“No Food”?—Or How Not to Translate!

Oct 23, 2014 by

prilavokOn occasion, I use this blog to rant about bad translations I encounter in movies and novels, particularly those set in Russia. With over 800,000 speakers of Russian in the U.S., what is these writers’ excuse for producing sloppy renditions of Russian? A case in point is found in Tom Clancy’s novel (co-authored with Martin Greenberg) Politika (published by in 1997 by Berkeley Books). As I do enjoy a good alternate history novel or historical thriller, I picked up this book at a local library’s book sale. On page 38 of the book I found Clancy’s rendition of “NO FOOD”, a sign on the window of an empty grocery shop, not an uncommon sight in Russia in the 1980s and 1990s—“NYETU PISCHA”. Just how many errors can one make in a 2-word sentence? Clancy manages four! Before examining them, let’s consider whether he would have done better using Google Translate.

Google Translate’s rendition of “no food” is nikakaja eda, a grammatical string containing two errors. The biggest problem with this “translation” has to do with the fact that, despite its name, Google Translate does not actually translate. Instead, it searches for the most frequent counterpart in parallel texts. In this case, its rendition of ‘no food’ is a noun phrase, rather than a full clause. Nikakaja eda, being in the nominative case, can be a subject of, say, Nikakaja eda ne vyzyvala u nego appetita ‘No food gave him any appetite’. Given the lack of a wider context, both parses—as a noun phrase and as a clause—are possible, but interestingly, human translators (in fact, all human parsers) tend to interpret strings that are ambiguous between a noun phrase and a clause as a clause. For example, when presented with the horse walked past the barn, readers parse it as a full sentence, with the horse as the subject, walked as the verb, etc. Adding another verb, such as fell at the end (the horse walked past the barn FELL) makes it evident that the original string can also be parsed as a noun phrase where walked past the barn is a reduced relative clause describing the horse rather than the clausal predicate. Google Translate’s parse of ‘no food’ as a noun phrase is a result of the bias in the corpus Google Translate analyzes: ‘no food’ is found more often as a noun phrase rather than as a full clause. Conversely, it parses the horse walked past the barn as a clause, or at least an attempt at one. This time, its “translation” is the string Lošad’ prošel mimo saraja, which is ungrammatical due to the lack of subject-verb agreement between the feminine lošad’ and the masculine form prošel ‘walked’.

Going back to nikakaja eda, generally nominative noun phrases in Russian can constitute independent “predicate-less” clauses. A famous example of this is the opening line of a poem by Alexander Blok, consisting of four such phrases, each of which forms its own clause: Noč’. Ulica. Fonar’. Apteka. (lit. ‘Night. Street. Lamppost. Pharmacy.’). However, because of its negative modifier, nikakaja eda cannot be construed as such a predicate-less clause. Another problem with Google Translate’s rendition of ‘no food’ is its choice of eda, to which I return below.

Unlike the Google Translate’s version, Clancy’s rendition of ‘no food’ in the novel is an attempt at a clause, but it is ungrammatical. The existential negator netu (here and below, I change the spelling to conform with the transliteration used by linguists) triggers the so-called Genitive of Negation. Simply put, nominative subjects and accusative objects that find themselves in the scope of a clausal negator ne or net (or its colloquial form netu) must appear in the genitive form instead. For example, ‘I eat pastries’ is Ja jem pirožnye, with the object pirožnye in the accusative case (which happens to be exactly the same as the nominative, but that’s not important here). But ‘I don’t eat pastries’ is Ja ne jem pirožnyx, with the object pirožnyx in the genitive case. Similarly, affirmative existentials have nominative noun phrases, as in U menja est’ sobaka ‘I have a dog’, while their negative counterparts contain genitive noun phrases instead: U menja net sobaki ‘I don’t have a dog’. The negative existential net triggers Genitive of Negation because it derives from clausal negation ne + est’ ‘is’. Thus, a grammatical version of Clancy’s translation would be “NYETU PISCHI”, with the genitive form of the noun ‘food’.

The second error in Clancy’s rendition has to do with the choice of the negative word. Given that it is a written sign, the colloquial netu seems out of place; a neutral form net should be used instead: “NYET PISCHI”. But even this version still has two major errors.

One of them concerns the choice of the noun for ‘food’, pišča. Recall that Google Translate “chooses” eda instead in its rendition of ‘no food’. (When “translating” the word food in isolation, Google Translate offers not only eda and pišča, but also pitanije, which refers more to the process than what is being consumed, prodovol’stvije, provizija and s”estnye pripasy, all three of which typically refer to foods stocked for a trip, a military campaign, or for the winter.) As we shall see below, neither pišča nor eda is an appropriate choice for the shop sign, although eda is marginally better of the two, due to its stylistics. Because of its Old Church Slavonic roots and the connection to the verb pitat’ ‘nourish’, pišča is a hoity-toity word, closer to the English sustenance than to food. Ushakov’s dictionary of Russian marks pišča as “bookish”, while eda is defined (in one of its meanings) as the colloquial counterpart of pišča. The higher register character of pišča is reflected in such expressions as pišča bogov ‘the foods of the gods’. Tsar Nicholas I, known for his make-believe Russophilia, allegedly said Šči da kaša — pišča naša (lit. ‘Cabbage soup and porridge is our food’). The word pišča can refer to that which nourishes not only the body but the mind and the soul as well: for example, pišča dlja uma ‘food for the mind’. It can also be used metaphorically, as in davat’ pišču sluxam lit. ‘to give food to rumors’. When referring to physical, non-metaphorical food, pišča can denote liquid nourishment, while eda can denote only solid foods and thick liquids (such as soups). Witness Glavnaja pišča rastenijvoda ‘The main food of plants is water.’ Water, juice, and milk can be considered pišča but not eda. Moreover, pišča tends to co-occur with adjectives that describe its nutritional value, such as zdorovaja pišča ‘healthy food’, legkaja pišča ‘light food’, whereas vkusnaja ‘tasty’ tends to appear with eda. Note the order of adjectives in the title of the venerable culinary tome published in Stalin’s USSR: Kniga o vkusnoj i zdorovoj pišče ‘Book about tasty and healthy food’. A common joke at the time reflected the register differences between the two words: pišča was ingredients and dishes that could only be found in this book but were inaccessible to most Soviet citizens, who were happy to have enough eda.


Yet, neither pišča nor eda is the right word for foodstuffs when sold in shops, markets, and the like. The right word here is produkty. Despite its clear derivation from product, the Russian word denotes not the output but the input to the cooking and eating. A particularly confusing expression is produkty pitanija lit. ‘products of eating’, as it refers not to the products of the digestive process but to… food! General food stores sport a sign “PRODUKTY” or “PRODUKTOVYJ MAGAZIN” (lit. ‘product store’). Food markets, as opposed to those where non-food items can be sold and bought, are called produktovyj rynok (lit. ‘product market’). Specific types of foods, such as dairy, meats, and canned foods, are called moločnye produkty, mjasnye produkty, and konservirovannye produkty, respectively. So our next improvement on Clancy’s sign is “NYET PRODUKTOV”. (The ending –ov is for the genitive, triggered by the negator net, as discussed above.)

But despite three corrections discussed above, this version of the sign is still not quite right. The last crucial error concerns the order of the two words. Because Russian marks subjects and objects by case endings on the nouns, it does not need to employ word order, like English does, to mark who is doing what to whom. The connection between the case marking and the freedom of word order is highlighted by the famous observation made by the renowned Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, later confirmed by experimental work of Irina Sekerina: if the subject and the object happen to be nouns whose forms for nominative and accusative are identical, Russian speakers typically interpret such sentences as Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) rather than Object-Verb-Subject (OVS). Jakobson’s example is the sentence Mat’ ljubit doč (lit. ‘mother.NOM/ACC loves daughter.NOM/ACC’), while Sekerina tested sentences like Trolejbus obognal avtobus (lit. ‘trolleybus.NOM/ACC took over autobus.NOM/ACC’). Crucially, if either the subject or the object (or both) is replaced by another word which has distinct nominative and accusative forms, the strong preference for the SVO parse disappears: Mamu ljubit dočka is a perfectly good OVS sentence meaning ‘The daughter loves the mother’ because mamu is clearly the accusative and dočka is clearly the nominative. If only the last word has distinct nominative and accusative forms, as in Mat’ ljubit dočka, such sentences are parsed as “garden path” examples: initially the SVO parse is triggered, and only when the reader gets to the end of the last word is the sentence reanalyzed as OVS.

Given that word order is not needed to track grammatical functions such as subject and object, as long as case marking is doing the job, it can be used to encode what is “known” and what is “new” in the sentence. For instance, OVS sentences discussed above are used when the object is being discussed in the conversation, and the subject is the new information. I will illustrate this with the sentence from the film Brilljantovaja ruka (‘Diamond Arm’), which became an idiom in Russian. In response to his companion attempting to drink champagne from a bottle, a character says Čampanskoje po utram pjut ili aristokraty ili degeneraty (lit. ‘Champagne in the morning drink either aristocrats or degenerates’). (‘Aristocrats’ was no less an offensive term within the Soviet ideology of the time than ‘degenerates’.) ‘Champagne’ is topical in the situation, as is ‘the morning’, which is when the conversation takes place. Therefore, both of these phrases appear early in the sentence, while ‘either aristocrats or degenerates’ is the new information that the speaker is conveying, and therefore this phrase occurs at the end of the sentence. The best way to render this remark in English would be a cleft construction: It is either aristocrats or degenerates who drink champagne in the morning. In Russian, word order plays the same role as the cleft in English.

The same “known first, new at the end” principle applies also to existential sentences. Typically, such sentences have the form est’ X, where “X” whatever does or doesn’t exist (or appear, or seem, being owned, etc.). Similarly, in negative existential sentences, net X is the typical word order, especially if multiple items are listed as lacking: Net ni lekarstv, ni provianta lit. ‘No neither medications, nor food supplies’ (= ‘There is neither medications nor food supplies.’) Let’s now consider the lyrics of a song from another famous Russian movie, Ironija sud’by (‘The Irony of Fate’): note that the colloquial netu alternates here with the neutral net, but regardless of the negator, that which is lacking follows the negative word (semi-literal translations are given in parentheses after each line).

Esli u vas netu doma, požary emu ne strašny (‘If to you there isn’t a house, fires don’t threaten it’)

I žena ne ujdet k drugomu, esli u vas… net ženy (‘And the wife wouldn’t leave for another, if to you there isn’t a wife’)

Esli u vas net sobaki, eje ne otravit sosed (‘If to you there isn’t a dog, the neighbor won’t poison it’)

Esli u vas netu tjeti, to vam eje ne poterjat’ (‘If to you there isn’t an aunt, you can’t lose her’)

Having or not having various things is the theme of the song (cf. the refrain ‘Think for yourself, decide for yourself whether to have or not to have’), while what is lacking changes from line to line, and is therefore new in each instance. In accordance with the “known first, new at the end” principle, the word order here is net X. However, the opposite order (X net) is used when the thing that is absent is understood from the previous discourse or from context. Thus, if a friend suggests that I take medications for my sinus congestion, I might respond with U menja lekarstv net (lit. ‘To me medication isn’t’) because medications are already mentioned in the previous discourse. But as in the “Champagne in the morning” example above, something may be considered “known” or “topical” based on circumstances of the conversation, such as its time or location. For example, someone opening a fridge might say Edy net lit. ‘food isn’t’, as it is food that one expects to find in the fridge. Therefore, when a shop announces that it does not have something that is usually sold there, the X net order is used: Xleba net (lit. ‘bread isn’t’) is the sign one would see on a window of a bakery, Piva net (lit. ‘beer isn’t’) on the window of a beer-hall, etc. An empty grocery shop would put a sign Produktov net.


In conclusion, I will add that I have been accused elsewhere of “dismiss[ing] the whole of his [= Tom Clancy’s] work based on some inconsequential errors”, but I find that his grasp of Russia’s politics, history, and customs is similarly lacking, at least as far as this specific book is concerned, but this might be a subject for another post. That he nonetheless “[became] a well-known and best-selling author” speaks volumes of his readership, but not necessarily of his talents.



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  • Dmitry Pruss

    I wouldn’t be surprised if large numbers of Russian-speaking Americans were unable to recall the proper usage of “produkty” ~~ groceries. Especially if someone asked them to translate a two-word English sentence w/o explaining that it was meant to be a sign in a shop window. Not like such a sign would have existed in reality … “Out of tobacco” or “Out of beer” are plausible signs, but “Out of [any] food” sounds sort of dramatic, good for a comedy perhaps, or for a song, but not so much for real signage? They would typically still have some good-for-nothing edibles, even when anything useful was gone.

    • Well, it is supposed to be overly dramatic in the book. And I don’t see why minimal context can’t be explained to such speakers: I haven’t read the whole book either, only about 50 pages but even so it was obviously wrong.

      • Dmitry Pruss

        Sure, it’s just hard sometimes to be totally dramatic and totally realistic at the same time; some fantasy may creep in.

        “Produktov net” is very realistic but it doesn’t, as a rule, mean “No food whatsoever” / “Нет никаких продуктов!!!”. Generally it means “shortages of food” or “not enough ingredients to make a desired meal”, rather than “absolutely no food”. Therefore it belongs to conversations rather than to official signage. Like in the classic verse,

        “Ну а если даже нету // ни продуктов, ни другого // все равно чего-то есть // ведь живем же, рассуждаем”

        (Even if there is no food, or nothing else for that matter, there is still sometheing somewhere, cuz we are able to survive and to reason about it) – “net produktov / no food” clearly stands for “shortages of food”

        Or in the equally classic, “”Ваше величество, продуктов нет! В королевских подвалах остался 1 бульонный кубик и1 картофельная котлета”, the ostensible “no food” statement is followed but the list of available food items – which aren’t sufficient for the royal dinner nonetheless.

        • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the matter, Dmitry! But I have to say that I disagree with you. “Produktov net” is a bit odd, as indeed at least something would be found in the store, but the phrase itself does not mean to imply, at least not to me, merely “shortages of food”. I therefore can see it as a sign, albeit an overly dramatic one, which may well have been Clancy’s desired effect.

          As for the impossibility of combining high drama with high realism, here I vehemently disagree with you: good historical fiction does just that. May I suggest books by Geoffrey Archer or John LeCarre, or even Yulian Semyonov, who for all his other literary issues, did manage to combine most thorough research and attention to detail with high drama.

      • Ivan Derzhanski

        You don’t need to read 50 pages to tell that “НЕТУ ПИЩА” is wrong. You only need to read these two words. The only way they can appear in a sequence is with a comma or full stop between them (say Yandex and Google).

        I remember reading recently – I don’t remember where, or even what forum it was – a thread where one poster was complaining about writers who write that kind of nonsense although they could’ve asked someone from Russia, and another objected that such advice might cost money, which the writer would rather not spend. Came as quite a shock to me, because it hadn’t occurred to me that it might (as long as it’s answering a question or two, as opposed to proofreading a whole book). But even if that is true, Web search is still free.

        • I never said one did. One has to read the first 38 pages though, to find this “НЕТУ ПИЩА”, unless one knows to look there straight away. But the first 50 pages or so was enough for me to see that it wasn’t a mere accident but a symptom of a larger problem. I rarely abandon books midway, but this was a rare case.

          As for it costing money, it would, naturally, but why shouldn’t it? Why should linguists who study many years for their PhDs work for free or charge less than accountants, lawyers etc.? As it is we do charge far less for consultation, and translating two words (if this is all) would probably cost him about $25 — nothing comparing to the royalties one gets from such a bestseller. Of course crowdsourcing it via Facebook and Twitter is entirely free… So really financial issues is not an excuse.

          • Ivan Derzhanski

            Professional advice from a linguist should be paid for, of course, as any other professional’s advice. But in this case you don’t need a linguist, just any native (or otherwise competent) speaker. Not that Clancy couldn’t have spared $25 …

          • To give him the correct phrase, a competent native speaker attuned to the language would do. To explain it, no.

    • John Cowan

      I don’t think NO FOOD is so improbable, especially if distribution has broken down for a long time, or stringent rationing imposed. (I haven’t read the book and don’t know the circumstances.) During the first oil price shock, gas stations in the U.S. often posted a sign saying “NO GAS”, for example.

      By the way, for an English-speaking audience NYET is far better than NET, which suggests the pronunciation НЭТ. ISO 9 transliteration rules are fine in their place, but their place is not a popular novel in English.

      • In the novel, it’s bad weather leading to agricultural crisis plus mismanagement that leads to a wide starvation — sort of like Holodomor, with the emphasize on natural causes rather than man-made manipulation.

        As for the transliteration, I understand Clancy’s use of his “system” (in quotes because what’s systematic about “Bolshoya spasibo”?!), but I prefer to use a truly systematic and consistent transliteration that linguists use whenever I need to write Russian in Roman script.

        Speaking of which, what on Earth is “Bishir yetso”??? (In Clancy’s rendition of Russian)

        • Ivan Derzhanski

          `Bishir yetso’ looks more Hebrew than Russian to me … but if it’s supposed to be Russian, my best guess is `[Афтар,] пишы исчо!’.

          • I see your point bit no it doesn’t any sense in Hebrew than does in Russian. And it’s not what you suggested: it doesn’t work in Russian, nor does it make sense in the context of the novel… so it’s back to the drawing board, I’m afraid.

          • Ivan Derzhanski

            Well, I made that suggestion without knowing the context. Now that I’ve looked it up, I don’t have a better one.

          • Thanks for trying. Maybe I should write another post and ask… Maybe I’m missing something…

      • Ivan Derzhanski

        I don’t think NO FOOD is absolutely improbable either, but NYETU PISCHI (correcting Clancy’s grammatical blunder) is not the way to say it (or to write it on a sign) in Russian: by virtue of using the wrong word for `food’, it comes across as something like `No nourishment’ (imagine that posted on an unstocked food store).

        • I agree except “NYETU PISCHI” is still funny because of the register clash between the two words. See the post for details.

          • Ivan Derzhanski

            True about the register clash. `Ain’t no nourishment’, perhaps. (I’m only suggesting that as an approximate rendering of the stylistic effect, not an exact one.)

          • I like this one!

  • Ivan Derzhanski

    That’s an intriguing observation that _продукты питания_ aren’t the products of the feeding process but the output of some other process(es) that are the input of feeding.

    In Bulgarian the distribution of _храна_ and _ядене_ is similar to that of _пища_ and _еда_ in Russian, except that _ядене_ has a few more meanings (eating as a process, or a dish, or a main dish). One thing that has been irking me of late is the growth of the frequency of _храна_ `food’ in texts and (more often) television shows about world cuisines and restaurants and such. Apparently translators simply use it as the one-and-only gloss for English _food_. To me _храна_ puts the emphasis on the fact that the food does to fill your belly and perhaps nourishes your body, but says nothing about its being flavourful or interesting or anything, so in the context of a restaurant it comes across as an insult. On the other hand, some may feel that _ядене_ is rather too colloquial.

    • Thank you for sharing this, Ivan! Bulgarian and Russian words seem to be slightly non-parallel after all. In Russian, it is еда that means the process of eating (witness: Мойте руки перед едой!). Пища cannot be substituted there, only прием пищи, but that has a somewhat medical flavor: лекарство принимать три раза в день за полчаса до приема пищи… And neither word is good for the food in the cuisines and restaurants sense, that’s кухня, which otherwise means ‘kitchen’. I was going to add that last point to the post, but it got too long without…

      • Ivan Derzhanski

        Oh, yes, I somehow disregarded the fact that Russian _еда_ also means the process of eating. (But it still differs from Bulgarian _ядене_ by not being able to mean `dish, Ru блюдо’.) Yes, _Мийте си ръцете преди ядене_. Although _храна_ can be substituted here, as a somewhat less likely choice (usual in army parlance, though). It’s a very tangled semantic domain.

        • Yes, a field so central to human existence, no surprise!

          Thanks for sharing the Bulgarian data — always nice to compare related languages. Subtle stuff emerges in both.

          • Ivan Derzhanski

            So central and so subjected to various taboos and similar limitations, at least in European culture (and some others, perhaps many, but probably not all), which postulate that in some circumstances _есть_ (Bulgarian _ям_) is to be judged too direct and replaced by _питаться_ (_храня се_), etc. etc.

            Yes, there is a plethora of fascinating issues there. One thing that I became sensitive to relatively recently (about 12 years ago), for example, is how in contemporary Russian the word _обед_ seems to have come to mean the most substantial meal of the day, regardless of when it’s eaten (it may be as late as 7pm), whereas in Bulgarian the same word refers to the midday meal (eaten about 12 noon or a little later, over by 2pm as a rule), regardless of its substance (it may be lighter or heavier than the _вечеря_).

          • Ilya Zlatanov

            It is because the second meaning of the Bulgarian “обед” is noon, also in the expressions “преди обед” in the forenoon, and “следобед” in the afternoon

          • Thanks, Ilya and Ivan!

            Russian is the same: до обеда and после обеда. They do not coincide precisely with “before noon” and “after noon” as обед is typically later than noon. Although when обед is eaten differs from historically and between social classes, just as “dinner” does in English. I will put up my post about this topic now. Stay tuned!

          • Ivan Derzhanski

            That certainly has something to do with it, although (as our hostess points out) in Russian _обед_ also has the meaning `the time of the main day meal; (usually) noon’ (Ushakov’s dictionary even goes so far as to define it as `то же, что полдень’), and that doesn’t prevent many Russians from using _обед_ for an evening meal (which Bulgarians do very seldom if ever) and restaurants in Msk and SPb from serving _бизнес-ланч_ (not to be confused with _деловой обед_) at midday.

            Seems it’s a case of quantitative differences leading to qualitative ones (2nd law of Hegelian dialectics):
            * There is the word _обед_, whose etymology suggests that its original meaning was `the (main) eating’.
            * It started developing a connexion to another meaning, `the time of the main meal’, and hence to yet another, `noon’ (that being the traditional time).
            * The stronger the latter connexion (and it’s surely stronger in Bulgarian that in Russian), the more _обед_ displaces the original word for `midday’ (Bg _пладне_, Ru _полдень_), and the harder it is to use _обед_ for eating done at another time of day (even if it happens to be the main meal).

          • Обед certainly doesn’t refer to noon, although it might have back Ushakov’s day. It’s more like 2pm. More on meal times and related words in that other post, see link in my comment above.

          • Ivan Derzhanski

            Yes, and I was wondering whether people to whom _обед_ can refer to a meal had at 7pm would use _до обеда_ and _после обеда_ as temporal expressions at all, and if so, for what times. I should do some field work. — But this really belongs to the comment section of the other post.

          • As a person like that, I can say, anecdotally, that these expressions still refer to before and after 2pm, approximately.

          • Ilya Zlatanov

            I came across an interesting article treating the issue

          • Thank you, Ilya! I cite this article in my other post on this issue:


          • Ilya Zlatanov

            Oh. sorry! I must have missed it but I’ll correct this omission 🙂

          • No problem!

  • Michael Ossipoff

    This isn’t intended argumentatively. It’s just a question:

    Without a verb, how could “No Food” be a clause? How could it be anything other than a noun-phrase?

    …short for “There is no food here”, or “We have no food”.

    • Yes, normally English clauses have a verb, but not always. Without a verb, there are so-called “small clauses” (as in “I found [the keys missing]”) or clauses with some form of ellipsis: gapping (e.g. “Mary ate an apple and [Sue a banana]”) or sluicing (“Someone left but I don’t know [who]”).

      As a noun phrase “no food” would have quantificational rather than propositional meaning, roughly “никакая еда” rather than “there is no food”, so I don’t think that’s the structure for the sign in question.