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Sunday, 30 March 2014

Did the Laundry, Did the Dishes, Tonight Imma Do Me... What?

As you may've noticed by now translators are a bunch of masochistic people who enjoy impossible challenges. Among Polish translators we even have a Facebook group halfway devoted to just that. From a different group, though, I've pulled this today:

… wstawiłam pranie,
wstawiłam naczynia do zmywarki …
boje się, że wieczorem sama się wstawię …

For context, let's take a look at the picture below:

It shows an Art Nouveau kind of lady with a bit of a strong build for all the snazzy hairdo and ruffle lining, with a visibly distressed look on her face with just a little deeper — you guess it — philosophical undertone. But — like you can probably also guess — the text will put your feet right back on the grimy earth.

Basically, the whole thing is an anaphoric wordplay on the Polish verb wstawić. Literally, wstawić means to insert for precision or just put for etymology (you probably want a good old short Saxon word to render a good old short Slavic word, no Latin, thank you very much). But it also has another surprising meaning.

In short, she's done the laundry, she's done the dishes, presumably also did a couple of other house-running things in the same vein, at the end of the day she's going to need to unwind with a beer and she's afraid it'll take more than one beer to unwind. Sama się wstawię means I'll get tipsy. Strictly speaking, sama corresponds to myself, which we'll need to put in somewhere. That's going to be just one of our many problems with this short little piece. And this is precisely what those short pieces are looked up for by masochistic Polish translators (who don't shy away from tackling this sort of riddles into a non-native language).

This is going to be wildly subjective, but I can't tolerate any sort of addition before the first wstawiłam. It's gotta be a verb. And that verb's gonna set the tone for all of this. It'll pop up once again next line anaphorically, then jump place and epiphorically finish off the whole thing. Basically, the first and the last word of it are two forms of the same verb, in the same person and number, just a different tense.

Regarding pranie somewhat could have a descriptive association with dirty clothes or whatever. Forget it. Pranie is laundry, and avoiding a good, working 1:1 equivalent just to dodge the accusation of translating literally (like that's a bad thing!) is just... uh... I don't want to offend any one of you who might still be stuck in that sort of thinking, which might possibly even have been poured into you at a language faculty. Naczynia are vessels, but we can modernise them into dishes, no harm done. Zmywarka is dishwasher.

In the last verse (physically, there are five lines, but the third and fifth are just are just line wrap), we have something close to a full sentence: boję się, że wieczorem (sama) się wstawię in the most literal rendition, even preserving the word order, means: I fear that tonight I will get tipsy. In standard spoken English, barring any special circumstances, this would be closer to: I'll get tipsy tonight, I'm afraid. But this isn't really the kind of context that calls for the most standard and bland sentence order straight from a textbook. Ain't that easy, sailor.

Before we move on, it's important to note that we can't just mount the high horse and ignore the questionable ellips signs (the … character), three of them in all. Their arrangement is somewhat opposite of what they did with the word wstawić. The … appears at the beginning of the first line, then at the end of the second and third line. (The word wstawić opens the first and second but closes the third.) Note also the absence of sentence-arranging punctuation such as capital letters or full stops. Finally, there is some vague semblance to a haiku, something we probably should also aim to preserve.

Haikai are short and witty, but witty in a more sublime (and sublimated) sense than the witty we usually know. Which is basically what was aimed for with the picture, I suppose (where the funny thing is that the time when they drew like that was also the time of an increased exchange with and interest in the then-now-open Japan, following the Meiji restoration, Boshin rebellion and all; western artists adopted a lot of significant Japanese or at least Japanese-influenced features).

A haiku has a point, and that point is to send a message. Incidentally, for all its abstract artsiness, it's somewhat similar to a western syllogism (one type of which is the lawyerly dictum de omni — whoever kills shall go to jail, you killed, you go to jail, QED/pwnt). You have a major premise, a minor premise and then a conclusion, usually following a horizontal line. In a haiku, there is one thought, another thought, a kireji, which is a cutting word technically but more visible is the long dash (—) or — wait! — the ellipsis sign (…) that we've just seen in the original Polish meme. Ring a bell?

Sure, we don't have a 5-7-5 syllable structure, more like 5-10-12, but, thing is, in Polish you generally use more syllables anyway. You could probably go like this:

wstawiłam pranie
wstawiłam naczynia—
wieczorem sama się wstawię

It would thus contain 5 syllables in the first line (wstawiłam pranie is a unique case), then 6 in the second, finally 8 in the last. Close to the haiku metric but not the same. Somewhat close is close enough here, though. We are not following a strict convention, we're just playing with associations. Loose associations that were possibly not even consciously realised by the author.

Let's take a closer look at the structure:

same verb + object
same verb + diff. object + place adv.—
time adv. + diff., surprising object + same verb

In line with what we noted before, wstawić is the word that carries us through. Interestingly, we can now see that wieczorem tonight — is vaguely similar to the Japanese kigo, i.e. obligatory seasonal reference. The surprising object is obviously more of a fist thumping on a table than those subtle Japanese juxtapositions.

We can't really change the verb. It's gotta stay and always be the same verb connecting with different objects. Synonyms will not do (unless we redesign the structure), but different forms will. And we gotta land a serious punch with the surprising object.

So let's get our hands dirty. With laundry and dirty dishes and whatever's gonna be in the homemaker's cup by the end of the day.

Like I said in the beginning, we'll want not only the same verb everywhere but also one that's simple, just like the Polish one. Since I'm totally free of 1:1-phobia, I'll use 'put' on my first go. I could just use the simple past, but a contracted present perfect might be better.

I've put the laundry on
I've put the dishes in the dishwasher
Tonight, I fear, I'll put myself in a drunk stupor

Yes, it says put the laundry on, while dishes get their washer. But this is exactly how the author wrote it. Sue him, not me. The drunk stupor, admittedly, is much more than just wstawić się, i.e. get tipsy. But you can't really put yourself in a tipsy state in a witty poem, or can you? I'll have to think about it.

How about something less literal:

I got the laundry done
I got the dishes done
Tonight, I fear, I'll just get drunk

(The me after get is intentional. I'm not gonna be using textbook grammar here.) Nah. Too bland. And probably too exotic still. The guiding verb isn't near visible enough. Let's dispense with the perfect and put it in the same grammatical form everywhere, so it'll be hard to miss:

Get the laundry done
Get the dishes done
Tonight, I fear, I'll just get me a (strong) drink (done)

Meh. Ain't working really. Another translator suggested something with load. So let's give it a try:

Load the washing machine // or just the laundry
Load the dishwasher // or just the dishes
Tonight, for me, I guess I'll just get loaded


Get the laundry loaded
Get the dishes loaded
Tonight, perchance, I might just get myself loaded


Load the laundry
Load the dishes
Tonight, I fear, I'll just get loaded.


Load the laundry … done
Load the dishes … done
Tonight there's a chance I'll just get loaded.

I'll let you know when I have something better. And yeah, it does look like I forgot about the ellipses. Perhaps they weren't that important, or perhaps the urge to get rid of them was too strong.

Incidentally, you just might want to scan your sources for poems before you confirm the deadline.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I like a version using the verb 'to load' - whoever came up with that was a genius. Here's my venture:

    Loaded the laundry
    Loaded the dishes into the washer
    I'm afraid that tonight I'll just plain get loaded.