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Language-Specific and Culture-Specific Challenges in Russian Translation

This post discusses translation challenges that involve words or phrases bearing a language-specific or culture-specific connotation, which cannot be easily rendered in the target text. Because a direct translation is undesirable or inappropriate, they require a more creative approach that considers context or audience. I will use examples (mainly from English to Russian translations) to generate a few ideas on how to approach some of this kind of challenges.

This city is not as huge as New York or even Los Angeles / Этот город не столь большой, как Москва или даже Санкт-Петербург

Here, both the challenge and the solution are simple. With the U.S. cities remaining in the translation, your comparison might not be immediately clear to your Russian-speaking audience. To avoid this, you can use similar Russian cities to get the message across.

SMART Goals / Цели SMART (Specific — конкретные, Measurable — измеримые, Attainable — достижимые, Realistic — реалистичные, Timely — с конкретным сроком)

This is a common word play challenge—acronym “SMART” has a dual meaning. In such cases, you can spend hours of time in search of a Russian equivalent to no avail. A more efficient option might be to keep the English acronym and translate each component in brackets. This way, the reader will be sure to understand the meaning of the acronym and might still enjoy the English word play. To make things easier, you can also provide a note explaining the nature of the word play.

Refer them to someone else who has the time—”No, but I’m sure Susan could help you with that / Учитесь направлять его к тому, кто располагает свободным временем: «Нет, но уверен, что в этом вам поможет Сьюзан»

Here, the choice whether to keep the English name, Susan, or replace it by a Russian name largely depends on context or audience.

It is important to consider the general feel of the text. In a text obviously coming from the English culture, a Russian name might feel alien. For this reason, in translations of fiction, the general tradition is to keep the proper names, even though they might be “eligible” for translation. For instance, one of the characters in Dombey and Son, Walter Gay (translation: Уолтер Гэй), is once humorously referred to as Walter Grave (Уолтер Грейв, not Уолтер Мрачный). This approach helps retain the original feel of the text. If you believe a translation will be also helpful, you can provide it as a note.

However, this approach isn’t universal. Where a text requires complete adaptation to the local audience needs, a direct translation might be more appropriate. Doing otherwise may signal that this text is a translation, causing your readers to smile or, even worse, frown, because this time it will be the English name that will feel alien.

In the above example taken from a training course designed for the Russian managers of a global company, I chose to keep the English name to retain the original cultural feel. Because the English language and culture are predominant in this company, the audience is likely to be okay with the English name.

A longer term strategy is to get a copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, a simple guide to grammar / Более полезным в долгосрочной перспективе способом будет изучение книги The Elements of Style […], которая представляет собой доступное руководство по грамматике. Эта книга предназначена для пишущих на английском языке; аналогичные руководства существуют и для русского языка

This sentence comes from a text about developing your writing skills. Although this text was originally written with English in mind, it also applies to Russian and can be translated successfully. This very sentence, however, refers to a guide that is specific to the English language. It is clearly of little use to the mainstream Russian-speaking audience. Moreover, it represents a risk of confusing the audience. You cannot simply omit the English title though, at least because some of the readers might still find it helpful (again, it is the question of understanding your audience). One method to handle such cases is to keep the English title in your translation, but add a note saying that this is an English-based guide, while similar Russian guides are also available. You can also go an extra mile by including the titles of such guides.

Der Kupplungsservo wandelt den [Pedalweg/pedalweg ] um… / Усилитель привода сцепления преобразует [Ход педали/ход педали]…

Included in a technical questionnaire (translated from German to Russian), this sentence offers a choice of two options in the square brackets. As you can see, the options are the same, save for the case. The difference is purely grammatical—the version with capitalization is the correct one, since the first letter of any German noun is capitalized. But how do you render the German grammatical nuance in Russian, which doesn’t require this type of capitalization? Originally, I couldn’t come up with a better solution than to simply keep the capitalization in translation. It is of course not quite meaningful, because the choice of options may seem ridiculous in Russian. I still think though that the question here is really not how to translate, but why translate at all—why translate into another language a question that is specifically intended to test the knowledge of German grammar?

Now that you know how challenging translation might be, be sure to get a professional Russian to English or Russian to English translation provider the next time you purchase translation.

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About the Author

Roman Mironov
Roman Mironov
CEO & Founder

As the founder of Velior, Roman has had the privilege of being able to turn his passion for languages into a business. He has over 15 years of experience in the translation industry. Roman has helped dozens of clients increase sales by making their products appealing for speakers of other languages.