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. Also, generally picking weird names for Russian characters.
    Better: Go to here and pick two common 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.

  • 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.
    • "Gospodin" and "gospozha" ("Mr." and "Mrs.", respectively) are proper forms of address in modern Russia but also in pre-Red October Russia. They are followed by the surname.
    • 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.

  • 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 much more subtle and tasteful 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, while inanimate objects have grammatical gender, so you can expect tense errors, missing or misplaced "as" and "thes", and "he" and "she" used instead of "it" a lot. Of course, to master this technique, you would probably need to speak Russian yourself. It's also useful to try to 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").