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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Getting Steamed Up About Medvedev

Надувать: to inflate, puff up, swell

If you’ve ever gone to a Russian banya, you know that when the steaming is serious, silence reigns. But the no-talking rule is more relaxed in health clubs, which gives us the Steam Room Barometer of Public Opinion. When the sweat-covered, mouth-breathing, marble-skinned denizens of the top bench in the steam room talk about something, that topic is really hot. This week, the nearly naked guys in felt hats were talking about President Dmitry Medvedev’s address to the nation seriously, substantively and quoting from memory. I was impressed.

Unfortunately, none of them was talking about what interested me the most: one little phrase that has given translators trouble. Regarding foreign policy, Medvedev said: “Нам нечего, как принято говорить, ‘надувать щёки’” (literally, we shouldn’t “puff out our cheeks,” as they say). Huh?

In Russian, English and probably every other language under the sun, physical gestures and facial expressions — sometimes metaphorical, sometimes actual — are used to convey emotional states. When English speakers use the same or similar expressions to convey the same emotions, translation is easy. Он почесал затылок (He scratched his head; he was puzzled, at a loss, amazed). Он навострил уши (He pricked up his ears; he paid close attention to what was being said).

Americans puff out their cheeks and expel air as a sign of exasperation, denoted by the words “whew” or “phew.” They also pout. In Russian, this is надувать губы (literally, to puff out one’s lips). That’s pretty much our cheek-puffing repertoire. In the interest of scholarship, I sat in front of a mirror and puffed out my cheeks, hoping to see some profound emotion. Instead, I saw a ridiculous middle-aged woman doing a chipmunk imitation. Surely that’s not what Medvedev had in mind.

Then I asked a young Russian friend to demonstrate puffed-out cheeks. It was magic. Instantly, a tall, gangly kid turned into a fat, self-important bureaucrat. Got it. Надувать щёки is pose of proud self-importance. In English, we’d probably say: We shouldn’t be so high and mighty. If we were to convey this by a physical gesture, we might say: We shouldn’t puff out our chests. Or: We shouldn’t be puffed up. Or maybe even: We shouldn’t swagger.

Надувать щёки is not, as the otherwise brilliant Kremlin translators would have it, “to be full of hot air.” Sure, someone with a swelled head might also run off at the mouth without saying anything of value — which is what “to be full of hot air” means. But Medvedev wasn’t calling on officials to cut the crap. He was telling them to stop playing the big shot.

This is clear in the sentence that follows: Мы заинтересованы в притоке в страну капиталов, новых технологий и передовых идей (We want to see capital, new technologies and cutting-edge ideas coming into the country). The West, he asserted, is interested in the same thing: Знаем, что и наши партнёры рассчитывают на сближение с Россией для реализации своих приоритетных задач (We know that our partners are counting on better relations with Russia in order to achieve their priority goals). In other words: We want it and they want it, but our unwarranted pride is getting in the way.

No wonder this was the hot topic in the steam room. Let’s hope it’s not just hot air.

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