Russian Translation Problems

When translating from one language into another, there are always difficulties in equivalence that must be addressed. Russian is no exception.

Russian translation poses some unique problems when there is a need to find exact (or as exact as possible) English language equivalence. In the Russian language, there are some conventions and rules that can make the translation process problematic.

One obvious difference that causes problems when translating from Russian into English is the absence of articles in Russian. Yes, that’s right. In Russian there is no word for “a” or “an”, nor is there a word for “the”. For example, the English sentence “the man sees a car” translates into Russian as “man sees car”. So, when we see the Russian original “man sees car”, how can we tell if it is “a man”, “the man”, “a car” or “the car”? Well, in simple terms, the answer is always to translate in context. However, this is not always possible. And, as a translator of the Russian and English languages for many years, sometimes the answer is – intuition! That certainly doesn’t sound very scientific, but in many cases it can be a handy method of making a choice between article or no article.

Indeed, the problems Russians face when converting their “article-less” language into English can be very frustrating. I have spoken with many Russian people who trot out statements like “at school in Russia I was taught that you use the definite article in English when a thing is first mentioned, and thereafter you use the indefinite article”. Hmm. Sometimes this can lead to all sorts of dramas. I have a Russian friend who will invariably drop the article in English when it is required, and put it in when it is not needed. For example, “Thanks to the God!” and “what is answer to this question?” In other words, if you cannot guess intuitively when to use articles in English and when not to use them, you are going to struggle.

A second problem in translating from Russian into English concerns the patronymic. The Russian patronymic is a bit like a person’s middle name, only in the case of Russian there are no choices or decisions to be made. It is formed on the basis of a person’s father’s first name. For example, if a Russian man has a father named Ivan, then his patronymic will be “Ivanovich”, and for a Russian woman her patronymic will be “Ivanovna”. In the translation of birth certificates, I translate this name as standard, however I have had clients call me and demand the patronymic be removed. Since the client always comes first in my Russian translation service, I will delete it upon request.

Thirdly, there is the question of geographical names. As the English-speaking world has counties, shires, districts etc., so does Russia. Some of these geographical divisions are called Krais, Oblasts and Okrugs, for example. Now, depending on the context and the end-user of a translation, often these terms will simply be transliterated (the nice option). On the other hand, other clients will demand an English-sounding name be used. And, when this happens, confusion can certainly arise as it is often difficult to decide exactly which English name to match up with which Russian one. The key here, as with all translations, is to pick one set of terms and be consistent throughout. Sometimes, this is easier said than done!

These are just three of the approximately one million and forty-five tricky aspects of Russian translations 🙂

Blair Denholm
Phone: +61 403 342 924