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August 30, 2007

Found in translation


To understand the Russians better


I’ve been a translator and interpreter for almost 40 years now, and my fascination with “the untranslatable” has been growing all these years. Mind you, I am speaking of European languages, which are relatively similar. Compared to Piraha, the language of an Amazon tribe that has no concept of numbers or counting, Russian and English have a world in common.

One can probably explain almost anything in almost any language but what takes one word to express in English- privacy, for example - might require a whole phrase in other languages, including Russian.

Ronald Reagan, famously and wrongly, once said that there is no Russian word for liberty. In fact there is one Russian word - svoboda - for liberty or freedom in English. But wait: we Russians have a difficult-to-render word volya, whose meaning can be described as “freedom to act at will” (it also has another meaning: “the world outside prison walls”).

Simple words such as happy or friend are really not the same as their supposed Russian equivalents. Of course happy, and particularly the noun happiness, can sometimes mean the same state of cloud-nine exultation that we invest in the word schastie, but more often than not, happy is just pleased or content. So the Russians are in danger of misunderstanding a simple phrase such as: “Are you happy here?” This is not really about happiness but something like “Do you like it here?” Thus words can be, to use the term coined by the Polish linguist Anna Wierzbicka, culture-specific. Let me coin my own term: subculturespecific. In “business English” the word aggressive is almost always positive (“We shall aggressively pursue this deal”), while in everyday speech it can be positive or negative, depending on the context. Well, in Russian the meaning of the word agressivny is almost always negative. Of course, when things get really tough languages borrow words from one another. Today, the tendency is to borrow heavily from English, for good reasons (the Anglo-Saxon world is good at technological, economic and cultural innovation) or for bad ones (we are just being lazy or not very creative).

From time to time English does borrow from Russian - terrible words like pogrom or Gulag or words we are proud of, like Sputnik, glasnost, or perestroika. I hope that in the future our linguistic exports will be good or at least benign. In the meantime, foreign reporters writing from Russia are racking their brains to describe phenomena such as siloviki or silovye ministerstva. “Power ministries” is wrong and can be misunderstood (“is it about nuclear power?”). And because “law enforcement and security agency officials” is so-o long, they just borrow the word siloviki without explanation. Sapienti sat -a word is enough to the wise.



I have lived on and off in Moscow for nearly 30 years, starting in 1978 as a college graduate with a degree in Russian language and literature. Although I’ve had a number of different jobs over the years, I have always been translating and interpreting, usually in the literal sense, always in the figurative sense: trying to understand, interpret and translate a new world of words, idioms, connotations, jokes and cultural values into my own language and world. It never really gets easier. There is always another nuance to learn, an allusion to track down, a meaning that mutated over the centuries. In the past decade or so, the language itself has been changing so quickly that you need a dictionary of contemporary slang to watch a TV series, and certainly need on-line translation to read Russian blogs.

Today the biggest headaches for translators are the English cognates. You’d think it would be easy, and sometimes it is. Shoping-mol is clearly shopping mall (even if it really should be called torgovy centr, standard Russian for a shopping centre). But words such as glamour, elitist, cottage and actual went through a mysterious process of transformation before they appeared as glamurny, elitarny, kottedzh and aktualny. In Russian advertising copy, glamurny can be used to describe everything from devushki (glamorous babes) to keramika (glamorous ceramics!). When translating the word back into English, it’s more like glam or glitzy. Elitarny dom is not a place where elitist snobs live; it’s elite housing. Kottedzh is not a little bungalow for two, it’s a four-storey pleasure palace built by one of the country’s newly rich. Kottedzhny posyelok is not a village of cottages, but what Americans call a gated community. And aktualny has come to mean “the latest rage” of the season. So haircuts and colours and styles are all aktualnye - the last word in fashion.


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