One of the absolutely hardest things to do is write flawlessly and well in another language.
It’s one thing to speak a foreign language to an astonishing level of accuracy and accent, to the point that even native speakers might think you’re one of them. It’s quite another to write that language in a way that is not only accurate and grammatical but flows as an educated native speaker would write it.
Foreign leaders aiming to make an impact through speeches delivered in English or any other non-native language have extra problems. First and foremost, getting the language precise. The speech needs to be cast in non-formal, non-pompous ‘conversational’ language. But beware those idioms and mixed metaphors.
It has a (for most of us) unpronounceable idiom meaning (variously) within arm’s reach or so close you can touch it: na wyciągnięcie ręki. In a metaphorical sense it denotes something very close, in a positive way. But one seemingly obvious idiomatic translation into English, “at arm’s length”, denotes exactly the opposite: you like it close, but not too close.
It is all too easy to write a speech in Polish using that idiom that, when translated into English by someone with superb but non-native colloquial English, gets the meaning of a key sentence completely wrong. Result? Mess.
Then there’s #mixedmetaphorhorror. More extracts from a draft speech in English written by a non-native speaker. Emphasis added:
… the time is now for Europe to become a real strategic player. Its integrity is an indispensable element of its solid internal architecture. A spine that embeds not only the inner structures and organs but makes up the scaffolding for the place of Europe in international relations …
Europe must not be distracted by the sudden explosion of recipes for it and go ahead together with the USA with the values and the Western model it represents
My all-time favourite example is this next one. The Polish writer of this amazing passage clearly knew English idioms and grammar and had a mighty vocabulary. But no sane English person would write this for a speech:
Do not believe blindly the prophets of doom. Europe is strong. We just need to work hard now to overcome the sense of fragmentation permeating the European environment as a consequence of the financial crisis. We need to undress Europe of sense of insecurity and uncover the bare beauty anew.
Or see this chocolatey ambition for EU reform:
We must improve the overall functioning of the European Union and make especially the decision-making process transparent, lucid and quicker. To achieve that personally I would not shy away from going as far as melting together the two Presidents – of the European Commission and the European Council
Some Brits might struggle to explain exactly the difference between melt and meld. If you’re not a native English-speaker you maybe also need a very sharp ear to hear the difference when the two words are spoken.
Likewise most Brits would struggle to explain precisely when to use the definite article the, the indefinite article a, or neither of them. See the subtly different senses of meaning and tone here:
The response does not come
A response does not come
Response comes none
Anyway, so to the letter sent to Heads of State and Government by the Polish Prime Minister Mrs Beata Szydło urging them against voting for Donald Tusk to continue as President of the European Council. The official Polish version of the text in English is here. The Polish text is here.
Yes, these days international people are used to getting senior missives written in dubious English. But it’s so much better and subtly more courteous (and, crucially, more convincing) to receive one that is beautifully written and error-free.
This was not such a letter. The English version is 1048 words. Much too long. But it also has many interesting mistakes, many of which are not easy to pin down stylistically Let’s look at some of them:
I have decided to write this letter, as I believe that our decisions and motives need to be clearly explained if the relations within the United Europe are to be based on partnership and equality.
Clunky start. Note the superfluous adverb (clearly). And the misplaced definite article and odd capitalisation of ‘the United Europe’. Also an errant definite article in ‘the relations’.
Try this instead:
Europe needs to work on the basis of partnership and equality. Hence my letter to you today.
Terse. Gets straight to business. Grabs the reader’s attention.
In the last few months, my country, Poland, was placed in a very unusual situation. When it comes to important international positions, for many years we have been consequently supporting representatives of various political circles – from European Christian democratic, social democratic and liberal parties in different political fora.
A classic Polish mistranslation here: consequently. In Polish the adverb konsekwentnie means consistently with a sense of being principled too. Consequently in English means as a result of or because of what has come before. She wants to say (I think) that Poland has behaved fairly and not allowed the political persuasion of candidates for top international jobs to stand in the way of Polish support where the candidate is otherwise broadly acceptable. Plus the hyphen here is misplaced, adding a/the wrong sort of emphasis.
In spite of strained political relations, we assumed that this time it may also be the case.
Again, oddly heavy and obscure. Sequence of tenses makes might better than may?
The current President of the European Council has decided to violate multiple times his European mandate, using his authority as the President of the European Council in heated national disputes.
Reads oddly. Try this:
The current President of the European Council has abused his mandate by intervening improperly in national disputes.
Shorter and simpler. Says what it has to say. Then stops.
This was the case e.g. when part of the opposition was blocking by force the work of the democratically elected parliament. Under the Polish constitutional circumstances, the attempt to block the adoption of the budget was an attempt to overthrow the government by means of non-parliamentary methods.
Another incorrect definite article: the (sic) Polish constitutional circumstances. Overlong unwieldy sentences that no-one wants to read.
A clear support for these actions expressed by the President of the European Council was something unprecedented.
Now a mistake using the indefinite article: A clear support. Try this simple, direct sentence instead.
The European Council President’s support for such action was unprecedented.
The letter continues, painfully for readers:
In our opinion, the overarching principle of holding an office of an international character shall be that of political neutrality towards national disputes that are characteristic of democracy.
No normal person would say that in English. So why write it?
A political affiliation of the President of the European Council shall be no excuse.
Another misplaced indefinite article: A political affiliation.
Political neutrality is therefore an overriding principle to be obeyed by persons holding this office. A person who is unable to do this and who brutally violates this principle does not guarantee that this function will be performed in an efficient and professional way.
Do we ‘obey’ principles? Brutally violating is a tautology.
He used his EU function to engage personally in a political dispute in Poland. We cannot accept such a conduct.
Protip for the Polish PM’s office translators. Take the/a day off and study the definite/indefinite articles in English. Here neither is needed: We cannot accept such conduct.
In this difficult situation that we have been placed in, we agreed that it would be responsible if we presented a new candidate who would not only manage the task at hand, but also whose contribution to the European Council would bring a new quality of work, trust and guarantees that rules would be obeyed.
Aaargh. Awful strangled messy sentence made hard to follow in part by by a classic style/grammar mistake in using not only … but also. If the not only qualifies a verb, the but also should do so too. Try this:
In this difficult situation, we propose a new candidate who will not only manage the task at hand but also bring to the European Council new trust and respect for the rules.
Less is more.
Aside from many obvious competences which make him a good candidate for this position, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski gives us hope for the actual fulfilment of our vision of restoration and reform of the European project.
Actual fulfilment is wrong here – another mistranslation from the Polish na prawdziwe wcielenie w życie. Here an article is needed in English: a/the restoration. Even better – verbs not nouns. This is where English and Polish style differ; Poland likes complicated abstract nouns! This is enough:
Jacek Saryusz-Wolski gives us hope for restoring and reforming the European project.
European integration may continue to be the most important instrument for the prosperity and security of our countries and citizens. It may, but – as we already know today – does not have to.
Huh? I think that what this wants to say in English is this: European integration is the most important driver for EU countries’ prosperity and security, but we know that that may not continue to be the case.
The later passages of the letter are long windy Euro-exhortations, as painful on the eye as on the mind:
Only by ensuring mutual respect and trust, compliance with the established principles, as well as by demonstrating real determination to improve the current situation will we be able to achieve our goals.
* * * * *
Had I been asked to advise Mrs Szydło on such a letter, I’d have produced something like this:
I am writing to you and other European Council members to raise my serious concern about the proposal that Donald Tusk be re-appointed as European Council President.
Mr Tusk has made a number of public statements about different parliamentary and political disagreements in Poland that have amounted to a highly counter-productive abuse of his authority as European Council President. It is vital that someone occupying this key European leadership job be scrupulously neutral and work to build EU-level consensus. Mr Tusk’s various interventions in Poland’s domestic issues have not done that. This sets damaging wider precedents for relations between the EU institutions and national capitals.
Despite Mr Tusk’s senior political career in Poland, we can not support an extension of his mandate. I accordingly propose Mr Jacek Saryusz-Wolski as his replacement. Mr Saryusz-Wolski has served with distinction in the European Parliament and I know that he will bring to the European Council formidable professional knowledge and experience.
I will be happy to explain my position to you in more detail. I am sure that you agree that it will be both unprecedented and unwise to appoint someone to lead the European Council in the face of principled opposition from his own member state’s government. This is all the more important when the European Union faces so many serious difficulties and needs in top positions people who are credible to all member states as they look to find common ground. Please rest assured that my government is determined to work to develop strong EU policies and institutions on a principled basis that all can accept.
That does it. Far shorter, at 266 words. Flows nicely. Direct. Subtly more ‘personal’. Businesslike. Confident. Smart.
And much harder to ignore.