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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 18-03-2022 21:14

Communication, diplomacy and dickheads

Foreign Minister Santiago Cafiero's use of the English language comes under the spotlight.

Who would’ve thought Argentina had so many experts in the English language? 

An avalanche of Anglophiles crawled out of the woodwork this week to condemn Foreign Minister Santiago Cafiero and the mangled mispronunciations he dared to utter during a speech at an expo in Dubai.

Finding himself in a tight spot, Cafiero – who explained on Friday that the live simultaneous translation he had been promised was nowhere to be seen when he arrived at the podium – decided to try his luck in English, but it didn’t go too well, with his performance inspiring a right royal round of national mockery.

‘It’s a disgrace!’ yelled somebody on Twitter. ‘Pathetic,’ fired off another person, one who definitely got top marks on their English exam in their teens and has never mispronounced a word in their life. 

News anchors chuckled and replayed the clip, with veteran journalist Jorge Lanata leading the charge. People who normally have no interest in inglés suddenly became professors overnight, slagging off the chancellor and his outrageous attempt to ingratiate himself with his foreign hosts by talking in a language they understand. How dare he.

Cafiero, perhaps unwisely, did not take the criticism well. In a radio interview with María O’Donnell, he got carried away and even went so far as to call Lanata “a dickhead,” a word that is considerably less offensive in English than people in Argentina think it is. It’s two-a-penny, the equivalent of ‘boludo,’ but nevertheless, it is an unacceptable utterance for a public official. 

Lanata, responding to the scandal in an interview with Eduardo Feinmann, said that Foreign Ministry officials had accused him of “bullying” Cafiero. They’re right, he did. (Incidentally, he’s also leaning on O’Donnell, shaming her publicly for now being “loyal” enough to him with her reaction.)

Describing himself as “a poor idiot who is talking into a microphone” and decrying his lack of resources when compared to a government minister (a strange claim for one of the most-watched and most-listened-to journalists in Argentina’s recent history), Lanata also showed a significant lack of understanding about bullying, claiming that Cafiero has “much more power than me” as if size and reach were protectors against intimidation and mockery. 

Speaking as someone who moved to Argentina knowing just a handful of words of castellano, I found it all quite uncomfortable. Cafiero’s admittedly inelegant attempt to give his speech in English seemed familiar – the first time I had to get up and speak in front of people as a non-native speaker in this country, the nerves were fierce and unforgiving. I’ve been in similar situations in government offices too, when people in positions of authority have chosen to mock the pronunciation of a word, rather than provide the help they’re legally obliged to give. 

Let’s get this straight: Language is about communication, it’s about getting your ideas across to others. It’s not about saying everything perfectly, in the correct tense, with the correct intonation. Those things are important, sure, but for me, anyone who’s interested will make the effort to engage and understand. They’ll accept a deviation from the perfect, especially when someone is not using their mother tongue.

Of course, beyond the faux outrage, there is a serious point to be made here. Some of the voices I’ve heard over the past 24 hours have argued that a foreign minister simply must speak English in today’s world, as it is the “lingua franca” of the wider diplomatic world. I can see that argument, but I’m not sure I agree – ultimately it shouldn’t be a hindrance to success if someone is good at their work (I will reserve judgement on Cafiero and his qualifications for the post here in order to stay on point). Translators are relatively easy to come by (though apparently not in Dubai) and anyone who finds it an imposition to wait an extra 10-15 seconds for a response to a question is quite simply just selfish and inconsiderate.

And, as a brief side note, what happened to national pride? Why should Cafiero have to speak English if he’s representing his country? Why shouldn’t others speak Spanish?

Cafiero may well be a dickhead. Lanata may be a dickhead too. But if your focus is solely on the way in which someone is speaking, rather than the content of what they’re saying, perhaps consider if you’re not just being a little bit of a dickhead too.

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James Grainger

James Grainger

Editor-in-Chief, Buenos Aires Times.

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