I will be teaching a beginner’s class on the Russian alphabet with an emphasis on international word recognition.
I have heard a few people asking the same question about familiarity with the Latin script in Russia, so I decided this is worth addressing. An American technical writer once asked me if the Latin script in “Кнопка Shift” (“the Shift button”) was as unintelligible to Russians as “кнопка” was to Americans. For anyone who is curious, I told him Russian computers had the English word “Shift” on the keyboard, so people were used to seeing it. On a more serious note, I will list some of the questions about the Latin script in Russia.
Are “English letters” confusing for Russians?
Readers of non-Latin script languages tend to have a hard time imagining a Latin-script only perspective, so these questions can often be baffling. At least in Russia, you are routinely exposed to the Latin alphabet. Computer keyboards have both Cyrillic and Latin letters on the same keys, and you toggle between the two by pressing Alt + Shift. URLs and email addresses are (mostly) in Latin letters. Many international brands retain the spelling of their names in Latin letters in Russia. Moreover, math and chemical formulas still use Latin letters. In short, no, Latin letters don’t look like a hodge-podge of symbols to a Russian speaker.
So Russians can read English?
You might have noticed how I’ve been careful to say “Latin” and not “English” letters. While virtually everyone can read and recognize the Latin script, not everyone will read English. In fact, the most prevalent way of reading Latin letters is the Latin way. So, “a” become “ah,” “bee” becomes “bay”… well, you get the idea. A Russian who hasn’t taken English won’t know that the “u” in “cut” is pronounced like an “uh” — they will probably pronounce it like an “oo,” closer to the Latin.
I’ve seen Russian written in Latin letters; why not do that all the time?
The Russian language only uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Any Russian text you saw written with the Latin alphabet is what is called transliterated. That means the sounds of the Russian were approximated using Latin letters. There are several systems of transliteration; however, there is no agreed upon standard for “spelling” Russian with Latin letters. The reason Russian words might have been transliterated was because of encoding restrictions of some of the older applications, where only Latin characters could be displayed properly. This practice is really a workaround and is frowned upon.
For these reasons, you should only use the Cyrillic script for your Russian documents. If you are working with a professional copyeditor or translator for your Russian communications, they will be able to verify that all Russian text is legible and not corrupted. Learn how I can help you produce professional content in Russian.
Unlike Spanish translators, who struggle to make their translation usable in multiple Spanish-speaking areas, Russian translators don’t really have to worry about locales.
Are there regional dialects in Russia?
Most academic resources, like this one, will tell you there are two (or three) main Russian dialects, the most prominent difference being pronunciation. However, the extent of dialectal variation must not be overestimated. Due to population migrations and relatively unobstructed geography, Russian is much more uniform than some languages spoken on smaller territories. The Encyclopaedia Britannica contrasts Russian with Swiss German dialects:
It is also typical that phonological differences are more far-reaching in Switzerland between Swiss-German dialects than throughout the vast territory where the Russian language is spoken, extending from St. Petersburg to eastern Siberia. Such a situation results not only from migrations of the Russian population (as compared with the centuries of Swiss stability) but also from the contrasting geographic configurations: in Russia there is unobstructed communication in many directions; in mountainous Switzerland the territory is carved into small isolated units.
I have lived in Chelyabinsk (in the Urals) and Moscow, and I have family in the Northern Caucasus (South of Russia). I have not noticed any significant dialectal differences beyond pronunciation and occasional word choice and don’t imagine these differences would have any bearing on the translation of, say, a technical manual.
The Extent of Variation
When I tell my colleagues about the lack of significant dialect variation in Russia, I hear their incredulous “But sure people in Vladivostok talk differently from people in Moscow.” Since territory is the largest cause of their disbelief, let’s use the US as a comparably large country. Granted, there are vocabulary distinctions — think of the infamous “soda” and “pop” — and grammar quirks (“the car needs washed”). However, these are unlikely to play any role in the authoring or translation of business or technical communication for the US. The main reason for that, both in Russia and the US, is that regional dialects are mostly spoken and seldom make it to written communication (with the possible exception of fiction and marketing, where dialectal idiosyncrasies may be preserved for their dramatic effect).
What does it mean for a client looking for a translation into Russian? Russian is fairly uniform across regions and countries; for better or for worse, there is one standard of written Russian. Except for specific fields that may require local terms, like advertising or legal, there is one standard for Russian. Get in touch today for your Russian translation needs.
Having been exposed to several languages for most of my life–even though I was far from fluent in most of them–I am sometimes amused by the questions I get about Russian. I do not mean to be judgmental as I fully understand that a person who has never been exposed to a non-Latin-script language or, in case of the US, to any language but English cannot have an understanding of how multi-script input and communication works. So, I thought it was worth going over some of the questions I’ve been asked and provide a short explanation.
“How do you type in Russian?”
(I have actually been asked that)
If you have Windows on your computer, you can install additional input keyboards in the “Region and Language Options” menu in the Control Panel. Once you have several languages installed, you should see a language bar. You can switch languages by choosing one from the Language Bar list. However, I normally toggle languages by pressing Alt+Shift. You get used to doing that if you run a non-English Windows because you still need to switch to English to input URLs and email addresses.
“I take it you’re Greek”
(librarian checking out Russian books to me)
I think the reason for this one is the fact that people recognize some of the letters they’ve seen in math problems or on fraternity houses. It is true that the Cyrillic alphabet is partly based on the Greek alphabet, as is the Latin alphabet. So, I can’t really blame people who aren’t regularly exposed to non-Latin alphabets for mistaking one for another.
Do you ever get naïve comments about your working language?
This post first appeared on my blog about Russia:
Now that I am pursuing a Master’s degree in Translation (see my translation-related blog for more information), I often think about similar things people describe using totally different expressions that are not, strictly speaking, translations of each other.
Say, one of my English students asked me who you translated the Russian expression “X по профессии, но Y по призванию” (literally, X in my training, but Y in my calling”). At that point, I was at a loss. The best I could come up with was “I was trained as X but have always wanted to be Y.”
However, I’ve now been noticing certain things people say in Russian which, even (probably clumsily) translated, would make no sense to an English speaker. For instance, on this Russian tutoring services website, I came across the following cited as the parents’ motivation to find an English tutor for their child: “Привить любовь к языку” (“to develop love (an appreciation?) for the language”). Have you ever heard anyone in the US say that they want to develop love for a language?
What is your experience with other languages? Can you say that? Are there things in your language that sound weird in others?