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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Problem With Authority

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?????????: crime boss

The word ????????? is a relatively new addition to the Russian language. My facsimile edition of the 1882 Dal dictionary doesn't include it, but a more recent Russian dictionary defines it as something that is "universally accepted or influential," or "a person who is considered an expert" -- which is very similar to the most common definitions of "authority" in English. ?????????, the adjective ???????????? and adverb ??????????? must have slipped into Russian when the language police were snoozing, since the same meanings can be easily expressed with the Russian adjectives ????????? (respected), ??????????? (influential), ?????????????? (universally accepted or acclaimed) or, in some contexts, ???????????? (persuasive, convincing). But since these words are part of the language and widely used, it's good to master their nuances.

Most of the time, ????????? doesn't cause many cross-cultural or translation problems. ?? ??????? ????????? ? ????? ???????. (He's the main authority in his field.) --???????? ????????? ?? ????????????? ?????????. (The announcement came from an authoritative source.)

If you want to nitpick, you could say that the Russian ????????? stresses people's respect for the authority, while in English we are likely to stress the authority's influence on others. For example, ????? ??????? ??????? ???? ????????? would be most readily translated as "the Taliban leader lost his influence." But if you think you've finally found the key to "how Russians and Americans are different," a few minutes of grunt work with dictionaries will bring you back down to earth again. The distinction is more a whisper than a shout.

But there is another meaning of ????????? that can cause problems. One Russian language-watcher cites a daughter's puzzling comment about her famous parent. "???? ?????? ??? ??? ???? ???????????, ? ??????? ??????." ("My father was always an authority for me -- in a good sense.") What could be the bad sense? Alas, the bad sense of ????????? is a crime boss. Sometimes you see this as ???????????? or ????????? (criminal) ?????????, but often you see it unqualified: ????????? ??????? ????????? ?? ?????? ????. (The local crime boss, who goes by the name of Guli, was arrested.) If someone says the potentially ambiguous ?? ??????? ????????? (he's a local authority/crime boss), the phrase might be illustrated with a waggle of extended pinkie and index fingers to show we're talking about a guy with brass knuckles and not the local mayor.

In old prison camp slang, ????????? was either an experienced and respected con, or a third party asked to mediate between two fighting gangs. ????????? ????????? ????? ????????????? ??????? ? ???????????. ??????? ??????????, ????? ?????? ????. (The turf war between two gangs escalated from words to guns. They called in a neutral party to settle it.) In other words, this ????????? is the same kind of universally respected figure, only his area of competence is crime.

But, because nothing is ever simple with Russian and English, ????????? and authority can cause problems when translating from English to Russian. Sometimes it means "the powers that be" (??????/??????): He had problems with the authorities. (" ???? ???? ???????????? ? ????????.) Or the right to do something (??????????): Do you have the authority to sign the contract? (" ??? ???? ?????????? ??? ?????????? ??????????) Or it can even be a kind of agency (??????????): The Transit Authority is giving a press conference tomorrow. (?????? "????????? ?? ????????????? ?????????? ???????? ?????-???????????.)

And then there's the authority that is above the world of earthly concerns, both base and bureaucratic: the Higher Authority. In Russian this is ?????????, "the Most High."

A much better authority than the gangster Guli.

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