Translating the Untranslatable

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Сверстник: peer, contemporary, someone of the same age

Hey, all you translators out there -- ever notice that the people writing about translation are mostly people who have never translated a word in their lives?

I can't figure it out. A dance critic may never have danced Giselle, but he knows something about the art of dance. Translation theorists don't seem to have ever tried rendering a text into another language. In fact, they might tell you -- in the words of one memorable theorist -- "the text doesn't exist at all." Try telling that to your client.

Translation theory gets screwy on the subject of "translatable" and "untranslatable" words. Since there are no exact equivalencies between languages, nothing is really translatable. And since it's all relative anyway, nothing is really untranslatable. Oh, right. Tell that to a translator who has spent the afternoon on one word that defies translation.

Take, for example, the lovely word откос. If you are buying new windows for your Russian apartment, you will be offered the service of отделка откосов -- finishing work on the something-or-others. You flip open your dictionary and find that откос is a slope, which doesn't fit. Then you open specialized dictionaries and find jamb and reveal.

Then you open your English architectural dictionaries and read definitions like "the outer side of a window frame." Then you smoke three cigarettes trying to envision the outer side of a window frame. By now you have figured out that in deep-set Russian windows, откос is the inner wall stretching vertically from the sill to the top of the window enclosure and horizontally from the window to the room wall. You have also realized that the windows in your U.S. home don't have any откос because the walls are a measly five centimeters thick and the windows are set flush into them.

In desperation, you start calling English-speaking friends who might know something about architecture. By this time the sun has set, you're not taking calls from your client, and it's time for another cigarette run (and since it's after 5 p.m., make that a cigarette and booze run). Finally, you decide that whatever an English-speaking architect would call откос, a nonspecialist would call it the "inner wall of a recessed window." You hate it, but you have just calculated that, due to one word, you are now earning 14 cents an hour for this translation. You type it in, attach the translation to an e-mail, and hit "send." And then you curse translation theorists down to the 12th generation.

On the other hand, there are a few purportedly "untranslatable" Russian words that don't seem terribly problematic. Russian has two neat little words that mean "someone of the same age": ровесник and сверстник. The former means someone born in the same year; in common usage, the latter can mean someone of approximately the same age or social set. I wish there were one simple English word to describe this, but it's not hard to translate. Он мой ровесник (He and I are the same age). Сверстникам поэта не нравились его стихи (The poet's contemporaries did not like his verse). Another good word for this is "peer," which, among other meanings, is someone of the same age or social group. This close translation equivalency often works from English to Russian, too. If you have a teenager, you'll be concerned about влияние сверстников (peer pressure). Since he never listens to his parents, to protect him from bad peer pressure, you consider enrolling him in a program where сверстники обучают сверстников -- a slightly complex way of describing peer counseling (literally, "peers teach peers").

Then you fantasize about making one of those theorists translate your window company text.

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