At first glance, Polish appears relatively easy. At first... People translating between Polish and German benefit from the fact that “both languages tend toward precision and clarity”, says Antoni Godwod, a native of Warsaw and a professional translator for German and Polish for ten years. The languages spoken by the regional neighbours are indeed “translator-friendly”, he says, at least in terms of their clarity of meaning.
It’s not quite that simple, of course. “You always need to keep on your toes”, says Godwod, providing an illustrative example: „Auf ein Vorstellungsgespräch bei Ihnen freue ich mich sehr.” (I would be very pleased to attend an interview) – a classic wording used in German job applications. A direct translation of this into Polish would sound odd, the translation professional explains: “Used in this context, the words ‘to be very pleased’ sound inappropriate in Polish. Polish readers would expect more reticence.”
It takes a professional translator, well versed in the subtleties of expression, to find the right tone and to allow the entire range and force of the Polish language to unfold. Professionals like Godwod: “Although the Polish language tends to follow typical subject–verb–object constructs, it does also provide substantial freedom. One could say that Polish is an extremely malleable language in which the order of words within a sentence can emphasize certain aspects or create stylistic effects”, he explains. So translations from German to Polish also require substantial rewording in order to exploit these freedoms and to improve the accessibility of texts for their Polish audience.
There are classic pitfalls when translating between German and Polish. For instance the personal pronouns. Well-written Polish often omits them entirely. You need to develop a feel for these aspects, Godwod explains: “Inexperienced translators stumble frequently into the trap of repeating all personal pronouns in Polish. Now while this is correct grammar, it tends to produce ‘disaffected’ translations that do not read well.”
German word compositions, which feature heavily in technical texts, are another challenging aspect. This may apply even to comparatively simple constructions like ‘Insider-Tipp’ (insider tip). Neither the words nor the composition of two nouns exist in this form in Polish. Godwod: “A possible translation would be ‘osoba dobrze poinformowana’; but that is fairly unwieldy and not really suitable in some contexts.” Terms such as ‘Logistikfullfillment’ (logistical fulfilment) are even trickier and need to be ‘dismantled’ in Polish – and the result may be quite long: A reasonable translation for logistical fulfilment might be ‘obsługa zamówień logistycznych’, but more precisely it would read: ‘kompleksowa obsługa zamówień w zakresie logistyki’. And the whole shebang becomes even harder when German words consist of four nouns, for instance ‘Schienengüterverkehrsaktivitäten’ (rail freight transport operations): “You simply have to break down that kind of word in Polish, and you will need to add suitable explanatory terms”, explains Godwod.
Polish is an exciting language – with stacks of interesting influences: One example is the numerous words adapted from Italian during the 16th and 17th centuries so lots of Polish terms for types of vegetables actually possess Italian origins. Tomatoes, for example – ‘pomodori’ in Italian – are ‘pomidory’ in Polish. Polish has its complicated sides too - having seven cases compared with the German four, for example. There is also a ‘flexibility’ to grammatical standards, as shown by the innumerable diminutive forms. German turns Hund (dog) into Hündchen (little dog), while Polish has ‘pies’, ‘piesek’, ‘psiak’, ‘psiaczek’, ‘psinka’, ‘psineczka’, ‘psiunia’ – and plenty more! Translators will need a deft feel for language here. Godwod: “You can only select the right wording by carefully considering the context.”
This aspect is particularly important, as Poles attach significant importance to language – no matter whether it is used in marketing texts, financial or commercial documents or in technical materials and manuals. The father of Polish literature, Mikołaj Rey, wrote in 1562: “The peoples around us should bear in mind that Poles are not like parrots – they have their own language!” Even today, every child learns this sentence at primary school. “This suggests a certain sensitivity to language in Polish culture”, Godwod explains. So translations between German and Polish need to accommodate this tendency. As is to be expected, this is far easier said than done.
Antoni Godwod was born in Warsaw and has been a German to Polish translator for ten years.
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