A little knowledge is dangerous knowledge, as somebody once said. That goes for the English language and particularly English as spoken by Poles.
Some years ago I was working in Warsaw as a sub-editor on an English-language news magazine. One day my phone rang and I found myself speaking to an irate spokesman for Poland’s central audit office. He was unhappy about a recent article.
“You made mistake,” he said, a thick, Eastern European accent.
The official and correct name of his institution in English -- he told me -- is not the central audit office but the Supreme Chamber of Control.
Now I defy any native speaker of English not to laugh out loud at hearing this. If they’re in private, that is. I couldn’t laugh because I was on the phone and had to try to be professional. And patient. That was not going to be easy if he stuck to his guns.
“Well, you see,” I said reasonably, “those are all perfectly valid words individually -- you’ll find them in the dictionary -- but I don’t think the overall effect is exactly what you intended.”
Mediaeval torture meets George Orwell
I couldn’t give him the less patient, full Monty, no-holds-barred explanation, which would have sounded something like: You were evidently badly advised. You shouldn’t call yourselves the Supreme Chamber of Control because it smacks of mediaeval torture, or contemporary S&M. It also reeks of George Orwell -- particularly unfortunate for a public institution in a country like Poland, which suffered over 40 years of communist oppression until 1989.
Some time later, I noticed that the Supreme Chamber of Control had changed its name, though I can’t prove it was because of my efforts on the phone that day.
The Chamber now calls itself the Supreme Audit Office, which still has a peremptory air to it, but without the echoes of subterranean whip-cracking.
A shame, in a way. Poland’s central auditors no longer sound like they’d put the fear of God into an accountant with a guilty conscience.
Another time a story arrived on my desk about a famous singer from an African country planning to give a concert in Poland. It was written by a Polish reporter, and translated into English.
The translation was a tad too literal. And as anyone who’s worked professionally with languages knows, that spells danger. Some things acceptable in one culture just aren’t acceptable in another.
The headline for the story was: “Black-skinned beauty in Warsaw”. In Polish that’s “czarnoskóra piękność” and it doesn’t sound outrageously wrong to Poles. It doesn’t even raise eyebrows for some reason -- for reasons we could debate at length.
Poland: a PC-free zone
It could be Poland’s lack of a colonial past, its homogenous white population, or its more than four decades sequestered behind the Iron Curtain.
“Black-skinned beauty”: how far back in history do you have to go to find a time when a phrase like that was used with impunity in English?
In my mind I pictured a salacious slave trader or a 19th century whip-wielding gentleman-cad, (Alec D’Urberville in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles), twirling his moustache with a leering look in his eye.
I pictured what would have happened in a previous job, when I was working as a sub-editor for a daily newspaper in Britain, if I’d let such a headline through. Probably being summoned to the editor’s office for summary dismissal.
Possibly a minor race-relations scandal.
But in Poland, even now, 13 years after joining the EU, such phrases are commonplace in much of the media as well as in private conversations.
Phrases that could cause outrage in western Europe are used here without anybody batting an eyelid. For instance, “czarny ląd”, which literally means the Black Land, is used to describe Africa.
Another example is “zacofany”, which means backward. It’s a phrase often used by public figures here, often in relation to their own country.
Poland is largely resistant to political correctness. Conservatives here would argue that’s a good thing. Meanwhile, liberals tend to be far more liberal towards the lack of PC than in any other country I’ve lived in.
As for working in Poland as a journalist, I face an everyday dilemma: do I correct Poles’ language in an act of cultural censorship; or faithfully transmit dodgy phrases into English -- which could cause offence and shock -- and let their users be hoist by their own petard?
There are no rules to cover every situation. I play it by ear and try to use my linguistic intuition. It’s a tightrope act that needs fine judgement and -- when I hear tortured English -- supreme self-control.