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Analysis / Gratuitous Russian

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Common mistakes and how to avoid them

Translations

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.

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Mixing languages

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, do 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.

Names

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 their 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. Two caveats:

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  • 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. While it is possible for a Russian person to have an unusual name, but 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.

Best: Mind the time and place where the character was born. For example: the name Angela rose in popularity in 1970 with the Angela Davis trial, and disappeared from the radar in 1990s, being strongly associated with prostitution. In the 2000s, big cities see a renaissance of old names, like Karp or Vasilisa, which in the Soviet times marked the person as being born in some small village.

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Forms of address

Wrong: Confusing forms of address in formal speech.

Correct:

  • "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. These 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".
  • "Sudar" and "Sudarynya" (without names) were also used in pre-1917. In early 2000s a national-themed fast food franchise tried to give them a new birth by obliging their staff to use it with the customers, which buried the idea even deeper, now they are associated with very average quality blinys.
  • 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, Seryoga 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 on his physical features. Seriously, find a Russian friend and ask him how he will call a man in some situation, it's the Internet age after all.

Last but not least...

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.

Additional notes

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 speakernote . For instance, Russian language has only three tenses (past, present, and future) and zero articles, so you can expect both tense errors, and missing or misplaced "as" and "thes". Also in Russian the word "to be" can and should be dropped in most cases, so a Russian-speaker may miss it from time to time. Not to the level of "My name Vasiliy" (since his school teacher made him remember the exact phrase), but in more complex cases this may give him up. It's also useful to try and inject a "false friend" or two: similar-sounding words in two languages that have different meanings, such as using the English "accurate" to mean "neat" or "punctual" because that's what "аккуратный" ["akkuratniy"] means in Russian. Also, look for idioms that may sound strange to an Anglophone ear because the speaker thinks of a Russian one and translates it on the fly, e.g. claiming that someone is "simple as a dime", or say "you are making an elephant out of a fly" instead of mentioning a mountain and a mole hill.

However, it is important not to overdo it, either. English is — its infamously convoluted orthography notwithstanding — 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.


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