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Eight Polish-to-English translation errors that are ruining my life

I know there are good Polish-to-English translators out there because I’ve read Kapuściński in English and thoroughly enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I never seem to get to work with them. I spend an alarming amount of my time these days earning a crust on the ‘proofreading’* circuit and I’m developing a complex of neuroses any Viennese hysteric would be proud of. My imaginary analyst told me to write a post about it as a catharsis.

I’m not talking about amateurs here, or at least not people who admit to being amateurs. These are certified translators working full time for translations agencies. It’s not a pleasant experience receiving texts from some of these characters. I often find myself having read half a page of undeniably English words without having gained any accompanying sense of what they were about. The plan seems to be to replace all the Polish words with English ones that have roughly the same meaning and leave it at that. This is, admittedly, a step in the right direction but it hardly amounts to a translation. From this, apparently random, assemblage I am expected to mine perfect English prose at a rate of an eighth of a pittance per 1,800 characters (including spaces, which, fortunately, are the same in Polish as the are in English).

Here is my top-eight hit list:

My organism

As in: Mountain air is good for your organism.

I do not have an organism and neither do any other English-speaking people. I’m no scientist but I’m pretty sure an organism is something unpleasant that lives in your shower drain. I’m not prepared to encourage these things with mountain air, daily exercise or fresh fruit.

The word you are looking for is ‘body’ or, possibly, ‘health.’ I know it’s a false friend and I don’t care. Spotting false friends should be on day one of the translator’s course; in the morning before people get sleepy after lunch.

Our offer

As in: Our offer is rubber tyres and rubber tyre servicing.

Your offer sucks. I think what you mean is ‘Our goods and services include…’ or ‘We sell…’ This is a favourite** on Polish website translations. Don’t do it. English-speaking readers think you are about to make an indecent proposal. Yes, it is another false friend and no, I don’t care.

One

As in: One must visit Club 99 is one wants to experience the hottest in Polish nite life.

You are not Charles Dickens and this is not 1874. ‘One’ went out with the ark, as it were. You might, just, at a massive stretch get away with it in a pompous legal document (in fact, no), but in any other context it looks absurd. It’s archaic is what I’m trying to say. Apparently Polish translation schools are still teaching from Bishop Lowth’s Ye Shorte Introduction to English Grammar (1762).

The word is ‘you,’ and if you capitalise it I will personally come round to your house and prise out your caps key with your severed index finger. Old people may quibble with this but they are wrong.

Never, on any occasion or event whatsoever, use in the vicinity of at least three times as many words as you, effectively, need for you purposes, all things considered and respectively.

As in: ibid

People tell me that Polish has less words than English. This may be why Polish translators feel the need to use at least twice as many words as strictly necessary when putting together documents for me to read—they just become word happy. My advice is this: once you’ve finished turning all the Polish words into English words go back and delete at least half of them, it doesn’t particularly matter which half since most of what you’ve written doesn’t make any sense anyway, at least there will be less of it for me to worry about.

Commas, are, not, compulsory

As in: When, you are translating, and it is quite late in the evening, save yourself a lot of time, by not using commas.

Commas serve almost no purpose in English. They are annoying little squiggles that people feel they should use without any clear idea of when or how. I’ve been an editor and writer for 15 years and this is when I use commas:

1) Lists: “London, Birmingham, and Bristol are cities in England.” (Americans have slightly different rules).
2) Conditionals: “If I were a rich man, ya ha deedle deedle bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.”
3) Genuine parenthesis: “The gun, which he had picked up earlier, was loaded.”
4) Before ‘which’: ibid
5) Some other times.
That’s it.

If you’ve used more than two commas in a sentence, you’ve almost certainly got it wrong, probably because you’ve got the word order upside-down (see below).

Sentences the wrong way round, do not write.

As in: Sentence above that is, is a perfect example.

Teachers of Polish make a big play of the idea that Polish sentences can be written in any order. There is some woman called Ala and her cat to prove it, which always sounded a bit suspicious to me since I’ve never met anyone called Ala. Apparently this makes the whole thing ‘easier.’ The entire performance is a ploy to distract you from the fact that every single element in the sentence may have seventeen possible endings depending on the phase of the moon or the colour of your trousers. The order in which you put these protean monstrosities is the last thing on your mind.

Whatever order Polish people choose to write their sentences in turns out to always be the wrong one when that sentence is transposed into English. I believe this to be a trans-linguistic proof of Sod’s Law, or a proof that the whole sentence-in-any-order propaganda is blown.

I have a certain amount of sympathy with translators over this one. Correct word order in English is about as forgiving as a ten-thousand foot dive into wet concrete. My advice on this point is closely connected with my advice on commas: if you find you need more than one parenthetic clause, you’ve almost certainly got it wrong. Rewrite the sentence the other way around and save yourself a lot of pain.

X is not equal to Y

As in: My height is equal to 1.8 centimetres or The trees were the colour of green

Thanks to Michael Dembinski for pointing out that this particular error is known as a pleonasm, a word I once knew but have long forgotten. It means saying the same thing twice and is, therefore, a species of tautology. I speak Polish badly at an intermediate level so I have no idea which circle of Polish grammar hell this originates from but if you could stop doing it, I would be very grateful.

Opportunities are possible

As in: You have the possibility to sample our fine wines.

Nine times out of ten the word you want is ‘opportunity’ or, more likely, ‘can’ as in: “You will have the opportunity to sample…” or “You can sample…” This one crops up all the time, for reasons unknown.

*Proofreading is, as the name implies, the reading of proofs. Proofs used to be the final stage of a manuscript before it went to the printer (in those days it was a film negative, hence the co-terminology). Proofreading involves finding spelling mistakes or typos that have crept in during the editorial process. Turning nonsensical text into good English is not proofreading, it is copy editing and, in most civilised countries, commands a respectable salary.

** I have a new computer that recognises British English, so I’m going back to it.

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