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Losing something in translation

Jacques Chirac speaks English quite well, but you would not have thought it as he summed up his visit to Britain on Friday. Not a word of English was spoken at the entire press conference - not even by the English journalists present (these were the same show-offs who ostentatiously refused the translation facilities).

M le President once did an entire interview in English with Larry King on CNN, and caused no little affront in France, where his failure to use the tongue of Balzac and Moliere harmed his standing. Clearly Mr Chirac was not going to make the same mistake again.

This seems a bit de trop. I know the French feel their language is under threat from English, but don't they also like to consider themselves great cosmopolitans? We are impressed, if anything, if our leaders demonstrate fluency in other languages - few people are aware, or care, indeed, that Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, is frequently on French radio and television, answering questions flawlessly on all things British.

It might cause some comment here, though, if John Major, after concluding a press conference in France, were to descend from the podium and shake hands with everyone present. Mr Chirac did, and he is the French head of state, not just the leader of a shaky government.

Flower arrangement

How unpopular is Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia? So unpopular that when people throw bouquets of flowers at him, the police get suspicious.

Two weeks after an unemployed man slapped the former Soviet leader during a campaign appearance in Omsk, police in Volgograd told the ITAR-Tass news agency that it had happened again. They even claimed that the slapper was affiliated with a hardline Communist group, but an hour later a spokesman admitted that the police had got the wrong idea when a woman approached Mr Gorbachev at a war memorial and tossed a bunch of flowers to him.

Not that Gorbie himself is immune to a bit of exaggeration - he described the first incident as an attempt on his life, possibly in an attempt to get his support in the opinion polls above the 1 per cent mark. Reporting on the latest affair, Associated Press said liberals dislike him for waffling on reforms and resorting to authoritarian tactics as his government was collapsing, while hardliners blame him for destroying the system and leaving the nation adrift. Presumably if he went about trying to shake hands, they would have to send in the riot squad.

It's a mad, mad, mad

A colleague last week described it as "columnar barrel-scraping" to laugh at foreign attempts to speak and write English - but Albania's crazy dash for modernisation has overcome my shame. It has produced such gems of linguistic comedy as the restaurant offering "frightened potatoes" to accompany its main dishes, and the politician who complained he had been "running around like a mad".

A new English-language daily newspaper produces language so colourful it is positively poetic. Lawyers for five former Communist-era officials, we are told, "put forth Monday their pretention to the charges falling on their clients". It wasn't clear from the piece quite why the five were on trial, although it spoke of "an alloy of convicts, and where all appear to be found guilty and innocent at the same time".

And how about this for political reporting? "The Democratic Party stroke back against Socialist accusations that the Democrats are inhibiting them." Clearly, there is more to Albanian politics than meets the eye.