“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.



Related Posts

Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below: