Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Joys of Russian (Translation)

I have the pleasure of translating of several languages into English.  Working from Russian is by far the most challenging and tiring.  The reason is that each sentence is small jigsaw puzzle required serious thought of a grammatical nature.
The reason for this is the problem of word order.  Western European Latin-based languages are word order rigid for the most part.  The difference between The dog chases the cat and The cat chases the dog has nothing to do with the words and entirely to do with which noun is before the verb.  In other words, as Chomsky describes in this theory of universal grammar, the actor is before the verb and the receiver of the action is after the verb. 
Slavic languages, by contrast, use endings to mark the grammatical function, i.e. subject, direct object, indirect object, possessor, etc.  For example, in Russian, the various forms of the word книга [kniga] (book) include книгу [knigu], книге  [knigye], and книгой [knigoy], to mention a few.  Therefore, the actual word order of sentence is mainly a matter of style, not actual content.  The subject can be at the end of a sentence and still be understood.  Dostoevsky is quite fond of sentences going on for ten lines or so with the subject at the end.  I, as a student of the language at the time, was not so happy.
Moreover, any phrases describing those nouns are placed before the adjective, the opposite of English.  To demonstrate, the English sentence The police car whose lights are flashing is trying to catch the car that is speeding down the road becomes Whose lights are flashing police car is trying to catch the speeding down the road car in Russian.
The end result of this word play is that translator tackles each sentence in Russian by figuring out what the subject, verb, and object are and then adding the other elements.  In other words, each sentence is a logic puzzle of varying complexity in itself.  Believe me.  This can be hard work.

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