Sustainability lost in translation
Those who have studied the matter, know that sustainability is a very broad term and at times a fuzzy concept. Despite its downsides, it is broadly used to acknowledge the challenges related to mainly climate and social issues. During the years of exploring this subject, I was contemplating about the non-existence of the term in my native language, Polish. How come that Poland that is part of the EU with the sustainability agenda, has not developed an equivalent native term? How can the country strive for sustainability, if the word does not exist in the dictionary? Do Polish know what the world is aiming for?
Jokes aside. Sustainability is not totally a missing concept for Polish, neither for their language. There is a substitute term in Polish, that can be translated into Sustainable Development (“Zrównoważony rozwój”) — but while being precise in translation, it means balanced development, economic growth that respects the climate and environmental concerns, yet it is only one facet of what we commonly understand with sustainability. It has no indication of resilience and is not at all multidimensional. All that juicy stuff get lost in translation.
It is stunning that such a broadly world-wide used term does not have a proper translation into Polish. Of course many Polish speaks English well, so at universities, in literature and science they most likely use the English term, but still nothing like that exists in the native language. When I searched Wikipedia for it, translation of sustainability in Polish gives even more interesting and funny results. Word-for-word Wikipedia translates it into what means “Giving chances for survival” (“Dający szanse na przetrwanie”). Very poetic. Myself, I have never heard anyone using this descriptive terminology in any serious context. The common language would have troubles to comprehend that, I would not even know how to use this in a sentence or as an adjective, and I bet no Polish uses it.
The common language knows instead terms that can be translated into eco-friendly (“przyjazny środowisku”), beneficial (“pożyteczny”), balanced (“zrównoważony”). That is all. Polish has also one beautiful word “życiodajny” — which means carrying life, sustaining life, supporting life. Maybe that could be adopted to express the idea of sustainability? Anyhow, it would be really good to have something that is similar to the term “sustainability” describing the concept in general, captivating the overall idea, having flexibility to be used in different contexts, as noun or adjective, having connotation with life, resilience, adaptability and capacity. Even though the polish equivalent of “sustainable development” (“zrównoważony rozwój”) opens up for something which is not only driven by economic incentives, in its essence it indicates development and growth — so there is not much space for adaptability or recovering, not much indication of social, cultural aspects of it. For a less attentive mind, it stays tightly connected with the economy and steady growth.
One may argue that sustainability is so broad that it became a vague term, encompassing too many things at once, not concrete enough. Yet, we all know what it means, even if it is hard to define. We can use it in commercials, slogans, branding. Fuzzy concept is one thing, the lack of the word that reflects this concept is a different case. In Polish language sustainability exists only as a foreign term, unfamiliar for this half of the population, who do not speak English. Could that be also a reason why Poland is way behind in getting sustainability objectives right and putting them into action?
Hopefully, there is something that gives a meaning to Polish in terms of sustainability, even if unspoken and without a name.