I previously have looked at some subtle issues of translating good Polish into good English:
It has a (for most of us) unpronounceable idiom meaning (variously) within arm’s reach or so close you can touch it: na wyciągnięcie ręki. In a metaphorical sense it denotes something very close, in a positive way. But one seemingly obvious idiomatic translation into English, “at arm’s length”, denotes exactly the opposite: you like it close, but not too close.
It is all too easy to write a speech in Polish using that idiom that, when translated into English by someone with superb but non-native colloquial English, gets the meaning of a key sentence completely wrong. Result? Mess.
Now under #lockdown I am pondering some proofreading work that has come my way. The issues concern the Katyn Massacre.
Here’s two Polish sentences:
W okresie II wojny światowej obawiano się rozbicia koalicji antyniemieckiej i w imię jak najszybszego zakończenia wojny postanowiono nie podejmować żadnych działań w kwestii katyńskiej. Tak było podczas procesów norymberskich i w latach powojennych.
A passing Pole opines that for today’s Poles that is rather ‘heavy’ or formal language. That’s my instinct, but my Polish is not good enough to know precisely what’s heavy and what’s reasonable/normal.
The point is that written Polish and to some degree spoken Polish love to use nouns rather than verbs as well as third-person impersonal expressions (it was feared). So a very literal translation of those sentences goes something like this:
In the framework of the second world war it was feared of the falling-apart of the anti-German coalition and in the name of the fastest possible ending of the war it was established not to undertake any activities on the Katyn question. This was likewise during the Nuremberg trials and the post-war years.
Phew. Here’s one way of translating it:
During the Second World War, it was feared that the anti-German coalition would have broken up and, in the name of bringing the war to an end as soon as possible, it was decided not to take any action on the Katyn issue. This remained the case during the Nuremberg trials and during the post-war years.
The tenses here sound odd and, again, it’s rather clunky. It also translates literally w imię as in the name of. That idiom in English sounds wrong, even if the thought is understandable.
My shot involves tough-love simplification and some compression of the thoughts by removing the third-person impersonal expressions:
During the Second World War fear that the anti-German coalition would break apart combined with the aim of ending the war as quickly as possible. The Katyn question accordingly was left unaddressed at the Nuremberg trials and thereafter.
This falls (I think) into the close enough and reads well in English category. But in this case rather more words are used in my English version than the original Polish, even though across the document as a whole I have removed some 20% of the words from the previous English version and made the text flow smoothly withal.
And so on, or as the Poles say itd.