Lost in Translation. Or not?

Today I saw this tweet by a colleague translator:

While I don’t argue Jane’s point that the world would be better off if there were more good translators and interpreters in all language pairs including Russian and English, I can’t agree with the message of the article and especially with Mr. Roxburgh’s arguments. I don’t want to discuss politics, but as a native Russian speaker and a professional linguist I do want to comment on the linguistic side of things.

The first exapmle of misinterpretation is the joke made by Boris Yeltsin while talking to the press after his meeting with Bill Clinton in far 1995.

Angus Roxburgh calls the word “disaster” ill-chosen and suggests that Yeltsin’s words should have been interpreted as “You predicted our meeting today would fail”. He also points out that Yeltsin hadn’t intended to make a joke. I think that anyone who has watched the video has noticed the mischievous look on the face of the first Russian president at the moment when he’s delivering his punchline. To me Yeltsin doesn’t look “baffled” at all, he looks proud of himself and amused by his own wit. “Disaster” might indeed be a little too strong, but the neutral “fail” wouldn’t have conveyed the message either. If I were the interpreter, I would have probably used something like “fall down”.

The other example of mistranslation presented by Angus Roxburgh is more recent. He’s discussing the use of the Russian term “gosudarstvennost” by Putin in respect to Donbass region in Ukraine. The point he’s trying to make is that this term has two meanings: “statehood” (meaning independence) and “the state system” (meaning the structures and organisation of a state). This is absolutely true, but there’s one small problem: this term is used only in relation to an independent state. You can talk about the state system of Russia, Great Britain or Ukraine, but you obviously can’t talk about the state system of Nizhegorodskaya Oblast, the County of Kent or the South-East of Ukraine, because, well, they are not states.

The term “gosudarstvennost” can be used in connection with some of the Russian regions, such as the Republic of Tatarstan, the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) and some others, but they are all autonomous states within the Russian Federation, which proclaimed their independence at some point in the past.

Even if we choose not to take into account the broader extralinguistic context and the political situation in which this remark has been made, we can’t ignore the habitual use and the perception of the term by native speakers.

The fact that a journalist like Angus Roxburgh, who has lived and worked in Russia for many years and even taught Russian at Aberdeen University, has missed these nuances probably proves his own point about how difficult it is to understand Russians and Russia. It also demonstrates that language skills are often not enough to make a good translator or interperter. It requires deeper understanding of culture, context and even the personality of the speaker.

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