Guilty By Association: When Idiomatic Translation Hurts Your Message


One of the benchmarks of a good translation is whether it sounds “natural” or “flows.” In other words, you want the translation to use language that is frequently used by the target audience and resonates with them.

An important exception to this rule is when the “natural,” idiomatic expression has negative connotations in that language. Such cases may warrant a departure from the choices made in the original text. Below are a couple of examples that illustrate this point for Russian.


Woman on the subway

“Single” is defined as “[u]nmarried or not involved in a stable sexual relationship.” This word may be used in screening questions about marital status or in target market demographic breakdown.

What are some common Russian equivalents? In official papers, you will see nezhenatyi (неженатый, unmarried) for men and nezamuzhnyaya (незамужняя, unmarried) for women. This may not always work for your purposes — these terms are gender-specific and may include unmarried people in relationships, who are, by definition, not single.

When discussing single parenthood, the customary Russian term is materi-odinochki (матери-одиночки, literally “lone mothers”). This does not sound very positive and probably shouldn’t be used by a business to describe its potential customers.

As a result, you may want to be creative with the translation. If you need a gender-neutral, non-negative way of saying “not in a relationship,” you may choose something like ne sostoyashii v otnosheniyah (не состоящий в отношениях, “not in a relationship”). It may sound less usual, but it also doesn’t come with the “baggage” of the native terms.

“Having a Drink”

Two bottles of beer

Doesn’t having a drink with your friends sound fabulous and almost innocent? However, finding an adequate equivalent in Russian may be surprisingly challenging. It appears that, despite (or due to?) high rates of alcohol consumption, the Russian language attaches a social stigma to drinking.

Vypivat’ (выпивать, “to occasionally have a(n alcoholic) drink”) is typically used when talking about vices, as in “он выпивает” (on vypivaet, “he’s a drinker”). That’s probably not the image you want to project when talking about having a drink with your friends.

Another variant potreblyat’ alkogol/spirtnye napitki (потреблять алкоголь/спиртные напитки, “to consume alcohol/alcoholic drinks”) sounds like a part of a health study on alcohol consumption. This is not ideal if you want to present drinking as a fun and laid-back activity.

That means that if your materials contain references to drinking, you may need to forgo the usual, “natural-sounding” translation in favor of more creative, positive wordings. If you are talking about a specific kind of drink, for example wine, you may choose to say vypit’ bokal vina (выпить бокал вина, “to have a glass of wine”), which sounds classy and non-judgmental.

In other words, you don’t always want to stop at the popular, commonly-accepted translation if it does not represent your brand message and the desired associations. These cases justify and even require a departure from the choices made in English in order to ensure the desired impact in translation.

Are Your Corporate Materials Localization-Ready?

man writing notes

US-headquartered corporations will often want to expand their operations overseas. At the same time, few of them internationalize their corporate communications and training materials. In other words, the original content was authored with the US in mind, and when the company decides to publish this content abroad — to localize it for other markets — it turns out that parts of it are inappropriate for the overseas audience.

References To US Resources

woman on the phoneOne common thing authors seem to overlook when sending documents for translation is content that is only applicable in the US. For example, the company might promote its toll-free 800 number, although it may be unreachable outside North America. The solution here would be to list a local toll-free number in the target market or, if you don’t have one, to list your normal US number with the country and area code included.

Another example is a company equal-opportunity employment policy that lists all unacceptable grounds for discrimination and end the list with “and other characteristics protected by law.” This may be misleading in a country where protected characteristics differ from those under US law. What the company can do is list any characteristics it does not discriminate on and replace the reference to the US-specific equal opportunity employment regulations with “applicable law.”

Presumed Values

diverse group of peopleImplicit assumptions also pose a challenge for localization. For instance, you may include in your employee training materials names like Zhao, Ben, Tyra, and Carmen. The implicit assumption there is that the company is diverse and various populations are represented in the workforce. However, leaving the names as is may only confuse your overseas audience, who will not have the same association with the names and may be left wondering why bizarre names are used in local training materials.

You may want to come up with a localization strategy and include it in the translation brief for your translation provider. You may choose to give them license to use “typical” names from the target country to make the training read more natural for the locale. If you wish to preserve diversity, you may want to instruct them to include names typical for various groups in the target country. Finally, if you choose to leave the names as is, make sure they do not sound comical or obscene in the target language.

In some cases, values you perceive as worth implementing in your culture may be met with suspicion and even hostility in the new market. For example, a company may encourage reporting violations to superiors. This requirement breaks an unspoken taboo on “snitching” for the former USSR, where people could be imprisoned or worse based on reports submitted by jealous neighbors. If you want to encourage reporting misconduct, you may need to include an explanation of why this is beneficial for all employees and why this is morally acceptable and even commendable. These values may be second-nature to the initial audience, but not to the target audience.

These are some salient points I have encountered working on corporate communications thus far. I would love to hear from people working in other language combinations about their experience. Can you think of any examples of successful internationalization?

3 Checks For Your Automated Translation (If You Can’t Help Using It)


Bad automated translations have become infamous on the Internet. Business are advised against using “raw” machine translation. Finally, you might have read about an embarrassing mistranslation that made it onto the official site of a Spanish food festival.

To grossly simplify the mechanism, machine translation is normally a combination of substitution rules and large corpora (collections) of texts in the two languages that help the software “decide” what each original string corresponds to in translation. This technology can yield good results when we use domain-specific corpora, controlled authoring, and human post-editing for high-visibility or high-stakes content.

I understand why these best practices need to be followed, you might say, but I am no Fortune 500 company — I cannot afford to hire a human translator or post-editor. I only need to translate this street sign or ask my Italian in-laws what they want for dinner. While augmenting machine translation with the practices mentioned above is still highly recommended for any business/official communication, I would like to share some techniques to check your automated translation when you cannot use other options.

Use Longer Phrases

One of the challenges for machine translation is ambiguity in language — one word can mean different things in different contexts. The way to help the software overcome this is to give it more context. Consider the following example from this BBC article:

English The little car you can drive in France without a licence Losing one’s driving licence in the UK is a serious matter – expensive and, to say the least, very inconvenient.
Google Translation (Russian) Маленькая машина можно ехать во Франции без лицензии Потеря свое водительское удостоверение в Великобритании серьезный вопрос – дорого и, по меньшей мере, очень неудобно.
Bing Translation (Russian) Маленький автомобиль вы можете управлять во Франции без лицензии Теряя водительские права в Великобритании это серьезный вопрос – дорого и, мягко говоря, очень неудобно.

vintage carPutting aside grammatical incongruities for a moment, we see that in the first instance, both Google and Bing translated “licence” as litsenziya (лицензия), which is a business or medical license in Russian, but not the document that lets you drive a car. In the second sentence, however, the combination “driving licence” has swayed the result in the correct direction of voditelskiye prava or voditelskoye udostovereniye (both meaning “driver’s license”).


In the example above, both Google and Bing gave similar results. However, that is not always the case. Take this sentence from a post on the Snob website.

Russian С полгода назад ко мне на прием пришла женщина и попросила совета.
Google Translation (English) About half a year ago I was at the reception woman came and asked for advice.
Bing Translation (English) With half a year ago to me came a woman and asked the Council.

professional womanThe Russian actually says “About half a year ago a woman came to see me [at my office] and asked for advice.” We see that Google produced accurate translations for the timeframe and asking for advice, but it did not convey that this interaction happened at a counseling appointment. Bing, on the other hand, did convey that the woman had come to see the author, but picked the incorrect variant for sovet (advice vs council).

In other words, if you are machine translating something for comprehension and not for further publication, try running the same sentence or text through more than one automated translation engine to cross-check the output and detect any common threads or discrepancies.

Round-Trip It

Finally, if you are translating from a language you know and absolutely cannot use a human translator to do or check the work, don’t just stop at the first automated translation you get. Take that output and machine translate it back. See if the output makes any sense.

For instance, try round-tripping the sentence “A land where dinosaurs once roamed, this prehistoric evolutionary cauldron is a playground for naturalists” from a CNN travel article. You may want to use a different automated translation engine than the one you used to do the first translation. I have seen some comical results with this sentence.

I would especially like to hear from people outside the language industry — do you use machine translation in your work? What made you chose this method over others? How do you make sure the translation is meeting your expectations?

How Bad Is Translation Expansion in Russian (And How To Curb It)

hot air balloons
Image: StockSnap

We say that a text “expands” if its translation takes up more space on the page or screen than the original content. Expansion causes problems for layouts created without localization in mind as the translation will be truncated to the point of being unintelligible, or the design will need to be re-worked to accommodate the expanded text. Consequently, developers are encouraged to leave enough space in the user interface to accommodate expansion.

Russian is supposed to expand greatly and wreak havoc on your user interface. But does it really expand that much? Let’s look at a few numbers first.

Continue reading “How Bad Is Translation Expansion in Russian (And How To Curb It)”

Lessons Learned from ATA 56th Annual Conference

Wynwood Walls in Miami
Wynwood Walls in Miami // Image mine

This year I attended the American Translators Association (ATA) annual conference after a three-year gap. This post is a quasi-debriefing of what I thought went well this time and what I need to concentrate on in the following years. By its nature, the list will be specific to me and may not reflect everyone’s priorities and experience. I am sharing it here for any colleagues who may find it useful. I will be happy to hear your perspective and compare notes.
Some background is in order. The first time I went to ATA was in 2011, when I was a graduate student in translation. I couchsurfed and had to commute to the venue and missed a few sessions as a result. I was also unaware of the external networking opportunities, which I will cover in this post. This time, I feel I took better advantage of the conference for the following reasons.

Ideas That Worked

Stay Close To The Conference Venue

This was a pivotal decision that enabled me to seize the other opportunities I am going to describe in this post. The hotel where the conference was held charged a hefty sum — especially for a single room — which I found too steep. However, I was able to stay close by without the expense at an airbnb 10 minutes away from the hotel. While it did not provide the same level of convenience and privacy as a hotel room would have, it offered a more affordable rate without compromising proximity to conference events and informal networking opportunities.

Continue reading “Lessons Learned from ATA 56th Annual Conference”

Coding Approaches That Foil Russian Localization

pieces of a jiggsaw puzzle

Making the next ubiquitous app is the holy grail of many tech startups. Yet localization is often an afterthought for an initially English-only application. So when you are ready to take your app to other markets, certain assumptions that were made for English no longer work for the localized app. Here are three approaches that will make your app less functional and user-friendly in Russian.

The Lego Approach

Lego blocksConcatenation is a coding technique that strings different sequences of characters together to form a sentence. For example, a newsfeed update may be coded as “[username] posted [number] pictures,” where the username and number are pulled in from a database and the rest of the phrase is static. This sounds like an efficient approach that helps you recycle the building blocks of language instead of having multiple variations of the same string — in English.

However, in Russian as an example, “added” will be different depending on whether the subject (so, your user) is feminine, masculine, neuter, or plural. “Pictures” will be different depending on the number that precedes it, much like in English, except that the form for 2-4 is different from the form for 5-10. Why such complexity, you may ask? Some theories of language postulate that redundancy, or repeating parts of the message, helps the listener or language learner catch the message if they missed one part of it.

We may not like having to alter our perfectly functional English code to accommodate “less efficient” languages, but not doing so will result in a foreign equivalent of broken English. To illustrate this, let’s look at an analytic language without verb tenses or plural forms for nouns, like Mandarin. If a developer coming from the perspective of that language had coded something like “[username] like this post,” where “like” does not change in terms of person or tense, this could potentially result in ungrammatical sentences like “Joe like this post.” While this is still understandable, it does not have the same feel as the original copy.

The Unisex Approach

old letterA related pitfall to avoid is ignoring the concept of grammatical gender. Even basic boilerplate language like the greeting “Dear” in an email salutation will need to be different depending on whether the recipient is male or female. While this means more things to keep track of in your database, this will result in the same standard of writing as was applied to the communication in English.

As a side note, the lack of an established gender-neutral pronoun does present a challenge in Russian. In any case, you should be able to track and display the user’s preferred pronouns and adjective gender.

The Buddy Approach

dog with a ballA final difference to keep in mind is the US developers’ propensity for informal, approachable language. This is evidenced by humorous error messages along the lines of “Oops, something went wrong” or status messages saying “Sit tight.” This is unusual for Russian, where the audience expects a more straightforward and slightly drier style.

For example, an application is unlikely to add “please” or “thank you” to the message it displays. As a result, the Microsoft style guide for Russian recommends translating “No line, thank you” as “Без линии” (Bez linii, literally “No line”) to ensure proper register. While some of these stylistic quirks of English authoring may be neutralized in translation with the help of a style guide, it is best to internationalize your code from the outset to avoid linguistic — as well as technical — obstacles to successful localization.

Understandably, even with the best practices in mind, developers may miss an aspect that makes localization in a specific language difficult. That is why it is so important to consult your localization provider at various stages of software development. This way, you will be able to make your app a little more international — in the next version, if not the current one.

Does My Russian Text Look Right? A Guide For Non-Speakers

magnifying glass

Perhaps you have to deal with Russian text in your work. Project managers at translation companies, software developers, technical writers, engineers, designers, printers and countless other professionals may need to process or deliver content in Russian — but they may not be able to read it.

How can you tell if what you are looking at is, indeed, coherent Russian text if all you know is that it is not English text? Your best bet is to consult a Russian speaker or someone who can read Russian. However, if such a person is not immediately available, here are some quick and dirty ways of catching corrupted Russian text. Note that we are only talking about the typographic appearance of the text — your text may display correctly and still contain incorrect or nonsensical translation.

Automated Translation

The first and most obvious method is to drop the content into an automated translation environment like Google Translator. If you are getting a translation, your text is likely, indeed, in Russian. However, this method will not work if you are working with non-live text, for example, in a flat image or a printout.


Russian cameraWhile there are several differences in the use of capitalization between English and Russian, the overall idea behind capitalization is fairly consistent in these two languages. Just like English, Russian capitalizes the first letter of a new sentence and proper names. So, if your English content is in all caps and the Russian is in lowercase; or if your content is in normal sentence case and the Russian is in reverse letter case, something is not right.

For instance, the heading of a Colta article looks like this in Russian: В России поставят первый памятник Андрею Белому (“Russia to Erect Its First Andrey Bely Monument”). We can see that the first letter of the sentence and the initial letters of three more words, likely proper nouns, are capitalized. This is what the same sentence looks like when erroneously encoded in ISO-8859-5: “а’ а аОббаИаИ аПаОбб‚аАаВбб‚ аПаЕб€аВб‹аЙ аПаАаМбб‚аНаИаК ааНаДб€аЕбŽ а‘аЕаЛаОаМбƒ.” Capital letters in the middle of the word are a sign that our content likely got corrupted.


Another way of assessing whether the Russian text in front of you is displayed correctly is to ascertain if any vowels are present in the words. This is a more involved technique, so you may want to run your decision by someone who is familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet.

Russian uses the following vowels (in upper and lower case): Аа, Ее, Ии, Оо, Уу, Яя, Ээ, ы, Ёё, Юю. At least a few of them look like the English letters A, E, O, and Y.

If a Russian word looks like this: сжЦфК═ — apart from the inconsistent capitalization and the presence of a special character, the consonant cluster is another red flag that the word should be checked. This is actually the word Moscow (Москва) displayed with an incorrect character encoding.

Latin Characters

Russian booksFinally, Latin characters in the middle of a Russian word also warrant a thorough check. The challenge here is that some Cyrillic letter looks the same as their Latin counterparts. You may want to refer to a Russian alphabet to see if the letter is really an outlier.

Take the same word Москва (Moscow). If we see something like јЮбЪТР, we notice that the letters j, T, and P could potentially be Latin letters. A quick comparison with the Russian alphabet reveals that T and P are legitimate Russian letters, while j is not.

In any case, if you do not read Russian, you should have a native or fluent speaker proofread your text, provide solutions for any issues, and confirm that it is good to go. However, the techniques above let you do a quick assessment and catch incorrectly displaying Russian text before it goes to publication.

Three Things Media Gets Wrong About Interpreting

retro TVThere is rarely a political drama, sci-fi story, or fantasy saga that does not involve communication across languages. It is, therefore, fair to say the general public is aware of interpreting as a profession. However, these fictional tales are often written by people not intimately familiar with language industry; nor is interpreting usually central to the story. Still, they are often the only sources of information for many people, giving the audience a woefully inadequate understanding of interpreting.

Calling Interpreters “Translators”

C-3PO, image by Gordon Tarpley

Using interpreting and translation interchangeably is not unique to the media — in a way, this is an accurate representation of the confusion about these terms. You might remember that interpreters deal with the spoken word, and translators work with the written word. Often, even in situations where a fictional character is supposed to know the difference, they will inexplicably mix the two up.

One of the most salient examples is the C-3PO protocol droid from the Star Wars universe. He (it?) is fluent in virtually all forms of communication in the galaxy and interprets for the main characters traveling to distant worlds, yet he is routinely referred to — by himself and other — as a translator.

Of course, Star Wars is a fictional universe, and technicalities of language work are but a minor point. Still, this franchise has attained cult status in the US and abroad, and this minor inaccuracy shapes how thousands of people see interpreting and translation.

Ad-Hoc Interpreting

Pregnant woman with dughter
Image by Juan Galafa/SnapStock

Another insidious idea one can glean from popular media is that any bilingual person can act as an interpreter on an as-needed basis. The UK series Call the Midwife shows a scene where a teenage daughter is forced to interpret for her pregnant Spanish-speaking mother. When the nurse asks about the woman’s last menstrual period, the girl exclaims in disgust, “I’m not asking her that!” While all too common, using family to interpret in medical contexts is highly discouraged due to conflicts of interest and a lack of specialized knowledge.

In a more outlandish example, the TV show House of Cards features an episode where the fictional President of the US hosts the (barely fictionalized) President of Russia and the opposition punk band Pussy Riot. One of the band members makes a bitter toast at the dinner table — to be interpreted into English by another member of the band! This situation reflects neither best practices nor reality. A high-profile venue like the While House would certainly have professional interpreters, and communication would not be left in the hands of an interested, untrained party.

Ignorance Of Interpreting Ethics

A common offense against interpreting as portrayed by the media is the total ignorance of professional ethics and best practices. Time and again, interpreters in the media will summarize, speak in the third person, or add their comments.

Tokyo nightlife
Image by Kevin Poh/flickr

Think of Game of Thrones‘ character Missandei — a former slave who serves as an interpreter to Daenerys Targaryen, one of the protagonists. In her attempt to soften the message of a belligerent slave trader, Missandei omits slurs and insults uttered by him. It is later revealed that Daenerys understands the fictional language, High Valyrian, after all.

A different breach of interpreting ethics is satirized in Lost in Translation, a film about an American actor shooting a whiskey commercial in Japan. The director gives the actor, portrayed by Bill Murray, a long impassioned pep talk in Japanese, which the interpreter summarizes with one short phrase.

Both of these situations, and many others, do come up with untrained, ad-hoc interpreters. One can only hope people are careful not to accept what they see in the media as normal, adequate interpreting.

Is there anything else that comes to mind as the stereotypical portrayal of an interpreter in the media? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Three False Assumpions About Loanwords in Russian

hi-tech gadgets
Image by Marco Bonomo

We know that languages borrow words for new technology or occupations. We know that a lot of these words come from English. It is easy to assume, then, that all cutting-edge technology must have originated in the English-speaking world and was exported everywhere else, along with its nomenclature.

While it is partly true in the case of Russian, which has borrowed multiple words to describe new devices, workflows, and professions that flourished in Russia in the 90s, there are important exceptions to the general trend.

1. Modern Technology must Be Described in Loanwords

I noticed a curious thing in my interactions with Russian-speaking immigrants in Israel and the US — they would often use loanwords from English to describe technology everyone in Russia would use a native word for. For example, they would say си-ти” (si-ti) for a CT scan — a medical procedure widely known and available in Russia under the name of КТ or компьютерная томография (kompyuternaya tomografiya). Similarly, elderly immigrants would say “месседж” messedz when asking a called to leave a voice mail message (the conventional Russian word is “сообщение” soobscheniye).

This likely happened because these people left the USSR before the spread of the technologies they described, like answering machines or CT scans. Therefore, they never learned the Russian words for these things and have to resort to the words they have heard — English ones. The takeaway here is to check whether there is an established native term before you settle for the borrowing.

2. All Loanwords Come From English

Image by Marc Chouinard

Another example I’ve run into is expatriate Russians saying “таблетка” (tabletka) for “tablet.” While this is the appropriate equivalent for the medicine you take, the touchscreen device is normally called by the French word “планшет” (planshet). This word used to refer to a board for mounting maps and, later, a graphics tablet. When tablet computers appeared on the market, Russian just expanded the definition of that word rather than borrow a new one.

3. Every Loanword Has A Native Equivalent

What I wrote so far seems to suggest there is always a native word for any new gadget — you just need to look hard enough. However, many loanword have long been accepted as the only official names for certain devices, such as принтер (printer) or сканер (scanner). These words are used in official documents such as GOST certificates, needed to sell the device in Russia.

Moreover, some recent borrowings have taken on a specific narrower meaning that is not inherent in the native word. One example is менеджер (menedzher), roughly equivalent to the English “manager” but mostly reserved for management roles in new types of companies, introduced in the last 20 years. You could argue that the Russian word управляющий (upravlyayushiy) describes the same occupation. However, that word evokes Chekhov’s plays and a male housekeeper left to look after an estate while the owners are abroad.

As with anything else in language, careful research is needed to make sure you are neither happily accepting any trendy borrowings nor ignoring long-standing, standard ones in your authoring or translation.

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.


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.”


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.


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.