Saturday, 10 March 2012

Orwell's Politics and Language and Poland


Moni received a letter today from the Mayor of Warsaw. I'll cite it here in full.
"Na podstawie art. 26 § 5 pkt 1 ustawy z dnia 17 czerwca 1966 roku o postępowaniu egzekucyjnym w administracji (Dz. U. z 2005 roku Nr 229, poz. 1954 z późn. zm.) z chwilą doręczenia załączonego odpisu tytułu wykonawczego następuje wszczęcie egzekucji administracyjnej celem wyegzekwowania należności wyszczególnionej w tytule wykonawczym.

Kwotę wynikającą z należności objętej tytułem wykonawczym wraz w kosztami egzekucyjnymi 51,40zł należy wpłacić na rachunek bankowy organu egzekucyjnego. Na dowodzie wpłaty należy podać numer którego wpłata dotyczy.

W przypadku nie uregulowania należności wyszczególnionej w załączonym odpisie tytułu wykonawczego zostaną zastosowane środki egzekucyjne przewidziane w art. 1a. pkt 12 lit.a powołanej ustawy o postępowaniu egzekucyjnym w administracji.

Dodatkowe informacje dotyczące wszczętego postępowania egzekucyjnego można uzyskać w siedzibie Urzędu m.st. Warszawy, Biuro Podatków i Egzekucji, ul. Kredytowa 3, II piętro...
What's it all about? We really can't tell. It sounds serious. "Execution proceedings". Six very official stamps. Four official signatures. But then a piffling sum of money - just over ten quid. A phone call to Moni establishes that she was caught without a ticket on a tram (after six years with a quarterly travel pass, she had got out of the habit of buying a ticket for each trip when coming home from Łódź). OK, fine paid, lesson learnt.

But could this letter not have been written more simply? Is it not beyond the wit of the city authorities to write a letter saying something like "You have failed to pay the correct fine on time and have been fined a further 51.40 złotys - please pay immediately or face court action"? Why all this chapter-and-verse nonsense?

George Orwell has the answer. In his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language (a mere eight pages, well worth reading), he posits that circumlocutions, pretentious and abstract words, passive voice, needless repetitions, are used as an instrument to conceal. Behind the legal bluster of the letter quoted above is an over-staffed office, with too many people involved in unnecessarily bureaucratic revenue protection procedures (it must costs 80 grosze to bring in one zloty in fines). No one has audited this process. Would it not be cheaper and more effective to send SMSs first - and then heavy legal letters to that tiny minority that doesn't pay up at this stage?

Orwell and Winston Churchill did most to change the course of the English language in the 20th Century. And, three decades after their finest hours, the Plain English Campaign came along making it impossible for a British civil servant, bank, insurance company or law firm to trot out this kind of gobbledegook that still passes as formal language in Poland these days.

Three relevant rules, then, from Orwell's essay:
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, do so.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Churchill, who "mobilized the English language and sent it into battle" was also one for short, powerful words. The two Englishmen exposed the fashion for consciously complex writing for what it is - an attempt to belittle or befuddle the reader, to assert superiority over the reader. In communist Poland, this was part of the armoury of sociotechnika - keeping the Party in power and the people in their place. Times have changed by the drętwomowa [numb or stiff language] of the past still holds sway in the high offices of the land.

Time to change it. Time for a Plain Polish Campaign.

Thanks to Anon for a link to a Polish Radio programme (in Polish) about Polish official language (to listen, click here).

And thanks to fellow-blogger and near-neighbour Student SGH for having a decent crack at the above letter, which I'm elevating from status of comment to part of this post...

"Pursuant to article 25, paragraph 5, section 1 of 'Administrative execution proceedings law', dated 17 June 1966 (Journal of law no. 229/2005 with further amendments), administrative execution, aimed at collection of amount due set out in enforcement deed, takes effect when the execution deed is delivered.

Amount due stipulated in the execution deed, along with execution charges of PLN 51.40 should be paid into the bank account of the executing entity. The payment receipt should contain the number the payment refers to.

In case the debt set out in the attached excerpt from the execution deed, the enforcing entity shall resort to further execution proceedings, listed in article 1a, section 12, letter a of the
herein mentioned law on administrative execution proceedings, to collect the debt.

Further information on the execution proceedings can be obtained at Capital city of Warsaw's Tax and Execution Bureau head office...
"

5 comments:

AndrzejK said...

Actually it is (as is often the case in Poland) the fault of the French. If you recall on buses you are forbidden to spit on the floor but instead of just saying that it is prefaced by chapter and verse on "in accordance with para x of the law etc etc".

What I really love is the Orwellian pre amble to a notification that the relevant "biurwa" has finally acceded to your request. This starts with @zgodnie z paragrafem x ustawy z dnia y oraz z postanowieniami z od niniejszej decyzji przysuguje prawo odwolania w terminie 7 dni od doreczenia.

And then you have to wade through two pages of uzasadnienie before you actually gt to the decision.

Anonymous said...

@Michał

There was an interesting programme on the subject on the Polish Radio last week, origins and intricacies of the Polish official language were discussed.
It's still available to listen online or download from here.

Enjoy! :)

student SGH said...

Excellent piece. Now let's have a try on translating this... (unaided, start at 11:43, finished at 12:02)

Pursuant to article 25, paragraph 5, section 1 of 'Administrative execution proceedings law', dated 17 June 1966 (Journal of law no. 229/2005 with further amendments), administrative execution*, aimed at collection of amount due set out in enforcement deed, takes effect when the execution deed is delivered.

Amount due stipulated in the execution deed, along with execution charges of PLN 51.40 should be paid into the bank account of the executing entity. The payment receipt should contain the number** the payment refers to.

In case the debt set out in the attached excerpt from the execution deed, the enforcing entity shall resort to further execution proceedings, listed in article 1a, section 12, letter*** a of ???**** law on administrative execution proceedings, to collect the debt.

Further information on the execution proceedings can be obtained at Capital city of Warsaw's Tax and Execution Bureau head office...


* Getting heavy, the sentence's far too long!

** The original text does not point at any number - imprecision

*** had to go downstairs to establish what "lit" is - litera

**** I don't understand the word powołanej. In earnest, I don't know what it means.

Nineteen minutes to convert unreadable Polish twaddle into unintelligible, turgid English drivel. Feel sorry for PL->EN legal English translators...

In Poland it is still a common belief that the more complicated language you use, the wise to appear. Wrong! A smart man can explain complex issues in a plain way - take this path!

Anonymous said...

So intent on quoting chapter/verse and consequences, the letter fails to mention any details of the transgression!

We have had similar experiences when moving countries: there are things people are just simply assumed to know by virtue of having lived there all their lives.

Agree that the radio prog was interesting but it's not only the bureaucracy; newspapers can also overdo the formal when simple would do; presumably to prove the intelligence of the writer.

Autumn conference? according to the prog.

Dyspozytor said...

I love this post. I am sending it to all my editorial team in lieu of creating a styleguide for Behind The Water Tower which I will get around to one day, eventually...

Dyspozytor

PS. People who are caught without tickets on trams should be put into the stocks and pelted with red tape.