September 23rd, 2014 — posted by Evgeny

The Russian word белка means ‘squirrel’. It declines like so:


Here are some sample sentences.

Белка грызет семечки. Squirrel chews sunflower seeds.
Моя собака поймала белку.

My dog caught a squirrel.

Его любимое животное - это белка. His favorite animal is a squirrel.
Она часто говорит о белках. She often talks about squirrels.
Когда он вышел во двор, он был окружен белками. When he came out to the yard, he was surrounded by squirrels.

There are quite a few species of squirrels that live in Russia. There is even the Siberian flying squirrel, which is the only species of flying squirrel found in Europe. Ironically, Белка was also the name of one of the dogs that were launched into space on board of Sputnik 5 on August 19th, 1960. They were the first dogs in space. After circling the Earth in a space craft, they safely made it back down as national cosmonaut heroes of the former USSR. This year, a new cartoon was released about the two dogs, originally called “Belka and Strelka: Moon Adventures”. However, since not too many people outside of Russia are familiar with who they are, the title was changed to “Space Dogs”.


September 22nd, 2014 — posted by Don

Sometimes when you study a foreign language, especially one as difficult as Russian, you just want to show off your new-found skills and knowledge, and for Russian one of the great words you can use for that purpose is достопримеча́тельности. It means ‘sights.’ That's right, sights. In English it’s one syllable. In Russian it’s eight syllables. Here is how it is pronounced:

When you are trying to learn to pronounce a polysyllabic monstrosity like that, there is a little trick that will help you get it right. If you would like to learn the trick, play this bit of audio:

In terms of declension достопримечательность is a standard third declension noun:


Although we usually translate it as ‘sights,’ you could also translate it as ‘attractions’ or ‘places of interest.’

Какие есть достопримечательности в Казани? What interestings sights are there in Kazan?
Самая интересная достопримечательность — мечеть Кул-Шариф. The most interesting sight is the Qol Sharif mosque.
В Норильске вообще нет достопримечательностей. Norilsk doesn't have any interesting sights.
— Какая самая интересная достопримечательность в Ванкувере?
— Около университета есть нудистский пляж.
— Разве это интересно?
— Да, там есть на что посмотреть.
“What’s the most interesting sight in Vancouver?”
“There’s a nude beach near the university.”
“You really think that’s interesting?”
“Yeah, there’s stuff worth looking at there.”

Кирпич, часть первая

April 2nd, 2014 — posted by Don

The Russian word for brick is кирпич. It is an end-stressed noun, so it declines like this:


Generally speaking, if you are discussing the substance out of which something is made, then you usually use кирпич in the singular.

Музей построен из красного кирпича. The museum is made of red brick.
Вокруг дома стояла прочная стена из кирпича производства компании Аккрингтон. Around the house there was a sturdy wall of Accrington brick.

Of course, if you are counting the bricks the word can occur in the singular and the plural.

После торнадо все было разрушено. От нашего дома остался только один жалкий кирпич. After the tornado every was destroyed. Only one pitiful brick was left of our house.
Чтобы достроить стену, нужно еще только два кирпича. We only need two more bricks to finish the wall.
Я построил книжный шкаф из двадцати шести кирпичей и шести досок. I built a bookshelf from twenty-six bricks and six boards.

There is more to be said about this word, but that will have to wait till the next couple of entries.

Translating humor, part II

April 1st, 2014 — posted by Don

Among the April 1st offerings on Facebook this morning is a picture from Баба і кіт that made me laugh out. Let's have a little translation contest.

  1. Read over Natasha's entry on крыса my entry on Translating humor, part I. (They are the two entries before this one.
  2. Come up with an English translation for the the two sentences above the picture that captures the humor of the picture.
  3. At the end of April I will make a completely subjective decision about which one I like best and send the author ten bucks as a reward.

Here's the picture.

Translating humor, part I

March 31st, 2014 — posted by Don

One of the most popular second-year Russian textbooks is “Russian Stage Two: Welcome Back!” One of the things that is nice about the book is that it is accompanied by a well-produced and engaging video that gives a plot arc to the text. In class my students and I came across a couple lines in the video that lacked the same punch in English that they had in Russian. A student asked how we should go about that type of translation. What a great question! Here's the context.

Lena and Tanya are talking on the phone. Lena asks Tanya how her thesis is coming along. Tanya, distracted by her wedding plans, at first does not recognize what Lena is talking about, which reinforces the video's presentation of Tanya's character as somewhat flakey. The lines go like this:

Лена: Как твои дела? Как твоя дипломная работа? Lena: How are you? How is your thesis coming?
Таня: Какая работа? Ах, дипломная? Всё нормально. Tanya: What kind of work? Ah, my thesis. Everything's okay.

The performance of the dialog is slightly humorous in Russian. The Russian phrase for thesis is «дипломная работа», which literally means “diploma work.” Thus when Tanya doesn't quite make out the word «дипломная» but does make out the word «работа», she can ask «Какая работа?» “What kind of work”, then figure it out in her head and say “Ah, diploma work.”

Why does the translation not capture the humor of the original? It fails because in English ‘thesis’ has no obvious connection to “what kind of work?” Ideally a translation intended for a general audience will capture the emotional content (in this case the humor) as well as the informational content. So how do you go about the process of figuring it out? Here is how our discussion went.

Step 1: identify the sources of the humor. In this case the humor stems from a variety of things, including the inherent relationship between «какая работа» and «дипломная работа». «Какая» is one of the things you can say in Russian when you didn't quite catch what the other person has said. Tanya didn't at first figure out what Lena said because she was distracted by wedding invitations, or, alternatively, she didn't understand Lena because Lena's headcold made it tougher.

Step 2: identify the things you can't change in the translation. «Дипломная работа» has a standard equivalent in English, which is ‘thesis.’ Not much you can do about that.¹

Step 3: identify the things you can change and brainstorm on them. In English there are a lot of ways you can ask for additional information when you didn't quite hear what someone said. Let's brainstorm those phrases:

  • Could you repeat that, please?
  • Excuse me?
  • Come again?
  • Speak more clearly!
  • Huh?
  • What did you say?
  • What's that?
  • What was that?
  • Say what?
  • My what?

Somehow we have to find a variation on one of those phrases that has some obvious connection to ‘thesis.’ In a previous blog entry we discussed the word whatchamacallit. Among the variations there were whoziwhatsis and whatsis, the last three letters of which match the word thesis. Ah, there we have it!

Lena: How are you? How is your thesis coming?
Tanya: My whatsis? Oh, my thesis! Everything's okay.

When we reached this point in our class discussion, the whole class laughed, which meant we had a successful connection. Of course, this version is funny for an additional reason: whatsis is a very informal word, one that doesn't quite match the neutral tone of the rest of the conversation.

One last thought. Humor is best when it is spontaneous and not overanalyzed. If nothing here seemed particularly humorous, chalk it up to the academic discussion. It really was funny at the time... but you probably had to be there.

¹ Okay, I'm fudging here. You could also say ‘senior project.’