Krok po kroku: the joys and pitfalls of learning Polish

After living in Poland for three years, I am still looking for an answer to the question ”how can such a lovely country have such a terrifying language?”.

Polish has a reputation of being one of the most difficult languages in the world. Is this true? Well, of course it depends on a lot of things, like which other languages you know, how much effort you put into it and how much you practise what you learn. Nevertheless, I can assure you that if you, like me, grew up with a Germanic language and have no previous knowledge of Slavic languages, it is a severe shock to the system.

Before I moved here, I thought I’d learn some useful words and phrases. It took me a whole morning to memorise the word for thank you, dziekuję. Finally I made up a memory hook that worked for me: gin is a cool drink and if you say ”gin, cool, yeah” quickly whilst dropping the l in cool, you’ve got it. Phew.

That was just the start, however. Moving on to learning the numbers, I remember staring at the words dziewięćdziesiąt dziewięć (ninety nine) and thinking how – how – will this language ever make sense?

Like somebody said, "when Poland was asked 'would you like to buy a vowel?' the whole country must have stood up and yelled 'Nooo!'"

Like somebody said, “when Poland was asked ‘would you like to buy a vowel?’ the whole country must have stood up and yelled ‘Nooo!'”

Once I had settled in at work, I started taking Polish classes and this is when it got really confusing. Three different kinds of z (z, ż and ź), plus combinations like rz, dz, sz and… wait for it… szcz. Who ever thought that it was a good idea to stack consonants after each other like that? Surely it should be illegal to begin any word with szcz?

I soon realised that with ghastly words like najniebezpieczniejszych (the most dangerous), it would take more than a year to get to grips with this language. For a long time, everything seemed impossibly hard – the spelling, the grammar, the pronunciation. Spoken Polish sounded to me like a drunk wasp – bożebożeboże.

Some words refused to stick in my mind. I don’t know how many times I had to tell my head that money is pięniądze and month is miesiąc. I think I had been here a year before I realised that it was a good idea to answer tak, proszę (yes, please) when the shop assistant used the word that sounds like shotgun (szatka), because then I would get a bag for my shopping.


Yes please, any of those will do. Even the Absolut.
Image from trendyzdrowie.glamblog.pltagproste-drinki-z-wodki

As if this wasn’t enough, Polish is packed with sneaky pitfalls. There are loads of words that sound pretty much the same but have opposite meanings. So wejść is entrance, wyjść is exit. Bawić się is to have fun but obawiać się is to fear. If you say kocham cię you say I love you, but if you say kocham się you say I love myself. Give me aspirin. Or a punch bag. Or maybe some of that lovely Polish wódki.

But it gets worse. The Polish language’s famous grammatical cases means that every noun has seven different forms, depending on how it is used in a sentence. After you have learnt an innocent word like mleko (milk), you have to get used to saying z mlekiem if you want something with milk. Unfortunately these different forms are not always so easily recognisable as in the case of milk, so it often feels like you have to learn the same word seven times, or up to 14 times to cover the plural forms. At least for me, it is not at all obvious that psa, psu, psem, psie, psy, psów, psom, psami and psach are grammatical forms of pies (dog).

The grammatical cases affect all nouns, including names. In Sweden I am Anja and I am always Anja, regardless of the situation. In Poland on the other hand, I am sometimes Ani, sometimes Aniu, sometimes… oh, I don’t remember. These variations are not nicknames but rather forms ruled by grammatical conventions. Hey Poland! You can’t just change my name! (No reply.)

Jackie Chan

I know what you mean, Jackie. Image from memegenerator.netinstance38176686

Enough moaning. I’m secretly amused by the whole thing and believe it or not, I am improving, slowly but surely. I can read quite well, I can make myself understood in many situations, and if Poles speak to me very slowly and very clearly, I sometimes understand what they are trying to say. Recently, I have even had something that resembles a conversation with Polish colleagues. Krok po kroku (step by step), as my Polish teacher Beate used to say – or should that be rok po roku (year after year)?

Tempted to start learning? Honestly, it was not my intention to put anyone off. It is very rewarding when you realise that a word like szczęśliwy (happy) makes sense all of a sudden.

Here are my 3 top tips for anyone who wants to learn Polish:

  1. Adopt a positive attitude and enjoy the craziness – i.e. the opposite of what I am doing in this article.
  2. Check out Learn Real Polish, by far the best language teaching method ever. Seriously, this online program kicks the butt of any other Polish course, teacher, book or website I have come across.
  3. Find some Poles who are learning your langauge and meet up with them regularly for language exchange.

10 things translation can learn from copywriting

Since my last post, I have been busy with many things. I started a copywriting course, for example. Making my way through the course material, I am constantly struck by how almost everything is just as relevant for translators as it is for copywriters. So I thought I’d share a few tips from the course material that seem to hit the nail on the head.

1. ”Keep saying to yourself: ‘there’s always another way to write this’”

This is the best advice of all, in my view. Any text we translate has (hopefully) been optimised for another language and culture, and as all languages have their own syntax and register, translations that follow the source text too closely are bound to fall flat on their face.flat-on-face

In other words: paraphrase or stock up on plasters.

2. “Keep it simple”

Bruce-Lee-Simplicity-is-the-key-2-brillianceIf Bruce says so, it must be true. Simplify the language you are translating if it makes it easier to read/understand in your language – there is no need to follow the same sentence structure as the original. I tend to use this advice as a general guideline – whenever I’m stuck with a few different constructions and can’t make up my mind which one to use, I almost always settle for the most direct and the most simple. I don’t know if it is good advice for all language combinations, but it works for me.

3. “Take aim, you’re targeting your audience”

Take_Aim_by_artfighterJust like a copywriter is hired to rephrase and expand the instructions in the brief provided, a translator has to rethink the structure of the original text and try to express themselves in a language that sounds appealing for the target audience. We are not translating to please the original text, we are translating to please our readers.

The target audience for a translation is not necessarily the same as the target audience for the source text, and even if they share some characteristics (age, for example), there are always cultural differences to take into account.


4. “Achieve a consistent tone of voice – use a word bank” 

This one should rather go under the heading “what copywriting can learn from translation”. Most translators, and perhaps especially those with experience from working in-house at large corporations and translation agencies, are only too familiar with the highs and lows of translation CAT tools and their translation memories and termbases.

Recently I looked around on Google to see if I could find any copywriting software, but I had no luck whatsoever – something like a monolingual Trados or Wordfast, a program I could use to save my work in projects per client, which would enable me to quickly access previous texts I have done for a particular company, search for terms I have used, store useful reference material and notes. I couldn’t find anything. Is there really nothing like this available? Anyone out there who knows? If so, I would be really interested to hear about it!

5. “It’s critical to have good material to work with, because although you’re being creative you are not making anything up. You can’t polish a turd.”

This one I don’t necessarily agree with. Or – I agree that copywriters are not hired to make stuff up, and of course it helps to have good material to work with – but in reality, it seems, good material is not something that can be taken for granted. And isn’t this exactly why companies hire copywriters (and designers, and translators) – because they need somebody who can make the mess look pretty.



6. “…leave your ego at the door – your work is not going to be hanging in the Louvre.” 

mona-lisa-simpsonI have never met a translator who thinks that their work should be hanging in a museum. I have, however, met quite a few who seem unwilling to accept feedback or who take it as a personal attack. I’m not saying that it’s always easy or pleasant to receive feedback, but isn’t it really important to have a dialogue with the client to make sure that they are happy? It is their text, after all, not a timeless work of art.

7. “Communicating is more important than the rules of grammar.”

I don’t think it’s necessary to be a linguist to be a good translator. It is more important to be a good writer in the language we’re translating into, and writers are not linguists by default.

A typo is not the end of the world, and it takes more than correct grammar to create an engaging text. Not everyone will agree, I’m sure. But I think Stephen Fry would and that’s enough.

8. Headlines need to “grab attention and provoke interest”

Creating headlines is tricky, because in order to grab attention and provoke interest, they have to stand out and at the same time be informative and SEO friendly and not too long. Creating translated headlines is even harder, because they have to do all that whilst not messing with the original headline too much – and this headline may be perfect for the original audience but not for the translation’s target audience.

9. ”Increasing numbers of copywriters are based in-house teamed with a desiger or creative artworker”

This is music to my ears, and I really hope it is a trend also with translations. It is never a good idea to produce text (be it copy or translation) in isolation, without taking the visual side into consideration. When copywriters and translators are involved in the publishing process, either by cooperating with a designer or at least by making sure that they know what the final product will look like, the result has a great chance of being just that. Great.

10. Attitude to the profession

Finally – I follow a few pages about translation and a few pages about copywriting on Facebook, and find it fascinating to compare the kind of things they share. Somehow, it seems to reveal something about their general attitude to the profession.

A few things that have been shared by copywriters… (click on the images to enlarge)








…and a few things shared by translators…










I think these images speak for themselves?


The quotes are taken from the excellent course book Copywriting: Successful writing for design, advertising and marketing by Mark Shaw (highly recommended for students of copywriting and translators alike!) or from the course pack provided by the Blackford Centre for Copywriting.

Sod the source text!

When we translate marketing material, or indeed any text with a commercial interest, there is one thing that is infinitely more important than the source text: the poor bugger who is going to read the translation.

The relation between the source and target texts has been discussed to death, usually presented as variants of literal versus free translation. In the early 19th century, the German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher stated that a translator has two options: to leave the author alone and focus on the reader, or to leave the reader alone and focus on the author.

Put bluntly, sod the source text or sod the audience.


Yep that’s it, pretty much. Image from

Schleiermacher himself was a strong advocate for the latter option, to focus on the author. More recently, his views on the matter have been picked up by the eminent American-Italian translator and researcher Lawrence Venuti. Both Schleiermacher and Venuti are concerned with literary translation, and more specifically with translation to English from other languages. For Venuti, translation is a political act that should resist the common practice of Americanising vernacular works of art.

In the field of commercial translation however, there is little to gain from this method. The aim of promoting a product is hardly to render the style of the author behind the text – a copywriter is often just as anonymous as a translator. The aim is rather to engage the reader, inform them of their options and ultimately, to sell the product. As for the language-political viewpoint, translating from English into smaller languages (which constitutes the most common language direction in Europe) is, if anything, the opposite to the situation Venuti describes. Hence translation of marketing texts calls for a method that entails localising, editing, removing, adding and paraphrasing.

Merlin the lion

Not always the biggest and the best. Image from

I don’t mean that we should write about polar bears if the text is about lions. By all means, stick to the facts and respect the client’s predetermined terminology. I’m saying that we should present the lions in a way that is appealing and makes sense to the target audience. Why do we even want a translation to be identical to the original? It is not going to be read by the same people. Also, the source text is not necessarily bigger and better by default – even the most well-written copy may not work in the target culture. If somebody really is crazy enough to compare a translation with the original, segment by segment, surely the interesting thing is not how much the translation resembles the original, but how the translator has chosen to negotiate the inevitable differences between the source and target cultures.

The term transcreation is sometimes used to address what I’m talking about. There are different definitions of this concept – I’d say it refers to translations that have been adapted to work as texts in their own right and not just in relation to the original. Personally I am reluctant to use this term, perhaps because I cannot differentiate between transcreation and translation in general. I prefer to think of it as bilingual writing. Translation without an element of transcreation is a pointless activity that we hopefully can leave to Google Translate in the near future.

In my experience, human translators resort to literal translations for one of the following reasons:

  • They are under pressure to produce an insane number of words and do not have the time to think about presentation;
  • they did not quite understand the meaning of the original text (this is not always the translator’s fault);
  • they are scared to deviate from the structure of the original (in case somebody questions their interpretation, they can defend themselves by saying “but it is what the source text says”);
  • they do not have sufficient writing skills to express themselves differently.

As for machine translation programs, it is obviously futile for human translators to compete in terms of quantity – surely the only way forward is to provide value in terms of quality. After all, Google is getting pretty good at mass-producing uninspiring, ugly lions.

Ick the polar bear

Couldn’t agree more. Image from

Read more

Friedrich Schleiermacher on Wikipedia
Lawrence Venuti on Wikipedia

Oh the horror that was working at a (particular) translation agency

Once upon a time, I spent 18 months working full time as an in-house translator for a large translation agency. It is a horrifying story, albeit one with a happy ending.

image from

image from

Translators at this agency are required to pump out 3000 words – at least – every day (2400 words plus proofreading of the same number of words calculated at a speed of 25%, which corresponds to another 600 words). It was made quite clear from day one that this production rate was the minimum expected from us. One of the directors of the company insisted that at least twice the workload is possible – indeed, she was often quick to point out that she had no problem translating 5000-6000 words per day herself, in addition to running a business with nearly 300 employees in five countries.

Perhaps 3000 words per day – or 2400 words of translation plus 2400 words of proofreading per day, or any other combination at the same speed, for example 9600 words of proofreading – doesn’t sound too bad. It might have been a reasonable workload, if a working day really consisted of eight hours of uninterrupted translation. But of course that is never the case. There are meetings. Discussions. Emails. Reference material from the clients. Queries about the source text. Background research. Network problems. Plus a lot of fiddling with translation programs and their tmx files, incorrect ttx files, faulty ini files, inconsistent translation memories, online termbases, glossaries, language settings and spellcheckers.

image from

image from

Moreover, small assignments – of which there were plenty – inevitably slow down the average speed, because most translation jobs, no matter how small, involve certain steps such as reading project-specific instructions, consulting the relevant style guide, locating the relevant translation memory and glossary (with hundreds of clients and hundreds of TMs, this is not always a straightforward task – many clients have different TMs for different products, and using the wrong TM can have serious consequences). Also the smaller the job, the more surreal it may appear (establishing the relevant context you need may take as long for a small job as it does for a large job). Every professional translator knows that ”it is only 200 words” can mean anything from 30 minutes to a couple of hours, depending on the circumstances.

Of course when translations are valued only by quantity and not by quality, it makes a humungous difference to the agency if their 200-ish translators wade through 3000 or 5000 words every day. The problem with pushing the translators, many of which are very enthusiastic about their profession and want to do a good job, to constantly increase their daily output is that it kills any sense of job satisfaction. Sure, it may be possible to spit out 5000 words per day – and I understand that there has to be a balance between perfection and efficiency – but to keep up this kind of volume, most of us have to reduce the quality to a standard I’d call unacceptable.

”It is not exactly literature we’re translating”, I heard one of the directors say once. ”We are not paid to do their marketing”, was another comment. ”They don’t pay for our research, only for the words”, another senior staff member claimed. Only for the words? In that case, what is the point of having human translators? And no, it was not literary translation, but I’d say that major IT corporations’ published material, including product information, news items about the latest technological gadgets, marketing texts, legal notices and help instructions, deserve translators that have at least attempted to find the relevant meaning in the context rather than just ”words”. This takes time.

The underlying attitude reduces translators to typists and shows no respect for the texts, the projects or the clients. It is a rubbish business model.

How does this agency survive? It seemed to do extremely well, despite the economic crisis – constantly recruiting, opening new offices all over the world and often boasting about being one of the biggest players on the market.

image from

image from

There are many reasons, I think. One is that no matter how successful they claimed to be, they kept staff-related costs to an absolute minimum. Salaries were frozen and did not even increase in line with inflation, which is essentially the same as reducing everyone’s salary in line with inflation. As a translator, the only way to get a payrise was – take a wild guess – to consistently produce more than 3000 words per day over a period of time. There was no personal development. Not even the annual Christmas party was free. Needless to say, paid overtime was a rare occurrence (non-paid overtime to reach the magic 3000 word limit was, however, not unusual).

Another reason may be that many of the clients were clearly under a lot of pressure to publish the requested translations and did not have the time to care about what we gave them. Surprisingly often, the translators’ queries remained unanswered – no doubt due to lack of time on the client’s side. I guess some large companies have in-house teams who deal with the queries themselves before publishing. In other cases, inconsistencies and mistranslations simply remain published until someone points them out. I see this all the time on multilingual, localised webpages.

Finally, the companies who use this kind of agency do not know if another approach would be better for them, and whether it would affect their sales. And the process of changing established practices and finding a new provider would require a huge effort. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, eh?

Luckily, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are agencies who prioritise quality over quantity. I know that because I work for one at the moment. We don’t have in-house translators but rather employ bilingual in-house web editors who communicate directly with the clients and are in charge not just of translation but of content in general, including copywriting, images, QA, publishing and web analytics (no we are not superhumans who can do everything – we work as a team and everyone has their own area of specialisation). As we work closer to the clients and take part in the publishing process, we can produce better work which in turn make us more motivated. In short, it is a happier place.

The end.

image from

image from

On intralingual translation and how it can shed light on “translation proper”

In the influential essay ”On Linguistic Aspects of Translation”, Roman Jakobson divided translation into three types: intralingual translation (monolingual translation), interlingual translation (bilingual translation) and intersemiotic translation (translation of words into symbols). After establishing that interlingual translation is ”translation proper”, the rest of the paper focuses on translation issues specific for bilingual translation.

That was 1959. Naturally, the field of translation has gone through huge changes since then, and Jakobson’s categories have been explored and expanded by a number of different researches. One thing that seems to linger, however, is the notion that ”translation proper” is the act of translating from one language to another. This is a shame, as monolingual translation can shed light on the translation process in general.

three pints of beer and a couple of non-teetotallers

three pints of beer and a couple of non-teetotallers

Let’s revisit Jakobson’s proposals and see how he described them:

1) Intralingual translation or rewording is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs of the same language.
2) Interlingual translation or translation proper is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of some other language.
3) Intersemiotic translation or transmutation is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of nonverbal sign systems.

Note how only intralingual translation is described as a “rewording”. This is unfortunate, as it somehow implies that interlingual translation is not a rewording, which in turn reinforces the old-fashioned idea that there are exact equivalents that can replace each other in bilingual translation – i.e. as long as we manage to identify the “correct” equivalent in the target language, the translation process does not constitute a rewording. This may not be Jakobson’s intended meaning, but it is nevertheless a possible interpretation.

So what do we mean by intralingual translation and when do we use it? If somebody asks me what a teetotaller is, I will try to explain the meaning, i.e. I will translate from English to English. How I do that depends on the situation. If a child asks me, I might describe teetotallers as “people who choose not to drink alcohol”. If the question comes up at a wine tasting conference, a more formal response, like “those who abstain from intoxicating beverages”, may be more appropriate. If I want to try to be funny in a group of friends, I could claim that teetotal is the same as “unsociable” or “boring”. Etc.

And if I am asked to translate “teetotaller” into another language? Again, the answer depends: Who has requested the translation? What do we know about the target audience? Where will it be published? The actual translation does not take place on the level of individual words but in relation to the context. Hence the strategies described above are just as valid for bilingual translators, and the question is not so much whether a translation is “correct” but rather if it communicates the intended message in a suitable manner. If that does not constitute a “rewording”, I don’t know what does.

Final words: In Polish, the word for translation – tłumaczyć – also means “to explain”. I say cheers to that.

Roman Jakobson’s On Linguistic Aspects of Translation