Meaning Transfer

Different languages use different ways to describe the same object. This is one of the fundamentals posited by Ferdinand de Saussure. What Poles call grzyb, English speakers call mushroom. Two different sounds for the same object.

The process of translation becomes interesting when there is more to the object than a simple word. Let us take, for example, the English word capital to mean the ‘head city of a country’. The word derives from the Latin capitalis (of the head) from caput (head). In Polish, however, we have stolica. We can also talk about capital punishment in English (i.e. off with the head) which in Polish is simply kara śmierci.

The more knowledge the translator has about a word, the more accurate the translation. In the above example, we have a metaphorical extension of the Latin word caput which has then been borrowed into English whereas in Polish we do not. The reverse could also be true where a word has metaphorical roots in Polish but not in English. A wonderful example is the Polish (słone) paluszki which might roughly be translated as salty sticks (never fingers!).

Body parts commonly lend themselves to metaphorical use, but again, it is not the simplest words that make for the more interesting work for the translator but rather the more complicated. Metaphors and tranferrals of meaning are not straightforward and require a little more thought. For instance, in English we speak of a plastic sleeve used in the office. The inexperienced translator may render this as plastikowy rękaw. The correct equivalent would, of course, be plastikowa koszulka which, in turn, could not be translated into English as plastic shirt.


12 thoughts on “Meaning Transfer

  1. Commemorating today date and refering to the topic at the same time: what about English word for Warszawa? It is Warsaw, so it is the city that “saw a war” (War saw)? Far-fetched as it may be, still there is something true about it!

  2. 🙂 yeah yeah, I know, I know, it is just my fantasy; I like playing with the words. And I’m happy to notice that not only me, but generally Polish society. While I was waiting for my turn to buy a ticket, I was reading some information at PKP board that MPs (the word in Polish was exactly ‘posły’)were served first. However, somebody took ‘p’ and it is ‘osły’ now which means ‘donkeys’ in English :-))))) again there is a little true in it, isn’t it:-))).

  3. ‘me speaks Polish’ 🙂 It was ‘posłów na sejm’ without ‘p’ ‘osłów na sejm’. Just a little faux pas ;-). Anyway it still means ‘donkeys’, so sense does not change and Cicero would forgive me :-).

  4. Coming back to the capital example, we do have Polish word ‘dekapitacja’ (beheading), not that far from the English one ‘capital punishment’. And then, there is another Polish word ‘kaput’ (finished), both of the words carrying a burden of fatality, so to say.

  5. It is hard to do some translations,however, we should still remember that we cannot translate word for word. The example with “the plastic sleeve” shows us that word for word translations is totally not appropriate. It is obvious that translating this to “plastikowy rękaw” is incorrect.However, the truth is that every single word will have different conotations and different undertone.

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