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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Beware of False Friends, Ye Accurate Translators

The textbook I used in first-year Russian had a unique way of introducing us to the wonderful Cyrillic alphabet. Instead of presenting the letters in alphabetical order like any other textbook would, this one used a system called "old friends, new friends and false friends."

As you might guess, "old friends" were cyrillic letters like A, M and Z, which look and sound more or less like their English analogues. New friends, then, were letters like Zh, Shch and Ch which were entirely unlike anything we had seen before.

Then the textbook warned us to be on the watch for "false friends," those letters that looked like ones we already knew, but which were really other sounds in disguise. These included the cyrillic N, which looks like an English "H," and the cyrillic V, which looks like an English "B."

The concept of "old friends, new friends and false friends" is also a useful way of thinking about Russian words. I had a guest visit from the States last week who didn't speak a word of Russian when she arrived. After a couple of days here, she noticed the word bank on a billboard and it was as if she had discovered the Rossetta stone. Once she recognized this "old friend," Moscow seemed a much less intimidating place.

Of course, when it comes to whole words, there are many more "new friends" than old or false ones. But there are a surprising number of false friends lurking out there, just waiting to trip up an unwary translator.

Take, for instance, the word instrument, which means "tool" but is quite often rendered as "instrument." I recently read an article about prisoners in Stalin's gulag who had to work when it was so cold that their instrumenty (tools) would break in their hands. The translator, though, carelessly wrote that their "instruments" would freeze and break, as if the article were about the Gulag Philharmonic Orchestra.

Another commonly misrendered word is akkuratno, which is not "accurately," but "carefully." The Russian for "accurately" is tochno. As in, akkuratny perevodchik perevodit tochno (a careful translator translates accurately).

Sometimes the false friend is even more subtle and the difference is just a matter of cultural attitude toward a concept, even though the literal meaning is the same. For instance, an expatriate friend of mine was recently translating his resume into Russian. In the original text he had described himself as "aggressive," which could be translated as agressivny.

But in Russia, no one in his right mind would ever write on his resume that he was an agressivny chelovek since this would only mean he was rude or even violent. The kind of guy who might just break his instrument.

All of this is really just a way of repeating something that cannot be repeated enough: The problem in translating is not the words you don't know, but those you think you know.