When you’re learning a foreign language, you tend to learn one word or expression at a time. There are some words that you can learn in a few minutes, some require repetition over a few days, and some words take years to learn.
That’s how it was with kombinować. It took me years to fully understand what it meant.
At first, I thought it was a no-brainer. Yep, that’ll be the Polish version of ‘to combine’. Easy-peasy.
But in practice, no one ever said what two things were being combined. They just said on coś kombinuje, and in my head I was thinking combine what with what? As a beginner, it’s rude to correct a native-speaker of a language, but I felt like correcting Poles by asking ‘doesn’t that verb need an object, well actually, at least two objects?‘
I bit my tongue and decided to do some research instead. My pocket dictionary translated kombinować as ‘to wangle’. I hate it when you check the meaning of a word, but you don’t understand the translation into your own language. Wangle, what does wangle mean? No one ever wangles where I come from!
Fortunately, the dictionary also translated the expression on coś kombinuje as ‘he’s up to something’. Okay, I thought, so it’s negative and means that someone is trying to hide their true intentions in order to achieve something.
But, one day when we were driving around looking for a parking space, a friend said ‘coś wykombinujemy‘ and parked the car on the pavement between a lamp post and a bus stop. He wasn’t suggesting we enter into a conspiracy or try to hide anything. To my ears, it sounded like he was saying ‘let’s try something creative’. So kombinować had a positive meaning as well, especially if you add wy- at the beginning.
Just when I thought I was getting to grips with kombinować, next up was kombinator. Oh great, not only do I need to work out what the verb means, there’s a noun as well!
To foreign ears, kombinator sounds like a profession in the engineering sector. There’s a branch of mathematics called ‘combinatorial analysis’, and I imagined some Wyższa Szkoła Kombinowania where you study for years to master the science behind kombinowanie.
As far as I could tell, kombinować can be positive or negative depending on the context, but it seemed that calling someone a kombinator was always derogatory. If you took the kombinowanie too far, then you crossed a line and became a kombinator. But what was the deciding factor? Does a kombinator need to break a law, infringe on others’ interests, or simply do it too frequently?
And how to translate kombinator? The best English equivalent is wheeler-dealer from the idiomatic expression to ‘wheel and deal’. Most people associate this with selling used cars, a business activity that certainly offers plenty of scope for kombinowanie.
The more I encountered this word, the broader its meaning became. The more dictionaries I checked, the more possible translations – be up to no good, deceive, contrive, scheme, figure something out, work an angle, fiddle, hustle, wheel and deal, get creative, juggle, try something, conspire, live on one’s wits! And every dictionary gives a different set of translations – I must admit that I’ve never seen such variation in the translation of a single verb. The publishers of English-Polish dictionaries should hold a conference just to agree one set of possible translations…and see if they can narrow it down to four or five English options!
I began to realise that kombinowanie is no ordinary word describing an ordinary activity. It’s part of something deeper, more significant to Polish culture. It’s something of a skill – a problem-solving ability that Poles are particularly good at. The only way to really understand what kombinować means is to observe Poles in action over a number of years, example after example, context after context.
And that’s what I did.
One of my favourite examples of kombinowanie that I’ve observed concerns a removal company. I once employed a guy to move some furniture and actually traveled with him from city to city. He was bald, unshaven and permanently wore a bluetooth headset in each ear which made him look like a pirate. He had two mobile phones and explained that he had two sim cards in each one. He advertised as four different removal firms with four different numbers. When a client called and asked for a price, he would quote a high figure. When the client called him again, thinking they were calling a different firm, he would change his voice and quote an even higher figure. The client, assuming they had shopped around and found the best price, would call back and hire the first firm.
There’s a lot of creativity in kombinowanie. If there were Oscars for the best global examples, then Poles would win every year!
Of course, in this Oscar category, Poles would have one huge, unfair advantage – only they’d know what the word kombinować actually means!