Translation Challenges in Russian

Translation Challenges in Russian

Published: April 30, 2021

Translating between any two languages can be difficult, and translating between Russian and English is no исключение (exception) to this pattern. Due to certain грамматические различия (grammatical differences), some meanings within the languages can be difficult to translate.

While such differences between English and Russian are numerous, below are six of the most interesting in our opinion.

Порядок слов (Word Order)

One of the major differences between Russian and English is порядок слов (word order). Both languages have a basic подлежащее-глагол-дополнение (subject-verb-object) order: Он любит её/ He loves her. This word order is нейтральный (neutral) in Russian, but for выразительность (emphasis), the word order can be changed, in which case it is no longer neutral: Её он любит/Он её любит. In these instances, emphasis is specifically placed on the word moved forward in the word order. The translator, if to keep the original emphasis, will need to creatively carry this into English, perhaps with a нестандартный (non-standard), non-neutral word order (i.e. It is she that he loves) or through other emphasis (i.e. He loves her).


Время (Time) and Действие (Action)

Verbs in English and Russian express время (time) very differently. English relies on 12 времена (tenses) to transmit точное время (exact time). Russian has only three tenses, настоящее (present), прошедшее (past), and будушее (future), but it also uses вид (aspect) to add layers of значение (meaning) emphasizing how the action was performed, if it was completed, repeated, done with specific purpose, etc. While such subtleties can often be expressed in English using phrasal verbs, translators must navigate a web of subtleties and consider each case in context to decide how to express the same thought with economy. For instance, “Я гулял” (I strolled) is much more direct and finite than “Я погулял,” which is closer to “I strolled around for awhile.”


Прилагательное в превосходной степени (Superlatives)

For more on Russian’s superlative cases, click here to download this scan.

Прилагательное в превосходной степени (superlatives) in English have just one form, implying that something is “the most” of something. However, Russian has two types of superlatives: составная and простая (hard and soft) and translating these can be challenging. The simplest way to explain them to an English speaker is that “hard” superlatives are most like those in English. Самый крупный will always refer to “the biggest.” The простая superlative form in Russian is a slightly more книжный стиль (bookish form) and sounds perhaps similar to Russian diminutives, formed with the ending ейший (or –айший, after ж, ч, ш, щ). This form, for example in крупнейший, is most accurately translated as “one of the biggest.” In Russian, the простая form is often used to refer to something very impressive and/or remarkable, but perhaps not the “most” of anything, because it can be used without direct quantative comparison. While the difference between the formation of the two Russian forms is small, the fact that Russian has a grammatical form that English does not, and given that mistranslations of this form can result in untrue statements not intended by the speaker, this difference between Russian and English is perhaps one of the translator’s most dangerous pitfalls. See the graphic to the right for further explanation.


Уменьшительные слова (Diminutives)

Russian uses far more уменьшительные слова (diminutives), especially in literature and conversational speech, than does English. Some diminutives have more obvious translations, such as people’s names: мамочка/mommy; папочка/daddy. However, others, such as “столик are more challenging. For example, the phrase “Я хочу заказать столик” (I want to reserve a [little] table), becomes almost impossible to fully translate, although the loss of information in this case is minimal. Of greater concern would be people’s names. English speakers are not likely to know, for example, that Саша (Sasha) can be short form of both Александр (Alexander) and Александра (Alexandra) and thus the translator may need to make alterations to the text to alert the audience to this fact. Саша (Sasha) can also transform further into Сашечка, Сашуля, Шурик, carrying various connotations of affection and informality. This can be difficult to carry into English without either further explaining the Russian tradition or resorting to “little Sasha” or “dear Sasha” or even “Sashy-pie” or other forms that would eventually become difficult and awkward to use consistently in an English text. In English, these can read as forced or are often perceived as детская речь (“baby talk”). Thus, each case must be considered in context.


Пунктуация (Punctuation)

One area often taken for granted by beginning translators is that Russian and English have very different rules of punctuation. Russian, for instance, has very definite rules of when commas should be used and uses them where, in English, it would be unnatural. For example, Pushkin’s quote “Дорогою свободной иди, куда влечет тебя свободный ум” is usually translated as “Walk a free road wherever a free mind leads you” – without the comma because English does not always require it between dominant and subordinate parts of the sentence. Perhaps more striking are quotation marks, which are used in Russian to refer to proper names of businesses and organizations. While one might say “Сейчас в России 650 ресторанов «Макдоналдс,»” one would not say “There are 650 ‘McDonald’s’ restaurants in Russia.” In English, the quotations would carry an added meaning that the restaurants were probably fake. In Russian, it simply says that they are all branded the same. Translators must keep in mind that they are not only translating words, but translating punctuation as well.


Ничего и нечего (Nothing and Nothing)

In addition to обширные (broad) grammatical differences between Russian and English, there are some very особые тонкости (specific, minute details) that affect how sentences should be translated. A common mistake among English speakers is to путать (confuse) ничего and нечего. Although these two words only differ with one letter, their use in sentences and their translation is very different. Ничего, which has the ударение на последний слог (stress on the final syllable) is slightly different from нечего, which has the ударение на первый слог (stress on the first syllable). Ничего is used as a regular negated object, with the subject in the nominative case, while нечего is used in an impersonal construction with the subject in the дательный падеж (dative case). In terms of meaning, нечего usually refers to the complete absence of something, while ничего usually refers to the absence of a specific something. So, for instance, она ничего не боится would mean that “she fears nothing” (there are probably things to fear, but she is fearless) while ей нечего бояться would mean that “she has nothing to be afraid of” (she probably is afraid, or will be afraid, but should not fear). See the pictures below for other good examples of how the two words are correctly used.




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About the author

Andrei Nesterov

Andrei Nesterov has reported on political and social issues for the Russian press as well as American outlets such as Russian Life,, and Triangle Free Press. He has travelled Russia extensively and penned many stories on the "real Russia" which lies beyond the capital and major cities. Andrei graduated from Ural State University (journalism) and Irkutsk State Linguistic University (English). He studied public policy and journalism at Duke University on a Muskie Fellowship and went on to study TESOL and teach Russian at West Virginia University. He is currently working on an PhD from West Virginia University in Political Science. Andrei contributes news, feature stories, and language resources to the SRAS site, and is an overall linguistics and research resource.

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