Polish localisation issues - KeyCheck Translation Blog

Polish localisation issues (post-conference thoughts)

Polish localisation issues - KeyCheck Translation BlogHappy Valentine’s Day! After a number of hectic weeks (and in anticipation that the next few will be just as busy), I am back to my post-conference thoughts series and today my focus is on one main reason why localisation from English into Polish can present the translator with a number of  potential issues, to which she needs to find individual solutions. Here I shall only give one example of such an issue and my own solution to it.

This post is inspired by  Wojtek Cyprys of Google and his presentation on “Internationalisation errors in program localisation” [“Błędy internacjonalizacji w tłumaczeniach oprogramowania”] at the conference in Warsaw back in October 2012 (or you can see my previous posts on post-conference thoughts, time and task management, the phenomenon of Ponglish and European translation quality standards). Let’s crack on!

Localising English source texts into Polish can be a source of incredible frustration. Many European languages have many grammatical cases (Greek has 5, Finnish has 15, while Hungarian has 29 [sic!]). In Polish there are 7 cases. That is, some parts of speech (nouns, pronouns, adjectives and numerals) undergo declension. Using the Wikipedia definition of declension:

In linguistics, declension is the inflection of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and articles to indicate number (at least singular and plural), case (nominative or subjective, genitive or possessive, etc.), and gender. A declension is also a group of nouns that follow a particular pattern of inflection.

In short, this means that depending on where a word is in a sentence, its form changes. A good example of this in English would be the pronoun “who”. Depending on its function (meaning), it can take the form “who”, “whom” or “whose”. (A Wikipedia article on that is here). It is clear that the stem is “who-” and the suffix can be empty, “-m” or “-se”.

“Who” is an unusual word in English, as its origins are in Old English and the forms “whom” and “whose” are derived from their Old English dative and genitive forms respectively. Something similar happens to those Polish words that undergo declension.

The seven cases in Polish, with examples of use, are as follows (their main parts, or roots, are in italics and their endings, or suffixes, are in bold italics):

  1. Nominative: Ten pies jest brązowy. (This dog is brown.)
  2. Genitive: Nie ma tego brązowego psa. (This brown dog isn’t [here].)
  3. Dative: Przyglądam się temu brązowemu psu. (I observe this brown dog.)
  4. Accusative: Widzę tego brązowego psa. (I see this brown dog.)
  5. Instrumental: Idę z tym brązowym psem. (I go with this brown dog.)
  6. Locative: Mówię o tym brązowym psie. (I talk about this brown dog.)
  7. Vocative: Ty brązowy psie! (You brown dog!)

These sample sentences show that roots don’t always stay in the same form (this is due to constant language evolution and in the case of piespsa [“dog” – “of dog”] the loss of “i” or “ie” from the root in the nominative is due to the reduction of the halfvowel “yer” in Polish, so that in psa‘s case it would have been written pьsa but this no longer is the case. Similarly, the root te- in the word ten [this] changes into ty- in the instrumental and the locative.

Whilst this may seem pretty technical from an average English speaker’s point of view, its consequences can be pretty dire in localisation.

An example of an issue I once faced was during an attempt to localise dynamic content, that is, online ads which use placeholders. (When I talk about ads, I mean the text and links you see on the right and sometimes on the very top of your search results when you type into Google a popular search query, e.g. “hotels in Warsaw” or “car hire in London”.)

So I was working on this hostel booking website, which used this kind of placeholders in sentences:

“[Our awesome company] lets you book your {PLACE YOU WERE LOOKING FOR} hostel with no booking fee.”

So if you searched for “hostels Gdansk”, the text you would see would be:

“[Our awesome company] lets you book your Gdansk hostel with no booking fee.”

In other words, the placeholder here is the text in { } brackets, which is replaced by what you were looking for. This way, you believe that this company can provide you with exactly what you were looking for. Clever, eh?

But hard to localise. The exact form you typed into the search box must be preserved: so the noun in the nominative “Gdansk”, not the adjective in the nominative “gdański” (because “Gdansk” in “Gdansk hostel” is actually an adjective, not a noun).

The alternative would be to work with “hostel in Gdansk”, because there “Gdansk” is actually a noun. But then the case in Polish is wrong! The Polish for “in Gdansk” (“w Gdańsku”) requires the locative case, so another solution needs to be found, which would allow us to use the noun in the nominative. The solution that I came up with is:

“[Our awesome company] lets you book your hostel in the town of {PLACE YOU WERE LOOKING FOR} with no booking fee.”

This would appear to you as:

“[Our awesome company] lets you book your hostel in the town of Gdansk with no booking fee.”

Whilst it may be a bit clumsy (both in English and in Polish), it does the trick, as in the phrase “the town of {town name}”, the town name always remains in the nominative. So even in the locative, the declination of “miasto Gdańsk” is “mieście Gdańsk” – job done!

This is just one example of an issue that the translator might have to face and solve when doing Polish localisation. It may seem trivial but believe me, it’s not. For commands, any type of text boxes or places where the text should accommodate both singular and plural, placed in different parts of a sentence – it can be really hard work and require the use of brains and some understanding on the part of the author of the original. Not a bad thing but not always easily done!

What are you experiences of localisation into your target language? What sort of problems do you have to solve? Please share your comments!

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