Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Words fail me!

Intrigued as I am by 'linguistic gaps' between Polish and English and what they may signify in terms of cultural (nay! even biological!) differences between the two peoples, I was amazed my the realisation this morning that there's no direct translation in Polish of the verb 'to fail'.

Which is not to say the verb 'to fail' cannot be translated - it can, but only a negation of success.

To fail an exam - nie zdać egzamin ('to not pass an exam')

Words fail me - nie mam słów ('I don't have words')

He failed to catch up - nie zdołał dogonić ('he was unable to catch up')

It fails to meet my requirements - Nie spełnia moich warunków ('it does not meet my requirements')
In the case of a negation of a negation, 'not fail/never fail' etc, is simply translated as a positive:

She never fails to make me laugh - ona zawsze mnie rozśmiesza ('she always makes me laugh')
So Polish is not a language in which one can fail! See also this post - about luck and happiness. How can one translate that wonderful truism 'Failing to plan is planning to fail'? What could this say about Poles' attitudes to taking exams, carrying out the terms and conditions of a contract, launching political initiatives or new products on the market? - Failure can never be an option... but not succeeding clearly is! And not succeeding is clearly a better consolation prize than failing.

And is a society in which we have successful, less-successful and unsuccessful people happier/fairer than one in which we have successes and failures?


student SGH said...

A hard nut to crack...

to fail an exam = oblać egzamin or nie dać egzaminu

words fail me - seemingly brak mi słów suits best, but this would show embarassment so appears to be rather out of context.

he failed to catch up... = nie udało mu się dogonić

alright, you've got me there, I failed to come up with a direct translation.

I know this adage as "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail", which I don't know how to translate into Polish.

Enjoy the long weekend.

adthelad said...

She never fails to make me laugh requires the polish negative noun - zaimek negatywny - 'nigdy' which then requires a negative with any verb (double negative rule with negative nouns, personal pronouns etc).

Hence either 'Ona nigdy nie potrafi mnie nie rożśmieszyć' or '
Jej nigdy się nie udaje mnie nie rozsmieszyć'

As for 'Failing to plan is planning to fail' I came up, after a few attempts along the lines of 'brak umiejętności przygotowania się to przygotowanie sobie braku umiejętności', 'brak umiejętności planowania ..., with

'Zaniechanie planowania to planowanie zaniechania'.

The wife 'snapped' her approval for this version but it could have been a fob off (it seems I try her patience with my long-standing translation attempts). So close enough or another porażka? (Yep, tried 'porażka' as well in my quest but like my earlier attempts that didn't quite work either.) I guess that only a real Pole will be able to give a final verdict.


adthelad said...

or maybe 'Brak planowania sukcesu to planowanie braku sukcesu'.

Anonymous said...


zawieść podczas egzaminu
język mnie zawodzi
pościg zawiódł
zawodzi mnie

double negation works too,

Niezawodnie mnie rozśmiesza

Anonymous said...

I always have a smile on my face when I read your literal translations. Here is my point of view. It’s all about the history of a given language and hearing the language every day, all around you. For example, “fail an exam” and “nie zdać egzamin”, equally have the same emotional meaning, where the literal translation “to not pass an exam” does not. “'I don't have words” just doesn’t sound right while “nie mam słów”, when spoken the right way makes a statement. Can you actually hear it?
I have not seen or used your second last phrase of “It fails to meet my requirements”. Though “it does not meet my requirements” is generally used, perhaps in a more constructive way.
But it never fails to amaze me (or does it?) that you guys have another day off from work...and two next month... and two more the following month...

Jacek said...

'Failing to plan is planning to fail'

== "Niepowodzenie w planowaniu jest planowaniem niepowodzenia"


== "Porażka w planowaniu jest planowaniem porażki"
- polecam słownik wyrazów bliskoznacznych! :)

student SGH said...

I'd argue all your attempts go in vain.

"Failing to plan" is rather zaniechanie planowania. If you fail to plan you don't do it for some reasons, it's not that you plan but don't succeed. Or am I wrong Michael?

But it never fails to amaze me (or does it?) that you guys have another day off from work...and two next month... and two more the following month... - what are you driving at Anon? I don't get it :(

Jacek said...

"Failing to plan" == ""zaniechanie planowania"" ??

no to może:
'Failing to plan is planning to fail'==
"Zaniechanie planowania jest planowaniem zaniechania" ? :>

student SGH said...

też nie, bo zaniechanie w drugiej części zdania oznaczałoby, że przez fakt nieplanowania nie dochodzi do wykonywania czynności, a w zdaniu po angielsku czynność jest wykonywana a kończy się porażką

Funnily enough, the adage "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail" is attributed to Alan Lakein, and my attempt to find a translation on any of Polish sites with quotations turned out to be futile...

Jacek said...

To fail an exam – oblać egzamin (żargonowe, ale powszechnie przyjęte)

He failed to catch up – spóźnił sie na..

It fails to meet my requirements – to zawiodło moje oczekiwania (czas przeszły)
She never fails to make me laugh - ona niezawodnie mnie rozśmieszała (czas przeszły)

Jacek said...

@student SGH "czynność jest wykonywana a kończy się porażką"
- no to faktycznie, w języku polskim najprawdopodobniej brak słowa, które oznaczyłoby równocześnie ZANIECHANIE oraz PORAŻKĘ .

Anonymous said...

The word "fail" has also disappeared from English as being too negative. In Newspeak we are all "working towards a pass".