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.’

Крыса

March 26th, 2014 — posted by Natasha

The Russian word крыса means 'rat,' as in the animal. It declines as such:

SgPl
Nomкрысакрысы
Accкрысукрыс
Genкрысыкрыс
Preкрысекрысах
Datкрысекрысам
Insкрысойкрысами

Photo Credit: vadim.tk (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Here are a few sample sentences:

Крыса грызла туфли. The rat gnawed the shoes.
В доме есть крысы! There are rats in the house!
Я был вчера на мусорной свалке и увидел много больших крыс! I was at the dump yesterday, and I saw a lot of big rats!
Меня укусила крыса, пришлось сделать укол от бешенства. A rat bit me, and I had to get a rabies shot.
Мой лучший друг — телепатическая крыса, которая защищает меня от забияк. My best friend is a telepathic rat who protects me from bullies.

That last sentence is the plot to the movie Ben. The movie had a famous theme song which was sung by Michael Jackson... Michael himself had a very odd life with friends few and far between, more comfortable with animals than people. Somehow his singing this song seems oddly fitting.

Уходить/уйти

March 24th, 2014 — posted by Don

The verb pair уходить/уйти is usually translated as “to leave, depart” or in some contexts just “to go.” Notice that there is an й in the perfective infinitive:

Imperfective Perfective
Infinitive уходить уйти
Past уходил
уходила
уходило
уходили
ушёл
ушла
ушло
ушли
Present ухожу
уходишь
уходит
уходим
уходите
уходят
No such thing as
perfective present
in Russian.
Future буду уходить
будешь уходить
будет уходить
будем уходить
будете уходить
будут уходить
уйду
уйдёшь
уйдёт
уйдём
уйдёте
уйдут
Imperative уходи(те) уди(те)

Here are a couple of examples:

Папа, не уходи!. Daddy, don’t go away!
Во сколько ты уйдёшь? What time will you leave?
Она всегда уходит так рано! She always leaves so early!
Нина ушла от Миши в 2003-ем году. Nina left Misha in 2003.

In English the verbs leave and depart mean roughly the same thing, but they have a grammatical difference. We don't use the preposition from with leave, but we usually use from with depart. Thus we have:

She left the university at 8.
She departed from the university at 8.

In Russian if you mention the place you are leaving, you must *always* use the ‘from’ word with its noun. For this verb you use the typical ‘from’ equivalents. For example:

Таня ушла из университета в пять часов. Tanya left the university at 5. or
Tanya departed from the university at 5.
Мы обычно уходим с работы в 5. We usually leave work at 5. or
We usually depart from work at 5.
Я уйду от бабушки в 5. I will leave Grandma’s at 5.
I will depart from Grandma’s at 5.

When you depart a place, you are usually heading somewhere specific; that is, you are going *to* a place. For that reason the typical Russian prepositions of motion will work, e.g. в/на + accusative or with к + dative:

— Где папа?
— Он ушёл в лабораторию.

“Where is dad?”

“He has gone to the laboratory”. or
“He has left for the laboratory.”

— Где мама?
— Она уже ушла на работу.

“Where is Mom?”

“She has already gone to work.” or
“She has already left for work.”

— Где Таня?
— Она ушла к Ире.

“Where is Tanya”

“She has gone to Ira’s place.” or
“She has gone to see Ira.”

Гадюка

March 19th, 2014 — posted by Natasha

The Russian word гадюка means 'viper' or 'adder'. It declines like so:

SgPl
Nomгадюкагадюки
Accгадюкугадюк
Genгадюкигадюк
Preгадюкегадюках
Datгадюкегадюкам
Insгадюкойгадюками

There are a few species of vipers that live in Russia, not very many though. When it's starts to get really cold in Russia, the snakes start migrating indoors, especially in rural towns. Waking up to find a snake in your living room doesn't sound very fun. Warnings are usually issued during the colder parts of the year regarding snake home invasions. That's not the kind of viper I'd like to be surprised with in my driveway.

Photo Credit: Piet Spaans, CC-BY-SA-2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Here are some example sentences:

Не ходите туда! В унитазе гадюка! Don't go in there! There's a viper in the toilet!
Меня укусила гадюка! Высоси яд! The viper bit me! Suck out the venom!
Идиот! Нет гадюки в гостиной! Ты выпил, что ли? You idiot! There's no viper in the living room! Have you been drinking or what?
Не волнуйтесь, это была не гадюка, a шланг просто. Don't worry, it wasn't a viper, it was just a hose.