Cultural Musings

Kombinowanie. Survival mechanism or cultural construct?

Do you ever find yourself trying to find a creative solution to a problem? Maybe you try to get around a rule or law in order to benefit yourself? Or possibly you try to get out of doing something you don’t want to do like go to work or school. Perhaps you try to look for the best deal when you’d like to buy something? If you said yes to any of these, you may find the word “kombinować” useful in your everyday life.

The word kombinować is tough to translate into English. If you look it up in the dictionary, you definitely won’t find “combine” but rather a lot of negative verbs: cheat, con, be up to no good, scheme, pull sneaky tricks, deceive. These all seem far too negative to describe such a universal and significant word in Polish. So how can we translate it and what does it mean in the Polish context exactly?

To me, “figure out” in the way of “find a solution to a problem” or “sort out” seems like a better fit and more neutral in meaning. However, that sounds very innocent and kombinować does have a, let’s say, sneakier tone to it in some contexts. It could very well mean that you’re taking illegal means to solve a problem or simply searching for the all-holy loophole in Polish law. This is often evidenced by a little snicker or giggle from the Pole who uttered it, proving it may not be so innocent an act after all.

The cultural aspect behind kombinować is intriguing. Perhaps for Poles it’s more of a survival mechanism, or at least it was, left over from the past political system. They may have needed to get around an irritating and senseless law and so, in turn, may have had to kombinować. Maybe they wanted to purchase something which wasn’t available in stores, like e.g. a washing machine, so they had to “figure something out”. Maybe during PRL there was more corruption and therefore easier to do this in the more illegal sense of the word. Nowadays, a good portion of this act may be connected with paying less taxes or cheating the system in order to earn some money. For example, taking your children out of an orphanage in order to benefit from the 500+ program.

The question is, why is it that this word is so essential in Polish and so unimportant in English that it’s even hard to translate? Do Poles actually kombinować more and we less? It is that we have less red tape? Or perhaps when we face a difficult problem, we are simply resigned to taking the hard way and doing it by the book. I’m not so sure about that. I think that Americans also scheme or try to cheat the system but the difference is they don’t take any pride in it. You see, Americans are patriotic to a fault, meaning you wouldn’t be praised for beating the system. You may do it because you feel cheated, as many Americans do, but it isn’t something to brag about to your friends. I think it’s rather shameful, in fact. And here in Poland it’s just like, well, yeah, of course you tried to get around the system, what other choice do you have? And high five. I think it shows an interesting perspective not only on our feelings toward the government, but our countries themselves. It portrays either our pride or, frankly, the lack there of.

All in all, I’ve taken to using this word quite frequently to describe an act that can’t be so simply described in English. One word for so many things. We have such a rich language and yet this word seems to fill a big gap we have. Funny though that I never felt that way until moving to Poland…

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  • Reply Aleksa 27 April 2016 at 11:36

    Ucząc się nowego języka, uczymy się też nowego sposobu myślenia o rzeczach 🙂 Buziaki Leah!

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 27 April 2016 at 13:15

      Cześć Aleksa! No to prawda 🙂 hugs!

    • Reply Adam 23 August 2017 at 15:31

      Bardzo ciekawe spostrzeżenie!

  • Reply Bezem 27 April 2016 at 11:59

    “I think that Americans also scheme or try to cheat the system but the difference is they don’t take any pride in it. You see, Americans are patriotic to a fault, meaning you wouldn’t be praised for beating the system”

    Personally I think there is a difference in patriotic view in USA and Poland. USA was always free, never conquered etc. Poland on the other hand had to fight against gov many times. Not only against enemy gov but also ours. It’s thinking like “Gov will have few zloty less, but for me it makes difference”. In USA people are earning more money so they don’t have to kombinować to live a decent life 🙂

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 27 April 2016 at 13:13

      Yeah exactly. This is why it’s more important here. I totally agree with you!

  • Reply Emilka 27 April 2016 at 12:03

    I usually translate this Polish ‘trait’ as being ‘creative’ 😉

  • Reply Gosia 27 April 2016 at 13:12

    I agree with Bezem. And we have another interesting word załatwić, which is also kind of a PRL’s remainder, you can say. I’ve never known how to translate it to English. You can załatwić something in a not completely legal way or using your connections, but it also means that you have to do something – like going to a library to borrow a book for your mother.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 27 April 2016 at 13:14

      yeah I like załatwić is like settle something or figure out? But it also doesn’t translate perfectly. I’m going to City hall to “settle” something? I’d probably just say “do” actually.

      • Reply Bezem 27 April 2016 at 15:08

        I think “załatwić” would be translated to “deal with”. And I’m not sure but “compound” would be a pretty good translation for “kombinować”

    • Reply Kacper 27 April 2016 at 13:16

      Załatwić is pretty easy to translate – ‘to take care of sth’.

      • Reply Leah Morawiec 27 April 2016 at 15:39

        for sure! that’s probably the best translation of it

  • Reply Asia 1 May 2016 at 19:36

    The main problem of Poles is that we don’t indentify with our government. Okay, for last few years it started to change a bit, but since 18 century we didn’t have much democracy here (and before that most of people living in Poland didn’t have any idea of nation or country, they were just “locals”). People who ruled were always the bad ones, they wanted to destroy us. So we started to kombinować and it’s hard to stop it. We don’t trust the politicians, if we steel from the country we steel from thieves so it doesn’t count…

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 1 May 2016 at 19:59

      no judgment here!

  • Reply Zefiryn 8 May 2016 at 00:46

    I think that pretty good exemplifications of this positive-negative side of the word are Bareja’s films. And this is the masterpiece:

  • Reply spójrz 31 May 2016 at 16:56

    Jestem pod wielkim wrażeniem! Dziękuję za wpis!

  • Reply odrzut 7 June 2016 at 13:12

    Poles are patriotic too, even too patriotic sometimes 🙂 The difference is – for Poles the “fatherland” is an abstract concept. They will fight for it no problem. But the formal state, institutions, etc – fuck all that, that’s not Poland, that’s the “System”.

    • Reply Leah Morawiec 7 June 2016 at 16:38

      hah you totally hit the nail on the head

  • Reply Warmiaczka 12 July 2017 at 13:35

    I think “kombinować” means “to outsmart the problem” 😉

  • Reply nadia 2 October 2017 at 01:14

    Well, I don’t know the english word for kombinować but I would explain it to the foreginer with the emoticon :-> haha

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