English in Russian “Translation”

Linguistics expert Michele Berdy, writing in the Moscow Times, exposes the hilarious ignorance of Russians attempting to translate from English.  Russians are often outraged by statements made in English that they don’t begin to understand.

It’s late Saturday afternoon, and having finally accepted that spring has been canceled this year, the downcast expat trudges to the local shopping mall. Loaded down with booze and bags of high-calorie food (why not, if you’re never going to take off your parka?), you (downcast expat) trudge to the video store. You stand in front of racks of DVDs, conveniently — for the non-native speaker of Russian — divided into genres like комедия (comedy), мелодрама (melodrama) and триллер (thriller).

You’re thinking “Wag the Dog” would fit your dark mood. Only the film titles are in Russian, and you have no idea where to start looking. Of course, some titles are a snap to recognize: “127 Hours” is “127 часов”; “The Black Swan” is “Чёрный Лебедь.” But the puns, connotations and associations in film titles make them tricky to translate. Glancing at racks of DVDs, I find both hits and misses — and another opportunity to expand my Russian.

Take “Wag the Dog.” The title in English is an idiom that describes a situation when a small group or part of something (the tail) controls the whole (the dog). In Russian, the film is called “Плутовство,” a deliciously gloppy-sounding word that refers to petty deceptions or cons. Although this conveys the deception at the center of the film — a political spin doctor manufacturing a fake war in Albania to distract voters from the president’s sexual dalliances with a minor — it misses the point of the title. I’d give it a thumbs-down. But I do recommend watching the film, especially in light of a certain European leader’s current legal woes. Life imitates art, you know.

I give a thumbs-up to the clever Russian title of the television series “The Closer.” In English, the phrase refers to a cop who nearly always closes her cases by getting the perp to confess. In Russian, it’s called “Ищейка.” From the verb искать (to search), ищейка is a tracker dog and, figuratively, a detective who hounds criminals. While the images are somewhat different, it’s terrific cop slang. [LR:  “Somewhat different” means bad translation, viewer does not get the true information, but something else entirely.]

Thumbs-down on the title of this year’s Oscar winner, “The King’s Speech.” The title is a play on words referring to the British king’s speech defect and his radio speech that culminates the film. Russian has the exact same punning possibility: дефект речи (speech defect) and речь (public speech). So why did they call it “Король говорит!” (The King Speaks!)? It’s as if some film distributor misheard the title — and the rest was mistranslation history.

I’d give a thumbs-in-the-middle to the Russian title of another Oscar contender, “True Grit.” In Russian, it’s called Железная хватка (literally, “iron bite”), which conveys the image of an animal that clamps down on something and won’t let go. The title misses the sense of indomitable spirit in the word “grit” and is a bit tougher than the original, but it does convey the heroine’s perseverance. Close but no Oscar.

My Oscar for the best improvement in a film title goes to “Блондинка в законе” (“Legally Blonde”). A play on вор в законе (top dog, crime boss), the title makes more sense in Russian than in English. [LR:  Oops, Ms. Berdy drops a clanger.  “Legally Blonde” is a play on “legally blind” and refers to the fact that the heroine goes to law school where she causes predictable misadventures (and maybe tweaks those who think she’s stupid because of her hair color, which she turns out no to be).  She’s not a criminal of any type. So, yet another totally bogus translation.]

But I give a double thumbs-down to “Мисс Конгениальность,” a supposedly literal translation of “Miss Congeniality.” Americans know that the Miss Congeniality award at a beauty pageant goes to the friendliest and sweetest contestant. In the movie, the joke is that the irascible FBI agent working under cover gets it. But in Russian, the false friend конгениальность means a similarity in spirit or talent. Miss Similarity? Miss Kindred Spirit?

Ironically, you might find this word’s adjectival form, конгениальный, in the phrase: Перевод конгениальный оригиналу (The translation is close in spirit to the original). In this case — not.

19 responses to “English in Russian “Translation”

  1. Oh dear. Thanks for the reprint, but:
    1. It takes a lot of creativity to translate the untranslatable, particularly in film titles. (I do it the other way — Russian to English — and have spent hours on one title.) In most cases you can’t get “equivalency,” so you try to convey the spirit/sense/register etc. I like Ищейка for that reason — it conveys the image of a dogged cop.
    2. You know, I never did get the joke in the title “Legally Blond.” I’m open to the criticism that I’m out of touch with US pop culture, but what does the image of being legally blind have to do with anything? I like the pun of блондинка в законе — a blonde in a law firm, the notion of coming out on top, the homocide at the center of the story.
    I get very crabby about bad translations from English into Russian, and really crabby about politically falsified translations. But I also get really crabby when people tar all Russian translators with the same brush. Not fair, LR.

    • When a person begins by making excuses for failure (“It takes a lot of creativity to translate the untranslatable, particularly in film titles”) we stop taking them seriously right away. Russia doesn’t need excuses for failure, it needs the opposite.

      Your experience may be different, but ours (and it is vast) is that Russia is a nation full of people with no clue how to speak foreign languages and no awareness at all of foreign mindsets or culture. It is a nation of people who learn language from ancient, creaking teachers who were schooled in Soviet times, a nation of xenophobia and deep-rooted hostility to foreign culture, a nation that simply cannot communicate with the outside world.

      For this reason, foreign investment in Russia is miniscule, the economy is foundering and foreign policy is disastrously ineffective.

      In our experience, translation of basic English phrases in the script of a movie is just as bad as the title, and the practice of having one male voice speak all the parts (rather than, for instance, using subtitles) is barbaric and embarrassing. In our experience, Russian translation of English is, at every level, moronic and dangerously fully of errors. We don’t want to make excuses for that, we want Russians to do better.

      Instead of encouraging Russians to continue to fail, you ought to encourage them to work harder and succeed. Unless of course you think they are a nation that can do no better than collapse.

  2. “Russia doesn’t need excuses for failure, it needs the opposite.”

    do you mean Russia needs failures for excuses?

    “a nation full of people with no clue how to speak foreign languages and no awareness at all of foreign mindsets or culture.”

    That sounds like a very accurate description of the good ole US of A. Is it just me or is it really a very bad case of failing to see the proverbial log in your own eye?

    “It is a nation of people who learn language from ancient, creaking teachers who were schooled in Soviet times, a nation of xenophobia and deep-rooted hostility to foreign culture, a nation that simply cannot communicate with the outside world.”

    While there is a fair share of xenophobia and intolerance of foreign culture, your first and last claims (that foreign languages are learned from ancient teachers and that Russians, as a nation, cannot communicate with the outside world ) are patently false. We have a government of crooks and criminals and true they find it extremely hard (basically impossible) to fit in with Europe when they’re expected to play by the rules, however, when bending and breaking the rules is called for, they outperform any other government in the world, for Crying out Loud, they even managed to buy a German chancellor not so long ago.

    “For this reason, foreign investment in Russia is miniscule, the economy is foundering and foreign policy is disastrously ineffective.”

    Wrong again, foreign investment is low, because one would have to be insane to invest in a country run by criminals who have the habit of simply taking away people’s property if they like it, who would want to invest in a country only to have their assets snatched from them by a bunch of crooks who call themselves the government over there? I’ll tell you even more, local investment is also low, and by this I mean investments in Russian economy by Russians – Russians who’ve managed to make some money often prefer to invest it abroad because like all normal people, they want security.

    “Instead of encouraging Russians to continue to fail, you ought to encourage them to work harder and succeed. Unless of course you think they are a nation that can do no better than collapse.”

    Perhaps Russia needs to collapse and so that on its ruins one or several new, normal, states can emerge.

    • We mean that Russia needs reasons for success.

      • Must say I agree with LR 100%.

        However before I start, it is only fair to say that my command of Ukrainian is quite good, whereas my command of English is superb. Hence having said this I will now turn to the main topic of this blog.

        First example,
        Is a case where I was listening to the Russian commentator reading the names of the various actors cast in an English film followed by the numerous producers, directors and et al that was being shown on the screen.
        When he came across the christian name spelled “Geoff” he pronounced it phonetically as ‘Ge of’, which is wrong. The correct pronunciation is ‘Jeff’.

        Second example,
        Whenever I watch a Russian or an Ukrainian film, I always add the written subtitles, so that if I don’t fully understand what was said, I can at least read it in English. On many occasions I cannot help but notice that the subtitle is wrong as the translator has added the literal translation or made it up as he/she did not understand the equivalent English word’s meaning in the first place.

        Sure, I’ll be the first to admit that the English language, is not phonetic and as such one has to learn two languages. The spoken and the written – and believe me they are very different! Therefore to gain a good knowledge and understanding of a language, especially like English, one must live in an English speaking country for years. Furthermore, a lot of English words have more than one meanings, like balance, bow or bank – just to name a few.

        • “When he came across the christian name spelled “Geoff” he pronounced it phonetically as ‘Ge of’, which is wrong. The correct pronunciation is ‘Jeff’.”

          Bohdan, with all due respect, and how do you pronounce the name Al Pacino (a very famous American actor from the 1970’s and 1980’s), it’s an Italian name and yet in the US I’ve often heard it pronounced phonetically as Al Pa-si-no (the Italian pronunciation is Pachino) and nobody ever made a big deal of it and why would they? My point is that when words from language A are assimilated in language B (whether those words are proper names or just common words) it’s practically inevitable that the pronunciation will be changed.
          Here’s another example from the entertainment business from you. A long time ago, in 1990 the French director Luc Besson made a big splash with his movie Nikita. This being a French film, the name of the main character Nikita was properly stressed on the last syllable NikitA. Now in the late 1990’s the Americans made a TV show titled Le Femme Nikita, however, in that TV show they stressed the name on the second syllable NikIta. To me as a Russian that sounded totally silly, because in Russian we have a man’s name NikIta (I bet you probably have this same male name in Ukrainian too) as opposed to the French female name NikitA (stressed on the last syllable), so when in Le Femme Nikita they always stressed it on the second syllable it sounded totally weird to me. Btw, when they translated the Show into Russian they shifted the stress back to the last syllable so as not to freak out Russian audiences.

          So my point is you can’t seriously go heaping scorn on a Russian voice-over actor for ‘mis-pronouncing’ or rather ‘phonetically pronouncing’ an English name as if it was a capital offense. Americans and Brits do this sort of thing to foreign names all the time and by your standards they should all probably have been wiped off the face of the earth for that.

          As for the poor quality of movie translations in Russia – the reason for that is twofold;
          1) Companies that release foreign movies in Russia are always on the lookout for the cheapest deal when it comes to translation. Translation is one of the areas in which the most aggressive cost-cutting policies are implemented.
          2) There are a lot of people in Russia who tend to overestimate their command of English and who are so hungry for any sort of practice in the language that they offer translation services at dirt cheap prices

          Film distribution execs usually have only limited command of English at best so they can’t really assess the quality of the translations they get.

          Well the result is often absolutely atrocious; translations that sound like totally unnatural and contrived Russian and which will often make no sense and that apart from the fact that more often than not they’re hopelessly inaccurate. I remember how a long time ago I was watching the movie Collateral Damage, it had that voice-over translation that LR is so appalled by, however, one of the advantages of voice-overs (as opposed to dubbing) is that you can often hear what’s being said in the original, so in one episode a woman was being shown some mugshots of known criminals in an FBI building, at one point she said where’s the restroom (I could hear it clearly) and the translator said, ‘let’s look at the rest of the photos’, at which point the woman and the FBI agent that was with her got up and went to the restroom (the FBI agent was showing the way).

          Well, to sum it up.
          The quality of the vast majority of Russian translations of foreign (American) films, with a few very rare exceptions, is really poor and Russian distributors of foreign films absolutely deserve the harshest criticism for that, since it is they who choose cheap translation fees over good quality.

          However, criticizing Russians for changing the pronunciation of foreign names to make them easier to say in Russian is totally out of order, it’s like criticizing the British or Americans for saying Paris rather than Paree.

          LA RUSSOPHOBE RESPONDS:

          Actually, we think they SHOULD be criticized for that. Why can’t people call places by their proper names? Is it that hard to say “Paree”?

          • igorfazlyev,

            You answered my comment like an ignorant Russophile, that you obviously are!

            I on purpose did not raise anything about hyphenating a name or word that is pronounced, because that is a huge matter if one is going to attempt to do so, especially how all the English speaking nations do.

            Reread my above reply, than and only than, put paper to pen

            And no! again YOU ARE WRONG as the word Nikita is a purely Russian one, in Ukrainian its corresponding name one is Mykyta. Pure and simlple, now got that straight!

            Similarly look at the Christian name of Borys (Ukrainian) and Boris (Russian). In the first instance it is pronounced as “Bo rys” or in cyrillic ‘Борис’, whereas in Russian it is pronounced as “Ba ris”. Full stop.

            Tell me have you ever lived in an English speaking country, and if so how long. Similarly have you ever attended any English school, whether it be primary, high or university? Do tell??

            LA RUSSOPHOBE RESPONDS:

            Not sure he should be called a Russophile, his other comments do not indicate that is appropriate.

            • LR point made, point taken! I stand to be corrected in the use of the word “Russophile” in this instance.

              I did have doubts about using it in the first instance. When, after much soul searching and ” ‘amn and ahring’ about it” immediately after posting the comment, I realized it had not been in appropriate taste when used.

              The fact of life is that once a person writes a letter or utters a word, the damage is done and cannot be retracted, for this I offer my apology to you igorfazlyev.

            • Bohdan, I’m not a Russophile by any stretch of the imagination (as LR pointed out) and I’m not really that ignorant, although I do admit I’d forgotten that the Ukrainian counterpart for the Russian name Nikita is actually Mykyta – sorry about that, my bad. I stand corrected.

              You kind of lost me on the hyphenation issue, what exactly were you trying to say there?

              The difference between Borys and Boris, and Mykyta and Nikita, for all intents and purposes those are a kind of minimal pairs in the two languages, i.e. the variations of one and the same name that differ in pronunciation but share the same origin. The same way as my name, Igor, would be Ivor if I was born in Latvia, or the same way is the Russian name Ivan comes originally from the Greek Ioan which in the English speaking world has evolved into John. To me this is really a non-issue, which, in addition, is a bit beside the point in a thread dealing with the generally poor quality of movie translations in Russia.
              And the poor quality of movie translations is just one symptom, it is in fact a systemic problem, we could talk for instance about how not so long ago the Russian Academy of Sciences launched an English version of its website on which, among other things, Institut Belka (Protein Institute) was translated into English as ‘the Institute of the Squirrel’ and so on and so forth, so I was a bit at a loss as to why you chose to pick on some schmuck of a voice-over actor for mispronouncing an English name.

              To answer your question; I’ve never lived in an English speaking country and never attended any English schools.

          • “Actually, we think they SHOULD be criticized for that. Why can’t people call places by their proper names? Is it that hard to say “Paree”?”

            Well if that your position on this then I can only commend you for the consistency in your views. Although I personally do think it’s a bit too much to expect people to pronounce every word borrowed from another language in exactly the same way as it is said in the language it’s borrowed from. It may, theoretically, work in languages that at least share the same alphabet (and some French words are pronounced the same way as they are in French when they’re used in English) but if the language that borrows the word uses a different alphabet than the language the word is borrowed from, the pronunciation is still going to be different.

          • igor just drop the stupid cyrillic alphabet, so there won’t be any more Monsieur PUTAIN……

  3. I see thanks for the clarification.

    Btw speaking of translations it has to be said that the quality of translations in movies generally tends to be rather bad.

    In Putin’s Russia failures find excuses for YOU.

  4. “In our experience, translation of basic English phrases in the script of a movie is just as bad as the title, and the practice of having one male voice speak all the parts (rather than, for instance, using subtitles) is barbaric and embarrassing.”

    This practice you mention was widespread in the late 1980’s and throughout the 1990’s when the Russian market was inundated with pirate copies on VHS tapes. Today it’s as good as gone, foreign moves that are shown in movie theatres are dubbed and on TV they usually make localised versions of popular US and British shows. I know they showed the original American versions of Lost and Heroes here, but far as I remember those were both dubbed.

    Btw I wouldn’t go as far as to claim that having a male ‘voiceover’ translation is necessarily ‘barbaric’ and it has to be said it definitely beats having to read the subtitles instead of watching what’s happening on the screen.

    I remember one episode in the dim and distant past, I was a kid then, when my parents and I went to see the first Robocop in a movie theatre, it was an original American copy, neither dubbed nor subtitled and the voiceover was provided by an actual guy who sat in the audience with a microphone. Before the film began he talked about the meaning of the word Robocop and how police officers in the US were called cops and then he just used this word throughout the movie and he did a pretty decent job. Again, I was thankful, I was just a kid and couldn’t speak or understand English at the time and I seriously doubt that I’d have enjoyed reading subtitles.

    Btw, speaking of how Russians are supposedly ignorant and intolerant of foreign cultures, this reminds me of another episode; we had an American missionary teaching English for free at our institute, since it was free I started going to those classes and one night me and that American walked home together, we talked about movies; as long as we talked about American movies the conversation went smoothly, but then I mentioned a few French movies and French actors that I liked and the guy draw a blank, he’d never heard of them, and they were very popular in Russia. So I asked how come he’d never seen those French movies and he said, ‘ you see in American if it’s foreign – nobody’s interested’

  5. I live in Latvia – a country where Russians are not to hard to find and have never met one who in reply to the question “Do you speak English?” has not answered in the affirmative. In reality, however, very few can – in fact over the eight years I have been here I have only met two whose English is ‘passable’.
    Why is this? It is the way English is taught. Last week I saw a homework exercise – a short text (about 100 words) written in English by the teacher for the student to translate – there were 11 mistakes!
    I am amazed at the things I am asked by children such as “how do the peasants live in England?”!!!!!! “How do people see where they are going in London with all the fog?”!!!!
    Then there are the text books, usually published in Moscow, which give Russian and English side by side – every page contains mistakes!
    Is it any wonder that the children who attend Latvian schools are more advanced in English than their Russian friends?

    • I can’t say anything about Latvia as I’ve never been there but from my own experience of travelling in Europe I can say that generally in places like the Czeck Republic or Germany or Finland people tend to overestimate their command of English in that when you ask them if they speak English they will tell you that yeah sure, but then when you ask them something else they will either fail to understand you at all or they will understand your question but then will go on to answer it in very poor, often barely comprehensible, English. In some places they even go as far as to develop their own local version of English, like in Prague, for example, they don’t exchange currencies, they simply change them, so if you want to exchange your currency into local Crowns you want to look for a place called ‘Change’ and not ‘Exchange’, which take a bit of getting used to if you’ve never seen the word ‘change’ used that way before.

      In Russia, at least where I live, most English schools use British textbooks like Cutting Edge, English File, True to Life etc. (there’s lots of them), perhaps if you look hard enough you could still find some 70-year old tutor who would teach you from a 1970’s Soviet text book, however, I’m pretty sure it would take you a very long time to find a relic of a tutor like that and eventually you might even give up without finding one. I’m not even sure that kids who’ve only been studying English for a year or two in Smolensk would even know the word ‘peasant’ (unless they’re interested in history) and all of them will have seen London at least on TV and know there’s no fog there and the ‘fog’ that London was once (in)famous for was actually smog from burning coal.

  6. Why do Russians call Shakespeare’s great play Гамлет (Gamlet) and Stalin’s one time chum Гитлер “Gitler” – why not Амлет and Итълер? I only ask for information.
    By the way in response to igorfazlyev the text books I have in mind are those in the Англтйский клуб series published by Айрис пресс all within the last ten years.

    • Gamlet and Gitler – those are just ‘traditional’ transliterations, in most proper names the letter H was transliterated as G, thus apart from Gamlet instead of Hamlet, in some Russian texts, Henry becomes Genry. Alternatively, H can be transliterated as the Russian letter X, which makes a sound similar to the Scottish ch as in loch. Like I said transliterating H with the Russian G is the more traditional, older version. I don’t really know where it came from. When I was a kid and studying German in school, I had a theory that it was because of the German word herr (Mr), which, if transliterated into Russian with a Scottish-ch sound would be spelled and said exactly the same as a mildly offensive Russian word for penis, so herr became gerr in Russian texts. But that was just my own hypothesis which I never had either time or desire to test.

      To tell you the truth Anglisky Club does ring a bell so I’ve probably seen them in stores. There’s also textbooks by Alexander Dragunkin, which too have been published within the last 10 years and have traditionally been choke-full of all sorts of factual errors and misconceptions about English. Dragunkin doesn’t even use the IPA, instead he simply transliterates English words with Cyrillic letters, in effect teaching people to say ze instead of the and zis instead of this etc. However, you don’t have to use those books. In a local store where I live there’s an entire stand with English textbooks by Russian authors like Dragunkin, but right next to it are two stands with textbooks published by various British publishers like CUP, OUP, Macmillan, Collins etc. Naturally any English teacher/private tutor worth their salt would never use any of those Russian textbooks as the vast majority of them, with perhaps only a handful of exceptions, would do more harm than good.

  7. Bohdan wrote: “However before I start, it is only fair to say that my command of Ukrainian is quite good, whereas my command of English is superb.

    Plus you are superbly modest, and equally superbly intelligent.

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