One of the greatest problems in our profession is in the transferal of cultural elements from one language to another. In order to highlight this fact it is worth taking a look at a specific example. The Polish noun lustracja and its verb lustrować, which are so often used nowadays especially Polish political discourse and in a modern historical context are typical of cultural terms which have no direct equivalent in, let us say, English.
Lustracja in Polish in its most general sense means examination or inspection. The verb, therefore, means to examine or inspect. However, in a political sense it means a little more than this and is directly related to the inspection and examination of individuals connected to the communist regime. Two words are often used as equivalents for the Polish lustracja. The first is lustration and the second is vetting.
Lustracja or the English lustration comes from the Latin word lustratio which means purification. This was originally a purification by ablution in water. This rite undertaken by the Ancient Romans and Greeks was almost always connected with sacrifices and other religious rituals. Lustrations were often made by people who needed purification by ‘polluting’ themselves though a criminal act. Even cities and states would undergo lustrations to cleanse themselves of crimes committed by a member of their community.
The English words lustration and lustrate do figure in contexts relating directly to post-soviet cleansing but the historical Ancient overtones and connotations in English make it a difficult equivalent. Words are generally like writhing animals and are always difficult to pin-down. The English lustration is a particularly tricky creature.
Vetting, however, seems to be more of an appropriate translational possibility due to the fact that the word often refers to inspection and evaluation through the gathering of intelligence and background checking, something often undertaken by Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance (IPN).
Translation is not a binary process where one equivalent is correct and the other is not. The same pertains to lustracja and lustrować. Two equivalents are most common: vetting and lustration, although, we can also talk of inspection and examination.
As inappropriate as the word lustration may seem it does have its advantages spawning the word lustrati which might very adequately describe the people responsible for what is commonly termed the political witch-hunt in Poland.