The Year a President Made Love to Poland [and other translation gaffes]

U.S. President Jimmy Carter learned the hard way: some things are best left to seasoned professionals.

American President Jimmy Carter was newly sworn in when he traveled to Poland to deliver a foreign policy speech… one that would go down in history, it turns out. When President Carter talked about his “desires for the Polish people”, the words that issued forth in Polish actually came out as “my lusts for the Polish people”.

James_E._Carter_-_portrait

Here’s What the this World Leader Learned

Incredibly, there are even more examples like this just from that one speech (one really unfortunate translation error involves him telling the Polish people we would be happy to grasp their private parts!).

But we’re not here to laugh or criticize.

Instead, let this serve as a lesson in how to make sure you’re conveying the right message when it comes to communicating across cultures. President Carter certainly learned, and as a result, actually did more to elevate the position of presidential translator than anyone before or since.

By his second term in office, he was bringing in translators in the early stages of speech writing, rather than leaving them out until the end, when they often found themselves doing their jobs by the seat of their pants. Now, translators became an integral part of the speech writing process, ensuring cultural sensitivity and effectiveness of the words the President spoke.

From then on, translators began to play a strategic role in shaping the words presidents delivered to foreign audiences.

poland-carter

Museum Translators Have it Even Tougher Than Poor Mr. Seymour

That presidential interpreter’s name was Mr. Seymour, and although his career may have taken a nose dive after that fateful Poland trip, he actually did a favour for translators and interpreters… good ones, that is.

You see, there are varying levels of translation services. Almost anyone with a knack for language and/or a few years of formal study can convey a simple message from one language to another (“Where’s the train station?”). And computer software that translates words between languages is common these days, too.

But when it comes to delivering an important message with a deeper, more complex political message, cultural context is everything, as Mr. Seymour helped President Carter realize. Only translators (or interpreters, in Seymour’s case) who’ve mastered a thorough, contextual knowledge of the target language can truly deliver a message with the right socio-cultural undertones.

It’s the same for museum translation. In fact, museum translators have even more to grapple with, since they have the extra layer of meaning that’s implicit in any art piece. Think about it: explaining art is difficult enough in your own language!

The lesson? If you’re working on translation of material that has any importance, whether it’s political or cultural, it pays to have it done by a professional who’s well-versed in how cultural context is everything when it comes to translation services.

Resources

  • Top 10 Embarrassing Diplomatic Moments. Time Magazine. Retrieved 8/8/2016 from http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1880208_1880218_1880227,00.html

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