Demand for Russian Outside US-Russia Relations

Envelope with Russian handwriting
By StepanovSOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

I am sometimes asked how the interactions between Russia and the US will affect the demand for Russian translation and interpreting. The political climate certainly impacts language services by affecting trade and international cooperation. However, English and Russian are not the exclusive purview of Russia and the US. Here are some areas where Russian is needed independently of US-Russian relations.

International Organizations

Russian is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. As such, most documents produced in other languages will need to be translated into it. For instance, the staff of the UN Department for General Assembly and Conference Management (DGACM) includes “translators, revisers and verbatim reporters, interpreters and editors, [and] proofreaders.”

Language Access Laws

In the United States, translation into Russian — or other languages — may be needed to comply with the law. Specifically, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the grounds of national origin by government agencies that receive federal funds. This definition has been interpreted to include limited English proficient (LEP) people, meaning that any hospital, government office, or other agency receiving federal funding needs to “take reasonable steps to provide meaningful access” for LEP people.

According to the LEP Federal Interagency Website,

Vital documents must be translated when a significant number or percentage of the population eligible to be served, or likely to be directly affected by the program/activity, needs services or information in a language other than English to communicate effectively.

In other words, Russian translation (and interpreting) may be needed in order to satisfy a US legal requirement for areas and institutions that have a large Russian-speaking LEP population.

Cyrillic street sign
By Geoff [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Countries Other Than Russia

Translation into Russian may also be needed for business with companies and government bodies in other countries that use Russian, including Belarus and Kazakhstan. In addition, personal documents like birth certificates of people currently living in such countries as Ukraine may be in Russian if they were issued in the former USSR.

In the end, while we in the US may think of Russian translation as dependent on US-Russian relations, there are several areas where Russian is needed regardless of the political climate. Feel free to get in touch about your Russian translation needs.

How Do You Say Rogue One in Russian?

Image by JD Hancock on Flickr

Disclaimer: This post examines Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as a case study of cultural adaptation in film translation. I was not involved in translating any materials for the film.

By now, many people will have seen and enjoyed a Star Wars spin-off movie Rogue One. One of the things that occurred to me after watching it was the challenge of translating the word “rogue.”

Without spoiling too much of the plot, Rogue One is the self-proclaimed name of a stolen spacecraft that goes on an unauthorized, desperate mission. Unabridged defines “rogue” as follows:

10. (of an animal) having an abnormally savage or unpredictable disposition, as a rogue elephant.
11. no longer obedient, belonging, or accepted and hence not controllable or answerable; renegade: a rogue cop; a rogue union local.

In the film, taking this daredevil initiative against all odds is portrayed as a courageous, if foolhardy, endeavor. In other words, “rogue” needed to express these shades of meaning:

  • stealthy
  • unauthorized
  • going out on your own
  • possibly illegal

What Russian words would make a suitable spaceship name yet convey this positive sense of “rogue”? Here are some options I weighed before looking up the actual approved translation. Each of them successfully represents some aspects of “rogue” but may fail to represent others.

Otchayanny (отчаянный) – Desperate/Daredevil

Image by Martin Wessely on Unsplash

First of all, I decided to look at some typical names for vessels. As there have been comparatively few spacecraft, I included sea vessels in my search. As it turns out, Russian destroyers have traditionally been named with adjectives.

I thought the Russian word otchayanny (“desperate, daredevil”) conveyed the sense of having the immense pluck to go on a dangerous, clandestine mission. At the same time, отчаянный evokes despair and a sense of a doomed, last-resort effort, which may unintentionally send a negative message. The English word “rogue” also has negative connotations in some contexts, so this may not be a game-stopper.

Otvazhny (отважный) — Courageous

Otvazhny was another possible candidate. This adjective has the advantage of communicating a strong, positive message — bravery and willingness to take risks. However, it does not convey the illicit shades of “rogue” and makes the mission sound much less controversial. Several other adjectives shared these traits, e.g. besstrashny, “fearless.”

Partizan (партизан) — Partisan/Guerilla

Image by Matt McGillivray on Flickr

I had also considered the noun partizan (“guerilla fighter, underground resistance member, wartime partisan“) for the name. As partisans have often been a sort of guerilla militias organized to sabotage enemy operation, this aligned nicely with the plot of the film and conveyed the sense of an unauthorized, undercover mission. At the same time, partizan is also used colloquially to jokingly refer to someone who undertakes things with no proper planning and with dubious outcomes.

So what was the official translation?

The official Russian release, as I eventually learned, opted for izgoy (изгой, outcast). Just as the proposed translations above, this variant captures some important aspects of “rogue” — being shunned by your community and denied its support, possibly for something unorthodox you suggested. At the same time, izgoy only captures the expulsion aspect and does not convey the sense of taking matters into your own hands against all odds and despite the lack of official authorization.

What translation do you think is closest to the English?

While I was not involved in the translation of this film, I have worked on audiovisual projects ranging from subtitling to interpreting at film premieres. Take a look some of the films I have translated on my Translation page.

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?

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.

Unquestioned Assumptions About Translation

Image by Eric Andresen
Image by Eric Andresen

Encountering translation both professionally and casually, as a consumer, I can’t help noticing certain assumptions on which people operate when ordering, evaluating, and sometimes even performing translation. I will list some of them here in the order of apparent complexity. In other words, while each subsequent attitude may look like a solution to the previous challenge, in fact it only poses more questions. But let us delve into the specific assumptions. Please note that I am not arguing these assumptions are wrong; I am saying they shouldn’t go unchecked and should be applied on a case by case basis.

“Translation Must Reflect The Form of The Original”

This sounds like a naive statement, but this idea is still around, especially in government and personal documents . For example, the credential evaluation service WES asks that applicants send “documents in their original language, together with a literal word-for-word translation by an external translation service.” This notion may originate from the fear that the translator may embellish, omit, or corrupt the meaning of the source (that is, original) text by virtue of interpreting it in terms of the target (that is, translation) language.

However, what people do not realize is that it may not be desirable or even possible to use literal equivalents in a different language. For education credentials, Russians who graduate high school receive a certificate of (literally) “middle” (среднее) education. For someone not familiar with education in Russia, this may sound like “middle school,” which may seriously affect the candidate’s job or education prospects.

In the words of the linguist Roman Jakobson, “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.”  Grammar and vocabulary systems of different languages do not align perfectly, and we often need to add information or omit  information in order to produce a translation. For example, it is impossible to say “cook a meal” (готовить) in Russian so it would not also mean “prepare a meal.” If a restaurant wishes to distinguish between these two notions, they may need to say something like “get the ingredients for a meal ready” vs actually “cook a meal.”

The literal translation approach can make sense in a limited range of applications. In the case of WES, the company states that it “evaluators, who are multi-lingual, [will] verify the translation.” In other words, they will not be thrown off by unusual descriptions. However, in most cases, word for word translation is counterproductive and confusing. Continue reading “Unquestioned Assumptions About Translation”

Culture-relative priorities in healthcare

image by kaniths

It has become commonplace to point out that translators and interpreters not only re-code the message in a different language, but also negotiate cultures. However, concrete examples may demonstrate that this is far from a pretty turn of phrase, even in such seemingly objective and evidence-based disciplines as life sciences. Medical translators and interpreters have to bridge cultures in more than one way; however, in this post I would like to concentrate on the health attitudes differences between the Russian and the American (and perhaps the broader Western) culture.

I will present this as my subjective breakdown of some of the culture-specific health concerns that, while recongized in the one country, are not paid as much heed as in the other.

US health priorities

Dental care

The “Hollywood smile” has almost become an American stereotype. Regular checkups and cleanings are considered obligatory in most families, and people who don’t get them may be disapproved of or even ridiculed. While the newer, more modern, private dental clinics also provide and encourage these preventative services, this practice is relatively new in Russia and is not followed quite so religiously by the general public.

Staying hydrated

Drinking plenty of water is a staple health practice in the US, and is often mentioned in connection with alleviating headaches, hangovers, heat strokes, and the such. Surprising as it may be, older people in Russia may be heard saying “You’re drinking to much!” (referring to water). Once again, we are now talking about the general population’s attitudes and not the medical consensus.

Spreading germs

While Russians realize that germs cause diseases, they do not follow such stringent germ-spread-avoidance measures as people in the US do. For example, Americans no longer sneeze into the palm of their hand and try not to wipe their nose with their hands. These practices, while deemed undesirable, are still common in Russia.

Russian health priorities

Bedrest for fevers and flu

Russians pay attention when told by the doctor to stay in bed for a few days. The general consensus is that a nasty cold/flu will last longer if you try to work/go to school with it. And I don’t mean just the couple days when you have the high fever. I mean as long as you have the disease — granted, that doesn’t apply for a mere runny nose. As a result, Russians may be shocked when children in the US are sent to school with a fever and a DayQuil (this may not be universal, but it did happen to me when I was an exchange student in the US).

Flat feet, scoliosis, and posture

Any bone irregularities are taken very seriously in Russia. For instance, flat feet aren’t shrugged off as a little cosmetic defect that may bring back pain down the road — people with flat feet are encouraged to wear orthopedic insoles and shoes and dissuaded from wearing flats.

Avoiding cold surfaces and drinks

Ironically enough, although Russia is widely associated with cold climates, contact with cold substances/surfaces is considered dangerous in Russia. It is, therefore, not suprising that parents may let a drink from the fridge sit out to reach room temperature before they let their children have it. Similarly, sitting on any cold surfaces like metal or granite is discouraged and avoided as it is thought to cause colds and inner organ inflammations.
My point here is not to ridicule the oddities or “prejudices” of either nation. Even though some may go further than people outside that culture are comfortable with, there is a grain of truth to most of them. Amusing as these differences may be, they pose real challenges to the healthcare interpreter/translator due to the conflicting expectations of the patient and the healthcare professional. Imagine a patient holding any of the notions above try to see a doctor who does not.
Do you have any additions/corrections to the list?

Vague Job Titles — Wider Reach or Lack of Substance?

One thing I noticed in US business communication is the frequent use of superordinate terms in job titles. For example, instead of saying “translator” or “interpreter,” people may say “linguist.” Similarly, “educator” is used to mean “teacher” and so on and so forth.

I see several problems with this usage. First of all, some of the uses are inaccurate and erode certain concepts. A linguist is a person who studies or researches language, and a translator is someone who conveys the sense/intention of written communication in one language in a written text in a different language; so not every translator is a linguist and not every linguist is a translator. The second problem is that superordinate terms are often very vague and almost completely devoid of meaning out of context. For example, the word “provider” meant to refer to a “physician” may be cryptic to a person outside the healthcare setting.

So why use superordinates? There may be a few reasons for that. First of all, they are useful for referring to groups of (somewhat) related occupations. In the language industry, translators, interpreters, editors, proofreaders, desktop publishing specialists, and localization specialists may all be referred to as “vendors” — an all-encompassing, if somewhat inaccurate, usage. Furthermore, superordinate terms may be used to cover a vague job description or the speaker’s lack of understanding of the job. Don’t know what your uncle does as an EMT? Make him a healthcare provider. Finally, the use of the vaguer, higher-register term may make the job sound more “official” and, therefore, important. A “teacher,” it would seem, merely passes on knowledge, while an “educator” sounds like someone who sets policy and whose mission is generally nobler and more commendable.

Attempts to resist popular usage are usually futile, so I do not believe we can reverse this trend in US business communication. However, I do believe it is important to be aware of superordinates and why they may be used in a particular context. Then maybe we can talk specifics next time we are looking for a “provider” of sorts.