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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Know-It-All Attitude

Как известно … : As everyone knows …

The other day a translator friend reminded me how much I loathe the phrase как известно (literally, “as is known”) and its various derivatives, such as как всем известно (as everyone knows) and общеизвестно (it is generally known). If I were editorial queen of the universe, I’d grab my red pencil and strike these phrases from the majority of texts. 

I know what you’re thinking: Berdy’s finally lost it. It’s a benign little phrase that can be easily rendered in English. What’s the problem?

The main problem is that the ubiquitous как известно can serve several functions in Russian sentences, while the phrase “everyone knows that” is not nearly as common in English and usually serves one function. In most cases it sets up a contrast between common wisdom and a narrower truth. “Everyone knows that fast food is unhealthy. But few people know how to choose a healthy diet.” 

Sometimes you find the same construction in Russian: Как известно, по законодательству продажа спиртных напитков разрешена лицам, достигшим 18 лет. Но мало кто знает, что распитие спиртных напитков разрешено только с 21 года. (Everyone knows that alcoholic beverages can be legally sold only to individuals 18 years or older. But few people know that the legal drinking age is 21.)

But in most cases, when как известно is used in Russian, “as everyone knows” would be deemed unnecessary in English. Как известно, пробки для вина изготавливают из коры пробкового дуба. If you translated the phrase literally as, “Everyone knows that corks for wine bottles are made from the bark of cork oaks,” an English-speaking reader would expect a “but” in the next sentence. If the text just meanders on about cork-making, the reader of the translation is left waiting uncomfortably for the shoe to drop.

In cases like these — when как известно is simply throat clearing before a statement of fact — I leave it out of the English. For example: Как известно, после образования СССР Белоруссия вошла в его состав в качестве одной из союзных республик. (After the U.S.S.R. was formed, Belarus joined as one of the union republics.)

In other cases, I rephrase in English to avoid the shoe-in-the-air problem. Как известно, наш организм состоит из воды почти на 90%. (Science has shown that our bodies are almost 90 percent water.)  Общеизвестно, что дети лучше всего обучаются во время игры. (It’s an established fact that children learn best when playing games.)

And then there are times when как известно doesn’t mean “everyone knows”; it really means “I know.” For example: Известно, что Владимир Путин не любит принимать решений. (Literally, “It’s known that Vladimir Putin doesn’t like to make decisions.”) Here “известно, что …” might stand for: “I’ve been told by a number of sources I can’t quote that …” Or it might mean: “I’ve written about this in detail before, so trust me on this.” If I were an English-language newspaper editor, I’d never let a journalist get away with that. But when I’m wearing my translator’s hat, I grit my teeth and type: “It’s common knowledge that …”

In other cases как известно is used to pass off an outrageous assertion as accepted fact. Take this heinous example: Как известно, украинский язык смешной. In these cases I don’t try to fiddle with the English to make it more palatable. I translate baldly: Everyone knows that Ukrainian is a comical language.

But if red pencils could be used as weapons …

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