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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE WORD'S WORTH: Words Can Sometimes Gain From Translation




"Something's been lost in the translation." You hear these words all the time, especially, of course, when one is dealing with poetry. I've always felt that there is no more impossible and thankless task than trying to translate poetry from one language to another. Poetry, as a matter of fact, has been defined as "that quality which is lost in translation."


But relatively little attention has been paid to those charming occasions when things are actually improved by translation. Every once in a while, the process of moving a thought from one language to another actually adds a whole new dimension.


For example, the Ukrainian word for obed (lunch) is obid. Restaurants in Kiev have signs saying that you can order kompleksniye obidy, which means three-course lunches in Ukrainian, but multi-part insults in Russian.


I remember once reading an article about an exhibition of holograms in St. Petersburg in 1989 or 1990 or so. Although holograms were relatively new to Russia then, the exhibition wasn't getting much attention until the organizers hung a sign saying Nesovershennoletnim vkhod vospreshchyon (Minors not admitted). Then people started coming in droves, thinking that the word gologramma (hologram) was derived from the word golyi (naked).


Just a few years later, a friend of mine found himself in one of Moscow's first supermarkets with a craving for some maple syrup. At that time, I don't think anyone had ever seen maple syrup in Russia, so it is understandable that my friend did not know the Russian klenovyi sirop (maple syrup). Undaunted, however, he approached the bewildered cashier and asked, "U vas yest' krov' dereva, kotoroye izobrazhayetsya na kanadskom flage?" ("Do you have the blood of the tree that is pictured on the Canadian flag?"). To her credit, the woman knew what the Canadian flag looks like, but the store didn't have any tree krov'.


I am also fascinated by the way certain concepts play a central role in one culture but can't even be properly expressed in another. Take, for instance, the Russian word spravka. This word denotes an official explanation from an authoritative source that verifies a fact.


Russians can hardly get through the day without at least one spravka, while the English language can't even cope with the concept. Occasionally requests for a spravka are even met with a response like: prinesite spravku o tom, chto vam nuzhna spravka (Bring a spravka saying that you need a spravka).


Or, if someone refuses to give you a spravka, you can try asking them to give you spravku o tom, chto ne mogut dat' spravku (a spravka saying that they can't give you a spravka). Obviously, there is no end to the fun that can be had.