Analysis / Gratuitous Russian

Common mistakes and how to avoid them

  • Wrong: Writing a "Russian" character's lines in English, then translating them into Russian verbatim (or, God help you, with an automated translator), then transcribing them from Cyrillic to Latin (and even giving them to a non-Russian actor to recite). The problem with this is that Russian grammar is not like the English one, and its vocabulary has sounds that don't even exist in English (like the hard "kh")—so an amateur translation can never, ever be mistaken for actual Russian vernacular.
    Better: Let an actual Russian speaker translate your dialogue or at least proofread your translation before inserting it into the text. Advances of Internet technology make finding Russian proofreaders a trivial task.
    Best: Learn Russian yourself (at least to the "can read Russian novels" level) and write Russian lines in Russian to begin with. Also, find an actor who speaks Russian on at least a near-native level.

  • Wrong: Inserting Russian speech in situations where no native Russian speaker would do so. Particularly egregious are forms of Poirot Speak where a character gratuitously inserts simple Russian words ("DA!" "NYET!") into English speech for no other reason than to show that the author knows them.
    Better: Only use Russian language when two Russian-speaking characters don't want others to understand their conversation, when the characters don't know any other language, or when the character's emotional state forces them to revert to their native tongue (e.g. to curse—boy, the Russians love their profanities). In short, either use full Russian dialogue, or no Russian at all.
    Cherry on top: If a native Russian speaker runs out of English vocabulary, it's usually not on the simple words—it's on the complex and/or uncommon ones that he or she might know in their native tongue but not in English.

  • Wrong: Confusing pet names with full given names and patronymics with surnames under the Russian Naming Convention.
    Better: Go to here and pick two given names: one for your character (note the diminutive form of it but never use it other than in informal friendly conversations) and one for his/her father. Construct the patronymic out of the latter. Then go here and pick a surname. Finally, run the resulting combination against a native Russian speaker to check if it makes sense.
    • Don't stick to the same limited pool of Russian names that every work created during the Cold War seems to use. Not all Russians are named Boris, Pavel or Svetlana. Remember that there are names that are about as common in Russian as they are in English; for instance, naming your (female) Russian character Marina, Angela, Vera or Veronica would be perfectly plausible.
    • Be careful with uncommon Russian names. It's not that it's impossible for a Russian person to have an unusual name; it's that you have to know the naming trends and fashions of whatever time you're setting your work in to make a believable choice when picking said uncommon name.

  • Wrong: Confusing forms of address in formal speech.
    • "Tovarisch" (traditionally translated as "Comrade") may only be used to address a) Soviet functionaries, in which case it precedes the surname (e.g. "tovarisch Stalin") and b) Soviet and modern Russian military personnel, in which case it precedes the rank or position (e.g. "tovarisch mayor" for Majors or "tovarisch kapitan" for navy captains). In both cases, the word "tovarisch" is gender-neutral. Historically, Soviet people addressed each other with "tovarisch" in many situations, especially formal ones, but it could be both a (mildly) playful form of friendly address, and form of addressing unfamiliar people ("Today's meeting, comrades, is devoted to analysis of performance of our department", "Well, comrade Ivanov, how you're doin'?", "Comrades, who's the last in line?"), and it can still be heard today, especially from older people.
    • "Gospodin" and "gospozha" ("Mr." and "Mrs.", respectively), followed by the surname, are proper forms of address in modern Russia but also in pre-Red October Russia. Еhese are often seen as old-fashioned, and consequently are used much less than Mr. and Mrs./Ms. are in English, while in early Soviet times, using "gospodin" could easily trigger a harsh answer like "they are all in Paris" or "they were all shot in 1917".
    • Full given name + patronymic (e.g. "Ivan Denisovich") is a proper form of address in any formal situation, so that's probably your safest bet.
    • Full given name alone may be appropriate to use in semi-formal situations, such as conversations between equals who don't know each other well (for example, a cashier and a customer at a shop).
    • Diminutive forms may differ based on the situation and who is speaking. Remember, Russian language has a lot of in-word flexibility allowing to make many forms for the same name: for example, a boy named Sergey will be called Seryozha by his parents or a kind school teacher, Seryozhen'ka by his grandmother or a girl who's in love with him, Seryozhka by his classmates in school, and even Seryj ("grey", by consonance) when they are playing in the backyard. Or he may have a nickname based on his last name. Or not his last name. Seriously, find a Russian friend and ask him how he will call a man in some situation, it's the Internet age after all.

  • Wrong: Piling up Russian gibberish ("Vodka balalaika Gorbachov perestroika!") in hopes that As Long as It Sounds Foreign, nobody will care.
    Better: Don't embarrass yourself.

As an aside, the infamous Soviet Russia joke is not particularly popular in Russia, so don't insert it unless it's told by a character familiar with contemporary Internet memes.

A more subtle way to use language to demonstrate that a character comes from Russia is to let them speak English — but such English as would be spoken by a non-fluent speaker (since fluent speakers all sound the same by definition, trust us). For instance, Russian language has only three tenses (past, present, and future) and zero articles, so you can expect tense errors, missing or misplaced "as" and "thes". It's also useful to try and inject a "false friend" or two ("false friends" are similar-sounding words in two languages that have different meanings; for example, in Russian, "аккуратный" ["akkuratniy"] means "neat" or "punctual" instead of "accurate"). Also, look for idioms that may sound pretty uncommon to an English-speaking ear just because the speaker thinks of a Russian one and translates it on the fly, e.g. claiming that something is "easier than two fingers" or that someone is "simple as a dime".

However, it is important not to overdo it, either. English is, arguably, one of the easiest languages in the world to master, especially for speakers of other Indo-European languages (and Russian is one of those). So unless there is an actual reason for the character to be bad at foreign languages, don't make them speak broken, article-less You No Take Candle-ese with Trrrilling Rrrs in every word.