Russian Idioms Made Simple

By Christine Hanson McKnight

When the University's Sophia Lubensky began her ground-breaking Russian-English dictionary project in 1981, Ronald Reagan was in the White House and the Soviet Union was the "Evil Empire." World politics has changed dramatically since then. To celebrate the publication of Lubensky's Random House Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms ($75) last summer, the Russian Mission to the United Nations threw a lavish book party in her honor.

"This book is a real bridge between two languages and different mentalities," said Eugeny Deineko, Russia's deputy permanent representative to the United Nations. "It will contribute to better mutual understanding and eventually will promote peace in the world."

Some might consider that claim to be a bit expansive, but clearly, Lubensky's book is a publishing event. A professor in Albany's Department of Slavic and Ger-manic Lan-guages and Literatures, Lubensky spent 13 years researching and compiling her Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms. It weighs in at ten pounds and is about the size of the Manhattan telephone directory. It contains 13,000 Russian idioms and their American English equivalents in nearly 6,900 entries, along with illustrations from 235 works of contemporary and classic Russian literature — including Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pushkin, Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn — translated into English. Each idiom is given grammatical descriptions, definitions and stylistic and usage information. The dictionary even suggests whether a particular idiom makes the speaker sound cool, highly literary or simply vulgar. Written in the Cyrillic alphabet and intended primarily for Russian readers, it is the most comprehensive and scholarly Russian-English dictionary of idioms ever created.

Some examples:

• The Russian phrase "Don't go to Tula with your samovar" is translated as "taking coals to Newcastle." (The central Russian city, the central Russian city, which happens to be Albany's sister city, is famous for its samovars.)

• In Russian, "She ate the dog" is another way of saying "She knows her stuff."

• The Russian saying, "Once your head has been cut off, there's no use crying about your hair," becomes, in English, "There's no use crying over spilt milk."

To help pull off this mind-boggling project, Lubensky relied primarily on a $283,000 grant from the National Cryptologic School in the Department of Defense, a school for military intelligence officers. But while it was her tenacity and leadership that moved the book to completion, Lubensky says she could not have done it alone.

"I had help from so many talented people, particularly my graduate students," she said. She highlighted the exceptional efforts of former Albany grad students Marjorie McShane and Rebecca Stanley and of fellow faculty member Charles Rougle, now chair of the Department of Slavic and Germanic Languages and Literatures. Stanley and Rougle served as translation consultants. Lubensky also had the encouragement and critiques of colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic and the help of two editors, two linguistics consultants and two proofreaders.

The publication of Lubensky's dictionary was an event that even the international press took note of. The New York Times, for instance, ran a light-hearted feature about it on August 20. The Associated Press, Reuters, Voice of America and national broadcast services for Austria and South Africa also did stories.

Lubensky is a Slavic scholar who emigrated to the United States in 1976 after earning her doctorate in linguistics at the University of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Although she had dozens of Russian-English dictionaries in her library, none specifically addressed the idiom. Already adept in many idioms herself, she wanted to learn even more. "When I came across a good equivalent, I'd write it down and put it in my card file. It was just for my own use. Mostly I did it from Russian to English, but not always. But the card file kept growing and growing."

The idioms were by then pouring in, filling 3-by-5-inch index card files that eventually began to overtake her home. The cards were checked and reviewed before being typed into a computer for later editing.

Lubensky's publisher, Random House, predicts that her work will become a standard reference book for language students, teachers and translators. Lubensky's colleagues agree.

"For translators, its publication is truly a major event," said translator Susan Brownsberger of Watertown, Mass. Russian Professor Donald Jarvis of Brigham Young University describes it as "a godsend for Russian-English translators.

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