Translating Lines

The previous post mentioned the metaphors used in translation. However, metaphors themselves can be difficult to translate. A problematic such metaphor is line. Interestingly, translation itself is often seen as ‘treading a fine line’ (balancować na cienkiej linie). Some may say that the difference between a spectacularly good translation (a very rare occurrence indeed) and an average one is an extremely fine line with only certain factors playing a vital role (for instance, cohesion, fluency and coherence).

This brings us to the metaphor itself. With the recent lustracja (vetting) debate raging in Poland, discussion of the historical reasons for the current political situation has centred around two historical events – the Round Table talks that pitted the Communists with the Solidarity Opposition and, what concerns us here, the term Gruba Kreska.

One of the first ideas that comes to mind is Terence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line based on the James Jones’ book of the same name. As we know it can refer to military units who are outnumbered holding firm against an enemy. However, this is not the term we are looking for but it is an interesting analogy to what is happening in current politics.

It is worth looking at the source of the phrase Gruba Kreska:

Przeszłość odkreślamy grubą linią. Odpowiadać będziemy jedynie za to, co uczyniliśmy, by wydobyć Polskę z obecnego stanu załamania.

Interestingly, Tadeusz Mazowiecki never used the word gruba kreska but gruba linia. His original idea – as we can see – was to divide the past from the present. German uses the useful composite Vergangenheitsbewältigung (past management) for the same concept. However, gruba kreska has changed its meaning somewhat and has now come to mean – in some political circles – the policy of not punishing the Communists for the crimes they committed.

The equivalent in common use is thick line, however, for many people this translation is simply not adequate and not entirely faithful. Yes, it is the easiest translation and a good example of one-to-one equivalence but there is some doubt about its fidelity. There is a sense that we have tried to capture smoke in a glass box: the meaning is fluid and changing but we have attempted to force it into the form thick line.

In certain contexts we could translate przeszłość odkreślamy grubą linią as:
we can draw a line to divide off the past
we can divide the past from the present
let us draw a line to strike out the past

However, the concept of gruba kreska still remains. A functional equivalent for this term may in fact not be thick line but thin line due to the fact that history has shown the ambiguity of this concept. The thick line has become a political thin line; for certain politicians there is little now to divide Mazowiecki’s camp from the post-communists. Therefore, for those who support Mazowiecki’s doctrine of responsibility for one’s own actions we might use thick line, but for those who believe he simply gave a bye to the criminal actions of the communists, we may use fine line or thin line.

In later years, Mazowiecki stated:

Starsi synowie pomagali mi także przy pisaniu pierwszego mojego wystąpienia w Sejmie z 24 sierpnia. Było w nim zdanie, że przeszłość odkreślamy grubą linią. Byliśmy w Laskach. Czytaliśmy zdanie po zdaniu. Przypomnę. “Rząd, który utworzę, nie ponosi odpowiedzialności za hipotekę, którą dziedziczy. Ma ona jednak wpływ na okoliczności, w których przychodzi nam działać. Przeszłość odkreślamy grubą linią. Odpowiadać będziemy jedynie za to, co uczyniliśmy, by wydobyć Polskę z obecnego stanu załamania”. Wojtek zapytał: “Z tą grubą linią, czy jesteś pewny, że chcesz to powiedzieć?”. “Pewny – odpowiedziałem – musi zostać”. Przestrzegł, że z tych zdań mogą wyniknąć kłopoty. Józio Duriasz też mnie przestrzegał. Powiedziałem cytatem z Ewangelii: “Com napisał – napisałem”… Przez wiele miesięcy nikt z tego akapitu nie robił żadnego problemu. Dopiero na wiosnę 1990 r. pojawiło się określenie grubej kreski, choć ja mówiłem o linii, ale to szczegół, nieważny. Gorzej, że przeinaczono jej sens i posłużono się nią w zniekształconej postaci i interpretacji do wywołania tzw. wojny na górze.

Gazeta Wyborcza 11/09/2004

This is a fine example of a term which has left its author and has taken on a life of its own.


39 thoughts on “Translating Lines

  1. That is a very intersting post because I have never thought that “Gruba kreska” may cause such a challenge in terms of translation, and after reading it I understand why it needs such a thorough consideration.

  2. hmmmm gruba kreska

    gruba = thick, or maybe bold (as in boldface?) broad? maybe even clear? I think I like this the best.

    Przeszłość odkreślamy grubą linią.

    We’re going to clearly mark off the past.

    more concise and a bit closer in some ways, but no ooomph.

    We’re going to draw a clear line between the present and the past.

    Wordier but gets the point across better IMO.

  3. This is an interesting post. However, I have never considered the term “gruba kreska” as something really hard to translate.

  4. Paweł could you provide us with your translation of the term.

    I think, that in order to understand the term properly one must read whole article to find out what the author had in mind.

    Mazowiecki used the term to distinguish past from the present,so maybe we should translate it as “draw a line between past and present”

  5. Wow, actually I did not now, that Tadeusz Mazowiecki actually said – gruba linia, not gruba kreska, which is so popular. I didn’t know that there were any problems with translation of that term. It is the matter of a good understanding and naming the term correctly, so that everybody would be able to imagine what it was.

  6. “It is the matter of a good understanding and naming the term correctly, so that everybody would be able to imagine what it was”

    This seems like the magic bullet theory applied to translation.
    In other words, the idea is if each discrete part of a text is translated ‘correctly’ then the translator has done their job and the audience will understand the translation. The problem is that language doesn’t work like that.

    Getting back to gruba linia. As I understand it, Mazowiecki was proclaiming a fresh start, a sharp break with the practices of the past. In Polish, maybe gruba works for that. .
    In the American context (I make no claims about UK usage here) what you want is a clear line that everybody can see and know where the boundary is.

    Of course, this also brings up the question of ‘improving’ the original. This figure of speech by Mazowiecki was broadly misunderstood. One question is whether this misunderstanding was benign (normal reaction to an ambiguous metaphor) or malevolent (purposeful distortion for malicious reasons) and whether the metaphor used was well-chosen or not. And that brings up the question of whether a translation should be clear and eloquent when the original is ambiguous and poorly phrased. To the last, I would generally say: no.

    All in all, I’m going to come down in favor of thick line. It’s not the best in terms of stylistics and rhetoric or naturalness but it best expresses the ambiguity of the original.

    But the tense absolutely has to be changed. Any verb that will work in this context will be telic and telic verbs and simple present combine to create a habitual (or Tarzanspeak).

    I’d say either present continuous or ‘going to’ would work better.

    And finally, the verb draw is better overall but requires a ‘between’ in this context which means you have to put extra words in his mouth between past and X (present? future?)

    Mark off is (for me) ambiguous enough. It can mean separate something from something else or to remove from consideration.

    So my final versions would be:

    “We’re marking off the past with a thick line.”
    “We’re going to mark off the past with a thick line.”

  7. Michael, “The problem is that language doesn’t work like that” – so true!
    Wonderful post (as ever), however, I would agree that “drawing a thick line” does not break any legs stylistically but it certainly does do the job.

  8. “I would agree that “drawing a thick line” does not break any legs stylistically but it certainly does do the job.”

    The problem for me is that draw then requires a preposition which causes new problems:

    draw a line through (unambiguously means stop thinking about, ignore)

    draw a line between (again, you need to add a second element not present in the original)

    p.s. You’d never guess, but I’m usually bored by translation theory. But I never tire of trying to solve the fine-grained semantic, grammatical and stylistic puzzles that come up in actual translations.

  9. I havent’t ever thought about that term, and I didn’t know the translation might be difficult. Now I can see there might be some problems…

  10. Since everybody concentrated on the “line”, I would like to focus on “Com napisał – napisałem”. What would that be in English? Due to the fact that I do not have an English Bible, I cannot check. Let me then have a wild guess… Maybe: “what I have written, I have written” or “what I wrote, I wrote” – the second one sounds awkward. What are your suggestions?

  11. If it comes to “układ” I guess any translation would do. I am a proponent of leaving terms without translating them (just providing some footnote explanation), but I believe “układ” is a word which means nothing in English and it would only confuse a reader. In order to grasp the meaning one would have to either know Polish or pick it up from the context, which I think is not the best way of conveying the message.

  12. Ignorant non-Christian question – that’s from the Bible?

    In general terms, my suggestion would be “I wrote what I wrote”. Fronting the ‘what’ clause doesn’t work in this case but don’t ask me why not…

    “What I wrote is what I wrote.” is okay but sounds a little odd in a way I can’t describe.

    It would be difficult or impossible to get the archaic sound of com napisał.

    Incidentally, I wrote a paper on that kind of construction (known very innacurately in English as ‘transposition of endings’) many years ago in the US before I knew the historical background of how the Polish past tense came about (I had figured out what must have happened diachronically but it took a while to find the materials that let me know I was right).

  13. just a note: the smiley face was not intentional on my part and if it’s disappeared I would not protest in the town square.

  14. There is also a similar phrase which indicates that something is completely finished and one will not think about it again: “to draw a line under something”. The preposition “under” might be useful here…

  15. Very interesting post :). I think I would translate the sentence “Przeszłość odkreślamy grubą linią” – we draw a line between past and present. I like also the suggestions stated above: “we can draw a line to divide off the past, we can divide the past from the present, let us draw a line to strike out the past.” They render the meaning.

  16. I would never thought that such a phrase may cause any problems with interpretation. For me it is obvious what does “gruba linia” mean so I am surprise that there were any misunderstandings with this. I like the translation “we can divide the past from the present” ( odkreślamy grubą linią) the best.

  17. To be honest, if somebody gave me a text to translate with the phrase “gruba linia” or “gruba linia”, I wouldn’t be confused about that fact. However, after reading this text I must say that I didn’t think about this matter in that way. I also didn’t think that this phrase could make such a confusion. Gosh! We have to be careful 😉

  18. the major problem in translating gruba kreska is the fact that not many people know its origins. Therefore, thick line works for them. Nevertheless, professionals tend to go deeply, search for the meaning but…their work is somehow unrecognized. What amazes me most is the German notion which embraces more than Polish “gruba kreska”.

  19. To be honest I had no idea that the terms ‘gruba kreska’ and ‘gruba linia’ have such important connotations… ‘gruba linia’ changed into ‘gruba kreska’ started to mean something completely different – when you were a ‘follower of gruba kreska’ you were accused of being in favour of communism and its crimes…. So, if you translate something like that you have make a research- but FIRST you have to know that you should do it AT ALL…

  20. I must admit that, like the majority of people, I wouldn’t expect that translation of the term “gruba kreska” or “gruba linia” is so problematic, as I didn’t know about all these connotations. I like the idea of using the word “clear” and create a phrase “a clear line”.

  21. As we can see, the research is the most important part of translation process. I didn’t know about the semantic confusion between “gruba linia” and “ gruba kreska”. My suggestion is “to draw a border”.

  22. I started wondering about the topic and here’s what I came up with: If you suggest translating ‘gruba linia’ as thick line, than ‘gruba kreska’ should be translated somewhat different, because we all know that these are not the exact words of Mazowiecki. But I don’t know how to render the phrases in English to make them sound similar and different at the same time, as both ‘linia’ and ‘kreska’ have the same equivalent in English.

  23. Forget about gruba kreska. What about ‘Com napisał – napisałem’? Now that is the problem (especially with ‘com’) How to keep it archaic? Maybe ‘I’m the one who have written thy’ 😉

  24. One way of preserving some archaic flavor would be to use an archaic verb form. There’s a fair amount of these obsolete verb forms that most native speakers recognize (and occasionally try to use) including an past participle form ‘writ’ (now used mostly as a noun in legal circles).

    “What I’ve writ I’ve written.”

    But I still think it’s better without the fronting

    “I’ve writ what I’ve written.”

    gruba linia and gruba kreska

    I would probably change something else like the (phrasal) verb. There is a whole school of translation that advises selecting your verb first.

    He said he wanted to draw a thick line between the past and present but this became associated with drawing a thick line over the past.

    Freer still:

    gruba linia – isolate the past
    gruba kreska – forget the past

  25. In order to translate well the term ‘gruba kreska’ it is neccessary to be familiar with what Tadeusz Mazowiecki said. As a result one needs to know the article very well and one should also study the elements of Polish contemporary history and politics.

  26. Yeah, Marta. It is not so difficult to open wiki and to find out that:

    “te słowa oznaczały odcięcie się pierwszego niekomunistycznego rządu od komunistycznej ciągłości władzy”

    “Linia” for me stands for something still, constant and something which joins rather than divides.

    “Kreska” like “być pod kreską” stands for something definitely separating and cutting.

  27. yes, Isabell pointed out something interesting. I am not sure if that is relevant but for me ‘linia’ sounds more, let’s say, official, whereas ‘kreska’ more casual and ‘potty’.
    And I guess it happens quite often: that people take what you said, change the meaning of your words, use them and they become more popular in that ‘new’ meaning that in the original one.
    I would choose ‘let us draw a line to strike out the past’.

      1. I think that translation of Gruba Kreska as a thick line is not appropriate. It is a worby by word translation. It does not show the meaning of this expression.

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