Vexing Redux for Magazyn Wino

I’m pleased to report that another piece of my writing has been deemed fit for consumption. Click on the photos for proof, and do read the magazine article if it’s something you might find interesting. As for this post—keep in mind it will be about language and writing. Be warned, though: most questions ahead don’t get answered.

In the early days of this blog I featured a post about ghee that combined the alimentary with the personal. Years later, tasked with my fourth culinary essay for Poland’s premier wine culture monthly, I decided to revisit the theme, now in a more editorial context, in Polish. I expected the writing to come swiftly and painlessly, with many of the sentences or even entire sections a direct or approximate translation of the original. But instead of enjoying a shortcut, I wound up neck-deep in a detour—unable, for reasons unknown, to translate my own phrases, and just as unable to follow even a partial outline of the English text.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a uniquely balanced bilingual, in equal parts wary of translation and convinced of my talent for it. In graduate school I gravitated toward areas of linguistics that best informed this apparent contradiction, discovering in comparative semantics (at all levels of analysis, from discourse to morphology) a treasure map to the ways meaning is separate from language yet dependent on it, and how each is formed in the mind. My curiosity was both intellectual and deeply personal, each discovery bringing me closer not just to my master’s degree, but also to understanding my own life with two languages.

Naturally, casting myself as protagonist in my research was as doomed as it sounds. No amount of insight into the observer’s paradox could make up for my lack of interest in unbiased research, and I wound up straying far from the academic path. Fortunately, my ersatz career has permitted me to keep groping at language on my own terms, and the bilingual experience remains a tool in my work and a daily source of inspiration and pleasure.

Most of the time, I’m charmed—with the way there’s no way to say blue in the Slavic languages (you have to narrow the semantic field to light or dark blue, or use multiple words to transmit the more general meaning), or the ways I stubbornly deploy the historical past perfect (czas zaprzeszły) when speaking Polish, itching to make one grammar clear with regard to a distinction I recognize in another. Sometimes, I’m annoyed, typically with translations that exhibit the wrong trade-offs between literal and contextual aspects of meaning. Here, the title of Lena Andersson’s excellent Wilful Disregard comes to mind: not the English one, which conveys the Swedish original’s exact meaning and, just as importantly, glosses desperation in the heroine’s scholarly argot; my criticism is for the Polish Bez Opamiętania (roughly with abandon or without control), a banality devoid of the pretension that so cleverly informs the original. Occasionally, I am also irked by the ways people misuse or misinterpret borrowed teminology (in this era overwhelmingly English in origin), though I try not to stay mad for long: borrowings ultimately do fall far from the tree, which is why there are all those false cognates out there, eliciting glee all around (among linguists, anyway).

Rarely am I stumped. But in writing about ghee for the second time in my mirror language, I found myself no more prepared to tackle the topic—and oddly less equipped to push through the writer’s block. The technical instructions wouldn’t come together, the cultural asides didn’t belong, and the personal touches I had previously included seemed out of place in the new piece. Sure, test conditions were poor and observer effect levels high. Nor was I writing for the desk drawer that is my blog, but for a fancy glossy with an actual readership. All kinds of things might have made writing different and difficult this time around. It is even possible that I am wrong about last time having been any easier. Nonetheless, my bet is that Polish is an order of magnitude trickier when it comes to technical instructions, less suited to resolving thematic interruptions, less acommodating of cheeky personalia, and confusingly different from English with regard to argument structure and maybe even the very purpose of transmitting information.

It is beyond the scope of my inquiry today just how English and Polish differ in general or specifically on the last juicy point. I am pretty sure though that comparing the original Clarified with Kwadratura Masła (butter squared) should yield some clues. If your interest is in ghee alone—pick one. But if your appetite for the linguistic rivals your love of butter, go ahead and compare—and let me know if you catch anything I might have missed because I’m way too involved.