Word of the Day - Translating Shakespeare into Polish

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Our Polish translators blog on the most challenging word(s) of the day, after taking part in A Great Feast of Languages workshop in Cologne.

Word of the Day 3: translating 'catechism' - from Falstaff's honour speech in Henry IV, part 1 - into Polish

Falstaff [...] is a rich amalgam, a world of comic ingredients", writes A.R. Humphreys in his edition of Henry IV (xli). Our task as translators was to discover the exact way in which those ingredients could be put together in Falstaff's soliloquy on honour to create in language a rare mixture that would let the actor impersonating the character fully explore the comic potential of the whole scene.

We duly opted for "catechism": our word of the day seems not to be particularly exciting at first glance, but in reality its use at the end of the passage gives the scene a great frame of reference as it sends us back to the initial request for prayers Falstaff is so reluctant to follow. It also works as the climax of the soliloquy, so its successful rendering would be crucial for the comic, but still somewhat disturbing feel of the whole passage.  

The term itself is not particularly difficult to translate, as there is a number of possible variants that can be used in Polish to talk about prayer. Still, the whole scene reads as a moment in which Falstaff and Henry grow apart: Hal builds his identity as a future ruler and as a man about to command his troops into the battle, while the laud, joking soldier becomes a major obstacle on his road to performing in that royal role. Falstaff's soliloquy that follows the exchange with the Prince seems to be motivated by the growing seriousness of Hal who is coming to an understanding of what kinghood might be about, and who therefore does not appreciate Falstaff's goofing around. Chastised for his lack of willingness to say his prayers before the fight, Falstaff engages into a monologue that reflects his anxiety over the apparent lack of favour. Mulling over the prospect of the battle and honourable death, he works his way through the religious idea of owning his prayers - and life - to God. The idea of that eternal debt leads to a sophistic reflection on the true insignificance of honour that ultimately is only a word: and this is a conclusion that allows “kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff” to regain his insolent composure.
The whole soliloquy is a rhetorical operation based on  a series of questions and answers. This particular question-negative answer pattern (going by the cool name of "antipophora") appears in Christian doctrinal manuals, i.e. catechisms. When coupled with the strong conclusion: "so ends my catechism", the whole soliloquy emerges as Falstaff's heretic parody of prayer in which he answers back the absent Prince, reinforces his own robust egotism and - in  a way - fulfills Hal's request. In order to bring out all these things, and to stress the parodist element of the speech, we needed first of all, to retain the question-and-answer form, allowing the actor to play with the increasingly eccentric "no's", and then, to find a term that would be easily recognizable, connote a prayer and which would lend itself to irony. We finally opted for "pacierz", as it is a brief, rather strong word that nowadays can be used as a generalization for a prayer of any kind.

This exercise in translating prose allowed us to consider again the inner dynamic of soliloquy, the comic potential of repetition, and, most of all, the importance of historical and cultural detail in translation (because, honestly, how many of us do know the structure of an early modern catechism?).
And yes, the Polish Falstaff is still funny. 


Word(s) of the Day 2: ‘you kiss by the book’ - the challenge of translating this phrase from Romeo and Juliet's shared sonnet into Polish 

Working on the text, we knew that this exchange is crucial in terms of establishing the relationship between the young lovers. In drama, words have a double function to perform; on the one hand, they construe the action, on the other, they build the characters. Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing characters. In this exchange, we can see that not only is she able to match Romeo’s wit, but she can beat him at his own game. She is fully aware of his intentions, and of the way he is using the convention of courtly love to woo and win her. We discovered that the phrase, “you kiss by the book” is crucial to this reading.

In our translation of the sonnet we wanted to convey the ambiguity of the phrase. We needed to find an expression that would accomplish three things: depict her growing attraction to Romeo, show her ironic distance to his promises, all the while alluding to the literary convention of sonneteering. After a long and heated discussion, we decided to use the Polish phrase: “całujesz jak z księgi” (lit. you kiss like in a book).

When we compared our version with the existing Polish translations, we discovered that some of the existing texts (i.e. Iwaszkiewicz’s and Barańczak’s) failed to retain complexity of the phrase.  The translation that we proposed, not only accomplishes that, but also provides a subtle allusion to the religious imagery that dominates the rest of the sonnet.  We thus realized that these popular translations do not do justice to the character of Juliet, established in this scene. 

 by Alexandra Kamińska and Jarek Hetman 


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Word of the Day 1: translating : 'the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to' from Hamlet's 'to be or not to be' soliloquy into Polish

Our group decided to take a very disciplined approach towards the verse rhythm, keeping closely to the original lines and working on the imagery, in order to bring to the fore the metaphorical quality of the language, rather neglected in previous Polish translations. We also chose to treat the soliloquy as a sequence of ideas coming together and worked upon in a thought process.

The phrase that we spent the most time discussing was: "the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to". It was problematic not only because we were constricted by the rhythm, but also because we felt that there was an ambiguity connected with the body that was inscribed both into the noun phase "natural shocks" and reinforced in the rest of the sentence.

We chose to contest the modern usage of the adjective "natural" as "common" or "everyday", and search for the etymology of the noun "shock" to check whether whatever is inherited by the flesh is the outcome of an influence from the outside of the body, or is innate to it. As the the word stems from the Old French for "a violent encounter" or "a blow", but is paradoxically phrased as something that forms a part of the human heritage, we went with a deliberately ambiguous "plagi" ("plagues"), which conveys a sense of something sudden and unexpected, that can be interpreted in bodily terms as a disease, but also suggests the biblical context of afflictions that come from the outside. At the same time we decided not to use the word "ciało" ("body") for "flesh" and to read it in more general terms, as a "human being". The whole reads in Polish "setki plag, które dziedziczy człowiek" ("hundreds of plagues that a/the human being inherits"): a very simple, but strong coda in the argument developed in the sentence.

 by Anna Kowalcze-Pawlik


Read the Romanian translators' blog here.

Read the German translators' blog here.

The bloggers are taking part in A Great Feast of Languages workshop in Cologne. A Great Feast of Languages is a year-long international focus on translating Shakespeare for performance, involving a series of translation workshop programmes and a chain of public panel discussions between British and international translators, writers, academics and practitioners. Find out more below.

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