09 July 2009

Words that defy translators

Generations of American admirers of Russia have tried to describe the so-called "Russian soul"--but I'm not about to join them in this effort. Instead, I've been reading 93 Untranslatable Russian Words, a book that provides some fascinating soul hints, by way of a listing of Russia words that defy the translator's skill.

As the author Natalia Gogolitsyna explains, these words are not literally impossible to translate, but they have no one-word equivalents in English. Translators must bracket the target with multiple synonyms or use explanatory phrases. To me, that makes the reality or quality behind that one Russian word particularly interesting.

Now, there's no single Russian word that carries this soul-cargo alone. In part, the fascination of these 93 words is in their cumulative effect--the clues they give to the psychic shape of the Russian world, what is common knowledge or tacitly understood, when to struggle and when to be resigned, and so on.

(For Russian speakers, some of the words and quotations Gogolitsyna discusses are in this pdf document on Bristol University's Web site.)

Here are some delicious examples. (I'm not keeping to the book's alphabetical order). In the book, each word or word family is followed by the author's definition and commentary, and then by illustrations from Russian dictionaries, literature, and conversational transcripts. I'm only giving a small part of the treatment of each example. I added the pronunciation guide, using the least academic system possible!)
  • быт [pronounced somewhat like the English word "bit" without widening the lips for the vowel]
    {noun, masculine}
    Way of life; everyday life, daily routine, habitual pattern of life; drudgery. The word (derived from the verb to be: быть) evokes the material world and a static conservative form of existence. It is contrasted to бытие--the higher, spiritual level of human existence. The English language does not have a word for this.
  • однолюб [odnoLYOOB]
    {noun, masculine}
    Somebody who has had only one love in her or his life, or who can love only one person at a time. The only possible translation is a description or explanatory phrase.
  • воля [VOLya]
    {noun, feminine}
    Freedom, liberty, free will. The word implies a lack of constraint, natural freedom, even a state close to anarchy. Воля often suggests open space, untrammeledness, distance. It is a more emotive word than свобода [svoBOda]. And it is one of those words which tacitly echose their opposite (here: тюрьмя [tyurMA, jail or prison], неволя [nyeVOLya, captivity, slavery]).

    [Among Gogolitsyna's many illustrations, I particularly liked these:]

    Volya is freedom + space and nature. Dmitry Likhachev

    What is the difference between volya and svoboda? It is in the fact that svoboda is a positive and perfectly translatable concept. Whereas volya is absence of constraints (when the serfs were given letters of enfranchisement, this letter was called a volnaya), volya is when I do not have a yoke, when there is no authority over me, I do as I please, but there's no duty, no responsibilities. To get volya, people run absolutely anywhere, following their nose, to faraway lands, for example to the Cossacks. (But svoboda, you have to fight for it and treasure it.) Leonid Batkin
  • размах [razMAKH]
    {noun, masculine}
    Scope, range, sweep, scale, span, amplitude, breadth. When applied to character, the word may suggest an admirable expansiveness and generosity. In English, the problem is choosing between too many translations.
  • отходчивый [otKHODcheevee]
    Describes someone who loses her/his temper with another person, but does not subsequently harbor resentment. 1. Not bearing grudges. 2. Easily appeased. 3. Forgiving. The antonym is злопамятный [zloPAMyatnee], vindictive.
  • авось [aVOSS]
    This colloquial word and expression combines the meaning of "perhaps," "I wish," "on the off-chance," and "hopefully," which creates problems when translating. In Russian folklore, it has both positive and negative connotations.
  • тоска [tosKA]
    {noun, feminine}
    Melancholy, anguish, pangs, depression, ennui, boredom, longing, yearning, nostalgia, weariness, tedium. None of these combines the notion of sadness, depression, yearning or boredom contained in the Russian word.
  • чужой [chuZHOI]
    Someone else’s, other people’s, not mine/ours; foreign, alien, strange. The word is an antonym of роднóй [rodnoi, one's own due to ties of birth; native] and свой [svoi, one's own, belonging to the subject of the clause], and therefore has negative connotations. The problem with the first three translations proposed above is that they are not adjectival, and "foreign" and "strange" have much broader applications. "Alien" is often used to translate чужой, but it has too strong a connotation of something threatening or unappealing. It is strange that English does not have a word for this very basic and ancient concept. It is also important to note that чужой is very distinct in its meaning: "not mine, not ours, belonging to someone other than me."
  • подвиг [PODvig]
    {noun, masculine}
    Heroic deed, feat, act of heroism, something done for the general good. The Russian word подвиг tends to have a much wider usage than its English equivalents.

Righteous links: "Perspectives on Migration" gathered by OneWorld.net. And what about people of faith as immigrants? ~~ Karen Street probes Quakerly biases on the information we choose to support our energy-policy positions. ~~ Buzz Aldrin, moon explorer and philosopher. ~~ Vasily Aksyonov, talented author and beloved son of Evgeniya Ginzburg: NYT obituary, NPR obituary. ~~ Need marital communication lessons? We've got you covered.

I first saw Joanne Shaw Taylor five years ago in Birmingham, UK. Her fame is now worldwide. Here she is in Chicago:

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