Johnson's Russia List
12 June 2002
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A CDI Project
Ex-Gorbachev Interpreter Writes Book
June 11, 2002
By SARAH KARUSH
MOSCOW (AP) - As Mikhail 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
In ``My Unsystematic Dictionary,'' published in Moscow, Palazchenko tackles
the things they don't teach you in language class - such as ``to go postal''
Covering Russian bureaucratese as well as American political correctness,
it's both a guide to good translation and a handbook for cultural
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
``Sometimes, a bad translation can really be a problem. It sometimes really
impedes understanding,'' Palazchenko told The Associated Press. ``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 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
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 Bible 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
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 the word
itself to be 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,''
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.''
American Phrases in Russian
Some examples from ``My Unsystematic Dictionary,'' by Pavel Palazchenko,
former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's interpreter:
Been there, done that - Na eti grabli my uzhe nastupali - We've already
stepped on that rake.
Get a life - Ne prospi zhizn' - Don't sleep through life
In the pipeline - Na podkhode - Coming up
Downsize - Otsekat' nenuzhnoye - To chop off the unnecessary
No-brainer - Eto yozhu yasno - It's clear to a hedgehog.