Sunday, July 27, 2014

Corporal Widow.

Nikolay Gogol.
(Daguerrotype photo, 1845)
Russian Foreign Ministry reacted angrily to the new extension of the EU sanctions with the head of the FSB security service and the president of Chechnya now on the list. (TASS report in Russian here, smoothed out English version here, BBC, without the colourful expressions, here)

The language of the MID comments is so flowery that it comes close to Nikita Khrushchev's legendary Mother of Kouzma, or Kuzkina mat' ("кузькина мать").

In one paragraph the diplomatic riposte uses a very slangy drug-world expression сесть на иглу, literally 'to sit on the needle', meaning to become addicted to intravenous drugs. This is used to describe the EU's seeming willingness to take as truthful the information coming from the US and Kiev.

Even more confusing might be a reference to "унтер-офицерская вдова", the non-commissioned officer's widow, or the sergeant's widow. It is a well-known Russian phrase, "унтер-офицерская вдова сама себя высекла" — 'the sergeant's widow flogged her herself.' It comes originally from Gogol's The Inspector-General, the 1836 satirical comedy describing corrupt and inept officials in a provincial town.

In the play, a lying Governor suggests that a complaining NCO's widow lies herself and improbably claims that it wasn't him who ordered her flogged but the woman flogged her herself. As often happens with quotes it became detached from the original and is now used in the meaning 'to punish oneself.'

Here is the original quote from The Inspector-General:

Гоголь, "Ревизор", Действие IV, Явление XV:
Городничий. Унтер-офицерша налгала вам, будто бы я ее высек; она врет, ей-богу, врет. Она сама себя высекла.

(The Government Inspector, Act IV, Scene XIV, translated by Arthur A Sykes, 1892)
GOVERNOR. The sergeant's wife lied when she told you I flogged her—it's 
false, yei Bohu, it's false. Why, she flogged herself ! 

(The Inspector-General, translated by Thomas Seltzer)
GOVERNOR. The officer's widow lied to you when she said I flogged her. She lied, upon my word, she lied. She flogged herself.

LE GOUVERNEUR. — La femme du sous-officier vous a menti, menti, j'ai ne l'ai pas faire fouetter. Elle s'est fouettée elle-même.

Read the Russian version of this post here.

Friday, July 11, 2014


The internet 'smiley' has been adopted into Russian, but with a diminutive suffix -k. It's not смайли, but смайлик — smileyk or smileek.

It's an interesting case of morphological change as it gives the word masculine gender and also allows declension. If it stayed as it is in English - смайли - it would require neutral gender and no declension. Most probably the change stems from the natural language inclination towards ease of use.

This one is by me, see it on my I Work in Pages blog.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Normandy 1944-2014.

(just a photo)

Utah Beach, an old German bunker with shell marks that make it look like a stranded crocodile. 

For more photos of Normandy related to D-Day and subsequent battle for Normandy have a look at my  photoblog.

Thursday, May 29, 2014, Official.

This news came a while ago. I have checked the website today and seems to be an impressive piece of work with 'official' full texts of his huge body of work with commentary. It appears to be largely based on the 90 volume Anniversary edition of Tolstoy's collected works that came out in the Soviet Union around 1928, the 100th anniversary of the writer's birth. The site also features news on conferences and seminars related to Tolstoy and his legacy.

Here is what RIA Novosti says about the project:

“We wanted to come up with an official website that will contain academically justified information,” said Fyokla Tolstaya, the writer’s great-great-granddaughter, who works at Moscow’s Tolstoy museum. “Nowadays, it’s very important [to know] who posts information online.”
All of his novels, short stories, fairy tales, essays and personal letters will be available online for free and be downloadable in PDF, FB2 and EPUB formats, recognized by most e-book readers and computers, she said.
Tolstoy’s works were part of the obligatory high-school curriculum in the Soviet Union and Russia. Generations of Russian students have had to read the more than 800-page “War and Peace” – with boys preferring the war and girls the peace, according to a popular saying.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Russian tongue-twisters

This is a feat of both Russian eloquence and orthoepy.

Try it if you are a native Russian speaker or a teacher of Russian, and you'd most likely stumble on one of the tongue-twisters that are used in this spoof news cast. I always trip on 'Шла Саша по шоссе и сосала сушки' — 'Shla Sasha po chausse i sosala sushki' — 'Sasha walked along the highway and gnawed on сracknels.' Шоссе is the Russian word for highway, from the French chaussée.

I am not sure if it's a Russian or Ukrainian production, could be either. (Read also 'Carla Bruni's Russian Tongue-Twister.')

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Little Green Men.

Little green men in Simferopol.

(new Russian)

Russian special forces that have been used against Ukraine, without insignia and on a deniable basis of course, have acquired the name "зеленые человечки" — little green men.  

It is noted, among others, by a popular blogger Ilya Varlamov (Илья Варламов), who has close relatives in Crimea. (Varlamov's blog is here.)  Varlamov doesn't explain where the new nickname appeared or who was the first to use it.

This is what he writes:

'Not to upset anyone I will just call the unidentified military 'the allegedly Russian military'. Local jokingly call them 'the polite people', 'Crimean self-defence or just 'little green men.' (In Russian: Чтобы никого не расстраивать, неопознанных военных я буду называть «предположительно русские военные». Местные в шутку называют их «вежливые люди», «крымская самооборона» или просто «зеленые человечки».)

I am just noting this as an amusing example of back translation, perhaps subliminal, of the English meme for aliens. The term apparently first established itself in the USA in 1950s on the wave of reports of encounters with extraterrestrial aliens. Some described them as small humanoids with green skin and elongated heads. As time passed the expression got a shade of irony to itself. It began to mean an account that is hard to believe.

Which fits exactly with what has been happening in Crimea and then in Eastern Ukraine.

A note on grammar. Russian is profusely rich in suffixes, especially diminutive. The word for man (generic) is человек. Add diminutive -ek, mutate k to ch and get человечек — little man. In plural it's человечки — chelovechki.

Some English language reports simply use 'green men' which is okay but misses the shrewdness of local attitudes.

Read the Russian version of this article here.

Wikipedia article on little green men is here.

Фото: Elizabeth Arrott, VOA, отсюда.

#Крым "Зеленые человечки"

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Interpreter Viktor Sukhodrev. RIP.

Sukhodrev interprets Brezhnev and Nixon in 1973. 
Viktor Sukhodrev, the legendary Russian interpreter, who worked with Soviet leaders from Khruschev to Gorbachev, passed away on 16 May 2014.

This excerpt from an article on Russiapedia explains one 'untranslatable' idiom that Khrushchev used during the 'kitchen debate' with Richard Nixon in 1959:

As the conversation progressed, Khrushchev unexpectedly passed onto the international affairs and Soviet-American relations, warning Nixon, that “We are giants, too. If you want to threaten us, we’ll respond with another threat.” It was at that moment that Khrushchev promised to show the United States “Kuzkina mat’”, or “Kuzma's mother” in English, introducing the most famous collocation of the Cold War vocabulary, which for years remained an enigmatic and obscure threat for the US and a turmoil for interpreters. 

As Viktor Sukhodrev, Khrushchev’s personal interpreter recalls, his colleague was confused and translated the expression as Kuzka's mother as “Kuzma’s mother” throwing off the entire American delegation. Later, the American interpreter having just as hard a time, finally decided to interpret it as “we’ll show you what is what, “ which was close, but still not true. Sukhodrev confessed that Khrushchev did explain what he had in mind, on their trip to Los-Angeles, “…I am starting to translate, when Khrushchev suddenly interrupts me, ‘When I was at the exhibition with Nixon, the translation of this phrase was wrong. And it’s really easy. We will show you something you had never seen before.’ I froze for a moment; no dictionary had such meaning for this expression. In other words, ‘We’ll catch up with you and overtake you, and astound you with something you’d never seen before.’”

Later, as the nuclear program was thriving, the Soviet nuclear physicists named the newly-developed a 100-megaton atomic bomb, the only one in history, and named it “Kuz’kina mat’”. With this new notion, the expression started to make concrete sense.

Watch a longish TV interview with Sukhodrev here. Among other things he explains Khrushchev's famous phrase 'we will bury you' and says that 'nothing is untranslatable.'
Photo: Robert L. Knudsen.
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