Common US Tropes That Won’t Work For a Russian Audience

People having a meeting

Operative writing (think calls to action) is full of metaphors and imagery meant to spur the audience into action. Authors writing for a US audience will naturally use tropes familiar to people in the US. However, this may become problematic if the product ends up being translated and used somewhere else. I would like to list a few such concepts below and analyze why they may not work in Russian.

Privilege

The word privilege is used to say “something you should not take for granted, something that you may use provided you abide by the rules.” This is implicitly contrasted to a right, which is understood to be inalienable. This is used in multiple collocations such as “library privileges” or “parking privileges.”

The Russian cognate of privileges, привилегии (privilegii), is used to talk about exclusive, one-of-a-kind, behind the doors access. Think of eating caviar while others get food rations — that’s privilegii for you. Calling any right that is contingent on compliance with certain rules a “privilege” will make little sense to your Russian audience and make them think you are trying to charge them for the air they breathe. If you want to avoid that in your authoring or translation, you may want to say something like “the right to use X.”

Blessed

People in the US will often say, “I am blessed to have met my partner/to have this job” an so on. This does not even always convey a strictly religious sentiment and can be understood to mean “a gift of fate.” However, the Russian equivalent, благословение (blagoslovenie), is unambiguously religious. Moreover, this word is quite elevated in terms of register and could not be used in a casual sentence like “We were blessed to find this rental space.”

What do people say then? I’d wager the most common thing is “lucky” — мне повезло. While some may be uncomfortable admitting that they owe positive things in their life to a fortunate turn of events, Russians tend to accept that there are many things beyond their control. It could also be a form of modesty or even coyness.

Pride

We are often encouraged to show pride — in our school, in our heritage, in our work. This notion is so normal for the US that employees at fast food franchises are instructed to show pride when serving customers. What sounds so natural in English becomes extremely awkward when you try to convey it in Russian.

The Russian for pride, гордость (gordost’) is reserved for achievement of one’s team, children, workplace, or country. In other words, you need to have done something to be proud. Telling a fast food worker in Russia to work with pride almost sounds like an insult — “should I be proud I flipped that burger so well?”

What the US notion of pride conveys may be better captured by the Russian “достоинство” (dostoinstvo), dignity, or “командный дух” (komandny dukh), team spirit, although these notions won’t apply to all mundane situations. My tip would be to stay away from lofty rhetoric when talking about practical things as appeal to virtues may sound insincere or inappropriate.

This list could be expanded with several other high-frequency examples. In any event, we should be careful not to use local tropes in emotional or moral argumentation that will be employed elsewhere.

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