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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Fun a Planet Ours A Little Is Equipped

Like many people, I have a not very well hidden fear of technology. Therefore, it was with a serious case of nerves that I agreed to try out a new computer program that claims to be able to translate from English to Russian and back as well as I can. In theory, anyone with a couple hundred dollars and eight megabytes of RAM will be able to do what it has taken me years of frustration to learn.

For some reason, the first Russian words that came into my head as I tucked into the keyboard were "u vsyakogo portnogo svoi vzglyad na iskusstvo" (Every tailor has his own opinions about art). Nervously, I typed the phrase in, pushed the instant rendering button and waited. After a moment's hum that sounded ever so slightly like a drum roll, the machine responded: "At any tailor the sight on art." Well said.

With growing confidence, I rifled my memory for another Russian jewel, coming up with a line from a poem by Mayakovsky: "Dlya vesel'ya planeta nasha malo oborudovana" (Our planet is ill-equipped for fun). My computer's version was "for fun a planet ours a little is equipped." Not much better, I'd say, but at least the machine recognized all the words.

The instruction manual informed me that when the program doesn't know a particular word, it merely leaves the Russian in place. Presumably, the user is then forced to translate the old-fashioned way -- with a dictionary. I ran into this problem with my next attempt.

Thinking that it was unfair to expect the machine to be able to handle poetry, I switched to prose. Here is a line from the great Soviet satirists Ilf and Petrov: "Yego lyubili domashniye khozyaiki, domashniye rabotnitsy, vdovy i dazhe odna zhenshchina-zubnoi tekhnik" (He was loved by housewives, domestic workers, widows and even one woman dental technician.) After a drum roll that lasted roughly twice as long as the first two, the program spat out the words: "It (he) was loved home khozyaiki, by (with) the home working women, widow, and even one woman-tooth tekhnik."

Finally reassured that my translation skills were better (if slower) than the program's, I found myself filled with renewed love for the ineffable charm of the Russian language. Fingers flying, I typed in Nikolai Gogol's famous paean to his native tongue: "Net slova, kotoroye bylo by tak zamashisto, boiko, tak vyryvalos' by iz-pod samogo serdtsa, tak by kipelo i zhivotrepetalo, kak metko skazannoye russkoye slovo" (There is no word so expansive, so lively, so directly bursting out of the heart itself, so surging and tremulous, as the pointedly spoken Russian word).

The mechanical version? "There is no word, which would be so zamashisto, boiko, so would escape from under the heart, so boiled and zhivotrepetalo, as metko the told Russian word."

Metko skazano (Pointedly spoken), indeed.