Translator Wanted — Knowledge of the Language Preferred


carter-in-poland
President Jimmy Carter reviews the troops in his first visit to Poland as President. photo: Bettmann/Corbis

When a fake sign language interpreter managed to get the job of interpreting during the funeral for Nelson Mandela, President Jimmy Carter must have had flashbacks to a time that his life was complicated by an interpreter who was not up to the task.

The occasion was the 1977 visit of President Carter to Poland. Steven Seymour was hired to interpret the President’s remarks from English to Polish. It was not exactly a match made in heaven:

  • The President said, “I have come to learn your opinions and understand your desires for the future.” Seymour’s version of it came out as telling the Polish people that the President really liked them and that he desired them sexually.
  • When the President remarked that he had left the United States that morning to come to Poland, Seymour interpreted it as the President saying that he had left the USA permanently — never to return again.
  • Later, the President expressed just how happy he was to be in Poland. This didn’t quite come through in the translation to the astonished crowd, who heard the President express his desire to grasp the private parts of Poland.
  • Carter went on to praise the Polish constitution of 1791 as one of the great documents in the history of human rights. The depth of his admiration didn’t quite come through in the interpretation, where the Poles heard the President say that their constitution should be ridiculed. source

Understandably, Carter was leery of interpreters. Shortly after leaving office in 1981, he was speaking at a college in Japan and started his remarks with an amusing anecdote. While amusing, it was not hilarious, so he was surprised when the audience responded to the translation with uproarious laughter. Only later did he find out why he got such a strong response. The interpreter said to the audience, “President Carter just told a funny story; everyone must laugh.”   source

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