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Friday, December 17, 2010

More Reading

I had a bit of a lull in late November and got some reading done. I'd been looking forward to stepping back from the actual work of translation and reading about why it's so important (not that I need convincing, mind).

Even though I've been a translator for 12 years now, something about Why Translation Matters made me feel like I was on the outside looking in. Much of the discussion is on academic issues - Should students be allowed to read translated literature at university? Why do literary critics give translators the cold shoulder? - that don't really get my blood pumping.

On the other hand, I did enjoy Grossman's plucky attempt to define good literary translation and her discussion of all the ways linguistic insularity hurts us as a culture. One particular sentence stuck with me:

"In short, there seems to be overwhelming evidence to the effect that if you wish to earn your living as a writer, your works must be translated into English regardless of your native language."

That's a huge obstacle for most, if not all, young authors and authors from small countries. Since I am so often approached by authors looking to have their manuscripts translated into English, let me share the advice I give them:

1. If you're still looking for an agent, don't get your whole book translated right away. Most agents only want to see a summary plus a chapter or two. You can get the rest of the book translated after you have a lead.
2. Get your translator to help you write a good pitch letter to go along with the synopsis you send out to prospective agents.
3. Only proposition agents who say they handle international fiction.
4. Think about submitting translated short stories to magazines that publish fiction before trying to shop a big novel.
5. If you're unfamiliar with the U.S. publishing industry, invest in a book like Writer's Market to find out what publishers might want to see your work.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Black Bread

Like black bread? Me, too.

Thinly sliced black bread with butter and caviar. Black bread with a piece of sheep's milk cheese and sprigs of green onion. Black bread spread with thick buckwheat honey.

I'm intrigued as to why English recipes for Russian black bread always include things like molasses, cocoa and espresso powder. While black bread goes WITH lots of things, not many things go IN it - the recipe for real Russian black bread is utter simplicity.

My personal favorite is a bread called Darnitsky. Called "gray bread" in Russian, the only ingredients in Darnitsky are whole rye flour, wheat flour, salt, water and yeast. When you cut it open it is gray and soft inside and has small, evenly spaced holes.

My next favorite is Borodinsky. This is a dark rye whose dry ingredients are limited to rye flour, whole wheat flour and rye malt. A small dollop of molasses is added with the salt and yeast, and each loaf is topped with aromatic coriander seeds. Borodinsky is a dense bread that makes excellent garlic croutons.

An important thing to understand about Russian food is that most of it is highly regulated by state standards called GOSTs. All bread labeled Borodinsky must contain 80% whole rye flour, 15% whole wheat flour and 5% malted rye. A Reinheitsgebot for bread, if you will.

You can put cocoa and grated lemon in your rye bread if you want, but the Russian government's official position is that such additives are nonsense. And most of the bread-eating public seems to agree. Expensive hearth-style breads with creative ingredients (and without the GOST stamp of approval) are starting to appear in upscale supermarkets, but the majority raises an eyebrow and buys traditional bread.

Bread lovers in Russia will tell you that where you buy your bread is just as important as the GOST stamp. The best bread comes from bread factory stores.

When I'm in Korolev, I go to Freshest Bread (in the photo), the store operated by the local bread factory, Kaliningradkhleb. According to the factory's official history, it was once part of a chain that belonged to the legendary Moscow baker Ivan Filippov. Nationalized and then privatized (or re-privatized?), the bakery is still there, and its bread is supremely good.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Good Food

Russian Cuisine in Exile, by Pyotr Vail and Alexandr Genis

I bought this book many years ago in a basement book store somewhere in Moscow, but it wasn't until quite recently that I was able to appreciate it. I think I had to go through years of trial and error in the kitchen followed by mother-in-law boot camp to be worthy of the wisdom Vail and Genis share in Russian Cuisine in Exile, namely: put the garlic in the soup after you've turned off the heat. You'll get more bite that way.

Gender and Language

Time for another reader question:

"I've always been curious about the cultural and psychological effects of an overtly "gendered" language, i.e., having to conjugate verbs and decline words specific to the speaker's or subject's gender. (In English, I could write a whole blog in the first person and nobody would know I was a woman, for example. In Russian, I'd have to "lie" with my grammar.) What do you make of this?

Good question. It seems very intuitive that gendered languages would reveal something about how people think about the objects or individuals they apply those grammatical genders to. However, gendered languages don't universally apply grammatical gender based on actual or even symbolic gender. Using Russian as an example, is there anything feminine about a digital camera or masculine about a suitcase? (I've always shied away from symbol-hunting, but I won't stop you if that's your thing.)

But could it work the other way around? What if - instead of us imposing our gender concepts on our languages - our languages are sneakily imposing a point of view on us? The official answer is no. Very few linguists today believe that people's feelings about actual gender are affected by their language's use of grammatical gender. English has practically no grammatical use for gender, while Russian, Spanish and lots of other languages do, but you wouldn't say that Russian and Spanish people are more strongly attached to or bound by their living, breathing, human genders than English speakers are, would you? What about the Finn who calls his son "it" and his daughter "it," as well? I know for a fact that lots of little Finnish girls like Disney princesses, so their language has not hobbled or empowered them. Yet.

And here's a few workarounds for writing a blog in Russian without revealing your gender:
1. Use the plural pronoun "we."
2. Use lots of passive constructions - It seemed to me instead of I thought (since the past tense of the verb would reveal your gender in Russian)
3. Switch maddeningly back and forth between genders

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Love and the Translator

I got a question from a reader today asking if I knew anything about the Russian bride phenomenon. She wanted to know if it's true that lots of Russian women go to great trouble and expense to marry American men and if I'd ever encountered these brides in my translation business.

Honestly, it's much easier for me to talk about the second part of the question, so I'll start there.

I occasionally do phone interpreting for an immigration attorney who helps international fiancées prepare for visa interviews at the U.S. embassy. Most of the time I do written translations sitting alone at a computer, so it's always a stretch to do interpreting, which requires faster reactions and listening closely to a conversation over a poor connection. However, these conversations are fairly scripted and I've come to learn what to expect.

Sometimes this attorney refers me to men who would like me to interpret personal calls with their fiancées. This is harder, and I always review my interpreter code of conduct before making each call:

Rule 1. Interpret everything without editing. No matter what (and I do mean no matter what), the interpreter has to relay everything both parties say. These two folks are planning to get married, so communication is vital.
Rule 1a. Keep your kids out of the room while you're interpreting (see above). Learned this one the hard way.
Rule 2. Speak in the first person (don't use "he says/she says" constructions). The idea is to let the parties feel that they are speaking to each other instead of talking to the interpreter.
Rule 3. Introduce yourself to the fiancée before getting started. I like to make it clear that I work with the attorney and am in no way personally acquainted with the man. This is also an opportunity to explain Rules 1 and 2 so that everybody's on the same page.

Of the three, Rule 2 is definitely the hardest for me. I'm naturally a shy person and don't always like to mirror other people's tender emotions.

Now for the first part of the question: do lots of Russian women really put themselves out there on the internet to find American husbands? I suppose they do. Like all of us, I only know the people I know, so my insight is pretty limited. Now that the Russian economy has picked up considerably over the 1990s, my sense is that most "Russian" brides are actually from Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

But it's a fact that lots of younger Russian women complain about the male sense of entitlement and wonder if men in other countries might not be more fair and enlightened. Case in point: some women I know were recently cheering on Bozhena Rynska, a TV journalist who was so disgusted when a drunk photographer groped her at a gathering that she tasered him. He responded by punching her in the face. The police get to sort that one out.

Just imagine interpreting for Ms. Rynska as she interviews potential husband candidates - yikes!

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Until recently бисквит (beesk-VEET, sponge cake) was a mystery to me. Store-bought cakes in Russia tend to aim for mile-high showiness and are overly flavored on the inside with liqueurs or syrups, but good homemade бисквит is a treat. If it's done right, you can eat a lot of it without feeling physically or morally compromised.

For some reason my usual approach (pestering people in their kitchens) didn't help me master бисквит. Finally I found a recipe that spells out in detail what the eggs and sugar should look like at each stage and how exactly to fold in the (sifted!) flour. The little individual cakes in the picture will be the foundation for strawberry shortcakes with whipped cream.

Here's another idea: my mother-in-law makes her бисквит in a round pan, slices the finished cake into two layers, puts sliced bananas and custard between the layers, slathers it all with chilled custard, and decorates the top with sliced kiwi and pomegranate seeds. Then she chills the cake before serving. For some reason this dessert reminds me of the banana pudding of my childhood. Or maybe that early banana pudding was reminding me of something wonderful I wouldn't get to try until much later.

The Russian word бисквит is obviously borrowed from French or Italian, and according to my etymological dictionary Bulgarian, Polish and Czech all use a form of the same word. The earliest use of the word in the Russian National Corpus dates to 1783: a Mr. Novikov explaining what desserts are appropriate for little ones in his "On the Rearing and Instruction of Children."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Flying Contraptions

What do you call airplanes in your language? The Russian for airplane is самолет (sa-ma-LYOT), or "flies on its own." The cool thing is that the word is actually older than the Wright brothers or Alexander Mozhaisky.

Originally самолет could mean anything zipping along under its own power. In fairy tales, the flying carpet was a ковер-самолет (ko-VYOR sa-ma-LYOT). Speedy ferries on Russian rivers were called самолеты. In the early years of aviation, Russians did use the word aeroplane, but eventually the word самолет achieved a monopoly over the flying contraptions, and vice-versa. Interestingly, Russian directly borrows the words "airport" and "aerodrome" instead of creating something out of the word самолет.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Losing My Mind

I spent a good three minutes looking at a completely new word the other day. It was at the end of a marketing text, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out what it meant. Ретвитните (retvitnitye). The root was a mysterious "tvit." The prefix means to do the "tvit" again. The suffix means that it's an imperative.

And then it dawned on me - "tvit" means "tweet!" The text is asking you to retweet an announcement (on Twitter). A Yandex search turned up lots of ретвитните, плз (retvitnite, plz), which means "retweet this, please."

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Google Books

I just discovered a new use for Google Books - when you own a thick reference book with an iffy index, you can search the full text in Google Books and grab the page number!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Retro Monday

It felt like 1995 at my desk today. First an engineer friend called and asked me to translate a technical term for her. My computer was switched off, so I reached for my two-volume scientific/technical dictionary and found what she needed in a few seconds.

About two hours later I finished what I was working on and headed over to look at the day's translation questions on (for some reason I enjoy looking at other people's questions a lot more than I enjoy asking questions of my own - probably because I like digging around). A fellow translator wanted to know what the heck is the difference between the terms attachment, annex, addendum and schedule in a contract. Why waste time Googling when you have the book with the answer literally right at hand? I cracked open Ken Adams' Manual of Style for Contract Drafting and made a colleague's life a little easier. Good times.

And this evening I got an email from a reputable translation agency asking for a copy of my resume.

My resume?!

I was about to check the year on the calendar when my phone went off - project manager texting me about a new job. Whew. It's 2010.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Russian Law Blog

I came across this blog the other day and bookmarked it. The entry on the emergence of precedence in the Russian legal system was interesting. If you have a strong stomach, scroll down to the Dec. 11 entry on the backlash against Constitutional Court judges who complain about the meddling executive branch...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


What's a Winchester?

If you're from Texas, you'll think of a rifle. If you're from Russia, you'll think of a computer hard drive. I live in both places and it never occurred to me to wonder if the two were somehow connected.

The story I recently heard in Russia is that the same Winchester rifle folks also made hard drives back in the day. Stranger things have happened, but this particular business diversification never took place. A wee bit of fact checking revealed that the Winchester hard drive was actually released by IBM in the 70s and got its nickname because it was intended to have two 30 MB spindles, which reminded someone on the project of the Winchester 30-30 rifle.

In Russian, винчестер (vinchester) is a generic term for any hard drive and is often cut back to винт (vint), which happens to be the word for "screw" (as in the screw that propels a submarine).

Monday, February 15, 2010


Here's another French word I love in Russian - компот (kom-POTE).

Компот is a fruit drink that Russians put up for the winter in big 3-liter jars like the one you see here on my windowsill. Unlike the French or English compote it takes its name from, Russian kompot does not involve simmering the fruit for a long time. Here's how you do it:

Put your washed berries or sliced fruit in a sterilized 3-liter jar. Fill the jar to the top with boiling water. Let it sit a few minutes. Pour the hot water back into a pot, using a strainer to keep the fruit in the jar. Add a cup of sugar to the water and let it boil thoroughly. Pour the sweetened water back in the jar and close the jar the best way you know how. It takes a month or two for the full flavor of the fruit to leach into the drink, but once it does it's heavenly! Some of my favorites are red current (pictured here), quince and peach. Serve the kompot in a glass pitcher and make sure some of the fruit gets into each glass.

Friday, January 29, 2010


Looking for French words hiding in Russian is like popping sunflower seeds - once you start you can't stop!

Моветон - from the French "mauvais ton," or "bad taste."

I came across an interesting use of the word in the Jan. 25 issue of Dengi. The context is a discussion of the changing role of in-house security employees at Russian companies, specifically the fact that they are less likely to kidnap people now than they once were:

"Подобные ситуации были широко распространены в "лихие девяностые", когда милиция практически не работала по защите "проклятых буржуев". В настоящее время это уже моветон. Но главное не в приличиях, а в неэффективности и рискованности таких действий."

My translation:

"Things like that [kidnappings] were a common occurrence in the wild 90s because the police were basically refusing to protect 'bourgeois pigs.' That would be mauvais ton today. And it's not really a question of manners. It's just ineffective and risky."

I thought it was interesting that the interviewee used the term "mauvais ton" and immediately followed it with the qualification that he isn't talking about manners. He seems to be using моветон to mean "stupid."

When I turned to the Russian National Corpus and searched for моветон, I found this whimsical line from a play by Maxim Gorky:

Не гризе па ле семиачки, се моветон.

Don't munch on les sunflower seeds, c'est mauvais ton.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Little Grammar

I don't generally work with translation agencies because the process tends to involve surprises, and I don't mean happy surprises. However, one of my agency clients is a true delight. Russian is their specialty, they provide lots of reference material and they give feedback. Sometimes they even send out little editorial notes to all their translators. I read these notes. Even when they don't relate to anything I'm working on at the time I usually learn something.

Just the other day this turned up in my inbox:

"Please avoid translating the Russian participle in the following instances: проведенная оценка, полученные результаты, выполненные работы, etc. In this case, the participle has a grammatical meaning rather than lexical and is similar to the English definite article."

I chewed on that for a while after breakfast and decided that I like it. Simple and sensible.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Colored Pencils

Want a look at how Russian kids learn Russian?

The colored triangles under the letters indicate whether a letter is a hard consonant (blue), soft consonant (green) or vowel (red).

Friday, January 15, 2010

Reading, Reading and More Reading

My resolution for 2010 is to read more, and I don't mean reading more work to translate.

First off is Dina Kaminskaya's Записки советского адвоката (Published in the U.S. as Final Judgment: My Life as a Soviet Defense Attorney, You can get it at abebooks for a couple of bucks). I saw a good review several months ago on and immediately bookmarked it. Her description of growing up under Stalin is riveting, and I really enjoy the details on the day-to-day workings of Soviet courts. I've found that I learn history best by reading memoirs, and Kaminskaya's provides the kind of minutiae that I find fascinating.

Next up: a collection of essays and letters written by Ivan Grozny. I lost this book during a move many years ago and have always missed it. Grozny's proposal of marriage to Elizabeth I of England is priceless.

For the spring: Ilf and Petrov's memoir of their U.S. travels. Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


A few days ago I ran into a completely unfamiliar word - сиринет (sirinet). From the context it seemed like a musical instrument of some sort. A Yandex search yielded little aside from a mirror of the text I was already translating (love the Russian internet). Google searches for sirinette, syrinette and cyrinette, with or without the additional term "music," were fruitless as well.

When I inquired, the client replied that a сиринет was a phonograph traditionally used to provide music in a pub-style restaurant.

That solved the immediate problem of how to translate the term: in the very non-technical context the word "phonograph" would do nicely. But I am interested in music history, and a music term that comes up with no relevant hits in Google is enough of a mystery to keep me awake at night.

Sleep works wonders.

The next day it dawned on me that the сирин- part of the word could be a phonetic spelling in Cyrillic of a word that used different vowels in its original language. I might be looking at a word that had a connection to sirens, either the Greek ones or the emergency ones.

Bullseye! The Pulsometer Sirenette was a ship's fog horn. Here are some pictures of Sirenettes (third row down) - they look a little like the amplification horn on a phonograph, don't they?[03.2010 NOTE: the picture gallery is moving hosts - I will revise the link once it is up again]

If anyone knows how pub phonographs came to be called Sirenettes in Russian (and whether or not the name was ever in widespread use) I'd love to hear about it.


Грызть (gryzt) - to chew or gnaw. From here we get the word for rodent, грызун (gryzun).

The other day it occurred to me to wonder whether or not the Russian word had any connection with the English word grist. Remember the old cliché "grist for the mill?" I turned to the OED and found out that grist is the name for grain to be ground at a mill. It can also refer to the act of grinding. The OED also cited an example from the 15th century where grist means to gnash one's teeth in anger.

So the two words don't just sound alike - they're related! Fascinating!