BP's chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg has been taken to task for a statement he made to reporters after a meeting with President Obama and other White House officials: "I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are really companies that don’t care, but that is not the case in BP, we care about the small people."
The Economist's new language blog Johnson chalks up Svanberg's unfortunate wording to his lack of fluency in English, suggesting that he "may have heard a venerable American phrase, 'the little guy,' and tried to use it, simply misremembering slightly." On Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall speculates that "the small people" was the result of a "phrase in Swedish he might have been carrying over into English." And indeed, BP spokesman Toby Odone told the Associated Press that "it is clear that what he means is that he cares about local businesses and local people. This was a slip in translation."
Around the blogosphere, Swedish speakers have further explained "the small people" as a translation of the phrase "den lilla människan." There's a bit of disagreement, however, about how condescending that phrase might be in Swedish.
In the comments on the Washington Post's 44 blog, "kentnilsson8" writes:
I am Swedish and would easily make same mistake as Svanberg did. In Sweden we often talk about "den lilla människan" this translates to "the small human" in direct translation. However this is not insulting at all but is used as a tender name that express a humans vulerability to circumstances and events beyond their control. So, in this case it means the individual is small in the sense that when an ocean is suddenly filled with oil, one person can not do much by him or herself.
On Balloon Juice, we hear from "Thaswede":
It was just an error in translation from his part.
He tried to translate a Swedish saying into English and it went wrong. In Sweden we often say “den lilla människan” (lit: “the little human”) when we talk about someone or a group of people who either is up against larger forces or odds, or simply have been unfortunate enough to be caught in the middle between (much) bigger and more powerful players/forces/events.
On the ABC News blog Political Punch, Martin Olsson pitches in:
I am a native speaking swede and in this context we would say "Den lilla människan".
That translates directly into "small people".
For us swedes, "den lilla människan" would refer to a person or group of people who are not in control of their own destiny and in need of help.
But on the same blog, Fredrik Andersson disagrees with Olsson's interpretation:
What are you talking about? The Swedish phrase "den lilla människan" is just as demeaning in swedish as it is in english, "small people". Stop representing us Swedes Martin! That is clearly a degrading comment in either language.
Josh Marshall sums up the moral of the story: "Given how bad a situation BP is in right now, I'm not sure it was a hot idea to have their non-native English speaking Chairman speak off the cuff in front of the TV cameras."
(Hat tip, Danny Bloom.)