Jenna Makowski of Journey Deep writes about the nuanced influence of culture on language, and how it can lead to confusing but amusing mishaps in the process of adjusting to life abroad.
“Aren’t you afraid that you’ll be lonely? Or that you won’t have any friends?” my friend asked the night before the flight that would take me to Poland for a year of teaching and living abroad. As I’d begun identifying myself as a veteran traveler, I was a bit taken aback by her question. I appreciated the frankness that a close friend can get away with, but I brushed the question off, convincing myself that she’d only been projecting her own fears onto me. Truth be told, I had been afraid: of visas, work permits, contract clauses and apartment leases. But the risks associated with starting a new social life hadn’t even occurred to me.
In fact, I came to Poland with a lot of assumptions. Assumptions that I’d assimilate quickly and meet people who would welcome me into a social network, help me navigate the challenges of life in a new country, and improve my language skills. After all, my last name does end in –ski, referencing a distant, third-generation connection to a country more familiar to my grandparents than to me. I’d been hoping to fill some of those gaps. And I figured that new friendships could provide insight into a culture that I felt was invariably part of me, but lacking any sort of visible or concrete manifestation.
And I did meet people. People who invited me for a Friday night beer. People who laughed with me through Polish lessons. People who I would, without hesitation, introduce as “friends” to people back home.
Which is why, four months into my stay, I was confused and a bit hurt when my co-worker turned beer buddy, conversation mate and travel partner introduced me to one of her friends as koleżanka. “Chciałabym przedstawić moją kolezankę.” I’d like to introduce you to my colleague.
What? After all those experiences together, we’re not even friends? Just colleagues?
I suddenly wondered if it wasn’t so easy to make friends in Poland.
Actually, the problem didn’t lie in making friends or having a social life. Rather, I was translating koleżanka without a clear understanding of the context surrounding the word.
In Polish, koleżanka translates as colleague, while przyjaciel translates as friend. It took thirty seconds to find those two words in my little pocket dictionary. But it took me nearly four months to translate the context attached to them. Direct dictionary translations don’t always catch the nuance of words, the context that comes from cultural influence, and the ways that they are actually used in everyday life.
My first hints at the context surrounding koleżanka and przyjaciel popped up when I realized that przyjaciel, the word for friend, was rarely used. As my language skills increased, I began eavesdropping on conversations overheard in public. People seemed to use koleżanka all the time: arranging a meeting with a koleżanka, a conversation with a koleżanka, introducing a koleżanka. I rarely, if ever, heard anyone use przyjaciel.
Then there were the observations I made in my English classroom. One afternoon, my students were playing a vocabulary game. They had to describe words to their partners, in order for their partners to guess the word. One student had been given the word colleague. I expected him to give a description that matched my American-oriented translation of the word – a person with whom one works. Instead he said, “This is a person who is just a normal friend.” I was immediately on the case. “What do you mean, a normal friend? Who is a normal friend, and who is not?” The student stopped mid-sentence, mouth hung open. “Well, you know, a normal friend,” he stammered. “Not a special friend.”
I went back to my koleżanka and asked about the differences between a koleżanka and a przyjaciel. “Not just anyone can be a przyjaciel,” she explained to me. “I only have one or two.”
And with that, a slew of culturally-influenced differences became illuminated. Though koleżanka translates as colleague, it’s used in completely different contexts. In Polish culture, a koleżanka is the person you hang out with in a pub on a Friday, a person who helps you out, a person who calls to chat on a Sunday afternoon. By American expectations, a koleżanka is a friend. And a przyjaciel is reserved for those “special” friends who only come once or twice per lifetime. The friends-turned-family who know you better than you know yourself.
A few days later, during another class, the challenges of translation rose again. A student wanted to tell me about an exchange she’d had with someone, but she was fumbling for a word, in English, to describe the person. “I interact with this person, but she’s not really my friend or colleague. I just know her.”
“An acquaintance.” I filled in the gap.
“No, not really an acquaintance, she’s more familiar. We have coffee sometimes, and occasionally talk.”
“I suppose I’d just call her a friend then,” I responded.
“In America everyone is a friend, aren’t they?” The impact of her response stopped me in my tracks.
The stereotype that many of my students have of Americans is that they are overly friendly, always smiling, very polite, and ever helpful. Whether or not these stereotypes are true is one thing. But the fact that they exist (and in my experiences, in a fairly standardized way) is something that merits attention.
I began to re-examine my own culturally-influenced interpretations of friendship. What, exactly, does friend mean when it’s translated within the context of American culture? While koleżanka is more aptly translated as friend, is there an English equivalent of przyjaciel? It’s possible to say best friend or close friend, but I don’t think I’d ever use those words when introducing someone, for example. And the concept of “best friend” has even become commodified, to some extent, in teenaged lingo turned pop culture, manifested in Best Friend Forever broken heart necklaces and reality shows for Paris Hilton to choose a new BFF.
A more apt translation might be something like bosom buddy, or in the case of the two przyjaciel in my life, sisters-in-everything-but-blood. But I can’t think of one single word in English that encompasses the Polish concept of przyjaciel. It’s a strange cultural juxtaposition: Americans are stereotyped as overly-friendly, yet in American English we don’t have a single word that carries the connotations of przyjaciel.
Over time, I’ve come to appreciate the nuanced distinctions in the concept of friendship in Polish culture, where developing friendships is a process that requires time and investment. But in the end, I think the greatest lesson was to put the dictionary down and focus on translating words within the context of their usage in everyday life. It’s impossible to translate cultural nuance in a dictionary.
Jenna Makowski is a freelance writer and English teacher, combining her love for words and her fascination with communication. Born in Ohio and currently based in Wrocław, Poland, she grapples to understand place experientially, through people, music and daily life. She has published on Matador Abroad and Matador Trips, Pocket Cultures, and is a regular contributor to Wandering Educators. Follow her blog here!