Be more careful!

Continuing this week’s general trend towards whinging and ranting about subtitles, lektors, and other things translation related we bring you my favorite badly-translated Polish website.

Be More Careful is brought to you by the Ministry of [the] Interior and Administration and is described as:

…a guide, which contains the information and a list of measures designed to help you make the preparations in case of the most common dangerous events and during the planning of securing your house or apartment.

A bit on the dodgy side, grammatically speaking, but more or less comprehensible.

We are hoping, that you will find our guide suitable and that you will never have to use it. We would like to make you feel more safe and calm while caring [sic] on with the necessary preparations in case of emergency.

I feel better already… I think. I also hope I never have to use the Be Prepared section because the links don’t work. I recently noticed my neighbor politely holding the door open for someone and, naturally, decided to report them as a probable dangerous radical. Unfortunately when I clicked on “Noticing the suspicious activity” it just took me to a blank page. This is a shame because I would also really like to know “How to prepare in case of a sudden event.”

There are, however, plenty of other things to click on. Having read the comments on Myth #8: Polish water is safe to drink I thought it would be a good idea to check out “Biological and chemical threats.”

You may be asked to: evacuate, go to a higher situated area, stand against the wind blow, stay at the apartment or to go into a certain place. You may also find yourself very close to the dangerous event and not realise that. If you will see people vomiting, in convulsions or disoriented you should immediately notify the medical care, and leave the place looking for a medical assistance.

I’ve been to several parties where a lot of this would have been good advice.

If I decide to seek shelter from my tap water I am advised:

In case of the chemical danger you should go to the area inside the house, preferably where there are no windows; the places above the ground are highly recommended, because some chemical substances are heavier than air and so they can penetrate the cellar even with the windows closed.

I could go on, but I think the point has been made. These are not terrible translations, but they’re just don’t reach the level of professionalism one might expect from an official government website. Whoever translated them is clearly very ‘good’ at English, but the end result sounds absurdly amateurish. It would have taken an English-speaking copy editor no more than a day to go through this entire site and knock it into shape.

I know it’s an easy target, and these pages probably only exist because it’s written into some clause of EU membership, but why can’t these institutions just make that little extra effort to look professional rather than like hopeless amateurs?

I just looked at the German Interior Ministry page on the same subject and the English is faultless. I was going to include a link to a Home Office (British ‘Ministry of the Interior’) document for Polish speakers to judge but I couldn’t find one.

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15 thoughts on “Be more careful!

  1. Jubal says:

    This would be an Irish equivalent of what you’re describing, I think: ; as usual, the most important documents are in many language version, including Polish.

    The Polish translation is mostly correct, it’s not great, though – wording and style could definitely use some help from a native speaker (or native speaker with better style).

    All in all, I’m quite surprised, both by the quantity of available information and by the quality of it — especially as it seems that the Irish went to great lengths to make sure, that the immigrants can actually get information even without extensive English knowledge.

  2. Jubal says:

    Oh well, I really love the very intelligent blog engines that cut out everything that looks like HTML tag (while it should be just properly quoted).

    The link again:

  3. Sylwia says:

    Oh, come on! I read the first pages of the Polish translation. There are grammatical mistakes, and the style is bad. How about:

    Będzie one obejmować zalecenia odnośnie konieczności pozostania w pomieszczeniu, unikania konsumpcji lokalnie uprawnianego jedzenia lub podjęcia innych kroków.

    And what’s „uprawniane jedzenie” anyway?

    I had to read Mr. Bertie Ahern’s letter several times before I could guess what he wanted to say. It lacks commas too, which in Polish makes the text just a loose collection of words. And I still don’t know whether they send the booklet to make sure people know what to do in case of emergency (a logical assumption), or to assure them that the government knows what to do (the literal meaning). And does Mr. Willie O’Dea really want to say they have agencies that plan how to cause a crisis? In Poland their role is rather to prevent one. He said we can check their website to read what they have planned for us. I’m not sure I want to know.

    I think that both ministries suffer from having translators who want to be literal. Comparing an English translation from German to one from Polish isn’t fair though. German is much more similar to English than Polish is. Even the automatic translations from German to English are somewhat comprehensible. German translations to Polish aren’t good at all. That of course doesn’t excuse us.

    The Polish title of the “Be More Careful” thing is more like “Be Safer”. I think the English version should have been prepared with much more care than the Polish one, because it’s unlikely any Pole would ever look for it. It needs a Brit living in Poland to bother. :D

  4. island1 says:

    It’s odd that the Irish document should be badly translated. I would imagine the great majority of Polish translators are native speakers of Polish. The problem with the Polish site is that it’s been translated by a non-native speaker of English, which seems to be the norm here. Is it your opinion that the Irish document was translated by a non-native, or just a not very literate native?

    I don’t agree about the German translation. You don’t get that level of quality just because German is more similar to English, it’s been properly edited and proofread—the Polish one hasn’t.

    I agree it’s not a very important document, but it is an official document from a government agency. On the other hand maybe a Brit would be more interested because terrorist attacks are not the unlikely fantasy in Britain that they are here. I hope Poles are long able to hold onto this innocent complacency.

  5. michael farris says:

    My guess it was done by a non-translator, ie somebody without any real training but who knew someone, or was working in an office somewhere. This is what I call (from now) the “Oh, Kasia’s Polish! she can translate this!” mentality.
    It reads a lot like the over-literal stuff that beginning students (or those with no training) come up with.

    Alternately the person who did it assumed that since their name would be attached to it and no one would ever read it (reasonable assumptions) why try to do a good job, run through the mill once and cash that check in a hurry.

  6. DC says:

    This is slightly off-topic, but maybe of interest to those who appreciate precision in language. “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” by Lynne Truss is a book about the pitfalls of punctuation in English. I thought it was really funny and worth reading.

  7. Sylwia says:

    That person was definitely a Pole, living here until recently, with a quite good Polish really – the level of matura exam or higher.

    The problems with translations are:

    1. It’s difficult to translate this kind of stuff from English because the ideas and phrases existing in English don’t have their equivalents in Polish. One can translate the whole and still have no decent Polish text. It’s the same with translating news and any technical leaflets. I’d much rather translate fiction or poetry (to Polish, not to English) where the vocabulary is more similar. Polish technical and business language is a mixture of older Polish and new borrowings from English. It’s confusing. An additional difficulty is that when one has their mind wrapped around English expressions it’s difficult to recall how they should sound in Polish, because one can translate them literally, it’s just not how one would say it. A Pole living abroad will soon forget how people speak here, unless they keep reading Polish literature. But even living here I have this problem. It’s best to divorce oneself from a text for a day or two and return to the Polish version without looking at the English one.

    2. Polish people don’t know Polish well. They really don’t. There are so many mistakes in newspapers and TV that if one doesn’t work on improving their language one’s going to have it all wrong. There are reasons why teachers make calls to TV stations to correct the journalists. People keep making grammatical mistakes all the time. Those are the kinds of problems that English speakers never have, but in Polish are jarring or even misleading. I don’t think people speaking English spend half the time wondering how something should be said. In Polish, when everyone around makes a similar mistake, you’re likely to become unsure what the correct form is even if you had it right.

    3. It’s easy to make logical mistakes in Polish. English doesn’t seem to be so careful about it, creating expressions that exist on their own. In Polish one needs to be more literally logical, than just using an idea hidden behind an idiom. A frequent example is “a line of the least resistance” that the majority makes into “the shortest line of resistance”. They just attach “najmniejszy” to the wrong word, and mis-decline it. One can guess the meaning, but when one thinks about it the mistake is ridiculous. It’s the same with that text. I know what they mean, but it’s not what they say. It would be fine in colloquial speech. English is better in such cases because it doesn’t need to be so descriptive, like the Polish ministry isn’t really of the Interior, which would suggest furniture, only of Internal Affairs.

    4. People who know English well don’t necessarily know Polish well. They studied English linguistics and literature, and not Polish, but when an English speaking person hires a translator they’ll estimate one’s skills depending on one’s knowledge of English.

    5. The way Poles speak largely depends on their environment. People whose parents didn’t speak well will always have problems. People who grew up speaking a dialect can speak the mainstream Polish only when they pay attention, even if they are well educated. Sometimes I speak better than my boyfriend, and sometimes he speaks better than I do. He certainly has a better way with words, but I have a better grasp of grammar.

    6. People don’t know specific vocabularies, not even professional translators do. One translation I once ordered was from English to Polish, and turned out unreadable. They simply didn’t check relevant Polish vocabulary, just looked up the words in a dictionary, and that’s really not the same. If I were the translator I’d look up a relevant Polish site to see how things are called there. Every branch has its own specific language some people there thought hard to create.

    7. It’s very likely it was Kasia!

    I think that Poles aren’t preoccupied with such documents because their mentality differs. No one in this country really thinks the government knows anything, and people have some kind of superstition for every occasion. Things they’ve been doing for ages and worked fine. I still remember what my grandma did when the martial law began, and I think she must have had more experience in emergency planning than all of the governments all over Europe.

    And in the end, no matter what happens, people would go to church. So priests should read it. :D

  8. Sylwia says:

    DC, I know the book. It’s hilarious!

  9. Chris says:

    I love that little book. Did you get the punctuation repair kit with it? The Panda says no!

  10. DC says:

    No, I missed the kit. Sounds funny!

  11. Jubal says:


    Of course there were grammatical errors, and of course the style could be much better – and you’re most probably right that the translation was not done by the professional translator.

    I just wanted to say that the translation is mostly correct – factually correct, that is. And while it’s not pretty, it’s understandable. And that I really do welcome the effort that the Irish officials make to produce quite a vast amount of information in several foreign languages.

    (Having in mind Jamie’s comments about traditional Polish fussiness regarding the language, I probably should go and point to more errors in the translations. On the other hand, I definitely make much more errors in my never-formally-trained English and people are nice enough not to be too fussy about it – so I’m trying to return the favour.)

  12. Sylwia says:

    I’d be nowhere as picky if that weren’t a Polish text written by a Pole. But my main point was that translating is really difficult. It’s not enough to be a native speaker. Likely that person would write a much better text from scratch if it was ordered by Polish officials. It’s translating, not writing in Polish as such, that’s the problem.

  13. Michael Farris says:

    1. “An additional difficulty is that when one has their mind wrapped around English expressions it’s difficult to recall how they should sound in Polish, because one can translate them literally, it’s just not how one would say it.”

    This is a big problem that never goes away completely, people are encouraged to learn foreign languages without thinking about their own. If they’re successful the English and Polish parts of their brain aren’t integrated (and being able to translate means being able to integrat one’s knowledge of different languages). I often have the same problem in reverse. I’ll understand a Polish phrase perfectly and can’t think of what it would be in English very quickly.

    2. “Polish people don’t know Polish well.”

    This is heresy in linguistics. What you want to say is that “many Polish people don’t have effortless command over prestige registers”.

    But from a linguist’s point of view ‘poszłem’ and “Słucham panią” are perfectly good Polish grammar (as evidenced by the fact that many native speakers say them) but they are not recommended in formal situations (and the formality threshhold is lower in Poland than in English speaking countries).

    “I don’t think people speaking English spend half the time wondering how something should be said. In Polish, when everyone around makes a similar mistake, you’re likely to become unsure what the correct form is even if you had it right.”

    Little do you know. There’s always a difference between what your high school language teacher tells you is right and how people actually speak on a day to day basis. But the difference between the two is much narrower in Poland than in English. This is because traditional models of “English grammar” for native speakers of English are garbage and the less attention paid to them the better. The grammar taught to learners of English as a foreign language are much better than what native speakers get.
    One result of this is that many English speakers take a sort of pride in not speaking the way the ‘experts’ tell them to.

    3. “It’s easy to make logical mistakes in Polish. English doesn’t seem to be so careful about it, creating expressions that exist on their own. In Polish one needs to be more literally logical”

    ‘jak na lekarstwo’ (to give one example) …. is logical how? Polish and English both need to be logical, but they tend to try to find logic in different places.

    4. “People who know English well don’t necessarily know Polish well.”

    Close. The problem is that they don’t _cultivate_ their Polish. AFAIK translator training doesn’t include classes on writing in Polish (and it should!). One problem is that the idea of taking classes on writing in Polish seems vaguely ridiculous to most Polish people (unfortunately).

    5. “The way Poles speak largely depends on their environment.”

    This problem is actually far more acute in English speaking countries. See Shaw’s famous quote: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”
    This happens in every country that speaks English, far more than in Poland (where it can be a problem too).

    6. “People don’t know specific vocabularies, not even professional translators do.”

    There’s no need for them to. If a translator specializes in a particular field then they have to have an active command of the jargon of that field. But generally translators don’t need an active knowledge of specialist vocabulary but they do need to know how to find specialist vocabulary. A good translator needs to be part private eye and know how to hunt down obscure vocabulary in both languages they work with. (nb dictionaries are generally not of great help in this area)

    “I think that Poles aren’t preoccupied with such documents because their mentality differs.”

    ITA. As I meant to write, the chances of a Polish speaker actually finding and reading and taking this document seriously are approximately zero. On the other hand it makes the local authorities feel good to know they’re reaching out to new arrivals (who, as you noted, probably know more about practical emergency planning than they do).

  14. […] [Polandian] Be more careful! […]

  15. Sylwia says:

    “Poszłem” is an effect of boys’ learning the language from their mothers, not good grammar though. I know that there’s a theory that everything that is used often goes, but I don’t think it’s accepted in Poland. Is it a matter of formality? It’s not as if a man says “poszłem” in informal situations and “poszedłem” in formal ones. Either one has it right or not. Words like “fajny” or “okej” are informal, and might be used or not by one person depending on occasion.

    “Słucham panią” is perfectly good in the meaning “May I help you, madam?”. “Słucham pani” means “I listen to you” or “I listen to this lady”.

    It’s true that the difference between formal and informal is narrower in Polish than in English, but that’s why I think Poles spend more time on wondering what’s correct. They know they’re expected to. A matter of attitude. On the other hand one can’t say that Englishmen have so much trouble deciding how to say “I went”. The number of forms is limited. However, people have problems with forms of “lie” and “lay” and that’s the kind of dilemma that’s multiplied in Polish.

    What’s wrong with “jak na lekarstwo”? It’s as logical as “jak na zawołanie”. It means very little. One wouldn’t drink a bottle of vodka when one’s sick, one would take a few drops of it with tea. There’s no grammatical illogic in the phrase that I can see. I might have troubles explaining the point. I didn’t mean to say that English isn’t logical, only that it doesn’t require this kind of logic and precision in grammatical structures that Polish does. Its constructions and the attitude to them differ. Here’s a lot of place for informality in Polish, because what can be said casually would be picked on in formal speech. But since I don’t know how to explain it I give up the point. Or maybe… do you know the joke about a pigeon and chiefly?

    “Jaka jest różnica między gołębiem a zwłaszczą?”

    “Gołąb lubi siedzieć na oknie a zwłaszcza na parapecie.”

    Of course the joke is in using the word “chiefly” as a noun, so someone made a grammatical dilemma out of something that normally wouldn’t be, and at the same time it points out that it’s imprecise to say that a pigeon can sit on a window, it can sit on a window-sill. Those are the kinds of imprecision the English-Polish translation is marred with. I can guess their meaning if I’m kind, but Poles aren’t kind when it comes to their language, they’re going to laugh mercilessly at every lack of precision. Everyone knows that chiefly isn’t a bird, but who cares, it’s still funny. I’d say it’s the main difference between the formal and informal in Polish.

    I agree that the environment vs. language is far broader a phenomenon in English than in Polish, only that in English it doesn’t matter that much, because there’s not one proper English. Americans would laugh out loud if someone told them they’re supposed to speak like Brits, and vice versa. In Polish there is one literary standard everyone is supposed to live up to, and everything that sticks out, sticks out. I don’t mean dialects here, that have their own rules, and usually people who speak them can speak standard Polish too. But if a person speaks making mistakes, those are mistakes, and not a linguistic margin of tolerance. I don’t think we can make a case that since something is fine in English it should be fine in Polish too. Different languages, different people and attitudes.

    I agree that translators don’t need to know jargons as long as they can trace down the proper words. The problem is they neither know them nor seem willing to find out what they don’t know. At least not those professional translators I had an opportunity to deal with, and that’s a big discouragement from hiring them. They might have a better command of grammar than I do, but if they don’t give me a good final product they’re useless. And you’re right, they won’t find it in a dictionary, especially that, at large, Polish technical jargons developed very recently, and I imagine that English too might be specific in new branches, like mobiles or cell phones.

    I just remembered that I once received a French to Polish translation from a French company (a leaflet for Polish clients), that was completely unreadable (much worse than the Irish example). The French company didn’t want to believe me, because they hired professionals. They said that the same company made translations to several other languages, and only Poles had a problem with it. Moreover, they found our alternative proposition suspicious because the word placement and the length of sentences differed too much. I think that Centum speakers often don’t realise how different Satem languages are.

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