Read an Excerpt
The REAL Russian Tolstoy Never Used
A sex machine.
(literally, “animal man.”)
To go bonkers.
(literally, “the roof is sliding.”)
NA KOI PES?
What the hell?
(literally, “on whose dog?”)
(literally, “to build eyes.”)
YA TEBYA LYUBLYU
I love you.
EDWARD TOPOL is one of Russia’s best-selling novelists.
Translated by Laura E. Wolfson
Illustrations by Kim Wilson Brandt
The author thanks the publisher for the honor of presenting to an English-speaking readership the rich treasures and the soul of the great Russian language. The author also thanks translator Laura E. Wolfson, who in translating this book of Russian slang and swear words performed a most difficult task and successfully expressed the essence of the Russian soul in English. An enormous thanks to the editor Julia Serebrinsky for the care and attention she’s given to this rather unladylike project.
Reader beware: The verses that appear in this book in English translation accompanied by their Russian originals are not literal translations. Some liberties have been taken in order to achieve greater literary effect. Russian words presented in the Roman alphabet have not been transliterated according to any of the standard transliteration systems; priority has been placed on ease of pronunciation.
The translator wishes to thank GHK for his invaluable expertise and assistance with Cyrillic software during the translation of this book.
I will now reveal to you the secret of Russian as spoken by real people.
But first, a brief introduction.
The great Russian author Ivan Turgenev, famous for his novel Fathers and Sons, his lyrical descriptions of the Russian countryside and his insights into the hearts and souls of Russian women, once proclaimed: “In time of doubt, in time of agonizing reflection, you have always been my mainstay and my hope, oh great and mighty Russian language! . . . There can be no doubt but that such a language was conferred upon a great people!” Ironically, Turgenev himself preferred to live in Paris with the French singer Paulina Viardot, a fact which people in Russia would rather overlook.
I have never heard the British say that English is a great and mighty language, nor do I recall ever hearing the French speak of the great French soul, but Russians tend toward gigantomania: Peter is Peter the Great, Catherine is Catherine the Great, Tolstoy is great, Stalin is great, Mother Russia is great, literature is great, snowfalls are never anything but great, and on the map of Russia there are twenty-four cities containing the word “great”: Great Lip, Great Ruble, Great Digging, and Great Deafness, to name a few. It’s worth noting that neither Paris nor Istanbul nor Tokyo call themselves “great cities,” and yet here in Russia we find a place called “Digging” that is most definitely great, and its name alone reveals the secret ambitions of even the most provincial of Russian souls.
Of course, no one denies the greatness of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but I have a feeling that in everyday life nineteenth century Russians never spoke like Turgenev’s noble young heroines, Anna Karenina, or the brothers Karamazov, and if today someone were to stand up—in the Russian parliament or even at a Russian writers conference—and speak in the language of Tolstoy, people would think he was nuts.
The Russian language as it is taught in the most prestigious colleges in the West with reference to “great” Russian literature is as different from present-day speech in smell, taste, and potency as Evian water is from home brewed potato vodka.
This is why whenever I send off a new novel to be translated, I provide notes on every page of the manuscript explaining new words and slang expressions I use. Even professional translators, whose résumés include translations of the great Russian classics as well as serious contemporary works, do not know hundreds of words that make up contemporary Russian. These words are not included in the latest Russian version of spell check which is on my computer, so I enter these words into the memory myself. But then even if you memorize an entire dictionary of Russian curses and slang, you won’t come close to organic Russian speech, if you don’t know the main, or rather, the Great secret of the Russian language. And this is a secret I reveal to my translators in a note I always attach to the first page of the manuscript. It reads:
Dear Colleague! I will now reveal to you the secret of Russian as spoken by real people. Please remember it when you are translating all dialogues. I rely on this secret when writing dialogues and speeches for all my characters, from Gorbachev and Yeltsin right down to a prostitute plying her trade on Moscow’s main drag. Here is the rule:
Every real Russian sentence is constructed so that the word “motherfucker” or “whore” can be inserted at any point—even after every word.
Only the translator’s unfailing adherence to this rule can assure that the Russian characters’ conversations and speeches will sound as if they are coming from the mouths of real people.
Flexibility is a trademark of Real Russian. In English, for example, words observe a certain etiquette and are placed in a sentence according to strict British norms of politeness (i.e., the predicate never elbows its way ahead of the subject and the verb always bows down in deference before His Majesty, the noun). Russian, on the other hand, emulates its homeland, where chaos generally rules, and the word order in a sentence is dictated by nothing more than how the speaker is feeling that day. This is why four-letter words can appear anywhere in a sentence and sound natural and even indispensable if the emotion calls for it. In English, the following sentence would sound extremely odd: “I, fuck, love, whore, you, bitch, so much!” Does that sound like any declaration of love you’ve ever heard? But if I write in Russian, “I love you so much!” it strikes a false note or sounds ironic to the Russian ear. To lend this exalted phrase the convincing note of genuine love, I have to let it go slumming, or as they say in Russian, let it sink down to the level of (der’mo—shit) and write (Ya, tebya, pala, tak lyublyu!) that means literally “I, you, bitch, so much love!” or more idiomatically, “I love you, bitch, so much!”
Of course, when a foreigner comes up against this total linguistic chaos where words elbow in front of each other like winos in Great Digging lining up to buy apple vermouth (the cheapest liquor available in the old Soviet Union), despair sets in. But I do know one American who mastered real Russian flawlessly in a mere two days. I met this phenomenal linguist in 1979, five days after I arrived in the U.S. His name was Rabbi Bernstein and he was the head of a Jewish organization where I, a freshly minted émigré, went to interview for a job editing Jewish religious books in Russian, which paid a whopping $150 a week.
When I arrived, a tall man of fifty rose to greet me. He was wearing a yarmulke, a dark suit, and on his shoulders was a sprinkling of dandruff flakes. His nose was large and swollen from a cold.
“Good moRninG,” I said, painstakingly enunciating all the letters in this phrase, including the r and the final g. (I had spent all of the previous day cramming and practicing polite English phrases of salutation.)
“Yobaniy v rote!” (Fucked in the mouth!) the rabbi said to me with a smile.
I decided that I had misheard him, and that probably he had said some polite phrase in English that I didn’t know. So I came out with my next memorized phrase:
“How aRe you siR?”
“Ne pizdi, paskuda yobaniy!” said the rabbi, his smile growing broader. “Kolis, padla!” (Don’t fuck me, you fuckin’ shit! Come clean, you dick!)
At this point I understood that the rabbi’s Russian was far better than my English. In any case, with these words in his vocabulary, he would never have any trouble in Russia. In fact, using these phrases he would be able to get anything he needed in Russia without ever standing in line, be it a train ticket or tickets to the theatre, a prescription at a pharmacy, or a job as a bartender. Why, with what he knew, the speaker of the Russian parliament would even yield him the podium without a whimper of protest. But where could a rabbi on Fifth Avenue in New York have learned this Russian, which was so close to what the natives speak?
It turned out that the previous summer Rabbi Bernstein had made a tourist trip to Kiev. As soon as he landed and got off the plane, he had immediately taken a taxi to Babi Yar, the site where the Germans shot two hundred thousand Jews during World War II. Here the rabbi spread out a small prayer rug, knelt down, and began to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. Within ten minutes, KGB officers were at the cemetery. They flung themselves on the rabbi, twisted his arms behind his back, tossed him into a car, and bore him off to a basement room at the KGB, where for two days they beat and cursed him, demanding that he confess to being an American spy. During the two days they broke a finger on his right hand and he learned the real Russian that people actually speak—enough of it to communicate with any Russian from the president to a bunch of drunks standing in line at a liquor store.
I don’t insist that everyone who plans to go to Russia take a crash course with teachers like this. That would be a bit extreme. But the question is, what is the minimum vocabulary someone needs to carry on a real conversation with Russians? I read somewhere that the English compiled a dictionary for foreign mercenaries in the British army containing two thousand words. So it seems that in a country whose language contains more than six hundred thousand words, it’s possible to become a general with a knowledge of only two thousand. And since the largest Russian dictionary contains two hundred thousand, you can figure out for yourself that to serve in the Russian army requires only about seven hundred words. But even that is a monstrous exaggeration, and as a former Russian soldier I can assure you of this!
The famous twentieth-century Russian writers Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov developed a dictionary back in the thirties that allows the user to get by in Russian in absolutely all situations—and this dictionary contains a grand total of thirty words! In the second chapter of this book, we will go through it word by word.
What else do you need to know about this book to learn to speak real Russian quickly, easily, and to get an idea of how Russians really live? We don’t have the space here to provide an encyclopedic guide to Russia, but I can guarantee that you will acquire one hundred times more knowledge than a Berlitz language course would give you. And this conviction also comes from my own personal experience.
In 1983 I signed a contract with Universal Studios in Hollywood for a screen version of my novel Red Square, which had become an international bestseller that year.
The producer invited me to Hollywood, sent a first-class ticket, and told me I would be staying at the Sheraton. I decided that this was my big break and that henceforth I would be fraternizing exclusively with Hollywood stars. To prepare myself, I went to Berlitz, which bills itself as “the world’s best language school,” and shelled out five hundred dollars for ten lessons. Even now that is no small change, and back then, it was big bucks. My teacher turned out to be a young Greek Marxist who spent all ten lessons using highbrow New York Times–style English to explain to me, an émigré from the USSR, why communism had it hands down over capitalism. I flew off to L.A. after the tenth lesson, crammed with elementary knowledge of English and a peculiar new perspective on the flaws of American society.
At the airport I was greeted by a well-dressed gentleman holding a sign that said MR. TOPOL. I shook his hand and embraced him in the hearty Russian fashion, like Brezhnev embracing Carter. He wanted to carry my suitcase, but I wouldn’t give it to him. He led me to a black limo twenty meters long that looked like an SS-20 missile and opened the rear door for me. But in Russia, where there is “no exploitation of one human by another and all people are equal,” no one ever sits in the back seat of a car, not even in a taxi. So I insisted on riding in the front seat next to him. As we drove to the hotel, I began discussing with him in my newly acquired highbrow English who he was planning to cast in the main role, Jack Nicholson or Robert Redford? After about ten minutes had passed, he realized that I had taken him for a producer, and in Spanglish he explained that he was a driver from a limo service.
I was vexed that I had spent five hundred bucks and then made such a hash of things. What I needed was a slim guide with instructions on how to handle common, everyday situations. So, as I worked on this book, I vowed that my readers would not find themselves in a similar bind! The result was Dermo!—which will serve as your guide to the way real Russians live, communicate, and socialize every day. You should keep in mind that in Russia, unlike in other European countries, practically no one speaks English, and foreigners who don’t speak Russian are constantly being duped: (obmanut’, nadut’, ob’egorit’, natyanut’, sdelat’, upotrebit’, obut’, prilozhit’, etc., which in English mean: deceive, cheat, bamboozle, entrap, con, bilk, ensnare, do a number on, take for a ride, and so on) at every turn. You can see that there are enough terms in Russian meaning “to screw someone,” to really take you for a ride no matter what the time or place.
And so, dear reader and student, onward and upward! The great and mighty Russian language, (remember: mat’ yevo v tri kresta! that is, motherfucker and three crosses too!) awaits you on every page of this book. You can expect to learn at least two hundred (yobanich, fucking) words of this language!