The Tricks of Translating Thanksgiving

День благодарения: Thanksgiving

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

As someone who has celebrated the American holiday of Thanksgiving with my Russian friends in Moscow for decades, I've learned that there are a few translation and cultural tricks you need to know to make it a successful cross-cultural experience.

Trick No. 1: Forget about the fourth Thursday in the month. Even if you have the day off and have somehow managed to shop, clean and cook during the workweek, it's a workday for everyone else. By the time your guests get out of the office and battle the rush-hour crush, it will be 8 p.m. -- too late for the full "turkey day" experience. On the other hand, Thanksgiving Saturday is a lovely Moscow tradition.

Trick No. 2: Don't let your friends read about Thanksgiving on the Internet. I do not cast aspersions -- after all, how many foreigners truly understand Russia Day? But some of the Russian cyberversions of Thanksgiving seem to confuse Thanksgiving, Christmas and school pageants. One web site notes that on Thursday morning Все члены семьи обязательно должны сходить в церковь (All family members must go to church without fail). Wrong: We're cooking. Then: В канун праздника благотворительные организации раздают нуждающимся подарки (On the eve of the holiday, charity organizations give gifts to the needy). Wrong: We do that a month later. And finally: Они устраивают парады -- в большинстве своём костюмированные, в одеждах 17-го века и костюмах индейцев -- и веселье (They arrange parades -- mostly parades of people wearing 17th-century clothes and Indian costumes -- and merrymaking). Wrong: We're too stuffed to parade and make merry. Someone else wrote: К столу подают индейку, гуся или утку (Turkey, goose or duck is served). Thanksgiving duck? Perish the thought!

Trick No. 3: Stick to a simple explanation of the holiday: После первого года жизни в Америке пилигримы хотели поблагодарить Бога за обильный урожай и за помощь местных индейцев (After the first year in America, the pilgrims wanted to thank God for their good harvest and for the help of local Indians).

Trick No. 4: Tell your guests you'll serve them традиционный ужин (a traditional dinner). My first attempts to translate the menu did not sound appetizing to Russians. They liked the idea of запечённая индейка (roast turkey), картофельное пюре (mashed potatoes) and подливка (gravy). But начинка из сухариков, овощей и специй (filling made of dried bread, vegetables and spices) was impossible for them to imagine. Клюквенное варенье (cranberry jam) sounded like it should be served over ice cream. Батат (sweet potatoes) conjured up inappropriate images of South American cuisine. And тыквенный пирог (pumpkin pie) suggested a Russian childhood food -- каша с тыквой (pumpkin porridge) -- mashed up inside some dough.

Trick No. 5: When your Russian guests arrive, ply them with alcohol while you finish the last preparations in the kitchen. They will be nervous: стол без закусок (a table without starters) does not bode well. But when they see the table laden with turkey and all the trimmings, they will relax -- and cancel their mental plan to buy frozen pelmeni on the way home.

Trick No. 6: When your guests try a dish and ask: Что это такое? (What is this?), add the phrases по-американски (American-style) and специальный (special) to your description. I've come to call stuffing специальная хлебная начинка (special bread stuffing). Cranberry sauce is пикантный клюквенный соус по-американски к дичи (American-style, piquant cranberry sauce for poultry). Pumpkin pie is пирог по-американски с начинкой из сладкого тыквенного суфле (American-style pie filled with sweet pumpkin souffle).

Trick No. 7: Finally: Будьте благодарны. За всё. (Be grateful. For everything.)

That should do the trick -- for Thanksgiving and every day.

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