Let’s Count the Ways in Which Words Change: Challenges with Slavic Languages

Let’s Count the Ways in Which Words Change: Challenges with Slavic Languages

In English, it’s simple to count objects, things, animals… cats.

One cat, two cats, five hundred and sixty-three cats: a single cat, a multitude of cats. There are two numbers: singular and plural. Either “cat,” or “cats.” That’s it. And the case doesn’t matter: we give the food to the cats, we are scratched by our cat, we say, “Scat cat!” or “Come here, cats!”

It becomes a little more complicated with gendered languages such as French… but nowhere near as complicated as with Slavic languages, such as Polish, which has three genders and seven (seven!) cases. The Ukrainian, Czech and Slovak languages have seven cases too; Russian has “only” six. (I once thought German was challenging with three genders and four cases, but Finnish has fifteen! Ouch!)

Slavic Counting

Polish Case and Number Agreement

Polish case and number agreement is a real challenge for English-speaking students, like myself, whose native language has far fewer grammatical “agreements.” For example:

One cat? Jeden kot.

Two cats? Dwa koty.

Six cats? Sześć kotów.

A few cats? Kilka kotów.

Many cats? Wiele kotów.

A couple of cats? Para kotów. (But a couple is two cats, or one couple, isn’t it? Confused yet?)

There is a different word for “cats,” depending on whether the number is one, two, three, or four, or five or more. Three forms depending on the number. Plus all the other grammatical rules and cases play a part, too. Are the cats the subject of the sentence, or someone’s possession?

Of course, the cat can be male, or female:

I have a (female) cat: Mam kotkę.

I have a (male) cat: Mam kocura.

Polish Is a Fascinating Language:

You can imply so much with a tiny change to the way a sentence is formed.

 

The children are playing in the garden with the cats. Dzieci bawią się w ogrodzie z kotami.
The children are playing in the garden with my cats. Dzieci bawią się w ogrodzie z moich kotów.
The children are playing in the garden with my six cats. Dzieci bawią się w ogrodzie z moich sześciu kotów.
The children are playing in the garden with my three cats. (The cats are female.) Dzieci bawią się w ogrodzie z moich trzech kotek.
The children are playing in the garden with my three cats. (The cats are male.) Dzieci bawią się w ogrodzie z moich trzech kocurów.

 

In the example above, we could have simply said, “The children are playing in the garden with the cats,” and the Polish translation would be simple too… but it can be so much richer.

What if the children are all girls, and you replace “the children” with “they”? What if the cats are all female, and it’s important that the reader knows this–it was explained earlier in the news article–how do you make sure that the translator has all the information needed, to give the best-possible rendition of the article in Polish?

Maybe this is easy for a professional English-to-Polish translator; it’s not for me, yet!

I do know that for Slavic languages, when using a translation management system and CAT tools, it may be essential for 100% matched sentences to be reviewed, especially for marketing and creative content. Where there are sentences that use pronouns (“it,” “they,” “we,” etc.), the translator must make sure that the sentence with the pronoun “agrees” with the object that the pronoun is replacing.

As a student of the language, I find the interplay of number, gender, and cases quite fascinating. And if I made a mistake in any of the Polish above, forgive me, I’m still learning!

About Alison Toon

Alison Toon, Smartling’s Senior Director, New Markets, has been working in the translation industry for two decades. With a background in enterprise-scale translation management, she was previously responsible for building and managing Hewlett-Packard's globalization program and translation technologies across all business units. She is also an avid photographer, music blogger (check out “Toon’s Tunes”!), and frequent presenter at translation and content management conferences and webinars, including Localization World, GALA, Gilbane, and ATA.

Related


Translation Cost Calculator

The Translation Cost Category Most...

The case for content localization is always easier to make when translation costs are kept low. So for Sasha, VP...
Continue reading

Case Study: How Canary Keeps...

A long-term contract, a lawn sign, and a lack of customer support. For many years, these were the three inevitable...
Continue reading

3 Marks of a Mature...

Mobile marketing requires much more than scaling down desktop experiences for smaller screens. And as the discipline evolves, the gap...
Continue reading

Translation Proxy: An Unexpected Ally...

Translation proxy technology has earned its reputation as the fastest, most cost-efficient means of translating website content. It’s helped countless...
Continue reading