On the move in Central Asia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been testing his linguistic skills, tweeting and greeting in Uzbek and the Kazakh tongue. Some of his Indian audiences may not be impressed, but what of it? As he travels to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, we hope more languages will be added to the mix. Speaking in the language of the host country means you've done your homework, you're interested, you really do want to reach out.

Getting familiar

Of course, there have been times when host countries have been left feeling that the visiting dignitary reached out just a bit too much. American presidents have been particularly warm.

There was former US President John F Kennedy, who seemed determined to sweeten up the Germans. He passionately declared that he was a jam roll when he announced, "Ich bin ein Berliner". JFK had been trying to say "I am a Berliner", except a Berliner is also a German word for a filled pastry. It was only recently that linguists said the construction was perfectly acceptable, and JFK's message of empathy was on point.

If there's anything Modi can learn from his former American counterparts, it is to pick your interpreter carefully. Then US President Jimmy Carter, who visited Poland in 1977, was translated as saying "I desire the Poles carnally." He had reportedly wanted to say that he wanted to know about the Polish people's "desires for the future". Then he seemed to remark that he had "left the United States, never to return", possibly giving rise to conjectures about a sensational Cold War defection. He had really said that he had left the US that morning. That trip was not a success for Carter. When he gushed that he was "happy to be in Poland", everybody there thought he "was happy to grasp at Poland's private parts".

More than words to show you feel

More than words get lost in translation, as certain gestures in one culture mean something quite different in another. Former US President George H W Bush Sr, visiting Australia in 1992, thought it would be a good idea to show the V-sign, palm facing inwards, while travelling in his armoured car. A mistake. Turns out in Australia the gesture is the equivalent of showing the middle finger.

Death, drugs, China

China, that apparently inscrutable country, with complex, coded customs and a richly idiomatic language, is where diplomacy goes to get lost. When US President Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had reportedly said it was "too early to tell" about the effects of the French Revolution. This was construed as the wisdom of Chinese philosophy, which is supposed to be wary of pronouncing on anything too soon. By those standards, Zhou must be considered rash. He was merely commenting on the Paris protests of 1968.

British Prime Minister David Cameron met his Waterloo in China, though the gaffe he made recalled later wars. On a  visit to the country in 2010, Cameron sauntered around with a red poppy on his lapel, a British symbol of remembrance for those who died in the First World War. But Beijing might have thought he was having an unnecessary gloat. In China, the red poppy recalls the Opium Wars of the 19th century, only among the most devastating battles fought between the Quing dynasty and the British empire, where the latter squeezed territorial concessions and unequal trade treaties out of the Chinese emperor.

Recently, British Transport Minister Susan Kramer gave a belligerent present to the Taipei mayor, Ko Wen-je. She presented him with a small clock, which seemed to tell him he was living on borrowed time. In Chinese, the phrase for giving someone a clock sounds similar to the word which means attending on a dying member of one's family. So giving people timepieces has become taboo in local customs.

The silent treatment

For Indian politicians, the perils of being mistranslated may be higher because of the external affairs ministry's reported shortage of Hindi-to-foreign language translators. And the Lok Sabha secretariat's interpreters seem blessed with a keen sense of injury. After the prime minister's interpreter was criticised for her Hindi-to-English translation of his speech in Bhutan, the secretariat's staff have retired hurt. They refused to supply a translator for Modi's visit to Brazil.

Alright, but then if travelling Indian politicians refer to themselves as sweetmeats or express a desire to grab the local populace, don't blame them.