What does a Russian person mean when they ask another person to do the following: “Do you not want to go for a walk?” Well, they may mean exactly what they say. But they could also mean: “Skedaddle!” This example shows: Anyone working with the world language of Russian (spoken by approximately 280 million people across the globe) will need a profound understanding and a keen nose for allusion. After all, Russian is full of allusions.
Andriy Rubashnyy is 37, a qualified translator , and has lived in Germany for 12 years. Born in Ukraine, he is perfectly familiar with the ambiguity of his native language. He knows the level of understanding it takes to tease out the true meaning of Russian sentences – and what disasters are lurking. Rubashnyy remembers the German subtitles he once saw for a classic Russian film while watching TV. A literal translation of the character’s line would be: “My pipes are burning.” The professional translator still remembers: “The subtitle turned the statement into ‘My heating is bust’.” But its actual meaning was: ‘I’m hungover .’
The ambiguity of Russian phrases makes context all the more important. Translated into Russian, choosing the right words for even harmless German phrases like ‘Viel Spaß!’ (have fun) can be a minefield. It doesn’t take much for them to become salacious comments referring to one’s more intimate life, explains the translation professional. Quick, literal translations are dangerous, says Rubashnyy: “A Russian translation must always reflect the underlying meaning more than the actual words.”
It is easy to fall flat on your face when translating between German and Russian. The language is complex – not just because of the countless turns of phrase and allusions, but also due to its immense flexibility. “Compared with German, Russian grammar is far more flexible. For instance, you can start a sentence with almost any word – depending on the intended emphasis or underlying message”, explains Rubashnyy. Russian sentences sometimes even manage without a subject. Verbs can be omitted, too.
Besides the grammatical challenges, it is important to note that Russians take a dim view of perceived impoliteness. Translation professional Rubashnyy: “Etiquette is more important in Russian society.” The formal manner of address is used almost exclusively, apart from a few exceptions. “Even family members may address each other formally. And naturally it is obligatory when companies communicate with customers.” You will not be popular by switching too quickly to an informal style. “It may even be perceived as an insult”, explains Rubashnyy.
Professional translations are crucial given the lively business relationships between Germany and Russia – regardless of whether it is a technical manual, a contract or more snappy advertising, worded to actually appeal to customers. You need far greater understanding than simply knowing what the words mean, says Rubashnyy: “You simply cannot grasp Russia by reason alone.”
Knowledge and emotional understanding – language professionals require these qualities to produce a Russian translation of a German text. And: They need an eye for detail. For instance: Anyone trumpeting a literal Russian translation of the standard German greeting ‘Frohe Weihnachten und ein gutes neues Jahr!’ (Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year) will provoke confusion. After all, Russians traditionally celebrate Christmas on January 7. So it is only logical that the Russian saying is turned on its head: “A Happy New Year and Merry Christmas!”
Andriy Rubashnyy was born in Ukraine and has been a professional translator and interpreter from German and English into Ukrainian and Russian for almost 20 years.
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