In Russian, It’s Clear to a Hedgehog


MOSCOW -- As Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s interpreter, Pavel Palazchenko was the Soviet leader’s trusty assistant in his campaign to end the Cold War. Now he is fighting to rid the world of another wedge dividing East from West: bad translation.

In “My Unsystematic Dictionary,” published in Moscow, Palazchenko tackles the things they don’t teach you in language class--such as “to go postal” and “no-brainer.”

Covering Russian bureaucratese as well as American political correctness, it’s both a guide to good translation and a handbook for cultural understanding.


One side effect of the changes unleashed by Gorbachev is that, in today’s Russia, translations from and into English are everywhere, from restaurant menus to Hollywood blockbusters. But often they do more to confuse than to enlighten.

“Sometimes, a bad translation can really be a problem. It sometimes really impedes understanding,” Palazchenko said. “This has become a mass profession ... so I think there is some cause for alarm.”

The bald, mustachioed Palazchenko was a fixture at Gorbachev’s summit talks with President Reagan, and he stayed with Gorbachev even after the Soviet reformer was shoved off the political scene. At 53, he continues to interpret at Gorbachev’s many international appearances and also handles his media relations.

Gorbachev, known as a big talker with a love for colorful phrases and complex metaphors, is no easy ride for an interpreter.

Palazchenko recalled how Gorbachev surprised him at the first summit with Reagan in Geneva in 1985 by quoting extensively from the Bible--highly unusual for the leader of a communist regime. Palazchenko was ready. He had studied biblical phrases in depth years before and was able to render perfectly the long passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes that begins: “To every thing there is a season.”

But memorizing passages from the Bible is not enough to prepare today’s translators, and Palazchenko’s book offers translations of newer expressions and concepts.

The book offers a comprehensive section on Russian slang, including otstoi, a word teenagers use to mock anything old-fashioned. Palazchenko translates it as “square,” though today’s American kids might find that word otstoi.

American slang entries include “no-brainer,” which Palazchenko translates as eto yozhu yasno--clear to a hedgehog.

Palazchenko devotes a page-and-a-half to “challenge"--a word with no direct equivalent in Russian. Possible substitutes include “problem” or “a task requiring great effort,” he suggests. He also gives advice on the, er, challenge presented by new American euphemisms, such as “physically challenged.” It means “disabled,” he writes.

Translating “going postal” depends on the context, Palazchenko explains. It can mean a murderous rampage, or simply to be extremely--but nonviolently--upset. The Russian term would be krysha poyekhala--"losing your roof,” he writes.

Many of the entries in the Russian-English half of the dictionary warn the translator of “false friends"--words that sound the same in both languages but are different. For instance, the Russian adekvatny sounds like “adequate” but means “appropriate” or “good.” Anekdot is not an anecdote, but a joke.

Then there’s the ultimate puzzle--the Russian expression “twice as few.” As Palazchenko points out, it simply means “half.”