Top 10 common mistakes in Russian to English Translation

Are you finding it hard to translate the Russian language?

Whether you are a new learner of the language or offering professional translation services, the grammar and writing style of Russian can be challenging.

It is these intricacies and cultural differences that make language learning so fun! Variety is the spice of life after all.

Here are 10 tips to avoid common mistakes when translating Russian to English!

1 – Translate the WHOLE sentence

So, you are struggling with a sentence? You might be tempted to break it into smaller chunks. This is not the way to go!

Whilst the English language is rigid in its structure, Russian sentences are more fluid.

If you break a sentence into too many small chunks, they may fit together very strangely when you put the sentence together again…

What is the difference between мальчик бросил мяч (the boy threw the ball) and бросил мяч мальчик (the boy threw the ball)? Well… none – both are grammatically correct, they might just emphasise a different part of the sentence.

2 – Pay attention to the Russian language’s cases

The Russian language’s 6 cases change the endings of nouns, adjectives, and pronouns depending on their meaning in the sentence.

A common mistake for Russian learners is forgetting a case ending, but this works the other way round as well! You must recognise the case endings to translate them into English.

Some are more difficult than others. For example, noticing that ручку is the accusative singular of ручка (pen) is perhaps easier than understanding that ручье is the prepositional singular of ручей (stream).

Another point about cases…

3 – Recognise how the Russian language uses the genitive for possession

To express possession, the Russian language uses the genitive case.

 Ручка Ивана (Ivan’s pen) literally translates to (the pen of Ivan) with Ivan in the genitive case.

When it comes to translating, one of the hardest parts can be titles or organisation names as quite often they are made of a long string of genitive nouns or adjectives.

Федеральная служба государственной статистики (Federal State Statistics Service) may only contain two genitives in a row, but it is still long enough that it is more commonly shortened to Росстат.

4 – Understand Russian culture

This is no surprise! Cultural nuances are very important and you should make sure to understand them when translating any language.

Otherwise, you risk missing the meaning of a sentence entirely – Russian, like any language, has many idioms, such as:

Под лежачий камень вода не течет (There’s no water under a lying rock), this phrase in Russian means “you have to work for results”.

5 – Watch out for differences in Russian language punctuation

Мой брат – студент (my brother is a student). Where is the verb? Well, in the Russian language, dashes can be used to replace the verb “to be” in short sentences such as this.

This is because there is no present tense conjugation of “to be” in Russian. Luckily, once you have noticed this, it should be much easier!

Among other differences in Russian punctuation, you will also see angled brackets “«»” instead of quotation marks when denoting a famous object or work.

6 – Pay attention to the smallest of changes

Compared to the English language’s more than a million words, Russia has relatively few at around 200,000. This does not just mean that Russian is a simpler language. Russian has a greater number of words with more than one meaning, as well as the changes in meaning derived from cases.

Perhaps the most commonly known example is мир, which can mean both ‘world’ and ‘peace’.

At other times, very small changes can make all the difference. Take в течение and в течении which are written almost identically but are slightly different.

В течение (during) can be used for a period of time, whilst в течении better describes the course of a body of water like a river.

7 – Don’t make it too simple!

The Russian language tends to be longer in its written form than spoken.

If translating a piece of Russian to English, don’t worry if you feel you need to add further information in your English translation – it might end up longer than the original sentence!

8 – Beware of the Russian language’s untranslatable words

One fun aspect of Russian can also be very tricky when translating, certain concepts have words in Russian but not in English!

English has a word for snowfall, but not for when leaves fall in autumn. In Russian, листопад means literally ‘leaf fall’.

This may leave you needing to add more detail to your English translation and having to add more words to explain a concept (linking us to number 7!)

9 – Perfective or Imperfective in the Russian language?

Most Russian verbs come in two variants called aspects. The imperfective aspect deals with the incomplete action, and the perfective with the completed action.

Говорить (to speak) = imperfective

Сказать (to say) = perfective

One important thing to remember when translating is that the perfective does not have a present tense! A perfective verb conjugated as if in the present will be the future. Я говорю (I speak), but Я скажу (I will say).

10 – Recognise those prefixes

Much like with aspect, it can be a muddle to remember the various differences that prefixes can make to a verb. Take идти (to go), and put “про” before it, and you make пройти (to go through).

It doesn’t stop there though, as there are additional prefixes when you are exiting (вы-), approaching (под-), going around (об-), crossing (пере-), among many others!

Therefore, it is important to remember that the prefix before a verb may not only change the meaning, but also give you important context for the rest of the text.

These were our choices, but we know there are more out there.

What difficulties have you found translating the Russian language that we missed?

Why not see our other blog posts about language learning?

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