Cultural Equivalents

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.

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21 Responses to “Cultural Equivalents”

  1. sssylwiaaa Says:

    I think that cultural words are hard to translate and very often it is not possible to do that, so someone who wants to be a translator has a really hard job to do. If u want to be a good translator u have to know very good both of the cultures and then try to do everything to translate all your cultural words the best u can!

  2. transubstantiation Says:

    Fine, but what happens when certain cultural concepts simply do not exist in the other language?

  3. olga Says:

    Cultural items are always a very hard task for the translator. Each culture has it specific features that determine the uniqueness of the given culture. Finding a good equivalent is often impossible and also it may cause lots of misunderstandings (unfortunately). The word ‘bigos’ is the obvious one for Poles but when we translate it as ‘kind of cabbage dish’ it won’t have the same meaning though.

  4. transubstantiation Says:

    with the influx of so many Poland to England the word ‘bigos’ as well as ‘kielbasa’ and ‘pierogi’ are slowly becoming recognised. Perhaps one day they will be as common as naan bread, samosa and curry.

  5. Inez Says:

    You are discussing here English equivalents of Polish words and the difficulty to find the most appropriate of them, but I would like to express my regrets that words from other cultures and existing in other languages mustn’t be translated such as sushi, for example, and anybody doesn’t sugar to find their eqivalents.It’s injustice of some kind, I must admit.Our pierogi and bigos are conquered by sushi, maybe because sushi is more popular than our dishes… Fortunately, kielbasa couldn’t be translated, because this word exists in American and English minds.

  6. transubstantiation Says:

    But what is the point you are trying to make? That sushi is more popular than kielbasa or that certain terms cannot be translated? The job of the translator is simply to communicate reality and life (move it from one culture to the other) and so the popularity of kielbasa/sushi/bigos etc is not really an issue and SHOULD NOT be an issue. Obviously the popularity of a product or concept makes ripples in the foreign culture to the extent that it can be absorbed and used by the new culture – for instance kielbasa and sushi.

  7. Inez Says:

    It’s simple.When some dish, meal or specific item connected with specific culture is known abroad under its original name, then a translator doesn’t have any work, because he doesn’t have to search for an equivalent for this word. I see that you understood what I have meant ,and you’ve expressed it in the last sentence quite similarly as I did in my post.

  8. Inez Says:

    It occurred to me that translating is somehow political issue.Let’s take ‘tortilla’ – we use in Poland this original form and everybody is happy; I can’t imagine talking ‘ kukurydziany talerzyk’ or something like that. Maybe no translator was thinking about us(the Poles) introducing this dainty to Poland under its original name, but while talking about the Americans we nearly create the obsession – idee fixe so that the Americans won’t feel offended that they don’t know what the ‘bigos’ is ,and we cudgel our brains on the inventing the equivalent satisfying them.

  9. transubstantiation Says:

    The reponsibility of ‘inventing’ always lies with the foreign culture rarely with the native culture therefore there is no need to worry about ‘cudgeling our brains’ on how to look for appropriate bigos- or gołąbki-like equivalents.

  10. Inez Says:

    IT would be logical if the inventors(producers) created the name of their inventions understood by the targets of other cultures before sending them in order to receive maximal gain. Noone likes eating something he doesn’t have idea about. Denomination=ingredients= to be or not to be.By the way ‘tortilla’ is surely popular in Poland though its name doesn’t sound Polish.

  11. Inez Says:

    A propos, maybe you know the Polish eqivalent of ‘a sharing session’ and ‘a sharing circle’… These two notions are associated with a domain of psychology.

  12. transubstantiation Says:

    Sharing session – a difficult one and it will no doubt be found quite easily in a decent modern Polish psychological book.

  13. Magdalena Gołoś Says:

    I agree that it is very difficult to transfer cultural elements from one language into another. This is probably the most problematic aspect of this profession (and that’s why many students decide to devote their B.A. or M.A. thesis to this subject). The situation of transfering cultural elements from the SL to the TL is the situation of making important decisions. We’ve got to decide which word of the TL can function as an equivalent of the original word, which one will render the meaning of the original word. And here an extremely important thing is to posses the knowledge of both , the SL culture and the TL culture. Sometimes the situation is easy, when the original word is known all over the world and there’s no need to translate it. But unfortunately very often, especially when speaking about the Polish culture as the SL culture, no equivalents of the original word can be found. Then it is a very difficult task for the translator not to make a huge mistake by using inappropriate word which may confuse the readers.

  14. Inez Says:

    In my opinion there is no need to look for equivalent of culture notion. If a culture notion is to stay a specific culture notion, then ‘pierogi’,’bigos’ or ‘tortilla’ should be unchanged.If translators preserve the original form of names and Polish Małgosia doesn’t morph into Margaret, then the above-mentioned goodies can also be as they are.It was said that a translator should be faithful to the original, and when the original contains ‘pierogi’, it means that it evokes the Polish mood, atmosphere, affair, so being faithful means preserving this original form at every level( phonetic, spelling, etc.). Maybe translators feel frustrated that they only put SOMEBODY ELSE’S thoughts in the copy version and they want to prove their innovativeness and inventiveness, treating translating as a kind of riddle, puzzle, brain exercise, striving to change every word they meet into THEIR OWN version.Let ‘croissants’ be ‘croissants’, not ‘francuskie półksiężyce’ and not try to show off…

  15. transubstantiation Says:

    in reply to Magdalena:

    Decision is of course important for all aspects of translation, from the letter to the word, to the phrase, to the sentence and upwards. The point is to avoid these ‘inappropriate’ words by simply being good at what we do.

  16. transubstantiation Says:

    in reply to Inez:

    We must ALWAYS look for cultural equivalents – our world is made up of cultural equivalents, morphs, mutations and organic melds. That is what makes all languages so rich and beautiful. Many of the words, expressions, idioms we use today are concepts taken from other languages and put into our own. What happens with the language is NOT decided by translators but decided by the users of the language. If British people decide to use another word for “bigos” (for example, Polish “sauerkraut”) then it’s entirely their choice. No one will ever consider the ‘Polish mood’ of the expression. And frankly, no one will care.
    Yes, certain ‘moods’ DO have to be retained in certain translations, but it is dangerous making black and white suggestions that this way or that way forward is the only way.

  17. Kasia D. Says:

    The differences between cultures always cause many problems. Firstly, we have to know the target culture very well in order to adjust the text to it. We need to be very careful while looking for equivalents. But what to do if there are no equivalents, if the term or particular situation will not be comprehended by the target readers? We have to make decision whether to omit such a concept or to look for a similar or corresponding one. DIIFICULT task!

  18. transubstantiation Says:

    The question how is it possible to ‘get to know’ a target culture is one is not from that particular culture?

  19. Cultural Anomalies - Part II « transubstantiation Says:

    […] even bother to translate it. In fact, the same can be said of lustracja (mentioned in a previous post) which is translated in the same article literally as “lustration”. Uklad can mean […]

  20. Madzik Says:

    Please, don’t remind me about this test ;/ However, I found it really interesting (probably more for you than for me) I haven’t thought of such words like “lustracja” earlier. Maybe because there was no such need. Now I started to look at other words that are very common now and which have no “good” equivalents in English. However, I am not always sure whether certain word “will do” and that’s the problem. New words are very problematic, unfortunately. But hey, aren’t we here for dealing with it? 😛

  21. transubstantiation Says:

    Madzik – what test? You probably have the adminstrators of this blog confused with someone else.


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