Polish Language Blog

Reading in Polish – translations or “native” books? Posted by on Jan 9, 2010 in Uncategorized

It’s styczeń (January) now, dziewiąty (ninth) to be exact. Do you know where your postanowienia noworoczne (New Year’s resolutions) are?

Mine have already been claimed by the vicious vortex known as “real life.”

But maybe I should lead by example and come clean regarding my 2009 resolutions. Which were… Yeah, what were they? Ah yes! Czytać więcej książek po polsku – to read more books in Polish. Well, what I should have said was – “przeczytać przynajmniej jedną książkę po polsku” – to read (and actually finish) at least ONE book in Polish.

I don’t know whether it’s my fault that I failed, or whether the books I picked were really that boring that reading them was a form of torture. In retrospect, I should have stuck to the classics. But even when I had “Krzyżacy” already in my hand, watching the film proved just so much easier, not to mention – convenient, because it was being shown on TV right around that time.

I’m not going to list here the contemporary Polish writers whose books I attempted to read, because for all I know their works might be delightful to somebody else, and I don’t want to label them unfairly as coma-inducing.

As a last ditch effort I thought that reading something by my favorite author might fulfill my one book quota in Polish. And I didn’t even care anymore that the book was actually a translation from English. I dug up my copies of “Łups” (“Thud!”) and “Bogowie, honor, Ankh-Morpork” (“Jingo”) and valiantly plunged in.

Yes, I am a huge Terry Pratchett and Discworld fan. And I thought that by reading something that I already know and enjoy, it might make the experience that much more pleasurable. And as much as I would like to say that it was so, I can’t. I gave up on the Polish translations very quickly.

Now, please don’t get me wrong. Those were both very good translations. The translator, Piotr Cholewa did a fabulous job. But unfortunately, he’s not Terry Pratchett and a translation is and will always be just that – a translation.

And that brings me to today’s question. You see, I’ve always advocated reading books in the language you are learning. And I’ve always thought that reading translations of books that you already know might be easier and more fun. I’ve done it myself in a couple of different languages and it seemed to work fine. Until I tried to read Świat Dysku (Discworld) novels. Which leads me to believe that maybe I was wrong all along. Maybe sticking to books written by native speakers in their native languages is a better idea.

What do you think? Are translations OK, or is it better to go the whole nine yards and instead of Polish versions of foreign books take the “sink or swim” approach and pick up a 100% “native” work?

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  1. Jake:

    Agatha Christie and other murder mystery type books are excellent for reading in another language, even for new language learners (esp if they’ve read the original). Plots tend to be comprehensible, slang kept to a minimum, and untranslateable humour absent.

    I tried Discworld in German once – had exactly the same problem; too much of the humor is language-based, and invented concepts aren’t translateable.

  2. Richard Mitchell:


    I believe that literature written by native speakers is the first and best choice for reading material in another language, especially in a language that one is learning. My first choice would be from Nobel Prize (literature) winners and then famous writers across history. To me it would be sad if someone is learning Polish and never hears about Adam Mickiewicz, a classic Polish poet!

    Here are Nobel Prize laureates who wrote in Polish (I hope I have not missed anyone):

    1996 – Wislawa Szymborska
    1980 – Czeslaw Milosz
    1924 – Wladyslaw Stanislaw Reymont (pen-name of Rejment)
    1905 – Henryk Sienkiewicz

    (I do not include the 1978 Nobel Prize winner as a Polish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was born in Poland, but wrote in Yiddish.)

    I am sure there are other historic and contemporary Polish writers who can be added to a “must read” list. To me good literature reflects the language and culture of the country in which it was produced. A lot of such literature has been translated into English. Reading an English translation along with the original Polish is a great learning tool.

    Richard Mitchell of Huntley, IL

  3. Maria Kuczborska:

    During my university studies I was asked by my French literature professor why I decided to choose that subject (we had Russian, English, German or Italian literature to choose from). I told him my choice was motivated by two factors: 1. in my opinion, French literature was the mother of European literature so I was interested in knowing it, and 2. I enjoyed reading it immensely.
    Since I didn’t know the language I read French books which were mostly translated by the King of Polish translators, Tadeusz Boy-Zelenski.
    My professor told me “French literature was very lucky to be translated into Polish by Boy-Zelenski. Not only are his books equal to the originals, but some are even better”.
    So to be a good literature translator is not only about translation. It is equally about the art of writing. Some translators are artists, some are not.
    Boy translated well over 100 classics of French Literature, which have since been considered among the best translations of foreign literature into Polish.

  4. inda:

    The first book I have read entirely in Polish was also Agatha Christie. It doesn’t matter if you miss some metaphores, or you are not sure whether the person replied, answered or responded, but you understand more or less what he said and you can follow the story.

  5. Basia:

    Hi Anna:
    I went to our local library last night to pick up a Polish grammar book that I had placed on reserve (Dana Bielec). I wandered over to the Polish section (which is quite small in this particular branch) and found a couple books by Monika Szwaja that looked promising. Szwaja’s style is quite light and breezy and is rich in contemporary dialogue. I quite enjoyed Szwaja’s first novel “Jestem nudziara”, so I thought I would give these books a try. As I was scanning the titles on the shelf, I found myself unconsciously dismissing translations and looking for something a little more “authentic”. Can’t really explain why, I just seem to have a bias to reading Polish authors if possible.

  6. malcolm rutter:

    I make a point of trying to read books that have been translated into my target language. I do this for the most cynical of reasons: Unless the book is worth the publisher spending money on, translations jobs are given to people who are paid for results, and not paid very much (I’ve done it). As a result, the vocabulary and grammar are simple and economical (perhaps this is a good example for authors too!)
    The humour in Pratchett lies in his turn of phrase, and I take your word for it that it is difficult for a translator to do him justice. I myself simply read unpretentious gripping stories, which serves my purpose. I need an undemanding page-turner that will motivate me to finish it.
    I have occasionally read or tried to read a novel which is not a translation, but I found it hard work by comparison. Eventually I may be experienced enough to read other languages fluently, but I’m certainly not there yet!

    Regards – m.