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  • Carter, Poland and a Translator December 21, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    poland carter

    In 1977 Carter visited Poland on his first trip abroad as President. Poland had long been in the US’s cross-hairs. It was the country in the Eastern Block that was most likely to cause the Soviet Union problems and the reputation of the Polish people for resisting foreign tyrrany, of course, went before them. By 1977 things were getting particularly lively. Carter’s chief advisor on foreign policy was a Pole, Zbigniew Brzezinski and he and Carter had watched, with interest, the major riots in Poland in 1976. Solidarity was still three to four years in the future but with the Polish economy stalling and with the Poles, famously short temper running out, there was a feeling that something might change soon. And, this wasn’t too far from the truth: a decade afterwards, it would be the Poles that had the honour of knocking the first of that sorry set of Soviet dominoes. However, we are back in 1977 with a President and his translator, Steven Seymour, provided by the State Department and an infamous series of gaffes.

    There are a lot of cruel and untrue jibes about Steven Seymour on the internet. So let’s start by noting that SS was not, by any means, an incompetent. He was and is a fine translator of Polish and Russian and French texts into English and has a particular reputation for translating poetry: something which should earn him the respect of anyone who knows anything about writing. However, there were two problems. First, Polish was Seymour’s fourth language and it stood behind Russian, a language that is worryingly close on some points, inviting confusion; Seymour was Russian born. Second, SS was not only translating into English, but from English into Polish. In Russian he was more than capable of doing that: the man translated Auden into Russian and published the results for God’s sake! However, in Polish he wasn’t as sharp. The US State Department had hired a gold-medal shot-putter and then asked him to do the pole vault. If you have any doubts look at the Seymour in late middle age, he exudes professionalism and charisma…


    Carter arrived in Warsaw 29 December 1977 and the fun took place at the airport at 10.40 pm and in the minutes immediately afterwards. The smiling American president, the most optimistic since Woodrow Wilson had almost ruined Europe, stood before his dour Polish hosts and began to speak lyrically in response to a leaden welcome from the then Polish leader, Gierek. Seymour, aged 31, was there to translate. Three errors followed in quick succession in what was a short discourse. Carter first of all announced that he was glad to be in Poland. Somehow this was translated as Carter saying that he had abandoned America to come and live in Poland. (Oh my God, thought the apparatchiks, the US President has arrived in Warsaw to claim asylum!) Next, Carter praised the Polish Constitution of 1791 as one of the three great eighteenth-century monuments to human rights. Instead, Seymour gave the impression that Carter was ridiculing the Constitution: which given how the Polish communist party had treated the spirit of said Constitution would have been just fine.  Then, finally, Carter, still smiling, announced that he he wanted to learn about the desires of the Polish. SS turned this into: ‘I want to have sex with the Polish’, something the newspapers of the day toned down into ‘carnal knowledge of the Polish’.We’ve included the speech below with the offending comments highlighted.

    Interestingly Seymour did not realise that anything had gone wrong until 31 December when a journalist approached him and asked him about his errors. He had worked for another 48 hours for the president only being silently removed before a final banquet. Not that things got any better. At this final banquet an intepreter hired by the State Department couldn’t understand Carter’s southern accent and remained dead silent until the Polish government interpreter intervened!

    Seymour claimed afterwards that the mistakes he made were not major ones.

    He acknowledged that for Carter’s expression about leaving Washington, he chose the verb that has the implication of ‘abandoning’ a place. As to Carter’s comments about ‘desires’, instead of using a Polish word with neutral connotations he chose one that is used to describe a man’s desire for a woman.

    Note that, as always with these stories, things have been exaggerated over time. Some books and online sources claim that not only did Carter, in Seymour’s Polish, want to ravage the Poles, he also wanted to touch their privates. This last bit seems to be  pure invention. Just imagine what they’ll be saying about the episode in a century’s time.

    Other good translation stories? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    THE PRESIDENT. First Secretary Gierek, distinguished officials from Poland and from other nations, the people of Poland: We are delighted to be in your great country. When I left the United States this morning, I told the people of my Nation that this journey reflects the diversity of a rapidly changing world. It is a world in which old ideological labels have lost their meaning and in which the basic goals of friendship, world peace, justice, human rights, and individual freedom loom more important than ever. I am proud to begin this journey in Poland–friend of the United States since the time our Nation was founded. Poland is the ancestral home of more than six million Americans, partner in a common effort against war and deprivation. Relations are changing between North and South, between East and West. But the ties between Poland and the United States are ancient and strong. Not far from our home in the State of Georgia, a great patriot of both our nations, Casimir Pulaski, was mortally wounded while leading a cavalry legion in the fight for American independence. The home of my son’s wife is Pulaski County, Georgia, named for this hero from Poland. Also, for his military skill and bravery, Thaddeus Kosciuszko won the respect of our first President, George Washington, during wartime. And for his commitment to freedom and justice, he won the admiration of our third President, Thomas Jefferson, in time of peace. These brave men fought alongside Americans in the era which produced three of the great documents in the struggle for human rights. One was the Declaration of Independence from America. The second was the Declaration of the Rights of Man from France. And the third was the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791. Our shared experience in battle has also taught us the paramount importance of preventing war, which has brought devastation to Poland twice in this century. At the end of World War I, a great American, Herbert Hoover, came to Poland to help you ease the suffering of war and to observe the reestablishment of an independent Poland. Circumstances were different and the struggle was long, but Hoover said, and I quote, ‘If history. teaches us anything, it is that from the unquenchable vitality of the Polish race, Poland will rise again from these ashes.’ And his prediction came true. I have come not only to express our own views to the people of Poland but also to learn your opinions and to understand your desires for the future. Building on the historical ties between us, recognizing the new and changing realities of life, I look forward to strengthening Polish-American friendship on my visit here in Warsaw. We deeply appreciate the warm welcome extended to us tonight by First Secretary Gierek and by the Polish people. Thank you very much.

    26 Dec 2013: First up James M: first, your sympathy for Steven Seymour is welcome. As one who has translated in unusual and tense situations it is not an easy job. Second, several sources suggest that Seymour was using too many Russian words and that suggests to me that he was translating from Russian into Polish, something that you with your various romance languages should understand. (If he, as you suggest, came from a Russian family this would make perfect sense). Finally, it seems to me that it is rather difficult, given the English, to say that Carter wanted to have sex with the Polish, probably Seymour just said that Carter wanted to know the lusts of the Poles *** Next is Andy, a Polish speaker.  I read the story about Carter’s translator with interest.  I’ve known about it for years, but you do cast a sympathetic eye on it.  One aspect which most people don’t know is that the Polish  of emigres and the communists was considerably different. Many of the people who emigrated (or escaped) to the west were the educated, and upper classes.  After the War, Doctors, Engineers, Teachers, Police officers, anyone with a university education, any potential leaders for resistance to the communists were either executed, ‘encouraged’ to emigrate or re-educated.  Those that came to the West were the intelligensia, and the schools they set up to preserve their culture reflected that. Back in Poland, ‘peasant speak’ was encouraged.  The language evolved, and diverged from that spoken in the West. Personal embarasment came when I visited in the mid-80’s and the polite word for ‘young lady’ had changed to mean prostitute! This is based on personal observation,’ Thanks to James and Andy!