The Declaration of Independence
in Poland

Jerzy Kutnik

The Declaration of Independence in Polish

The Polish translation of the Declaration of Independence can be found in an American history encyclopedia prepared by a group of historians from Warsaw University and first published in 1992. Among the alphabetically arranged entries, two documents appear in English alongside their Polish versions: the declaration and the Constitution. Although it is not identified as such, the translation of the declaration comes from an anthology of American thought in the Enlightenment, a collection of translations of representative texts by American political thinkers from the period of the Revolution, published in 1964. 1The text of the declaration was translated by Stanisawa Skrodzka. Though the 1964 volume was brought out by a major press specializing in scholarly books, it was released in a small (and characteristically unattractive looking) edition as part of a series of texts in the history of philosophy. Censoring even the most "innocent" publications was common practice in 1964, but there are no visible signs of the censor's interference in the texts despite the potentially "subversive" character of those that speak of independence, nationhood, rights, and so on, always very sensitive topics in Poland given the country's long history of subjugation. My guess is that in 1964 a collection of philosophy texts was probably deemed too obscure and insignificant for the censors to worry about.

That translation of the Declaration of Independence was reprinted ten years later in a monograph on the origins of the United States by the Warsaw University historian Izabella Rusinowa, a work of objective and sound scholarship that presented a history very different from what six years earlier was still the "official version." In 1968, one of the darkest years in the struggle of Poles against communism, volume 5 of a ten-volume history of the world prepared by a team of scholars from the Soviet Academy of Science had appeared; the Marxist-Leninist interpretation of the origins of the American Revolution explained the Declaration of Independence as an antifeudal and antimonarchistic document establishing republican freedoms and privileges for the new American bourgeoisie without at the same time guaranteeing similar rights to the lower classes and the black slaves. Needless to say, the text of the declaration was not included. 2The appearance of Rusinowa's study in 1974 was emblematic of the ongoing "democratization" of Poland's version of socialism, which had begun after the workers' protests in 1970. The inclusion in it of the full text of the Declaration of Independence was equally meaningful.

Many of the ideas articulated in the declaration were perceived as subversive from the very beginning of its reception in Poland. When the news about its having been passed by the Continental Congress appeared in the Gazeta Warszawska on August 24, 1776, only a brief summary of its content was given; any references to the "all men are created equal" clause were very carefully avoided. 3Quite obviously, that particular message was unacceptable in a country ruled by an aristocratic oligarchy. Then, during the nineteenth century, when Poland was partitioned and did not exist as a state, any public discussion of a nation's struggle for independence from another country's oppressive rule was simply forbidden. (I have been unable to find any nineteenth-century translations of the Declaration of Independence.)

On the whole, the Polish rendition of the declaration is very faithful to the original text, almost a duplicate. Because of the emphasis on conveying the exact, literal meanings of the formulations in English, the translation sticks as close as possible to the original syntactic structures and expressions. Polish syntax and word order, however, is free or loose compared to English; as a result, sometimes the prose seems clumsy or wooden. Paradoxically, then, the faithfulness of the translation has to some extent robbed the original text of its grace and lightness. The Polish version is rather dry, colorless, and plain. The style and vocabulary is utterly contemporary, with no attempt at historical modes of expression.

Conveying the meaning of the key terms did not seem to pose any major problems to the translator. Many of those terms, coming from Latin, German, and French, found their way into the Polish lexicon a long time ago and are well known and understood.

The following is my translation from the Polish back into English of the introductory sections, which I did without looking at the English original. Naturally, it was impossible for me to erase completely the memory of the English text, but whenever a word came to mind that was different from that found in the original, I kept it even when the difference seemed irrelevant or very minor. Even very slight lexical varations may be significant. Italics mark places that might be of special interest.

Whenever in the course of events it becomes necessary for some nation to break the political ties connecting it with another nation and to assume among the powers of the Earth the separate and equal station to which it is entitled by the laws of nature and its God, a due respect for human beliefs / convictions requires that this nation should give the reasons that forced it to separate.

We consider the following truths to be evident / obvious: that all people created are equal, that the Creator endowed them with certain inviolable rights, that these rights include life, liberty, and freedom to pursue happiness, that in order to secure these rights governments have been appointed from among people [not the people] whose powers derive from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government would make it impossible to attain these goals the nation has the right to alter or abolish such a government and appoint a new one whose foundations will be such principles and such an organization of powers as will seem to the nation the most conducive to its happiness and safety. Prudence of course will dictate that a stable government shall not be changed for light and transient causes; and experience has shown that people would rather suffer all evil that is to be suffered than straighten their paths by abolishing forms to which they are accustomed. However, when a long train of abuses and usurpations leading steadily in the same direction betrays the intention of establishing absolute and despotic power, it is the just and human right and duty to throw off such a government and create a new guard for one's own / the nation's own future safety. Such patience has been demonstrated by the Colonies, but this very necessity forces them now to alter the hitherto existing system of government.

The most striking difference between the English and Polish texts concerns the high frequency -- hence visibility -- of the word "nation" ( naród ) in the Polish text, whereas the English original uses several different words, including pronouns. The seven instances include the use of naród for (1) "one people," (2) "another [people]," (3) "them [people]," (4) "the people," and (5) "them [the people]"; in later passages naród is also used for (6) "civilized nation" and (7) "free people."

My intimation is that the word "nation" seemed much more appropriate in this context than the word "people" (Polish lud, which is related to the word ludzie -- lud means "a / the people," whereas ludzie means just "people").

The problem with "people" in Polish ( lud ) is that the more immediate and common connotation of lud is "those persons who are not nobles, not high in rank, position, etc.," that is, the common or simple people, the masses, the populace. 4The Communist authorities preferred "people" to "nation" and foregrounded it whenever possible. That is why, for instance, Communist Poland's official name was the Polish People's Republic. The word "nation" was avoided, officially because of its bad connotations (nationalism); the true reason was that to most Poles anything having to do with "nation" was associated with the idea of resistance to communism, previously to Nazi occupation, and, in the nineteenth century, to the partitioning of Poland by Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. When Poland did not exist as an independent country, the concept of "nation" acquired special meaning. During the partition, Poles fought to maintain their national identity, resisting germanization and russification by keeping up the language and old customs and traditions. The concept of "nation" was most precious, and it was chiefly the responsibility of the educated upper classes to teach the uneducated masses (the lud ) the importance of being aware of their Polishness. Hence the split between the meanings of "nation" and "the people." "The people" as an uneducated mass did not have much sense of being a unique, separate entity, a nation. They were a nation because they had leaders, educated people, chiefly of noble background, who had the necessary awareness.

The Communists, however, preferred "the people" to "nation." The class enemies were nationalist-oriented. The sense of the words "the people" was more universal and outward-directed, emphasizing solidarity with the peoples in other countries oppressed and exploited by foreign or domestic capitalists and imperialists.

Quite obviously, then, to the Polish ear the word "nation" seems more appropriate than "people" in the translation of the declaration. It avoids the bad associations with the propagandistic, ideological meaning given to "people" by the Communists; and it implies an awareness of a higher order. This is reflected in the fact that "the people" is used in the translation only when it refers to the colonists, who were only "a people" because they did not yet have a sense of being a separate, unique entity, a nation. The United States came into being when the people (the colonists) acquired that necessary awareness, their sense of identity, to become a nation and a sovereign state.

Published in an anthology of texts intended for a narrow group of students of philosophy, the Polish translation of the declaration was just a historical document. Had it been translated by, or for, the authors of the official Marxist-Leninist history of the world mentioned earlier, chances are "(the) people" would have been used more often and "nation" less.

One other difference between the two versions concerns the fact that the Polish language is not "sexist" in the way English is. We do not use "men" for "people" or "(hu)mankind." The Polish equivalent of "human" does not include "man," either -- it is ludzki and is derived from ludzie (people).

Jerzy Kutnik is associate professor of American studies in the English department at Maria Curie-Skodowska University, Lublin.

1. Andrzej Bartnicki, Krzysztof Michaek, and Izabella Rusinowa, eds., Encyklopedia Historii Stanów Zjednoczonych Ameryki: Dzieje Polityczne (od Deklaracji
Niepodlegoci do wspóczesnoci)
(An encyclopedia of American history: Political history [from the Declaration of Independence to the present]) (Warsaw, 1992). Wies aw Furmaczyk and Iwona Sawiska, eds., Myl amerykaskiego Owiecenia (American thought in the Enlightenment) (Warsaw, 1964).

2. Izabella Rusinowa, Geneza Stanów Zjednoczonych Ameryki Pónocnej (The origins of the United States of North America) (Warsaw, 1974). J. M. Zhukov et al., eds., Historia powszechna (History of the world) (10 vols., Warsaw, 1962 - 1975).

3. Gazeta Warszawska (Warsaw Gazette), Aug. 24, 1776.

4. zA. S. Hornby et al., eds., Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English (Oxford, 1992), s.v. "people."