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To Hit, or not to hit…

Words are pretty important. The English adage – ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ – sums up their power in much the same way as Soviet-Russian writers were considered ‘engineers of the soul.’ Is not the Russian adage – ‘a word is not a sparrow, if it flies away it cannot be caught’ – uttered to calm a raging refusal on the tip of one’s tongue, the slightly more impulsive equivalent of the quintessentially English ‘can I think about it?’

Being bilingual from an early age I prided myself on my ability to float effortlessly (or so it seemed to me) between Russian and English. Exploring the intersections between Russian and British words and music as part of the British Council’s programme for Year of Music UK-Russia, however, has really made me stop and think. If I could sum up the most important recurring thought it is this: (mis)translation.

We often think of accidents (including those pesky little ‘accidents’) in translation. But how often do we consider the subconscious accidental or deliberate alterations we make to the meaning when moving between languages?

Putting some final touches to the last coaching sessions on the Russian songs perfectly demonstrated just how innocent this mistranslation can be. Tackling some Shakespeare re-translated into Russian everything was going wonderfully well, until I hear the impassioned words – ‘Бить, или не бить?’

‘Sorry?’, I ask. ‘What was that?’

‘Бить, или не бить [bit’, ili ne bit’],’ came the quick reassertion.

Бить – is the verb meaning to punch, hit or beat. ‘To beat, or not to beat?’ Yes, indeed that is a question. As captured in this painting by the Russian avant garde artist El Lissitzky, it is (бей) what the Reds did to the Whites.

El Lissitzky's 'Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge' (1919).

But, pronounce the и (i) as a hard sound ы – and you get ‘Быть, или не быть?’ – To be, or not to be? Now that is an entirely different question!

(Mis)translation is a very slippery line...

What's your experience of (mis)translation? Discussions and comment are very welcome, so please keep following this blog as it is an issue that it will return to very soon!

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