Experienced translators say, the most mistakes made in translation are caused not by insufficient knowledge of language, but by insufficient knowledge of culture. Why is it so? If we imagined culture as an onion, its core would be values shared consciously and unconsciously by a society, and the verbal language would be somewhere in the outer circle. One of the most important functions of a language is to reveal the cultural content, to explicate meanings with words. So translating is transferring the whole cultural background, including implicit values, to another culture. Sometimes it is as hard and hopeless as convincing tropical birds to survive in tundra.
When a culture has a concept, it inevitably has a word for it. The best situation for a translator and a language student is when the target culture has nearly the same values and concepts, so the target language has corresponding words for them. Unfortunately, situations like these are exceptionally rare when cultures are as distant as, say, English (both, British and American) and Russian. There are two English words that permanently give me a headache. They are tolerance and privacy. Both words are hard to translate accurately, because both concepts are somewhat strange to the Russian culture at this historical moment.
The verb "to tolerate" is often translated into Russian like “терпеть” [tirpeht'], which actually means to endure, to suffer, to bear in Russian. So when an English-speaking host says “I can not tolerate smoking in my house”, his Russian guest understands it in the following way: the host is suffering from some awful disease, probably allergy or asthma, so smoke is somewhat lethal for him. Well, the misconception is tolerable here, since it resulted in non-smoking behaviour. It turns worse when we are talking about tolerance to something more abstract, like religion, sexuality, cultural differences. Here is an example from a guide for immigrants: “Canadians are tolerant to gays”. Does it mean that Canadians, being actually morally suffered from the fact of, say, alternative sexuality of some other people, learned to bear this fact? It hurts them, but they try to bear it? Why not simply ignore who sleeps with whom and stop making buzz about it? Wouldn't it be more polite just to treat people equally and not to tell them “hey, I know that you are different, but I can tolerate it”? Probably, these questions are the result of lacking the concept of tolerance in the Russian culture.
The direct translation of “tolerance” is Russian is “терпимость”, and this word was widely used as an euphemism for bordello in the past. “A house of tolerance” means brothel in Russian. I suppose, this is one of the reasons why today, people in Russia use the calked word “толерантность” [tolerantnost'] instead of its Russian analogue.
The word “privacy” is even worse. The phrase “May I have some privacy?” is normally translated into Russian like “Could you leave me alone” (Я могу побыть один/одна), which is not exactly the same. In the juristic vocabulary, privacy can be translated as “private life” (частная жизнь), but in everyday conversation, it is rarely used. The phrase “I care about my privacy” most probably would be translated as “I worry about my security/safety”. In early Perestroika times, Russian market was flooded with psychological books translated from English, and from those books Russians learned about private area, personal distance and all such things.
Do Russians care about privacy? Of course, like every human being, we need sometimes to stay alone with our thoughts, but in the hierarchy of values it stays below socializing. Russian values are all about collaboration and cooperation, living in a society, sharing aims and goals of your community and fitting your personality into the community. There is a saying in Russian, “Even death is beautiful when it is public/ when the public benefits from it” (На миру и смерть красна), which sounds strange to me, but still it reflects the values that are very old and that are in the very deep core of the culture.
Photo by Alan Cleaver