Thursday 29 October 2015

Lost in translation

I was coming out from my human physiology class at the beginning of the week chatting to the last tuthree students. It's a multi-cultural group and one of them was complaining that it was hard learning all the sciencey terms in English when she hadn't quite mastered the basic anatomy in English-as-a-foreign-language. I turned to the Anglophones and said that they should stop complaining about the long words, at least they knew the word "stomach" even if they had a only a hazy notion of where it was.  Then I added that the long words were surely the same, more-or-less, between English and Polish. I picked out Polish partly because the adrift student was Polish, but also because now, in terms of fluent everyday speakers, Polish is Ireland's second language after English and before Irish and French.  I then sat down with Google-translate to compile a list that would prove my point. It started off well:
  • homeostasis; homeostaza
  • cytoplasm; cytoplazma
  • aorta; aorta
But then my theory rapidly lost support with rather complex, technical words having an unrelated term in Polish:
  • carotid artery; tętnicy szyjnej
  • kidney; nerka
  • liver; wątroba
  • pancreas; trzustka
I presume nerka and wątroba are butcher's terms: we use normal English for those things but revert to Latin roots for the adjectives renal and hepatic. The thalamus is a section of the brain right in the centre, behind the eyes, it is straight Greek: θάλαμο meaning a chamber.  The Polish term for thalamus is wzgórze which means 'hill' rather than 'chamber', but hypothalamus follows the same construction as for English: podwzgórze is underhill.  So I had all these in a list for the next class
  • thalamus; wzgórze
  • hypothalamus; podwzgórze
  • adrenal; nadnercze "stuck on the kidney"
  • pancreas; trzustka
  • colon; dwukropek
I put the list up  on the screen, partly to show the Irisher kids that life would be a lot harder for them if they were enrolled in the Kraków Instytut learning human physiology fizjologia człowieka. My handful of Polish students were only a little helpful: they knew wzgórze meant hillock but had never delved enough into anatomy to know that they had one in their head. We had a small discussion about that and then one of them, very tentative and polite, suggested that I might have the wrong word for colon "because, you know, dwukropek is the thing with two dots". Much hilarity!  With hindsight, I should have known that: dwu . . . kropek.  Curse you Google-translate, you have collapsed my street-cred again.

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