Beyond Words - Language Blog

Russian Translation: Going Beyond Words

Every translator has to deal with the peculiarities of his native language. With every nuance, shade of meaning, and grammatical inclination, each language offers a reflection of the people who speak it. Where one language relies primarily on verbs to carry a sentence to its goal, another lets its nouns do the talking. One language may have an array of adverbs and adjectives for every type of person, place, and thing, while another conveys those descriptors pre-attached to the nouns they describe. There is no such thing as a literal translation. If there was, it would neither be truly accurate nor acoustically satisfying.

English is a language of verbs. A person can “foot” a soccer ball, “knee” his opponent, “elbow” his way through a crowd, “shoulder” a burden, and “eye” his target. German is a language of nouns. A hospital is a Krankenhaus, or literally, a house for sick people, and most every other noun is a combination of its look, function, and place in history. Russian is a language of adverbs and adjectives — though it, too, boasts a number of nouns, usually dealing with emotional states, which cannot be articulated in one English word or even approximated in ten. Over the course of 1400 years, the Russian language has grown in richness and variety, and has developed a tapestry of words that reflect a people, a culture, and centuries of political and social upheaval.

To accurately translate English into Russian requires more than a firm grasp of declensions and a varied vocabulary. It calls for comprehending the Russian culture, and specifically, the national characteristic of skepticism that is so deeply rooted in the language that it has become the core of most Russian jokes and all Russian platitudes. Good Russian translation also requires empathy with a Russian-speaker’s values in order to convey sense over syntax. Vladimir Nabokov, that unparalleled critical eye into the heart and mind of the Russian people, pinpointed a useful trope of Russian thinking in a poem published in 1945 in the New Yorker. Nabokov writes of Russian linguistic trends:

For instance,
love automatically rhymes with blood,
nature with liberty, sadness with distance,
humane with everlasting, prince with mud,
moon with a multitude of words, but sun
and song and wind and life and death with none.

While Nabokov’s insights appear to be arbitrary (for who in the history of the Russian tongue decided which words should parallel which?), they illuminate a national tendency towards relational value. When Nabokov implies that love courses in blood, that liberty is a natural state, that royalty is grime, and that life and death are comparable with nothing else, he conveys to the English speaker the Russian mentality without translating a single word. This kind of explanation — of meaning rather than words — is at the heart of accurate translation.