A Duck by Any Other Name

Утка: duck, bedpan, canard

English-speaking readers of Kommersant might have been disconcerted to learn that the new U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation is a bird. In fact, he's two birds. According to a guest at the Spasso House's Independence Day bash, he appeared "such duck of a fellow, but he is the hawk harsher than William Burns."

Such duck? The hawk? Get the translator hook! Sentence the English-language editor to three whacks with the American Heritage Dictionary! And get the newspaper's legal counsel on the cell phone. It's retraction time.

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It turns out that Ambassador John Beyrle is not a duck at all. In Russian, the quoted opinion of the guest reads: Это он с виду такой душка, а на самом деле ястреб покруче Уильяма Бёрнса (It only seems like he's a sweetheart. In reality, he's much more of a hawk than [former U.S. Ambassador] William Burns).

Душка (from душа, or soul) is a lovely word to describe a kind and congenial person. The translator must have been thinking of the British "duck" (or "ducks," "duckie") used as an affectionate direct form of address. Too bad the translator didn't consult a more reliable source on usage.

But all this got me thinking about ducks. Утка (duck) can mean a quacking, waddling water bird or the elongated bedpan used by male patients. It is also slang for a false report in the press. Here both English and Russian borrowed from the French, who presumably were the first Europeans to come up with this devilish form of slanderous misinformation. Russian borrowed it as a calque (a loan translation), whereas English stole the practice and the word: canard. Известие оказалось уткой (The news turned out to be a canard).

Russians also appropriated the phrase хромая утка (lame duck), but here the semantic transformations get really interesting. In English, the phrase was first used to mean a person who has defaulted on his or her debts or has gone bankrupt because of a fall in the stock market. But in Russian, when the hand of the state can be persuaded (euphemism) to reach into the deep pockets of the treasury, it is defined differently: компания в тяжёлом финансовом положении, исправить которое может санация и государственная поддержка (a company in dire financial straits which can only be fixed by reorganization and state support). In the United States, the state does bail out companies; too bad they don't bail out individuals who invested in the wrong stocks.

It doesn't seem that Russian has appropriated the term lame duck in the political sense of a politician who is serving out his or her term after losing an election. I suppose this is because -- as experience has shown -- those ducks aren't limping.

The other situation with a political lame duck -- the opponent who has been elected but is not yet in office -- also gave users of Russian a bit of a struggle. Before assuming office, Dmitry Medvedev was officially called вновь избранный и не вступивший в должность президента (literally, the newly elected but not yet in office president). What a mouthful. Laconic English just calls this person "the president-elect."

Russians have also borrowed the American political distinction between hawks (ястребы) and doves (голуби) that appeared in the early 1960s. But judging by the media, these words today also have a special Russian meaning. As far as I can tell, ястреб is a politician we don't get along with and whom we want to call a war-mongerer for domestic political reasons. Голубь is a politician who opposes the hawk, but who may be just as bad. For example: Интересы голубей и ястребов сошлись, оба залезли в карманы киевлян (The interests of the hawks and doves coincide, and both are dipping into Kievans' pockets).

Well, duckie, as I always say: Судим по себе (It takes one to know one).

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