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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Allah, Goats, Sodom and Gomorrah

Byk: (slang) a bodyguard, usually very muscular and not very intelligent, working for a criminal or semi-criminal organization. Can be translated as thug, enforcer, protector, soldier.

In standard Russian, byk is a bull or an ox. How this came to be applied to bodyguards is no mystery: one glance at those neckless goons, muscles straining the seams of their shiny suit jackets and pants, is all you need. Think "beefcake" -- but beefcake armed with a handgun, an automatic, a knife, a hand grenade and two sets of brass knuckles.

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I like animal slang in Russian. For example, telok, a calf, is another slang word for a bodyguard, or "minder," presumably for someone a bit less intimidating than the byk. You see him trotting after his charge, like a calf after his mother. And speaking of his mother, in the barnyard, the criminal den and the dormitory, tyolka -- a heifer -- is, well, a heifer. That is, not very polite slang for an attractive woman: a babe, a skirt, a bit of stuff.

Kaban -- in nature a wild boar -- is a very un-PC word for a masculine lesbian. The badger, barsuk, is a young gay man. Kotik a kitty cat, is a widespread affectionate diminutive for either a man or a woman, something like "sweetie" or "darling," with all the feline undercurrents of softness and sensuality. In street jargon it can mean "lover" or "pimp." Kotik myshei ne lovit can be a simple description of your old cat -- he can't catch any mice. But when your boss says your colleague myshei ne lovit, he means "he's not too swift," "he's not with it," or "he's a deadbeat."

Koza -- a nanny goat -- is a silly or twitchy woman. Kozyol is a fairly harsh derogatory word to describe an aggressively stupid man, an "idiot" or a "jerk." It's my favorite thing to shout at the driver who decides to make a left turn from the far right lane.

In the prison yard, however, kozyol is nasty slang for a man who has been sodomized.

In the annals of translation history, however, it is the interpreter's worst nightmare. The kozyol incident took place in the early period of Vladimir Putin's presidency, before his protocol department persuaded him that demonstrating an easy familiarity with crude street slang, while making him one of the boys at the FSB, is not entirely seemly for the president of a great power.

At a press conference held by Putin and Tony Blair, Putin was searching for a way to impress the British prime minister and other esteemed guests with how truly dastardly the Chechen bandits were. On the wall of a Chechen bandit hideout, he said, they found the following appalling inscription: "Allakh nad nami, a kozly pod nami." The translator dutifully repeated after him: "Allah is above us and the goats are beneath us."

The prime minister and other esteemed guests stared at Putin with expressions of patient expectancy; maybe the punchline was still to come -- you never know with these Russian folk expressions. "Oni imeli v vidu russkikh" (They meant the Russians), Putin explained unhelpfully. More blank stares (What Russians? What goats?).

By now the translator realized the problem but didn't know how to publicly resolve it, as one can't shout across the room: "Oh, he means they buggered the Russians!" So instead he walked up and whispered an explanation to Blair, who gave a ministerial moue of distaste.

Putin continued his speech, while the Russian protocol department collectively wished the earth would open up and swallow them. And the translator seriously considered a change of profession.

Michele A. Berdy, a Moscow-based translator and interpreter, is co-author of a Russian-English dictionary.