Union. But docs from the United States and anywhere else outside Europe are still forbidden to use the honorific. Violators can face a year behind bars.

The Post reports that at least seven U.S. citizens, some of whom, like Baldwin, had been using their hard-earned titles for decades, were outed to the German authorities by an anonymous informant.

Germany is title-crazy; anyone who lives and works here can see that soon enough. I recall writing letters to Frau Prof. Dr. So-and-so or Herr Dr. Dr. Something-or-other.

But there is a method behind the madness: only in Germany, for example, does one write a separate dissertation, after the PhD., to qualify for a professorship. And even then, there is debate over whether one can still claim to be a Professor after retirement.

Germany has more restrictive speech laws generally than the United States; the criminalization of Holocaust denial is probably the most well known, but there are stipulations for Internet content as well that apply to this very blog.

Policy Politics Written English

Hillary and Obama: The Importance of Being Illiterate?

From Andrew Romano’s blog for Newsweek, Stumper:

There’s always that risk, particularly in America–the suspicion that if something looks good, it can’t possibly work. If someone’s really beautiful, they can’t be smart.

If beauty works against us generally, does the same hold for beautiful words? And if so, is Obama’s erudition hurting his electoral appeal?

Hillary: Small Words Yield Big Gains

The speech in Hillary Clinton’s latest television spot is not exactly sophisticated (key point: “something’s happening in the world”), but the fear-mongering is masterful. In a paternal and slightly threatening voiceover, Clinton’s campaign argues that she is someone who “already knows the world’s leaders” and is “tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world.” The unspoken assumption here is that the articulate Obama is not.

The commercial aired last weekend, and lo and behold, Clinton won every state she needed to stay in the race with her dignity intact.

Was the groundswell for Clinton a repudiation of Obama’s slick sloganeering? Or could this comeback mean that Americans are still as motivated by fear as the Bush White House presumes us to be?

Obama: Entrapped by his own Eloquence?

The three Clinton wins last night do not negate Obama’s 11-state string of victories. But commentators over the past few weeks have latched on to whether the junior senator’s literary talent could become a liability. David Brooks of the NYT noticed early on, in April of 2007, that

You have to ask him every question twice, the first time to allow him to talk about how he would talk about the subject, and the second time so you can pin him down to the practical issues at hand.

When Brooks finally gets a direct answer on foreign policy, the columnist notes presciently that Obama’s response is “either profound or vacuous, depending on your point of view.

Monitoring the Message

I’ll keep an eye on the public reception to each candidate’s campaign rhetoric as the nomination fight continues. It will be interesting to see which tactic–diction or drama–wins out.