Saturday 22 August 2015

Sienkiewicz Progress Report

Yesterday I planned to write a Polski Piątek (Polish Friday) piece for all the language lovers, but I didn't get home until really late. So here it is this morning.

First of all, Henryk Sienkiewicz is the man who wrote Quo Vadis--you know, the one about the captured princess who is stolen from her loving adoptive Roman parents by Nero to give to Lygia's handsome but selfish admirer Marcus. Saints Peter and Paul feature, as well as Lygia's ginormous bodyguard. Rome burns; Christians suffer. If you haven't read the book, you may have seen the film. Both made Sienkiewicz temporarily world-famous.

Sienkiewicz (sh'yen--K'YAY-veetch, you're welcome) was part of the 19th century Polish cultural revival, the Poles still being extremely miserable and annoyed at having lost their lands to the Russians, Austrians and Germans. One of the few things they still had was their language. Therefore Polish literature was very important in keeping Polish self-esteem alive, and as a matter of fact Quo Vadis is not just an adventure story, it is an allegory about Poland. 

Sienkiewicz wrote a number of  historical novels that Poles still like to read and turn into films. The first one that comes galloping to mind is Ogniem i mieczem  (With Fire and Sword) because I have director Jerzy Hoffman's version and watched it with a party of men until the clouds of testosterone grew too oppressive and I fled to my bedchamber. Mostly what I got out of this  film was that in the 17th century Poles still dressed like Vikings in a snowstorm. One day I will try watching it again. 

Meanwhile, I am reading Sien--oh, heck, let's call him Henryk. I'm reading Henryk's one novel for children, W Pustyni i W Puszczy (In the Desert and the Wilderness), writing the date at the bottom of each page I finish reading. The first page (5) is marked June 19, and on August 15 I finished page 42. Sadly, I have not managed to read a page every day since June 19, but I'll tell you why. It's because I still have to look up every second word, that's why. 

Poland is very hard to defend because it is flat. If you can cross the Baltic Sea to Gdansk or the mountains to the south and kill millions of angry Poles before they can kill you, you could conquer Poland relatively easily. The Polish language, however, is full of mountain ranges, plunging valleys, treacherous marshes, silent quicksand, barbed wire, sea monsters and carnivorous plants. When approached by a foreigner, it covers itself with a slippery goo derived from beetroot juice so that the words slide out of the foreigner's head as quickly as the foreigner shoves them in. After four years of study, I still can't speak the blessed thing.  Or won't, anyway--except to fellow foreign students of Polish. Alas.

But one thing I can do is read Polish and get the general gist of it. To actually understand it word for word, I still need the dictionary. And so frustrated was I with all the physical labour of looking up words in my heavy Langenscheidt Premium Słownik polsko-angielski/angielsko-polski that I cut it in half. Snip, snip, snip. Then I taped the back cover to the first half and affixed tabs to all the letters, so I could see immediately where they were without having to flip around so much. Then I made a dictionary of my own out of a little hardback notebook, affixing more alphabetic tabs. This way I can write down the words I don't know, so that if I see them again and can't remember what they mean, I can just look them up in my mini-słownik.

So here is my new process:

1. Read page of story. Write date at bottom.
2. Read page again, underlining all the words I don't understand.
3. Read page again, looking up all the underscored words as they come up and writing them down in my mini-słownik.

This takes an agonizingly long time. See, for example, a passage I decoded yesterday:

Do południa pędzili prawie bez wytchnienia, ale gdy słońce wzbiło się wysoko na niebo i poczęło przypiekać, wielbłądy, które z natury mało się pocą, oblały się jednak potem i bieg ich stał się znacznie wolniejszy. Karawanę otoczyły znowu skały i osypiska. Wąwozy, które w czasie deszczów zmieniają się w łożyska strumieni, czyli tzw. khory, zdarzały się coraz częściej. Beduini zatrzymali się na koniec w jednym z nich, całkiem ukrytym wśród skał. Lecz zaledwie zsiedli z wielbłądów, podnieśli krzyk i rzucili się naprzód, schylając się co chwila i ciskając przed siebie kamieniami. Stasiowi, który jeszcze nie zsunął się z siodła, przedstawił się dziwny widok. Oto spośród suchych krzaków porastających dno khoru wysunął się duży wąż i wijąc się z szybkością błyskawicy między okruchami skał, umykał do jakiejś znanej sobie kryjówki. Beduini ścigali go zaciekle, a na pomoc im poskoczył Gebhr z nożem w ręku. Ale z powodu nierówności gruntu zarówno trudno trafić było węża kamieniem, jak przygwoździć go nożem — wkrótce też wrócili wszyscy trzej z widocznym w twarzach przestrachem.

wzbiło się         -  it [the sun] had risen
przypiekać       -  to broil 
się pocą             - they [the camels] sweat
oblały się          - they [the camels] were covered 
bieg                    - run (noun)
znacznie           - significantly
otoczyły            - they [rocks and scree] surrounded
osypiska           - scree
w łożyska         - into the riverbed
strumieni         - of a stream
tzw.                     - called, so-called  
zdarzały się      - they [the ravines] occurred
zatrzymali się  - they [the Beduins] stopped
wśród                    - among
zaledwie             - as soon as, barely
zsiedli                   - they dismounted
podnieśli            - they raised
schylając się      - bending down
ciskając                - hurling
zsunął się             - he [Stan] slipped
z siodła                - from the saddle
krzaków              -  the bushes
porastających   - overgrowing
wysunął się        - he [the snake] came out
wijąc się              - writhing
błyskawicy         - lightning (adj.)
okruchami        - fragments, crumbs
umykał                - he [the snake] fled
znanej                 - known
kryjówki             - hiding place
ścigali                  - they [the Beduin] chased
zaciekle               - fiercely
poskoczył            - he [Gebhr] sprang
nierówności      - unevenness
gruntu                 - of the ground
zarówno              - both
trafić                     - to hit
przygwoździć   - to pin down
z widocznym    - with visible [terror]

However, as I was looking these all up in a dictionary, not Google Translate, I had to mentally think about what they would look like in their most standard forms--the nouns all in the nominative case, and the verbs all in the imperfect infinitive. I wrote all the ones I could find down. The ones I couldn't, I have discovered right now on Google Translate.  So now we see that the passage could be rendered in English as: 

Until noon they hurried on almost without a break, but when the sun rose high in the sky and began to broil, the camels which by nature perspire little were nevertheless covered in sweat and their run became significantly slower. Rocks and scree again surrounded the caravan. The ravines, which in rainy season became riverbeds, called 'khors', occurred ever more often.  The Beduin stopped at last in one of them, totally hidden among the rocks. But they had barely dismounted their camels when they raised a cry and moved forward, bending all the while and hurling stones before them. A strange sight met Stan, who had not yet slipped from his saddle. There from among the dry bushes overgrowing the bottom of the khor emerged a big snake, and wriggling with lightning speed between the fragments of rock, he fled to some hiding-place known to him. The Beduin pursued him fiercely, and Gebhr sprang to help them with a knife in his hand. But because of the unevenness of the ground, it was difficult both to hit the snake with stones and to pin him with the knife--soon also all three returned with terror visible on their faces. 

Looking up all the words, my angels, for a passage which is (in English) only 200 words, took me AN HOUR.  Still, I suppose this is how we learn. Hour by hour, word by word. 

Notice how the snake is "he." The Polish word for snake is masculine, and turning animals back into "it" feels like a betrayal of the author's Polish point of view. 


  1. The snake may be a he and you may want to preserve him as such, but what about when the King is a she? This happens in French, not because their kings were transgendered but because the French word for majesty is feminine. So when you are discussing the King politely in the third person, you refer to him as Her Majesty. If you tried to preserve the French pov by translating this directly back into English, the effect would be quite peculiar, but rather amusing, too. I wonder if the Polish word for majesty is also feminine?


  2. Well, sa refers to the majestée, not to the possessor, as in sa mere, so I don't think that would be a problem. A better example would be the sun. Some people see the sun as "she" and some as "he". Interestingly, the Poles see Mr Sun as "it." So a snake is masculine--even masculine with a personality, since he wiggles about, unlike a table--but the sun is just an it. Normally I think of the sun as an it, although if I were to ascribe it a personality I would probably think of it as a "he" because of "le soleil". I am more inclined to think of the moon as "she" because of "la lune" and, of course, Diana.

    1. Yes, the "sa" does refer to the majesty, but the effect in translation is peculiar, and I found that if I were reading passages in which both a king and a queen were referenced (something that comes up often in 17th C. French writings), I tended to get confused. Polish sounds more sensible in that respect. And yes, I do think of animals whose sex I know as "he" or she, not "it". It's a fundamental part of identity, esp. animal identity. (I spoke Polish in early childhood but of course knew nothing of parts of speech then.)

      A cousin who taught in Japan told me that in Japanese there are different systems of *counting* depending on the type of object/person/animal being counted. And apparently, rabbits are counted like fish - or was it the other way around?


  3. Oh, and also not a problem in Polish because "his" is always "jego" and "her" is always "jej", no matter what follows. If she's his mother, she's "jego matka", and if she's her mother, she's "jej matka". Meanwhile, I have just looked up "majesty" in Google Translate, and they have "Highness" instead. Like so many concepts, "Highness" ends in -ość and is therefore feminine. Still, it's the concept, not the possessor, which is feminine.

    Polish has three different kinds of masculines (at least). One is for inanimate objects. One is for animate objects (like beasts). Another is for actual male human beings, like sons. I always think of animals whose sex I know as "he" or "she" instead of "it"--do you? For example, a hen is always she, and a rooster is always he, and a chick is always just it. (A child in Polish is just "it", too: dziecko is neuter.)

  4. Excellent work Seraphic! You have to keep learning Polish :-) It's heroic work but don't give up :-) You're dealing very well with the complexity of the Polish grammar, I just feel sorry for you that you have to deal with our pronunciation.
    Good luck.
    Your Very Single Polish Reader :)


    1. Thank you! I like Polish pronunciation although it is very hard to copy. I can say "przy" and "prze" and even ę pretty well now, but pronouncing everything else in the Polish (not English) way is still a challenge.


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