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War On Earth Or World War III? Medvedev Interview Stirs Translation Tempest

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev speaks to Handelsblatt during an interview at the Gorki state residence outside Moscow on February 11.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev speaks to Handelsblatt during an interview at the Gorki state residence outside Moscow on February 11.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev grabbed global headlines this week with his interview in the German newspaper Handelsblatt in which he was quoted as warning that the Syria conflict could lead to a “new world war.”

But did Medvedev actually utter a phrase suggesting World War III is potentially nigh?

That question is the center of a kerfuffle that drew critical remarks from the U.S. State Department ahead of the annual Munich Security Conference, which kicked off February 12.

In the interview, published February 11, Medvedev was asked his opinion about the prospect of Arab countries sending fighters to Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s staunch ally, is battling both the extremist Islamic State group and more moderate opposition groups. Some of those moderate groups have received backing from the United States and its allies.

Handelsblatt’s German translation quoted Medvedev as saying that such a move could spark “einen neuen Weltkrieg,” or “a new world war.”

The word “Weltkrieg” and its English translation was, in journalistic parlance, sexy enough to earn a spot in the headlines of the Handelsblatt story. Global news agencies like Reuters, the Associated Press, and AFP also used the word.

The “world war” quote even made its way into the daily State Department press briefing in Washington the same day, in a question posed to spokesman Mark Toner. He said the specter of a “broader conflict” was “concerning” but accused Russia of exacerbating the Syria conflict with its support for Assad.

But the accuracy of the Handelsblatt translation was called into question on social media after Medvedev’s office released a Russian-language transcript of the interview that quoted him uttering a notably softer phrasing.

Medvedev, who spoke Russian during the interview, was quoted as saying that world powers must force all sides to sit down at the negotiating table and “not start yet another war on Earth.” (In Russian: “не начинать очередную войну на Земле.”)

Russia’s state-funded global news network RT, meanwhile, accused Reuters of misquoting Medvedev by reprinting Handelsblatt’s “incorrect” translation.

“The [Reuters] report referred to a German translation of his words, which is incorrect and implies that Russia is warning that a full-scale war between leading world powers may be ignited from the Syrian conflict,” RT wrote in a February 12 post on its website that did not include a byline.

Massaged Transcripts

The translation tempest ultimately prompted Handelsblatt to issue a clarification and defend its use of the phrase “world war.”

In a note on the English-language version of the newspaper’s website, Kevin O’Brien, editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition, wrote that “the Kremlin…approved a German-language version of the interview.”

“The German quote approved by the Kremlin contained the term ‘einen neuen Weltkrieg,’ or a new world war,” O’Brien wrote.

The Kremlin and Medvedev’s office operate in separate bureaucratic structures, and it was not immediately clear whether O’Brien intended to refer to the prime minister’s office as “the Kremlin.” Typically, Medvedev’s staff would manage such an interview.

O’Brien did not respond immediately to an e-mail seeking clarification about the Kremlin’s potential role in approving the German translation. In an earlier e-mail, he referred questions about Medvedev’s verbatim quote in Russian to correspondent Mathias Brueggmann, who spoke Russian to the prime minister during the interview.

Brueggmann, head of Handelsblatt’s foreign affairs desk, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment. He interviewed Medvedev together with the newspaper’s editor in chief, Sven Afhueppe, who spoke in German during the meeting.

The Russian government has previously massaged or omitted contentious comments by foreign and domestic officials in official records of public statements.

Standing next to Putin at a May 2015 news conference in Moscow, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking in German, called Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula the previous year “verbrecherisch,” or “criminal.”

The official Russian-language interpreter at the press conference, however, omitted the word “criminal” during the event, and the official Kremlin transcript left out the word as well.

It is, however, included in the transcript published by Merkel’s office.

At last year’s Munich Security Conference -- an influential gathering that draws diplomats, foreign ministers, business leaders, and academics -- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded to hoots of derision from the audience at his defense of the Crimea takeover being in line with international law by saying, in Russian: “I guess it’s funny.”

He suggested that he found things said earlier “funny as well, but I controlled myself.”

These comments were not included in the Foreign Ministry’s official transcript of the event.

Whether Medvedev’s office took similar liberties in transcribing his interview with Handelsblatt was not immediately clear.

Of course, publicly releasing the audio recording of the interview would certainly settle the matter once and for all.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

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