by Don  

On Saturday I was sitting just outside the men's section of the place where I get my hair cut here in Kazan, when a guy walked up and asked «Сколько там мастеров?» A second-year student of Russian would probably have translated the sentence "How many masters are there?" and would then have no idea what it meant. Here's the scoop. The word мастер in Russian often bears the meaning "someone qualified in a particular trade." In other words, he wanted to know how many barbers there were there that day.

The word itself is one of those that have a stressed -а in the nominative plural, and thus is end-stressed through the plural instead of stem-stressed:


There is no commonly used word in English that is quite as general as мастер in this sense, so when translating it, it is best to substitute the common name of the tradesman who practices the trade in question. Thus, if you are sitting outside an establishment that cuts men's hair with the old-fashioned standard cuts, the phrase «Сколько там мастеров?» is best translated "How many barbers are there?" The lovely and willowy Розанна who cuts my hair also does women's hair and can color hair as well. She would probably object to the word barber, and in fact someone with all those skills in the States would be better labeled a "hair stylist," so in this case the best translation may be "How many hair stylists are there?" or "How many stylists are there?"

I was in the dormitory of Moscow State University in 1986. My bathroom sink began to come out of the wall. The floor attendant said «Я вызову мастера». In this case she meant the guy who takes care of the dorm's minor maintenance requests, so her sentence would be best translated as "I'll call the handyman" or "I'll call the maintenance man." (BTW, when he showed up, he simply took a look at the sink, shoved it bank into the wall and smeared some cement over the screw and brace that held it in place. The wall was cinderblock. And the sink was anchored to the cinderblock by a screw... The word мастер struck me as completely ridiculous in that context.)

Thus if you summon a мастер to fix the plumbing, translate мастер as plumber. If you summon a мастер to fix your electrical outlet, translate it "handy man" or "electrician," depending on just how qualified the guy is.

1 comment

Comment from: Edgar [Visitor]

Yes. I also have heard this word and its female equivalent “masteritsa” used ironically to refer to someone who is very clever at gaming the system. Women enjoyed calling other women “masteritsi” who could outfox men.

07/28/10 @ 22:31

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