How to purge those strange, servile bums

Случайные люди: minions, favorites (archaic); unworthy, incompetent people

One of the useless talents that translators develop is the ability to read a bad translation and know exactly what the original text was. This is something like a circus act: Esmeralda the Psychic Translator stands blindfolded in the middle of the ring. The master of ceremonies reads a translation as the audience sits in silent anticipation. Turbaned and bejeweled Esmeralda grimaces in concentration. Slowly she recites the original text. The master of ceremonies shouts Точно! (Exactly right!) The audience bursts into applause and tosses rubles at Esmeralda's feet.

Don't I wish! In one evening I could make enough money to remodel my apartment.

The pretext for this fantasy of fame and untold wealth was a phrase uttered by President Vladimir Putin in his speech the United Russia's ninth party congress earlier this week. In various translations, he was quoted as saying the party needed to be purged of "casual/strange/random/accidental people." The Psychic Esmeralda knew right away that Putin spoke about случайные люди.

So who the heck are these folks, and why must they be purged from the party?

Actually, to be fair to the translators, случайные люди is an extremely difficult phrase. And if you open a dictionary, you get more confused. Lexicographer Vladimir Dal writes that случайный человек is: в милости у начальства; любимец, наперсник, временщик (in favor with the leader; a favorite, confidant, minion). A contemporary dictionary defines случайный человек as временщик, фаворит (minion, favorite). But clearly Putin isn't talking about purging the party of his favorites.

However, if I don my Esmeralda turban and part the mists of time, I'd guess that a favorite in a position of power was understood as "someone who did not merit the position." Today, the sense of favorite has been lost, but the sense of unmerited position or power has been retained.

In his speech, Putin makes clear why these people do not merit their positions: "[Они] преследуют исключительно корыстные цели." ("They are only pursuing their selfish ends.") One translation of the phrase might be: to purge the party of unworthy people. In colloquial English, candidates on the stump might say: to purge the party of deadwood or deadweight. In other words: Throw them bums out!

For clarity, you might translate случайные люди as incompetent people. Люди из множества российских университетов -- это случайные люди. По их докладам видно, что они не умеют работать (People in many Russian universities are incompetent. You can tell that they aren't qualified by what they write). Случайные люди в строительстве -- угроза обществу (Nonprofessionals in the construction business are a threat to society).

In other contexts, there is a sense of people involved in something by chance. Мы фотографировали случайных прохожих. In English, we would tend to move the qualifier and say: We took random photos of pedestrians. Во время террористических актов гибло немало родственников и близких, а также случайных людей (During terrorist acts a fair number of relatives and friends were killed, along with other casual bystanders). По данным правоохранительных органов, нападавшие -- случайные люди, которым за захват завода было обещано вознаграждение (According to law enforcement agencies, the attackers were not the ringleaders, but they were promised a fee for seizing the factory).

Maybe my turban is pinching, but this strikes me as a real headache for the translator. Take a look at this example from Dal's dictionary: Случайные люди недолговечны. With the "old" meaning of the word, this should be translated as "Favorites don't last long." With the "new" meaning of the word it might be translated as: "Inappropriate/unqualified/unworthy people don't last long." So you need to check the date of the text to know how to translate it.

Esmeralda is going to hang up her turban.

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