PiS in Translation

It is common knowledge that poor, especially word-for-word, translation occasionally causes more confusion than communication. The Internet is full of humorous examples of how a translation that is based solely on dictionary entries may produce unintelligible statements. Take the famous “I feel a train to you” sentence, a deliberate mistranslation, which, in a twisted way, makes perfect sense (at least after some reflection), but only to a Polish ear, especially with the listener aware of the fact that the original language was Polish. The reason for this is that the word pociąg may refer to “train”, but also means “attraction” or “pull” (in the sense of
a physical urge, desire or libido).

Similar mistakes are also made by those programs that supposedly do the job of translating for you. I was once told a story how the term cechy szczególne, used in a university paper, was rendered as “special guilds” by one of those “I’ll do the translation for you” resources. Since the text in question was on economics and did not deal with medieval craftsmanship, this heading would have only confused an Anglophone reader. Well, it so happens that the plural form cechy may, admittedly, come from the singular noun cech, which does mean “guild”, but may also derive from the word cecha, meaning “feature”, “trait” or “quality”. Therefore, what the original writer had had in mind was, in fact, special properties or characteristics that defined an economic phenomenon she was describing.

This example shows that mistranslation sometimes results from the ambiguity or double meaning of vocabulary. There are, however, also other legitimate reasons why a translation may not be entirely successful. It is, for instance, difficult to render the meaning of idioms in another language. When possible, we then resort to equivalent expressions in the target language. To take an example, we do not promise “the moon” in Polish, but we do promise złote góry (gold – or golden – mountains), or gruszki na wierzbie (“pears on a willow”) and thus we can, in this case, communicate the same meaning, even though we cannot use the same concepts in translation.

That kind of success is not always possible. It is a well-known platitude that translations that are very accurate tend not to sound quite natural. This belief, formulated in terms that are rather politically incorrect by today’s standards, was expressed by a French 17th century scholar and author, Gilles Ménage: translations, similarly to women, can be either faithful and ugly – or beautiful and unfaithful.

Perhaps this sentiment is behind some writers’ use of a non-literal translation of the name of one of Poland’s major political parties, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość. The party is linguistically a double whammy because, for starters, even its acronym, while sounding fairly innocent in Polish, invokes unintended physiological connotations and may provide for a good laugh amongst English speakers.

But in point of fact the name of the party is serious. In an apparent effort to achieve a familiar ring to it, some English publications have called PiS Law and Order, instead of the literal translation Law and Justice. The intention has surely been to use the recognisable fixed expression, law and order, as a linguistic device. If the name of the party were indeed law and order, the party’s message would be, well, pretty much about… law and order. In other words, we would be entitled to think that the main concern of the party would be fighting crime and enhancing citizen’s safety. That is definitely part of the party’s platform, but that is exactly that – only part of the party’s platform. The other component, included in the word sprawiedliwość, reflects its perceived mission to restore some measure of justice in Polish society.

While some Western political parties also resolve to be “tough on crime”, the other concept is, in the Polish context, equally important, as it originates in the prevalent notion that the new democratic Poland has not rectified the wrongs of the past. While the prawo component emphasizes a firm approach to criminality and has to do with the rule of law and security, the other has also to do with restitution, fairness and a more equitable distribution of resources.

It would therefore be a reduction, rather than an enhancement, of the understanding of what the party’s name and main slogan stand for if we went for a more beautiful (yet somewhat unfaithful) translation.

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