A Rich Blend of Folksy and Foul Putinisms

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Шило в стенку и на боковую залечь: to hang up your hammer and hit the hay

In my apartment you can always tell when it’s Putin news conference time. My desk is covered with 14 dictionaries sprouting brightly colored Post-its and paper with scribbled notes and possible translations. I’ve got seven Internet windows open at various slang and language sites. I’ve also got hundreds of pages of printouts of the official transcripts in Russian and English with section highlighted and annotated.

Too bad the Kremlin’s English translation is so bland. This year’s crop of news conference путинки (Putinisms) is a particularly rich blend of folksy and foul.

On the folksy side, we have this comment about continuing to work after his term as president ends: Конечно, можно, как у нас в некоторых местах говорили, “Шило в стенку — и на боковую залечь.” Думаю, что рановато. This translates literally as: Of course I could, as people used to say in some parts of Russia, “Stick my awl in the wall and lie down on my side.” But I think it is a bit early for that.

The expression Шило в стенку — и на боковую залечь is definitely obscure. Most specialists think it’s a shoemaker’s expression, but the guy in my local shoe-repair shop had never heard of it — although he was terribly flattered to be consulted on matters of state and translation. The image is a cobbler who finishes his work, sticks his awl into a piece of wood (so he doesn’t lose it or sit on it) and then curls up to go to sleep. Since we English-speakers like our folk sayings to have a bit of alliteration, I’d translate it as: hang up my hammer and hit the hay.

In another response about the work of state officials, Putin seems to have combined two expressions: Каждый должен мотыжить, как святой Франциск, свой участок, бум-бум, ежедневно, и тогда успех будет обеспечен. (Everyone should be like St. Francis and hoe his own garden — Whack! Whack! — every day, and then success will be assured.)

This seems to be a mix of the Russian expression копать свой огород (dig in one’s own garden, mind one’s business or do one’s own work) and a reference to St. Francis who, when asked what he’d do if he learned he was to die at sunset, replied (in the English translation): I’d finish hoeing my garden. But the sound effect — бум-бум — is Putin’s editorial addition.

When Putin discussed the Western world, folksy turned testy. The question of foreign observers in the upcoming elections elicited the jab: Это всё их “хотелки.” (That’s their “wanna” list.)

And then: Пусть жену свою учит щи варить там! (A man should teach his own wife to make cabbage soup over there!) This, blandly rendered as “They take a schoolteacher approach to some countries” in the official translation, is a quote from the popular Soviet-era television miniseries “The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed.”

The question of his personal wealth provoked the strongest reaction. Что касается различных слухов по поводу денежного состояния, я смотрел некоторые бумажки на этот счёт …

Here the use of the diminutive бумажки instead of бумаги (papers) belittles the source of information. It might be translated as something like: “Concerning various rumors about my financial status, I looked at some poop sheets on that.” Putin continued: Просто болтовня, которую нечего обсуждать, просто чушь. (It’s just blather that isn’t worth discussing, just rubbish.)

And in case we had missed the point: Всё выковыряли из носа и размазали по своим бумажкам. (They just picked it out of their nose and smeared it on their little sheets.) The Kremlin translators gave this vivid image a pass, rendering it as: “They just made it up and included it in their papers.”

I look forward to language lessons under Dmitry Medvedev. But my life will be easier if his translators don’t leave out the juicy parts.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based interpreter and translator.