Sunday, December 15, 2013


Suddenly, I miss American idioms. When we lived in the States, most Russian we knew also spoke English, so it was easy to mix in an English phrase just when you needed it. Here in Moscow, even those Russians who speak English fairly well do not know the idioms. And of course, most idioms are untranslatable (even though some direct translations are making their way into Russian. For example, you can say “he is not happy about that,” and people will understand. It is an idiom, by the way, if you think about it). Some idiomatic expressions I need do have some equivalent in Russian, but finding those takes much more time than retrieving simple words. And joke on a time delay bombs. “To bomb” is an idiom, a good one, but useless in Russian. “To fail” does not do it.  
We need idioms because they convey a different kind of meanings, more compact, more holistic, somehow richer than plain language. For example, last week I was trying to say that so-and-so’s heart is in the right place. Well, how do you say it? That she is morally sound, even though by implication of my saying this, I may disagree with whatever she is doing? Akgh, it does not work! OK, as an exercise, try to translate into non-idiomatic, plain language these:
·        It is neither here , nor there
·        This is a moot point
·        Beating the dead horse
·        A turf war
·        Laying the foundation for something
·        Picking the low-hanging fruit
·        Bullshit
·        When shit hits the fan
·        The hind-side vision
A rich and moving idiomatic layer is a sure sign of a living language. Alas, the version of English the non-English speaking Europeans speak does not seem to belong to this category. They still manage to crack a joke, but not the idiomatic kind. The Brits and the Americans, although they tend to use different sets of idioms, seem to know each other’s languages as well, perhaps because of the extensive Hollywood-UK film industry ties. I am not so sure about other living Englishes of the world. I love the BBC-4 comedy show, and understand most of the jokes (bar some obscure political and cultural references), but this is about as far as I am willing to travel.
To my delight, I’ve been learning a lot of newer Russian slang and some new Russian idioms. Well, I also had to learn a lot of Russian bureaucratic lingo, which is no more beautiful than the ugly American bureaucratic lingo. The idioms make little sense when translated, but I will do it anyway, just for the heck of it:
·        Let’s put flies apart from the meatballs (separate one kind of an issue from another kind): Мухи отдельно, а котлеты-отдельно
·        To demolish someone’s brains (To change completely the way someone is thinking): Снести мозги
·        To divide the glade (To divide the spheres of interest): Поделить поляну
I do try once in a while, to translate an American idiom into Russian, but they just don’t take. The language has its own rules and reasons. An expression has to wake up its speakers’ imagination, it has to be seen as especially powerful, economical, and, well, expressive. 

1 comment:

  1. Keep up the good work, Sasha. Love your writing.

    Bob Rude