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The Moscow Times
October 29 – November 4, 2004

Word for Word

Anna Malpas listens in as Cold War interpreters and literary translators share the secrets of their trade.


Does dostatochno mean "enough" or "to some extent?" Why isn't the word "Ping-Pong" in Alexander Smirnitsky's dictio­nary? And when should you translate the title of an opera? These are the kind of questions that crop up — and get au­thoritative answers — at a Moscow club for professional translators.

Meeting once a month at the Nikolai Ostrovsky Museum, the club is free for all comers. Regulars range from university students to Zoya Zarubina, an interpreter to Josef Stalin and Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the wartime Tehran and Yalta conferences. Each get-together begins with a lecture followed by wine and socializing. Also available are the club's magazine, Mosty, and books published by the organizer, R. Valent, which specializes in trans­lation manuals.

Dmitry Yermolovich, an interpreter, lexicographer and professor at Moscow Linguistic University who spoke at a meeting earlier this month, is open about his love for the profession. "I see everything with the eyes of a translator," he said, recalling his experience compiling three recently published dictionaries — one of religious and elevated vocabulary, one for interpreters and tourist guides, and an updated ver­sion of a Russian-English dictionary by Alexander Smimitsky from 1948 — as well as a theoretical work on translating proper names.

Speaking with a slight American accent picked up from a period living in the United States, Yermolovich, who has been a member of the club since its foundation in January 2003, said that he was not worried about lecturing to his peers. The first time he appeared before the club, though, he teamed up with two other colleagues. "It was kind of a threesome," he said.

While most people just use dictio­naries to look up individual words, Yermolovich admitted that he reads them like books. Assigned to modernize Smirnitsky's dictionary, he pored over the work until he understood the com­piler inside-out as "a member of the in­telligentsia of the beginning of the 20th century who knew a lot about horses," he told the audience.

A mine of information on eques­trian diseases, the dictionary was put together by someone who never flew in an airplane and, rarely used the tele­phone, Yermolovich said. For Smimitsky, a lampa was something that burned kerosene, and a reis was a steamer voyage, not a flight. Other than a little "cosmetic updating" in 1983, the reference work continued to come out unchanged until Yermolovich's new version — 1 1/2 times longer — was published this year.

While translation might seem a peaceful pastime, Yermolovich hinted at professional rivalry. Someone once said that he "bakes dictionaries like pies," a reference to the fact that four separate dictionaries under his editor­ship came out in the last three years. The updated version of Smirnitsky's classic came in for criticism for its in­clusion of contemporary slang. "Our language is being spoiled by people like that," was one of the negative com­ments Yermolovich heard.

[Image]Nevertheless, Yermolovich was keen on discussing recent changes in the Russian language, many of which stem from the Internet, he said. It can­not but affect the lexicon when thou­sands of chat-room users learn to spell words as they sound, rather than as they are written, he explained, so that cow be­comes karova instead of korova. Spelling is going out of date, and the very core of the language is changing.

The update to Smirnitsky's dictio­nary includes new colloquial expres­sions such as Ona vyshla na menya — literally, "She came out on me," though it actually means, "She got in touch with me." The word dostatochno, or "enough," has taken on the additional meaning of "quite," so that it can be used to intensify negative words like "ugly" and "nasty," he said. Another colloquial addition to the dictionary is otstoi, a slang expression meaning "junk," "trash" or "dreck," though its literal definition is "sediment."

One audience member asked when one should translate the title of an opera or ballet. Yes, if it's a Russian one such as "The Nutcracker," Yermolovich said, but otherwise preferably not. An­other person asked how Yermolovich checked Smirnitsky's dictionary for "missing" words such as "Ping-Pong" and "egg beater." The translator did not give away all his professional secrets, but said that he checks for antonyms of each word, and also looks for related terms, so that if he found the name for one breed of dog, for instance, he would check whether all the others were included.

Translators are "special people," said Valentina Kolesnichenko, the di­rector of R. Valent and the club's orga­nizer, herself an engineer by training. "It can be difficult to get along with them ... but it's very interesting." The club allows professionals to meet each other, find work and discuss problems, she said. "We understand that we are doing something very necessary."

Despite an abundance of high-level language skills, the club holds its meet­ings in Russian, and only a couple of foreigners regularly attend, both hailing from the United States: Lynn Visson, a United Nations interpreter and author of several books on interpreting from Russian into English, and Michele A. Berdy, a translator and interpreter who writes a weekly column in The Moscow Times.

According to Berdy, the club meet­ings fulfill a "great need to compare notes and talk shop," whether transla­tors want to discuss a badly organized conference or the nuances of a particu­lar phrase. While Russians can be a bit shy about asking advice from a native English speaker, some students have be­gun calling her with questions.

The club is now set to move into new, permanent premises on Podsosensky rereulok in central Moscow. In addition to monthly meetings, it will host seminars and master classes to bring in some cash, and there will be a kiosk selling books from R. Valent. The publisher issues an average of four new books per year, as well as four revised versions of previous re­leases. Those on sale at the most recent meeting ranged from "A Glossary on the Euro" to "Seek and You Will Find: An English-Russian Dictionary of Bib­lical Expressions for Everyone."

While the club is at present entirely non-commercial, and gets to use its premises at the Nikolai Ostrovsky Mu­seum for free, expansion plans will al­low the publisher to gain some profit. Kolesnichenko hopes that the "small amounts of money" people pay for classes will allow the company to in­crease the number of books it puts out.

Zarubina, one of the club's founders and its ideologue, according to Kolesnichenko, crossed her fingers while talking about the expansion plans. The 84-year-old interpreter se­cured the premises at the Nikolai Ostro­vsky Museum "just because people are nice to us, and they know me here."

For many years the chief of the So­viet interpreting service, Zarubina, who speaks fluent colloquial English with a British accent, admitted that her first major postings — at the 1943 Tehran and the 1944 Yalta conferences - came because she worked for Soviet intelli­gence and had security clearance. Her father was also a Soviet agent, and she learned English while growing up abroad. "I wasn't much of an interpreter", she says. "In those days we had very few profes­sional interpreters in our country."

Her main job at the wartime con­ferences was to liaise between the secu­rity services and bodyguards of the U.S. and Soviet sides, but she did interpret for an impromptu session between Roo­sevelt and Stalin at Yalta. The Soviet leader decided to go and check on his American guest "like a good Georgian host" early one morning, when the other interpreters were still in bed. Only Zarubina was around to help.

"Stalin asked the general questions: 'How did you sleep? How is the accom­modation?'" Zarubina remembered. "Roosevelt said: 'Thank you very much, everything's fine. But there's a pond in front, there's a lot of - oh, God," she paused, searching for the word. "'Frogs, and they croak. I can't sleep.' : "I turned around to Stalin and said, 'Iosif Vissarionovich...' I stuck. I forgot the Russian for 'frog,'" she recalled. "I said: Tosif Vissarionovich, the little creatures that croak in the pond.'" Many years later, Zarubina still has difficulties with the word, she said with a laugh.

For Zarubina, who teaches a course in English communication skills at the Diplomatic Academy at­tached to the Foreign Ministry, the club provides an important chance for the older generation to meet and pass on their knowledge to students and young professionals.

Members "intermingle, they get new connections, they find new enthu­siasms, they find new ideas," she said. "We feel that this exchange of views, this passing on experience to the younger people, gets us enthused, too."