In the opening scene of the book by Stephen King Duma Key, known in Poland as the Master’s Hand (which is fine), the main character talks about the life he used to have: a beautiful wife, great daughter and successful business before his truck got crushed by a crane. As a result, not only did he lose his arm, but also his company, and eventually his wife, who left him too, after 25 years of marriage. But, you know what they say, he makes a comment: shit happens. Or, as the phrase got translated into Polish: –…ale, jak to mówią, gówno chodzi po ludziach (shit visits people). Does it? Really? Can shit really visit anybody? I don’t think it can. Therefore, saying nieszczęścia chodzą po ludziach (bad things come around) would do the trick here, wouldn’t it?

What I think is that a good translation takes much more than fluency in two languages. As shown above, translating such phrases might be no easy-peasy; although some expressions appear to be everybody-knows-it-piece-of-cake, they actually are not. So, there are three ways to deal with such challenges: 1. Literal translation, the easy way out 2. Leaving the word as it is, the super extra easy way out, or 3. Using another foreign word to explain the foreign word, the beyond reason way out. Here comes a handful of examples:


In Michael Dobbs’s novel House of Cards the police finds a dead man in the public rest room with some cocaine all over his lap. Going by what he sees, the sergeant thinks of the man he was a druggie, and he comments: …is more usual to find them with a needle up their arm, but this one looks as if he did his dying swan routine on cocaine that goes in Polish: …ale ten tutaj chyba odwalił umierającego łabędzia na kokainie. Whatever the dying swan routine means in English, whether it is the solo dance in Tchaikovsky’s ballet or the feat of anthropomorphic drama performed by a perfectly healthy teenager desperate to avoid school (, the phrase has no such connotations in the Polish language. Thus,  it sounds weird, wrong, and out of place. And, it is not the only literally translated phrase in the book: in another scene, the foreign minister Woolton receives a tape, he thinks, from his voters: bunch of discontents, lobbyists, professional whingers and nutters. As he wants to listen to the tape, he asks his wife: Turn the bloody thing up, then, love. Let the fox hear the chicken, which is in Polish: niech lis posłucha kurczaka. Again, whatever the phrase in English refers to, let be it the natural disability of a fox to watch the chicken coup, or a man on the prowl for the female species, it has no such connotations in Polish. So such a phrase is purely awkward, and what to say, nothing but a miserable translation.

But, an awkward/bad/miserable translation in literature does no harm; in worst case scenario, it might raise the eyebrows every now and again, that is all. In business, however, it is a totally different story: I have recently come across a pharmaceutical flyer that informs patients about a new combination drug against hypertension that has been shown to support mortality in patients with cardiovascular disease (sprzyja umieralności pacjentów z chorobą sercowo-naczyniową). The training materials of the very same medical company explain that synergy is the ability of the group to do better than even its best penis (synergia to zdolność grupy do wyprzedzania nawet jej najlepszego członka), that disease basics are disease foundation (podstawy choroby), and szkółka ryb (school of fish, with school translated as an education institution) is given as an example of successful teamwork.


If nothing else can be done, if a translator works very hard but they can’t come up with anything, no good equivalent, so what the hell, some words have to be left as they are! And, if readers insist on knowing what the foreign word means, they can always google it or something. In the book House of Cards again, they say: Według prognozy na podstawie badania exit poll przeprowadzonego… (ITN’s exclusive exit poll forecast…). Why wasn’t sondaż powyborczy used, as it is actually a pretty accurate Polish equivalent? No idea. Like there is no answer to the question why do they in Poland, both in the book and TV show, stick to the original title instead of going by the Polish equivalent: Dom z kart? Which is actually pretty accurate and clear; not only does it refer to a game of cards, but also it emphasizes instability of power. But again, if it comes to literature, or, well, to show business, there is no harm, no rules. Can anybody explain, however, why does Gazeta Prawna, a serious newspaper use headlines such as: obowiązkowy split payment to nawet 20 mld zł więcej w budżecie (obligatory split payment of up to PLN 20 billion in the budget)? Or why is the serious psychological institution actually registered under the name of Polskie Towarzystwo Mindfulness (Polish Mindfulness Association)?


There is a new book in Polish bookstores called  Foodie w wielkim mieście (Foodie in the city). Mentioning the city in the title is a hell of a clever move – an average reader has no idea what a foodie is but at least she/he knows for sure that whatever is happening in the book, it is in NYC. And there is a little hand on the front page: Foodie (rzeczownik): osoba, która zrobi wszystko dla jedzenia.  This explanation, however, does not come from the Polish editor, no, it is just a translation of the explanation of the original title: Food Whore (n.): a person who will do anything for food. So, what has happened here is the translation of the American word food whore into the old Polish word: foodie. Yep, interesting. Where is the fear of actual Polish words come from? Doesn’t Smakosz (Polish words for foodie) w wielkim mieście sound better? Or, if there is a need to refer to the original Food Whore, what about: Kobieta kulinarnych obyczajów (Woman of Culinary Virtue)?

Whatever the case, such translations can be always done, this way or another, with more or less effort. Furthermore, some say everything can be translated. Indeed, if poems by the Polish poet Miron Bialoszewski such as Namuzowywanie – Onmusing:

Muzo (Muse)
Natchniuzo (Inspiruse)
tak (I am so)
końcówkowuję (ending for you)
z niepisaniowości (out of unwritingness)
natreść (oncontent)
mi (for me)
ości (ness)
i (and)
uzo (use)

could be translated, there is nothing untranslatable, indeed. A good translation just takes a right combination of time, effort, talent, and tools. But still, there are some challenges. Take medical puns, for example. How on earth would you translate the line: URINE: opposite of ‘you’re out. Or: Did you hear about the guy whose whole left side was cut off? He’s all right now. Or, the other way around, from Polish: Gołąb sobie idzie i grucha, a obok niego grucha (gruszka)? Anybody?




King, S (2013). Ręka mistrza. Prószyński i S-ka.

Dobbs, M. (2015) House of Cards. Bezwzględna gra o władzę. Tłumaczenie Agnieszka Sobolewska. Znak, Kraków,pis-obowiazkowy-split-payment-to-nawet-20-mld-zl-wiecej-w-budzecie.html