Volume 5, No. 1 
January 2001

  Serghei Nikolayev





Translation Journal

The Importance of Knowing Your Local Vernacular

by Serghei G. Nikolayev, Ph.D.

hoever is somewhat familiar with the professional practice of translating from one language into another, one being his native and the other a foreign language, knows this simple, yet helpful truth: it is always preferable to translate from foreign into native, while inter­pret­ation work is simpler when done the other way around. This rule is based on the strict necessity to thoroughly comprehend the original (source) message. When you hear an oral utterance in the foreign language, you have neither dictionaries at hand, nor time to consult them about a word or phrase which might be unknown; all this becomes possible and is easily done when translating. At the same time, an utterance in your mother tongue is at any rate almost always sure to be clearly understood1.

it is always preferable to translate from foreign into native, while inter­pret­ation work is simpler when done the other way around.
However, there is one special situation where the above advice may turn out to be useless. This is the case when you paradoxically fail to catch the sense of what is uttered by your own countrymen so as to present a quick and adequate interpretation. I mean the speakers' sudden desire to saturate normal speech with words and expressions belonging to their local vernacular, which may or may not be your own.

I must explain here that Rostov-on-Don, the city of my permanent residence, is located in the South of the Russian Federation, and the Rostov Region, or Province as they say in Britain, is known as the place where Don Cossacks have lived for the last 6-7 centuries. Interesting to note, the three greatest civil revolts that at different times threatened the existence of the Russian nation, were headed by Don Cossacks Stepan Razin, Kondraty Bulavin and Yemelyan Pugachov. The novel Tikhi Don ('The Silent Don') written by my countryman, Nobel prize winner Mikhail Sholokhov and depicting the Russian Civil War of 1918-20, also has local Cossacks as its main characters. Unfortunately, from the very first days of the communist power in Russia, the Cossacks, the most freedom-loving part of the local population, were oppressed, imprisoned, and sent to exile. Warriors by trade and nature, yet wishing to survive, these people had to hide everything that was or could be associated with their past image of 'true servants of the czarist regime,' from their weapons (cold steel and fire-arms were buried in the backyards) to their folkways, including their colorful and peculiar way of speaking.

The famous perestroika brought radical changes to every sphere of life in Russia; 'the swing of the pendulum reversed direction,' as people say in such cases. Starting in the late 1980s, a large number of Cossack schools were established, many long-forgotten traditions revived, and we Rostovites could now witness strange-looking and not always sober men walking in noisy groups along the streets of the city in their old-fashioned military tunics, rattling with fearsome large sabers on the one side and having horsewhips on the other (never mind that there were no horses around). Besides, we started to hear, more frequently now than ever before, words belonging to the Don Cossack vernacular.

Sure enough, the Cossacks became one of the attractions of the place. Their history, including its tragic episodes, was told and stressed at all levels. Sure enough again, not a single foreigner coming to the Rostov Region could now avoid being taken to a concert of genuine Cossack songs and dances performed by genuine Don Cossacks (I personally have always admired those performances both for their superb artistic quality and for the opportunity given to me as an interpreter to take some rest from my work). Now, during the dialogs there was a flood of dialectal words, phrases, proverbs and sayings that were then used as favorite bywords by the public. Since one of the basic claims now was that the Cossacks are a separate ethnic group, they had to prove it by all means, including by speaking a language other than Russian. What could complicate the life of an interpreter more than this?

Oh, those were hard times indeed. No villages now, only stanitsas2 (a large Cossack village) and khutors (a small Cossack village), and the least important settlement located far from the high road, was named kut. No army officers, just atamans, sotniks and yesauls. A Cossack house could no longer be called a house, but only a kuren,' and what grew in the backyard now was not apricot trees, but zherdyolas.

Strictly speaking, all these 'exotic' words, plus quite a number of witty set expressions, can be classified into several groups. First come the units associated with the history of the Don Country. Thus, what we name today the Rostov Region, together with some parts of the adjacent territories, was once called Oblast' Voiska Donskogo (literally the Don Country Army Area), still earlier the same places were named Dikoye Pole (Wild Field). Secondly, there are numerous words associated with the army (see the above-mentioned names of officers, add to them the names of their garments, arms, attributes, horse harness elements and the like). Thirdly, there are curiously sounding words reflecting the Cossacks' everyday life, like the names of their utensils, specific dishes, rituals, etc. Finally, there comes a large group of plants and beasts—trees, flowers, wild and domestic animals, birds and especially fish, as the Don river is abundant in the latter—all with their distinctive names.

To show a typical situation, in which an interpreter could find himself, I shall now recall my work with a small group of journalists representing a large, influential American paper. These Americans, two women and a man, came to Rostov with one definite aim—to see and then describe the life of the contemporary South Russian Cossacks and their struggle for an identity. Our schedule was crammed indeed. On the first day we had to talk to historians, ethnographers, sociologists, geographers, i.e. mainly educated people. On the second day we had to attend the assembly of the local Cossacks, a long-awaited event where the problems of their future policies were to be discussed. And on the third, last, day we were invited to the house of the local ataman (historically a chieftain), for a "genuine Cossack" dinner.

The first day was a real pleasure for me, as the only thing that made me exhausted by the evening was the amount of time I had to interpret, almost without any breaks and simultaneously, after university professors and researchers who spoke the most correct and modern Russian language, the language I share with them and know better than any other. The questions asked by the Americans were understandable and quickly answered, and by nighttime everyone was tired but satisfied with the results of our work.

The next day started with a little surprise for me. The young Cossack who took us to the assembly, warned me at once that the expected event is not just a plain regular meeting but a krug, and, which was even more important, a bolshoi krug (literally a large circle), and demanded that I should interpret it to the foreigners without the slightest change in the meaning. When we came to the venue, I was again surprised as the military men I saw were not soldiers and officers, or the army, but Vsevelikoye Voisko Donskoye (All-powerful Don-Country Army), and those present at the krug were not attendees, but stanichniks (all those living in stanitsas). When the speakers started coming out, I had to name all their colonels', lieutenants' and majors' ranks, using the specific Cossack terms, which I may have heard before in the historical films and read in books, but could hardly tell from one another. Trying to find "regular equivalents in English" was of no use as both sides insisted that I give the most precise interpretation with all the Cossack distinctiveness retained. I guess, by the end of that hard day the Americans started suspecting I had some problems with my own native language as I permanently took time checking back with our guides for the actual meanings of those Cossack military terms.

However the toughest day for me was the third one, when we came to the ataman's house. Still in the yard, we were shown several trees whose name was interpreted by me as mulberry, but no, those were tyutinas. Soon we were invited by the Big Man to the balkon and motioned to the house. I really did not know where to take the guests as I saw a large single floor building in front of me, but without any balconies at all. The clue came from the hosts, who politely explained that balkon is a hallway (corridor) of a Cossack house. When we sat at the table, the ataman's wife, trying her best to be hospitable, started to name the dishes—the fish, fowl, mushrooms, appetizers and drinks standing on the table. The fish I thought was a rudd now was a chebak; what looked like normal mustard, was gardal (with this awful fricative g/h as the starting consonant sound), and only vodka luckily remained vodka. And here, maybe due to my three-day experience of work, or perhaps because my thinking processes were now facilitated by a couple of shots of the latter drink, I started to notice the following scene. The Cossacks around me went out of their way to talk to the Americans in their Cossack language, and the Americans were delighted to listen. Moreover, they were now carefully putting those words and specific names down into their pads, and asked me to pronounce them repeatedly, then to dictate the transliterated spelling, and only after that to explain their precise meanings. The notes were supposed to be used later as a material in their newspaper stories. Here it was—one side was interested in showing their historical and ethnic identity, the other was all too eager to collect the exotic words and phrases in order to make their newspaper stories more interesting to their readers, and they had me in between!

As a matter of fact, the problem is much more serious than that. The process of ethnic identification and national awareness of the peoples inhabiting the territory of the former USSR started with the affirmation of their national languages. A vernacular tongue is, in effect, a very powerful means of self-determination. This became especially obvious after several decades of forceful russification of the areas with predominantly non-Russian populations. True, there had to be one common language of communication for all the peoples of the Soviet Union, and in this respect Russian was, in principle, neither better nor worse than any other language. It was convenient to be used as a national language since Moscow was the administrative center, and it is located in Russia. Hence the reaction of the former republics after becoming independent states: the enactment of special laws elevating their national vernaculars to the status of official languages was among the earliest measures taken. Several republics also rejected the Cyrillic alphabet and latinized their writing (although I personally cannot understand why, say, Moldavians find Latin to be less borrowed and thus more attractive than Cyrillic).

These disintegrating and decentralizing tendencies manifested themselves not only on the all-Union, but also all-Russian level, as Russia is the home of many ethnic groups (over 100 officially), Russians being just one of these. What concerns the Cossacks, their early striving to separate themselves from the rest of the nation, first and foremost from the Russians, was of course rather naive. Claiming to be a separate nation within Russia, they reasoned that their language has nothing in common with Russian. That is not true; any student, who knows the elements of dialectology can easily prove the fact that the vernacular of the Don-country Cossacks is no more than a dialect of the Russian literary language. Like any other Russian dialect, the Cossack vernacular manifests itself in pronunciation, stress, intonation (the first and last president of the USSR, Gorbachev, spoke with a strong South Russian accent) and, certainly, vocabulary. The sentence structure appears here to be most conservative constituent, i.e., least subject to change, so it shows almost no differences with respect to the general literary grammatical norm. Thus, the most striking feature of a vernacular of this kind are the specific names given to the objects of common use. But an attentive, well-tuned ear will notice that many of these words are based on Russian roots or are nothing but other Russian words used to denote the same objects (a phenomenon known as intra-lingual synonymy or polyonymy). As an example, it is easy to guess for one who knows Russian, that the specific Cossack word druzyak is used for 'pal' since it employs the Russian root drug/druz denoting a friend, but ends with a non-standard suffix. Another good example is the local phrase by which the natives (not only, but mainly Cossacks) have always denoted sunflower oil: they say postnoye maslo, which literally means maigre, or Easter oil. Same thing, you will rarely hear someone call an aubergine (eggplant) baklazhan at a local market, which would be a literary variant, but only sinen'kii, which is again easily understandable as it is the diminutive form of a substantivized adjective, meaning in pure Russian something blue (blue, or rather violet, is the color of local aubergines). One other example of the kind, although more difficult to guess immediately, is the Cossack feminine noun stryapka derived from the Russian verb stryapat' (to cook) and meaning a summer kitchen that is traditionally erected in the yard apart from the house.

Thus, all local dialectal words and expressions, if viewed from the standpoint of their links with the literary language, can be subdivided into three categories. These are: 1. common Russian words used with different meanings; 2. words derived from common Russian roots and retaining the meaning of the latter, but with specific inflections appended; 3. words which are practically unknown to the Russian language but are borrowed from other languages, such as Ukrainian, Kalmyk, Armenian and especially Turkic languages (this lexical layer reflects the history of the Cossacks and the way the community was formed). The units that are really difficult to translate are those of category 1, as these may confuse and mislead the interpreter, and those of category 3, as these may turn out to be completely unknown. What concerns words of category 2, most of them may be guessed without great difficulty.

It should also be borne in mind that the interpreter does not have to treat distinctive local words as some kind of nuisance complicating and hampering his job. The value of a dialectal element, a word or phrase, as compared to the literary synonym, is usually in its greater expressive power, verve and originality, and in many cases denotative precision. This is well proven by Russian literature, both poetry and prose, classical and modern, which has always been hospitable to dialectal words and expressions, thus aiming to create a style and lending couleur locale to the writing.

Turning back to the memories of my experience of working with the Cossacks, I must confess now that after the American newspeople had left, I spent several hours searching all the available Russian-English dictionaries within reach for any traces of the vernacular words with which I had recently come across. Needless to say, I was not very successful.3 As a result, the only reasonable way for me to proceed was to look up these words and their meanings rendered in literary Russian in the existing explanatory Russian dialectal dictionaries,4 and then to find an appropriate English equivalent in Russian-English dictionaries. Alas, the interpreter is traditionally barred from using any dictionaries not because of the clumsiness or even impossibility of such "dictionary-assisted" interpretation, but because of the regrettable and inexcusable loss of the very spirit, flavor and charm of the original speech. That is why I am absolutely sure today that a good interpreter must know his local vernacular and regard the specific language of his land as a rare and precious tool permitting him to express not just human thoughts and emotions, but also the inimitable nature of the people who use this language, their unique history, culture, and way of thinking.