By Hilary Picken | February 28, 2019 | Languages
With a population of 144 million, Russia is the world’s ninth most inhabited county. It accommodates three times the population of Spain, or more than the UK and France combined.
However, unlike Aeroflot Economy Class, in Russia there’s plenty of leg room for everyone. Because, and by a considerable margin, Russia is the largest country in the world. Stretching across 11 time zones and covering more than 16 million square kilometres, Russia occupies one eighth of the world’s land mass. While Hong Kong squeezes 7,000 people into every square kilometre, and the UK tucks in 277, Russia has sufficient space for just nine.
That’s an average of course. The vast majority of Russians live in the western-most quadrille of their country, with almost 13 million crowded into Europe’s second biggest city, Moscow. Irrespective of their precise location however, the combined annual GDP of the Russian populous is US$1.8 trillion, placing them at #12 in the world, by revenue.
Translating into Russian
Russian in one of six official languages of the UN. In addition to Mother Russia herself, it is spoken in 30 countries including Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, combining to a total 164 million speakers. It also reaches beyond planet Earth. Used on the international space station, Russian is the only official (human) language existing in space.
The main imports into Russian-speaking territories are industrial machinery, cars, consumer goods, foodstuffs, and chemical products. And though not the largest of economies, it makes sense for international brands to translate their local content, as just 5.5% of Russians have English as a first or second language. However, translating into Russian is an advanced skill. Here’s why.
1. One language. Several versions
Given the size of the place, it’s no surprise that plenty of language variants exist. Standard Russian is the official language at national level and a further 24 are officially recognised in the regions, such as Chechen and Tartar.
Aside from the challenges of localisation, standard Russian can be far from standard. It has a Cyrillic alphabet of 33 letters, and numerous punctuation rules. But the one thing which catches many people out is the numerous variations Russians can use for what, in English, is one word.
Russian is extremely context-sensitive, with the same word in English having potentially dozens of Russian variants depending on how it is being used. For instance, “friend” has at least four translations, depending on just how friendly you are. The same applies for ‘mother-in-law’.
Translators need to know exactly what subject and context they’re covering to avoid error.
2. Levels of formality
Similar to French “tu” and “vous”, they have “ты” and “Вы” but Вы can also be split into “Вы” (capitalised) when talking to one person formally (most often used for questionnaires) and “вы” (lower case) when speaking to a collective group. There’s no aural distinction, purely written. The difference is subtle, and many Russians may not know how to distinguish between the two.
3. No word for “the”
Nouns still have genders but the word “the” simply doesn’t exist. Whether the noun is singular or plural is made clear in the noun itself.
4. To be or not to be?
The verb “to be” doesn’t exist in the present tense, e.g. “I am hungry” in Russian would back-translate literally as “I hungry”; emphasis can be added by including other words, e.g. now or very.
Whilst English can move elements of sentences around for emphasis, Russian takes it to a whole new level. Russian sentences can be correct in multiple configurations, only changing the emphasis of the point being made.
Similarly, much of the intended meaning in Russian comes from what part of the word(s) you emphasise, or where the stress is placed. Similar to “PROject” (noun) and “proJECT” (verb) in English, where you put the emphasis changes the meaning.
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