Sunday, 19 February 2012

Expressing demands in Polish and English

The UK Economic and Social Research Council has financed research that shows that "expressing needs in Polish could sound rude or ill mannered when Polish speakers use them to construct sentences in English". I don't know how much it cost, but they could have given me the money and I would have told them that.

My line of England/English based thought has been that Polish are not polite to each other when asking for things - demanding rather than asking, not saying 'please' and rarely 'thank you'; they do not expect this and there is no social demeanour in this ; they are not therefore being rude; although they are not being polite (which they see as an English oddity) they are not therefore being impolite.

There is a published research paper in pdf format, Zinken_A grammatical environment that focuses on the use of the word 'trzeba', which is generally translated 'it is necessary' and 'one must/should/ought'. This calls on external forces, rather than person opinion, when one person wants someone else should do something.

Looking through the conversations quoted in the paper, it seems to me that the closest English translation in several of them would in fact be 'don't you think you should...?'. There are additional words to give strength of feeling so that my summary translations are:

Boy leaves room without finishing his meal. Father to Mother: "Don't you think that maybe you should bring him back". Mother "I'm going".

Mother playing with children. Father to mother: "Don't you think you should phone Mum?". Mother carries on playing... Mother points "The telephone's on the fridge". Father leaves. (I can almost hear her thinking "No, I don't think I should phone her, I think you should phone her".)

Father has indicated that he will phone to see what time their daughter needs to be collected after a trip. Mother: "It's 3 O'clock." Father nods distractedly. Mother: "Don't you think that you really should call the lady?". Father: " Half past will be fine as they have to stop at another place first."

Joerg Zinken doesn't make this link, perhaps because he is focusing on the apparent non-personal nature of 'trzeba' and attempting to make a single English equivalent for the various uses of 'trzeba'. He is also focusing on the way Polish is different, whilst I feel he is missing out in not trying to analyse what fundamentals are involved in both.

In both versions, the speakers are really saying "I think you should" but in neither do they say anything about themselves. In Polish, there is direct appeal to the external and impersonal power of family obligation: 'family obligation means that you should bring him back/phone'. The English version appeals to the person's view of the family obligation: 'don't you think that family obligation means that you should...'. It is clear from the examples that no one is fooled by the Polish lack of a question as the answers imply 'yes/no' and 'you are right/wrong'. The difference in form seems to be part of the formal language construct not of communication content.

I wondered whether pure justification by externalities might be more effective in dominant relationships, but the sarcastic "don't you think" in English might, if anything, be more powerful. There are variations that might be less so, but will often be toned down versions that don't seem to make the intended assertion eg 'do you think' and 'we should do something', but which still in practice mean 'I think you should'. Doubtless Polish works the same way.

I don't therefore find myself any further forward in considering the inherent, rather than cross-cultural, levels of powerful assertion in Poland. However, I have not personally found 'trzeba' used very often - much less than in the quoted conversations. I am much more likely to be told what I must do, which is very unusual in my English experience. "I think you should", "don't you think", "wouldn't it be a good idea if" are generally irrelevant and unnecessary. There is no less constraint on my disagreeing just because I have been given linguistic commands.

Ultimately, however, this brings me back to where I started. The English don't like being given commands in English because they have got used to a language that makes it seem that they decide for themselves. The Polish don't mind being given commands in Polish because they have got used to ignoring them and equally decide for themselves.

Finally, I have to contradict my own "line of thought' views in the second paragraph above. I am pretty sure that there are levels of politeness in family speech in Poland in Polish. Maybe my cultural barrier is too high to see it clearly; perhaps I am too intimate to the conversation; my language knowledge itself is very rough and such subtleties doubtless pass me by. I keep listening and (since the two cannot be separated in communication) watching, so maybe I will figure out something some day.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Nothing about birds: Maria Dąbrowska

Maria Dąbrowska is most known for her Noce i dnie (Nights and Days), for which only an excerpt seems to have been translated into English.

I haven't found any other of her work translated. As far as I know, this may be the first full piece; it may also be her shortest. It is dated 1958 and comes from 'Opowiadania', literally 'Stories' or possibly 'Works' although 'Selected Shorter Works' may be more accurate. It was published by Spółdzielnia Wydawnicza "Czytelnik" (Readers Publishing Cooperative) in 1977, 12 years after her death.

Nothing about birds

Nothing about birds in the Bethlehem stable. Working animals. the ox and the donkey, came to pay homage to the Baby, heralding a Kingdom Of God on earth, announcing the equality of man to the world, overturning the decree: "you shall labour by the sweat of your brow". The parable of the last person in the vineyard taking the same payment that others long required, is the first declaration of the right of man to a shorter working day. Around two thousand years later we are to forge this for all "with God, and, if it be, despite God", as in the words of Mickiewicz's song of rebellion. We reached far and high, but probably, one way or another, to some place else, as far away from the Kingdom of God on Earth as the sheep from the Bethlehem stable. Never, however, deprived of the hope that we would find it here or somewhere else, like this or like that, in this way or in some other.

Nothing about birds in the Bethlehem stable, but a reasonable amount in Polish carols, though Jesus was born to us in the Polish winter. What about birds in the middle of winter? Ah! Exactly.

The robin is associated more in England with Christmas than in Poland. Shown here in April.

Birds, not ploughing nor sowing, yet focusing man on a path that leads all the way to cosmic space, they are with us always. At the beginning of November this year I saw a flock of starlings on the birch near the house. They whistled and whimpered as if it was spring. They are not, however, our spring starlings. They are Siberian starlings, autumn tourists amusing us for a few weeks only shortly to fly further south. There is such a route — from Siberia to Poland: the birds'.

A starling in March. There have been a few starlings during the winter, but one of my books tells me that Polish starlings now more frequently overwinter here.

A winter-guest here with us is the bullfinch, a proud little bird with its fluffy crimson breast and black skullcap on its head. It likes to sit a long time on the same twig: "a thinker lost in thought". Each winter is different to other winters, as spring is to spring. Not only differing in weather, but the look of plants and animals. Different flowers and birds appear, times of blooming and singing, nesting and flight all differ. Wandering in the forest these December days, I see birds here that, last year at this time of day, were not there. A slender, small bird, an azure coloured shimmer, sings quietly and tunefully. Somewhere there will be some foreign tourists, without visas, foreign currency and passports, yet holidaying away from their northern homes in the warmth of Poland. In the winter waxwings visit us frequently: "colourful their costume, amaranths buttoned below their necks". Actually amaranth flowers are light-coloured, almost pink, whilst the waxwings are dark under their necks, but it resides more in the jaunty plume on the top of their head. Waxwings settle down on trees and snow in small greyish, golden brown groups. This is most often in February. Obviously, they are planning to go elsewhere. But where they fly to - I do not know. These are birds of the far north for which Poland is "a country where the lemon ripens" ... for waxwings, that is.

I may have seen a bullfinch, but definitely no waxwings. How about greenfinches and (I think) a couple of April red-backed shrikes?

Adult male red-backed shrike in August:

We have many gorgeously coloured birds, both migratory and permanently living in Poland; many more than is popularly known. Their colours more easily catch the eye in winter than in summer, when they are concealed in the green massive. There is the woodpecker in a purple skull-cap, a bird cardinal. And below the skull-cap, how many shapes, sizes and colours! A woodpecker in a black cassock, biggest of all. There are woodpeckers large, average and small; many-coloured, green and black-white-red. I know only one woodpecker call - a series of piercing cries that sound like hysterical squealing laughter. One hears this voice most often in winter and it was in winter that I actually SAW the woodpecker that shrieked in this way. The hammering of the woodpecker reminds me of a violent and insistent striking on a door. The pulsating sound, resonant and rapid, even makes people with no interest in birds raise their heads, striving to see what hammers in this fashion. This can even affect city inhabitants, who have never seen this or any other woodpecker. Sometimes when I listen to the woodpecker tapping, I hear the opening bars of Beethoven's 5th.

There is as yet little cover in the garden for birds to hide in. Our most colourful bird is probably the jay.

From our "on constant report" colourful birds, the most commonly known to all, as it is lives in the city, are the tits. And these we see ourselves more often in winter than summer, when they vanish into the green thicket. Different species of tit live with us, but our closest acquaintances are the blue and great tits. These are now just arriving and are on our urban balconies. Exquisite, active, inquisitive, and, in winter, fond of pork fat.

And finally the kingfishers, the real parrots of our latitudes, sapphire, yellow and red-purple. These mainly live near the streams that flow out from the mountains, but in winter they wander widely across all of Poland, yet with no ambition for foreign travel. However, I only once ever saw a kingfisher, in my childhood, over the largest pond in Russów, our home in the country.

There are birds costumed exclusively in black or in black and white as well. These also more easily catch the eye in winter. When I first saw a blackbird against the snow, with his beautiful solid black shape and orange beak, I thought that it was some exotic bird escaped from a cage or the ZOO. The blackbird is the greatest singer of the bird world, and, if the nightingale is the tenor, the blackbird is the baritone of birds . His stout, rich whistle consists usually of six (but sometimes eight, or even ten) different tones. There is no surprise that this is what one hears in some sections of Beethoven. Of the great singing birds, the blackbird is the only one that acknowledges human civilization, partly living in urban areas. Cities of Western Europe, in particular, abound in blackbirds. Here, it is only in Western Poland that there are urban blackbirds. Poznań and Kalisz [in Western Poland] are the most easterly cities in which blackbirds appear, sing, and then in silence spend the winter. Maybe the urban blackbird urban will move still further east as urban civilization and our gardens advance. There weren't even any blackbirds in Kalisz when I was a child. Elsewhere in Poland, blackbirds live only in the forest, spread thinly. Warsaw does not have blackbirds, unfortunately, even in her old parks.

Blackbirds are common both here and around the post-war housing estates in Jelonki, West Warsaw.

In winter in the country, that excellent dancer, the magpie, rarely departs from our sight. No bird gambols about the land so lightly, so high and nimble. Sporting magpies, in black tail-coats with white underneath, remind me of a graceful dancing-circle. Elegant, well known birds, both rural and urban, are the rooks in black velour and the jackdaws with grey napes and necks that make them look like black ladies wrapped in blue fox fur stoles.

Although regular visitors, I've never noticed magpies dancing. No jackdaws in the garden, but I have seen a few around. They seemed the most plentiful of the birds in Jelonki, but that may just be because they are quite big and more tolerant of human proximity than others. The rooks - not balck, but darkest hues of purple, blue and green - are common enough in the area, but only came to the garden when a neighbour left out something (meat?) they wanted to eat.

I have just touched on a tiny fragment of this life in which birds accompany us in winter. But people do not notice this little fragment; for them, nature in winter is dead. Looking at trees without leaves, they are never amazed by what could be a great marvel. Seeing in winter only grey, white and black, they never see its fantastic compositions, shapes and colours.

Nothing about sparrows. The sheer number of sparrows makes them unexceptional, but, if they were rare, the variety of composition of their light and dark brown colouring would have them better respected. It's not long ago that I realised that what I was seeing everyday were tree sparrows, and have been on the look out for house sparrows ever since. A couple of pairs arrived a few days ago, so I suspect they have strayed out of their normal habitat in search of food during difficult winter weather. A male house sparrow is in the centre.

Winter is neither death nor numb lifelessness. Winter is an intensive and colourful dream of spring. Hazels and birches in December are already prepared for Spring. The hanging, yellow flowers of the mignonette are still hard catkins. The buds on all trees and shrubs in December are already prepared for the spring. They stand erect and wait on their branches, branches of silver, golden brown, red and grey, making up a sophisticated arabesque in a hundred shades against a background of snow or emerald winter crops. More than this, for, at the end of December, the remnants of autumn stubbornly endure here and there, bushes are full of berries and small, haughty herbs still lie green on the forest floor. Whilst from Christmas, in the frosts and snows, in the rain and gales everything is already heading towards spring. There can be nothing strange in that the human race has held the end of December sacred from time immemorial, with the most beautiful beliefs and legends. Nor that one civilization passes this crucial season on to the next as an eternally living Festival of Hope.

Mushrooms under forest trees just outside Warsaw on New Year's Day.

(It ends here.)

As someone establishing a garden, the wonder of the survival of plants during the winter is often overtaken by the often realised dread that plants will die completely or be annually so devastated as to be hardly worth having. The great tits around the fat in the picture earlier are on what was described as the fastest growing evergreen in Poland. It didn't survive.

The tits around the fat is, in any case, misleading: they aren't actually eating. It mainly provided them with a good place to sit, eat peanuts and seeds and watch what was happening. The love of tits for fat is so well known that I was given some (pork or cow, I don't know), but I was disappointed. The two next pictures give a more balanced perspective although they may actually exaggerate, for composition purposes, the extent to which tits eat the fat (just behind the peanut holder).

The recent fuss about the ACTA treaty, which I have read, has reinforced in me the awareness that even freely distributing an original translation of a work by an author can potentially deprive the rightful copyright owners of future income, even if I feel it is never otherwise likely to be translated. It is not my right to decide the future in this way (someone might be working away at a commercial translation right now), nor to decide what might be good promotion for the author. I will, as is my usual practice, email the publishers to let them tell me to delete this. In this case, there are complications in that Czytelnik's website no longer lists anything by Maria Dąbrowska and there is no copyright claim in the book to tell me who else I might try to find out how to contact. I even wonder whether, as a 'co-operative' work it was not intended to be copyrighted. I hope my gamble that the translation can only be helpful is correct.

Monday, 6 February 2012

What's unusual in the land of normality?

The garden is pretty much inaccessible, so I've been decorating the living room.

I had just finished doing some fiddly, straight-edge painting with my reading glasses on, when Babcia called out and asked "is this a blackbird?". I wandered into the dining room, looked out the window and then rushed and got my camera.

Even with the wrong glasses on I could see that a sparrowhawk (krogulec) was having its dinner just in front of the window.

Since we are supporting large numbers of tree sparrows (Mazurka, singular) - up to 40 at a time, and great tits (Sikora Bogatka) - up to 20 at a time, I was primarily concerned that one of our two blue tits (Sikora Modra) was the victim. They are still here.

Shortly after, I started getting glimpses of a bird I didn't recognise. It was roughly the shape of a blackbird, but it had a white belly and spots, so I thought it might be a thrush: a turdus of some sort anyway.

Eventually I decided it was probably a fieldfare (kwiczoł), a bird that I only knew by name and wouldn't have been able to recognise. It was this photo of the next garden that decided me.

One of the surprise plants of the garden has been the wild rose that had been the stem of a standard rose that had died (along with all of the others in the neighbourhood) in its first winter. This had a beautiful display of pink roses in the summer, followed in the autumn by deep red hips. I had wondered why none of the birds were eating them. The field fare has been doing just that.

It is a migratory bird that usual comes to Poland in March or April (says the book), so not only have I not seen one before, it may be rare this early in the year.

Looking at the book, I also found that breeding blackbirds (kos) are also migratory, which may explain why I only see a single male and a couple of juveniles at this time of the year. This is the first time I have seen one in the birdtable, but then it is quite new.

None of these may be in anyway portentous, but how about a column of fire appearing above the rising sun? Is this going to be a year of portents with a bloody rain and milk and butter turning to blood (Britain, 685)?

"1647 ... in which manifold signs in the heavens and on the earth announced misfortunes ... and unusual events. ... In Warsaw a tomb was seen over the city, and a fiery cross in the clouds." (Sienkiewicz, With Fire and Sword.)

Haven't I had enough excitement already?