‚Beautiful Helena’ ?


The left hand nameplate of Poland’s most famous steam locomotive Piękna Helena. Photo BTWT.

Let’s take another look at names. How should we translate Piękna Helena into English? Beautiful Helena or Beautiful Helen? Which one would you have chosen? In fact both versions could be either right or wrong depending on the context. So let’s get to work. The general rule is that we do not translate names of people and by extension steam engines!

The names of Radek Sikorski, Jacek Rostocki and Jarosław Kaczyński, are rendered in English exactly as they are in Polish. Although there may be occasions when it might be useful to know that Radek is a diminutive of Radosław and that Jacek Rostocki’s given names are Jan Vincent.

How about Helena? To jest moja piękna Helena is translated correctly as, This is my beautiful Helena, if I am introducing my baby daughter, Helena. However if the name of a steam engine is Piękna Helena, we need to pause and ascertain the intentions of whoever gave it the name. Were they inspired by Pm36-2’s exquisite proportions or by the lead character in Offenbach’s operetta La belle Hélène. In the case of the latter, both The Beautiful Helen or The Fair Helen would be fine. If the former is the case, we should stay with the original Polish.

We need a more sophisticated version of the rule given in the first paragraph. Here it is: Do not translate the Polish names of people (and steam engines!) unless the Polish name is itself a translation from another language or has becomes so famous that its English equivalent has developed a life of its own.

Ojciec Święty Jan Paweł II is the Polish translation of the Latin Ioannes Paulus PP. II and is translated in English as Pope John Paul II. However, Karol Wojtyła is always rendered as Karol Wojtyła. But Józef Konrad Korzeniowski (who no doubt found that his Polish name was a mouthful for English sailors) formally changed it to Joseph Conrad. Note that he changed both parts of his name.

The doomed sailing ship Flying Dutchman is translated as Latający Holender in Polish and not Latający Dutchman. So by reverse analogy Beautiful Helena on the left hand nameplate of Poland’s most famous steam engine will always be wrong!

‚Beautiful Helena’, 17th Parade of Steam Engines in Wolsztyn:


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