I may have mentioned once or twice before that Poles are immensely proud of their language. To the casual observer it’s by no means obvious why this should be so; nobody else in the world speaks it and those hapless fools who try often end up with bent vocal apparatus. It turns out that these two facts are among the very reasons that Poles are proud of their language.
It’s only comparatively recently that Poles have found themselves free, independent and at liberty to argue volubly with each other about case endings and imperfective verbs. For centuries the Polish desire to engage in fist fights over points of grammar was severely hampered by occupiers who weren’t sure they wanted Poles speaking Polish at all, let alone arguing about it. There is evidence to suggest that the partition of Poland by neighboring powers was actually an attempt by Germany, Austria, and Russia to get some peace after having been kept awake for two centuries by an argument over irregularities in the verb być.* And when I say “there is evidence to suggest” I mean it wouldn’t surprise me.
There is one particular word in Polish around which the patriotic glow is particularly fierce. Engage a Polish person in discussion about their language for long enough and the following exchange will certainly take place.
Pole: Of course, the verb kombinować cannot be translated into any other language.
You: Oh really? What does it mean?
Pole: I cannot tell you because, you see, the verb kombinować cannot be translated into any other language.
You: I see.
Pole: Yes. I read it on the internet.
Unfortunately, like most myths about Poland, this turns out to be complete nonsense. In fact kombinować exists because Polish has a severe paucity of verbs referring to activities that have become popular since the 16th century. It’s a catch-all term for a range of activities involving the circumnavigation of laws, rules, or normal procedures. Where in English you might use botch, fiddle, swindle, cook, plot, rig, fix, doctor, hoax, con, bilk, dodge or even invent, in Polish you just use kombinować.
Me: Why are you swapping your number plate with your neighbor.
Pole: It’s a kind of kombinować, you wouldn’t understand.
Me: Okay. What are we having for lunch?
Pole: I don’t know, we will kombinować something.
Me: Sounds good. Do I have to eat number plates?
There’s a world of difference between a word that cannot be translated because it refers to a very specific object or set of circumstances and a word that refers to a set of activities that have numerous possible descriptions in other languages. Kombinować is in the second category. The truth is that kombinować is easily translated in context. It can’t be translated in general because it lacks clarity.
If you need me I’ll be hiding out in a very deep, very flameproof bunker.
*Być, in case you’ve never heard of it, is the Polish verb ‘to be’ and is pronounced exactly like bitch in English. This leads to endless amusement for English speakers since the popular phrase może być, meaning it can be or colloquially something like yes, that’s okay, is easily half-translated into English as it could be a bitch, which is true nine times out of ten.
“We have received your money but we can’t connect you to the internet until some time in 2015. Może być?”
“Yes. Może być”