1 Comment » Written on February 5th, 2014 by
Categories: Russia
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158_Runglish 1

This is a classic Russian animated children’s film, which means “Three (friends) from Prostokvashino” not “threesome from Prostokvashino”.
It’s a shame that the BBFC will have to bump it up to an “18”!

158_Runglish 2

I think they meant to say “entrance” here!

158_Runglish 3

Unfortunately, fish soup (“ukha”) sounds very similar to ear (“ukho”) in Russian.

158_Runglish 4

The Russian says “Keep to the right”, but we actually quite like what they’ve done with the English!
It almost sounds like a cryptic political slogan, or a badly written invitation to the best party in town.

158_Runglish 5

The Russian just says “pull”.

158_Runglish 6

“As tasty as at home” is a popular Russian idiom.
Let’s hope the houses in question are made of chocolate.

158_Runglish 7

Who’s serving who here?
The Russian actually says “You are being served by …”

158_Runglish 8

That’s how “assortment” is usually abbreviated in Russian, but it definitely leaves the reader cold.

Images taken from on 24 January 2014.

The ‘How Are You?’ Culture Clash

No Comments » Written on January 24th, 2014 by
Categories: Russia
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153_the how are you culture clash


 “WHEN an American asks me this question, it’s like a wall of ice crashing down between us.”

The question my Moscow-born friend Galina was referring to had nothing to do with Putin, or Pussy Riot, or the culinary ethics of adding ketchup to your pirogi. And yet, it is the back across which Russian-American relations are broken.

The question in question is, “How are you?”

The answer Americans give, of course is, “Fine.” But when Russians hear this they think one of two things: (1) you’ve been granted a heavenly reprieve from the wearisome grind that all but defines the human condition and as a result are experiencing a rare and sublime moment of fineness or (2) you are lying.

Ask a Russian, “How are you?” and you will hear, for better or worse, the truth. A blunt pronouncement of dissatisfaction punctuated by, say, the details of any recent digestive troubles. I have endured many painful minutes of elevator silence after my grandmother (who lived in the Soviet Union until moving to the United States in her 60s) delivered her stock response: “Terrible,” to which she might add, “Why? Because being old is terrible.” Beat. “And I am very old.”

Cue desperate thumbing of the “door open” button.

It feels as if I’ve spent half my life trying to smooth over the bafflement of my American friends and the hurt feelings of my Russian expat family as a result of this innocuous inquiry. “ ‘Fine’ makes Russians think that Americans have no soul,” I explained recently to an American-born friend. “That they just want to go home, eat a frozen dinner in front of the TV, and wait out the hours before going to work to make money again.”

He laughed, then quickly sobered. “You know, there’s something to that.”

But if the American “fine” can come off as plastic and insincere, the speed with which Russians unload intimate details is just as disturbing. I was born in Ukraine to Russian parents, but I grew up in the United States, and I get it. It’s like, “I don’t know you, Random Russian Lady, so why are you showing me your rash?”

The thing most Russians don’t realize is that, in English, “How are you?” isn’t a question at all, but a form of “hi,” like the Russian “privyet!” The Americans weren’t responsible for its transformation; that honor goes to the British. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase’s precursor, “How do you do?” as a common phrase “often used as a mere greeting or salutation.” The anodyne exchange dates at least as far back as 1604, to Shakespeare’s Othello, where Desdemona asks her husband, “How is’t with you, my lord?” and Othello replies “Well, my good lady.” Even though he is half-mad with jealousy and only five scenes away from murdering her.

Whereas it’s easy to read a particularly American optimism into the easy embrace of the auto-fine, Russians seem almost congenitally unable to fake fineness.

The Russian food critic and cultural historian Anya von Bremzen recently offered me an intriguing hypothesis as to why this might be the case. In Soviet days, proclamations of joy, enthusiasm and optimism were associated with state propaganda and officialese. As a citizen of a Communist utopia, you were pretty much supposed to feel fine all the time (never mind the time you spent squabbling over the communal stove or waiting in a two-hour line to buy toilet paper). So, Ms. von Bremzen explained, a moan or a complaint would be considered a more authentic, non-state-sanctioned response to “how are you.”

I liked this theory, but my father scoffed when I suggested it was the Soviets who devalued “fine.” By way of explanation, a quote from Dostoyevsky arrived in my inbox: “The most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything.”

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Psychologists at the University of Michigan have shown that, while Russians are, indeed, more prone to brooding than Americans, their open embrace of negative experiences might ultimately be healthier, resulting in fewer symptoms of depression.

Recently, when I looked through a few American guides on traveling to Russia, I was disappointed to find that they all suggested that tourists adopt the American approach to “How are you” (“kak dela” in Russian) and lob back a hearty “Khorosho!” My advice? Don’t let “How are you” be your Waterloo. Instead, take a vacation from fineness.

If you lack the Russian vocabulary to fully express your unquenchable suffering, fear not — a lot of angst and ambivalence can be packed into just a word or two. Try “tak-sebe” (so-so) or “normalno” (the usual) or “eh” (eh). Even “fine” is fine. Injecting a world-weary sigh before your “khorosho” can neatly reverse its meaning, or render it shorthand for that other, more satisfyingly nuanced, response: It’s complicated.

Article taken from the New York Times on 24 January 2014.

At the Olympics, a Rainbow on Every Coke Can?

No Comments » Written on October 29th, 2013 by
Categories: Russia, USA
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139_At the Olympics, a Rainbow on Every Coke Can

A hundred days from the start of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, none of the marquee sponsors—among them Coca-Cola, Atos, Dow, General Electric, McDonald’s, Omega, Panasonic, Procter & Gamble, Samsung, and Visa—have stepped forward to aggressively protest Russia’s new anti-gay law.

“There were early indications that they might,” Masha Gessen, one of Russia’s most prominent gay-rights activists, told me. She added, “I think they are waiting for a strong threat from the gay community in the United States to force them to do something.” Four months after Russia passed a controversial law that bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships to minors,”—allowing for the criminalization of any talk of sexual orientation or gay rights—that threat has not materialized.

Now Coca-Cola is scheduled to make an announcement about what actions, if any, it has planned. Coca-Cola has a long record of supporting L.G.B.T. rights in the United States, and it received a perfect score from the nation’s most prominent gay-rights organization, the Human Rights Campaign (which also asked Olympic sponsors to take action on Sochi).

The expected announcement has prompted some groups to renew their efforts. The international gay-rights organization All Out is leading an effort to get the Olympic sponsors to take a stronger stand against the law, and it has been particularly aggressive in stepping up the pressure on Coke. All Out is holding a demonstration at Coke’s Atlanta campus on Monday, where it will circle the buildings with trucks towing twenty-two-foot billboards that urge Coke to call for a repeal of the propaganda law. The group has also gathered almost a hundred and fifty thousand signatures on a petition calling for Coca-Cola to formally call for the repeal of Russia’s anti-gay law and to donate funds to human-rights activists there. (I was on the board of directors of All Out when it was founded.)

Athlete Ally, an organization that promotes L.G.B.T. visibility and participation in sports, has been working with All Out on a campaign that it’s calling P6, after Olympic Principle 6, which prohibits discrimination of any kind in the Games. P6 serves as a proxy for the athletic community to voice its opposition to the Russian law without running afoul of the Olympic principle that athletes can’t make political statements.

I spoke with Gessen early on Saturday via Skype, as she was cooking for her daughter’s birthday party. She writes for the Times, among other publications, and is one of Russia’s most visible gay citizens. (Gessen’s brother, Keith, has written for The New Yorker.) Since the propaganda law was passed, Gessen told me, “there has been a huge, palpable rise in anti-gay violence.” I wanted to know what she thinks Olympic sponsors should do in response to the Russian law. (She will discuss L.G.B.T. activism and the Sochi Olympics at a panel at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute on November 6th.)

The Olympic Games have long been a symbol of international fraternity, if not unity. In August, President Obama said that, while he was “offended” by the anti-gay policies of the Russian government, he did not think it was “appropriate to boycott the Olympics,” adding, “we’ve got a bunch of Americans out there who are training hard who are doing everything they can to succeed.” (At the time, I wrote about Obama’s comments and urged Olympic sponsors to take action on Sochi.)

Gessen agrees with Obama on the latter point. “Athletes are in an incredibly difficult position,” she told me. “I’m not sure that they really should be asked not to participate. They certainly should not be asked to risk their participant status at the Olympics for the sake of visibility.” Instead, she wants other things to happen before the start of the Sochi Games.

First, she wants the Olympic sponsors to use their marketing clout to demonstrate support for gay equity. “It will be a lot more effective to put a rainbow on every Olympic Coke can than for an American athlete to say something that won’t get broadcast or translated on Russian TV,” she said. Gessen wants all the sponsors to use L.G.B.T. symbols in their advertising connected to the Olympics.

Russian gays are concerned not only about the propaganda law, but also about the newly proposed legislation that would strip gay parents of their parental rights, removing their children from their homes. Even though that measure seems to have been temporarily shelved, Gessen told me that gays are now more scared than ever and are looking for ways to leave the country. Along with embedding gay-friendly messages in their ads, Gessen also wants the Olympic sponsors to provide financial support to gay-rights groups in Russia who aid refugee-resettlement efforts.

Sponsors aren’t the only ones who can act, or who should. Gessen told me that the problem in Russia has more to do with “a hate campaign” from the Kremlin than with public homophobia: “The message should go to the Kremlin, and the way that you send a message to the Kremlin is by creating glitches, and the best glitch to create is for high-level officials not to go. Athletes don’t have to boycott the Games; Michelle Obama should boycott the Games. Putin should be in the box by himself. That should be our goal.” On Monday, Putin told Thomas Bach, the head of the International Olympic Committee, “We are doing everything, both the organizers and our athletes and fans, so that participants and guests feel comfortable in Sochi, regardless of nationality, race or sexual orientation.”

By making it illegal to even discuss equal rights for gay people, the Russian law not only enshrines discrimination but also sanctions the idea that gay people are not worthy of respect. The Olympic sponsors, and political leaders, should take a stand.

Richard Socarides is an attorney, political strategist, writer, and longtime gay-rights advocate. He served as White House Special Assistant and Senior Adviser during the Clinton Administration. Follow him on Twitter @Socarides.

Photograph: All Out

Article taken from The New Yorker on 29 October 2013.

Learning the language of the road in Russia

No Comments » Written on July 8th, 2013 by
Categories: Russia
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In Russia, car drivers have some shared signals that help them communicate with each other. For example, if you’re speeding along the highway and a car coming towards you blinks its upper beam a few times, this means there’s a road police patrol ahead and you should probably slow down a bit. Of course you should say ‘thank you’, so you raise your palm (your palm is clearly visible to the opposite driver when you raise it above the steering-wheel).

To thank the driver that’s behind you (for example, when he or she ‘lets you in’ when you’re trying to change lanes), you can blink your hazard lights once or twice. And – since we’re all human and make mistakes – this is also a way to apologize if you’ve just carried out a manoeuvre that annoyed the driver behind you.

If you approach a narrow road and there’s another car coming in the opposite direction and you need to decide who’s going first, a quick double blink with upper beams means ‘you can go first’. But if you’re already moving and the other car is going to get in your way, you can make a single long blink with your upper beams to say ‘what on earth do you think you’re doing?!’

While we’re on the topic, here’s some interesting knowledge about the speed limit in Russia. It’s 60 kilometres per hour in inhabited areas and 90 on highways (110 on superhighways). But nobody is going to stop or fine you if you’ve exceeded it by up to 20 kmh. There’s an old rule: “The severity of Russia’s laws is well compensated by the fact that it’s optional to obey them”.

A little bit of “smekalka” can save the day

No Comments » Written on April 4th, 2013 by
Categories: Russia
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We have a great word in Russian: смекалка, pronounced “smekalka”. I’m not even sure how you would translate it in English. It means the ability to overcome (seemingly impossible) challenges in extraordinary and often surprising ways.

Russia has recently tightened up its alcohol licensing laws. Purchasing alcohol (including beer) from shops and supermarkets after 11 p.m. was made illegal earlier this year, which is why all the stores that used to be 24-hour off-licences near where I live now close at 11. This restriction does not apply to bars, clubs and other similar venues. However, any form of advertising related to alcohol is also strictly prohibited.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, starting this summer, shops will not be allowed to sell alcohol if they are located within 100 metres of any medical facilities or schools. This begs the question: what do you do if you own a supermarket which is already situated 90 metres away from a dentist’s, for example? You obviously can’t move the building and God forbid that you stop selling alcohol.

This is exactly the sort of situation where a little bit of smekalka can save the day.

Take a look at this photo of an entrance to a supermarket in Dubna – a town near Moscow:

Why do you think they built this fence? That’s right. To make the path 10 metres longer. This is confirmed by the satellite image below:

That’s how smekalka works. How do you feel about adding this word to the OED?

The images used in this post were taken from

Online alcohol advertising banned in Russia

On 20 June, the Russian Parliament (The Duma) passed a bill banning all online advertising for alcohol in the country.

Interestingly the law only applies to drinks such as beer that have a low alcohol content of 5% or less. The Duma said that this decision was taken in an attempt to curb excessive beer consumption among teenagers. This change to the Law on Advertising is expected to come into effect on 23 June 2012.

Currently the law limits alcohol advertising in the print media and on TV. It is forbidden to air drinks commercials during the day time or publish such ads on the covers of magazines as well as on the front and back pages of newspapers.

Information taken from, and asfera

By Marina

Online advertising for alcohol banned in Russia

Controversy sparked by Kraft’s new name for snack spin-off – but is it all a fuss over nothing?

No Comments » Written on March 27th, 2012 by
Categories: Russia
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The name Kraft Foods has chosen for its global snack spin-off (Mondelez International) has sparked all kinds of controversy. Some are saying that the name sounds like something quite rude to Russian speakers, however, when our Russian account manager here in the office saw the word, nothing naughty sprang to mind for her. Now it’s been pointed out to her, she can see how it could be twisted to make a rude word, but it’s really not that obvious. It’s kind of like saying Volvo sounds like vulva – sure it’s there if you have a dirty mind and are looking for it, but you don’t think of the female anatomy every time you see a Swedish car (well I don’t anyway).

Guy Gilpin, Director of Mother Tongue Writers

To read the full article about the stir this name has caused, click here.

The Little Book of Transcreation – excerpt #10

1 Comment » Written on December 21st, 2011 by
Categories: Germany, Russia
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It’s important to research your product name in the market you want to break into. Even if a certain word doesn’t “look” offensive, sometimes the way it is pronounced can give it a whole new meaning.

When Vicks first introduced its cough drops to the German market, they were embarrassed to learn that the Germans pronounce “v” as “f” – and “ficken” is a crude term for “have sex” in German.

In the 90s, a mineral water called “Blue Water” was launched in Russia. But when Russians said the English name aloud, it sounded very like “блевота” (pronounced “blevOta”) – slang for “vomit”.

So they changed the name to “Water Blue” – a simple solution, but one that sounds much more appealing.

A new brand … PARLAMIENT?

Why do typos keep creeping into advertising materials, in spite of all the pairs of eyes and hands they go through in the process?

In September, a print ad for the PARLIAMENT cigarette brand was published in Russian Esquire magazine with a typo in the brand name:


According to estimates, the insertion costs for the ad could have been anywhere between £18,000 and £40,000.

The publisher, Sanoma Independent Media, refused to take any responsibility, referring to the contractual liability clause. Usually in such cases the finger is pointed at the media agency that signs off on the layout, but in this case it was the creative agency behind the campaign who had to bear the republishing costs.

Given how embarrassing and costly the typo is for all concerned, the question is: how did it happen? After all, the ad must have been checked multiple times by creatives, copywriters, editors and proofreaders. My guess is that the Russian checker (whoever it could be) was too focused on checking the Russian copy, which is in Cyrillic characters (understandably so, as it is in the new copy where mistakes usually happen) and missed the error in the all-important brand name – because it is in the Latin alphabet.

At the risk of being boring, I can’t resist repeating the commonplace: let professionals do their job. If the copy had been checked by both Russian and English native speakers, a minimal extra proofreading charge would have spared a lot of embarrassment for everyone.

Based on this source.

Marina, a Russian linguist living in London

A novel way to travel!

No Comments » Written on August 30th, 2011 by
Categories: Russia
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No, this is not a fetish party caught by a sudden flood. It’s “Bubble Baba Challenge” – a yearly event on the Vuoksa river near St.Petersburg, Russia, where participants “raft” down the rapids using inflatable sex toys (mainly “women” – “baba” is “woman” in Russian slang). The rules are simple: you have to be older than 16 (and sober), you have to wear a life vest, you have to float around 400 metres. “Bubble Baba Challenge” has been held every August since 2003. This year, there were around 550 participants (including 80 girls) plus plenty of spectators. It has nothing to do with immorality: the main idea of the event is that “a rubber woman is nothing more than a vehicle”, but the show is really amazing anyway. Enjoy the photos!

Pavel from St Petersburg, Russia

Bubble Baba Challenge

Rafting down the Vuoksa river

Rubber women are just vehicles

(Photos by author)