Upgrade progress

September 11th, 2014

We are still getting reports of people who are seeing only question marks instead of Russian characters on their screens. If you are one of those, please contact us using the comment function and let us know what browser and operating system you are using so we can determine the source of the problem. We hope to have the situation resolved shortly.

Upgrade being tested

August 5th, 2014

Russian Word of the Day has been undergoing a software upgrade. We believe that everything is working again, but if anybody spots any problems, please bring it to Don's attention, particularly if you see any place in text or comments where Russian characters appear to be replaced by question marks.

New entries should begin appearing on September 2nd.

Кирпич, часть первая

April 2nd, 2014

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

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

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.’