Russian Translation Quality Pitfalls: Tips for Clients and QA Teams

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This article is intended for people who do not speak Russian but have to order, manage, and coordinate Russian translations. Below we present some simple facts that will allow you to avoid common mistakes and misunderstandings when working with your Russian suppliers. We note that similar problems exist with other Slavic languages (e.g. Ukrainian, Polish, Slovakian, etc.), so these tips are valid for more than just Russian.

Countless Word Endings and the Glossary

One of the most notable differences between English and Russian is that the same Russian word may have dozens or even hundreds of variations, making it very difficult to manage terminology using generic QA tools. In fact, such checks often only cause frustration and misunderstandings, and here is why it happens:

In English sentences, words are linked together by prepositions in a rather rigid structure, whereas in Russian, the rules are not so strict, and you can technically put the words together in almost any sequence. For example, in English you can say “I like singing in the bathroom”, but you cannot say “I singing in the bathroom like” or “Like singing I in the bathroom”. However, in Russian each of these variations is valid, since every word has a specific ending that preserves the meaning. Take a look at the table below:

English

I

Like

singing

in

the

bathroom

Russian dictionary word forms

Я

любить

петь

в

-

ванная

Correct word forms in this sentence

Я

люблю

петь

в

 

ванной

As you can see, a Russian sentence uses specific endings to link the words, so you can arrange most parts of the sentence in any sequence and the sentence will still be grammatically correct, e.g. “В ванной петь люблю я”, “Петь люблю я в ванной”, “Люблю я петь в ванной”, “Я петь в ванной люблю”, etc.

To make this possible, each Russian word can have dozens, or even hundreds of variations. English nouns have only singular and plural forms (e.g. thing, things), while Russian nouns have 12 variations depending on how they are used in a sentence. English verbs have just five variations (e.g. do, does, doing, did, done), but in Russian the number of verb variations is hard even to count, since the ending depends on verb tense, gender, mood, and amount, and all of these factors combine to create a highly context-specific word form.

In view of all this, if you are responsible for terminology quality control in Russian translations, please bear in mind that the entries you see in a glossary are just one of many possible word forms, and translators will change them to suit the context. It would be a great mistake to force a translator to use a term exactly as it appears in the glossary. The translator may comply with your request - just to not lose you as a customer, but the result will make readers cry (or laugh, depending on their sense of humor). Read a real-life story about such a case.

If you do not speak Russian, yet manage terminology in a Russian translation, you should either use QA tools that understand Russian morphology, or assume that all terms with different endings are correct, as long as they have a similar beginning and a spellchecker does not flag them as spelling mistakes. You won’t improve the quality by continuously asking a translator why he or she does not “follow the glossary” and demanding explanations of things that would be obvious to any native speaker. If you insist and force the translator to follow all formal instructions, you might just kill the quality you think you are assuring. You could also ask the translator to create a glossary with every single variation of the Russian terms, but this would be going too far!

Don’t Break Sentences Apart;
They Won’t Stick Back Together in a Russian Translation

As mentioned above, word order in Russian grammar can be totally different from English. Even though you can change the sequence of words without breaking grammar rules, each variation changes the text’s style and emphasizes something different. You can change the mood and tone simply by swapping two words.

Thus, when translating into Russian, translators must sometimes turn sentences upside down and inside out to make them natural and fluent. What had been the end of the original English sentence may form the beginning of the translated Russian sentence, and vice versa.

Accordingly, it is very dangerous to break sentences into parts and translate the parts separately, because when you glue those parts back together the result may be very robotic. Although each part may be translated correctly, together they may not make sense.

Don’t Blind the Translator;
Provide Context or You May Get Nonsense

As obvious as it may seem, not everyone realizes that foreign language dictionaries do not contain even a single exact translation of a word. What you see in dictionaries is just a “fuzzy match” of words in your language: some meaning is always lost when you simply replace English words with Russian words. To make this point clear, consider this example: in English we say “mother-in-law” to indicate the mother of one’s spouse. But in Russian we have different words for “mother of husband” and “mother of wife”. So how should you translate “mother-in-law”? The dictionary won’t help much, since you need to know the gender of the person whose mother-in-law is mentioned. Without knowing this, you have to guess – and there is a 50% chance you will be wrong.

Similar things happen when a translator is translating a user interface (UI), or some isolated sentences, without seeing the big picture. For example, how would you translate “Email” into Russian when it’s a standalone word? What does it mean? Possible meanings/contexts (and translations) include:

1)     The label on a button to send email (Отправить письмо)

2)     A communication technology (Электронная почта)

3)     Email address (Адрес электронной почты)

4)     ...and many other meanings...

What’s more, when this piece of UI text is part of a larger sentence, it may require different word endings than those above.

What will the translator do if you do not explain the context? He or she will have to guess, selecting the least risky and most probable translation. Of course, lacking omniscience, the translator will make mistakes.

Here is a true story: a translation company was once asked to translate into Russian, scripts for some training materials. The customer did not provide any videos, so the translator was left to use his best judgment when translating the text file. The translation was completed, the customer hired voice actors, and each of them recorded his part of the script separately. Then the separate parts were stitched together, and the training video was sent to the translator for final checks. Only then was it discovered that one of the characters was female, but in the translation the other characters speak to her as if she were a man. It was a slightly funny, but very expensive mistake, because the actors had to entirely redo their voiceovers using a corrected script.

To ensure that the translation of your website or software product does not contain such blind mistakes, always provide proper reference materials to clearly illustrate the context of the text. This is especially important in Russian and similar languages that have huge variation in word endings.

Avoid Placeholders in Russian;
They Break Grammar Rules

Placeholders are often used to insert variables into system-generated messages.

For example, in a chat interface you might see something like “Mary said:” or “John said:” The system just inserts a name into a standard “<User> said” template. I.e. “<User>” is a placeholder.

This is quite convenient in English, but it can create a lot of awkwardness in Russian. For example, if “<User>” represents a masculine noun (e.g. “John”), we would translate “<User>” as “сказал”, but for feminine nouns (e.g. “Mary”) we have to use a different ending, i.e. “<User>” becomes “сказала”. There is no single, correct way to translate “<User> said” into Russian, and a translator will inevitably either use the masculine form, or invent something grammatically correct but stylistically ugly (e.g. “A human called <User> said”).

If you are considering localizing your content into Russian, please try to avoid using placeholders, since they will considerably reduce the translation’s quality. Another option would be to account for all possible variations and make separate placeholders for each, e.g. “<User_female> said” and “<User_male> said”.

Punctuation

Rules governing the use of commas, colons, periods, question marks, quotes, etc., in Russian are very different from English. So if you see a translated Russian sentence with different punctuation at the end, it’s not always a mistake.

For example, titles can end with a colon in English, but colons are never used in titles in Russian. Dashes and colons in running text are used in completely different ways. In English, single or double quotation marks are used (‘’, “”), while Russian typically uses so-called chevrons («»). The inch symbol (") is not used at all, since Russian-speaking people are unfamiliar with imperial measurement units, and the symbol would be mistakenly interpreted as straight double quotation marks. The dollar sign ($) is put after numbers and must be separated with a space, i.e. 100 $, not $100. The list of examples could go on and on.

Allow More Space for the Russian Translation;
It Is Usually Longer Than English

The average Russian word contains 7.2 symbols, while the average English word contains 5.2 symbols. Russian sentences generally contain fewer words, because they have no articles and do not use as many prepositions, but they still become longer when you translate them from English to Russian. On average, the character count will grow 20%, although some sentences can be twice as long.

This can create lots of problems, because sometimes it means you have to redesign your beautiful documents and presentations for the Russian market, i.e. add more pages, change the font size, allow more space for captions, etc. Things get even more complicated when you localize menu items on your website or software product. For example, the “Send” button can grow twice as long (“Отправить”): if you don’t have the space for that, you’re in trouble!

Sometimes translators must shorten a translation by abbreviating words or omitting part of the meaning in order to fit the space allowed. This is one reason why “please” disappears in a Russian user interface: omitting it is a wonderful opportunity to shorten the text without losing much. But sometimes a translator gets nailed to the wall and has to abbreviate words, e.g. “Отправить” turns into “Отпр.” This gets really ugly when you have to translate an important phrase like “Send message by email” into “Отпр. сбщ. эл. почтой” (instead of “Отправить сообщение электронной почтой”). This frustrates end users so much that they just switch their device or software back to the English user interface.

As you can see, translating into Russian is often not only about replacing text. It may also involve redesigning your product’s documentation and user interface.

Are There Regional Variations of Russian?
Do I Have To Translate Differently For Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, etc.?

Over 260 million people speak Russian, and many of them are not from Russia. Are there any language variants that need to be taken into account when translated into local markets? Do you need to hire different translators for Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine?

Sometimes customers ask these questions because they think that Russian language variations are like variations of English in the US, UK, and Australia. With this incorrect understanding, they may order translations for Russian-Russia, Russian-Ukraine, Russian-Belarus, etc., and look for translators from these specific locations.

Incredible as it may seem, there are no variations of Russian. It is the same language throughout the entire Russian-speaking area. Unlike English, with its different rules for each variation, Russian is regulated by a single authority – the Russian Academy of Science. There is no similar local language-regulating body in other countries with a Russian-speaking population.

Of course, there are notable differences in pronunciation between Russian-speaking regions (even within Russia). There are also some local dialects and impurities in colloquial speech, but the vocabulary and grammar rules of proper written Russian are the same everywhere. So you do not need to create different Russian translations for each country unless you really need to hit something very specific.

The same is true of the country where Russian translators live. It does not make a real difference where a Russian translator is from, as long as you hire a professional who knows and follows all the language’s rules and lives in a Russian-speaking environment. In fact, many Russian translation companies hire Russian translators from outside Russia and even have offices in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Therefore, if you do not need to record voices, relax and just make one translation for all Russian-speakers. You can hire a translator from any Russian-speaking area. Just be sure that he/she is professional enough not to use colloquial, local slang in a written translation.

Do Not Judge Russian Translators by their English

A global translation quality standard dictates that a translator must be a native speaker of the target language. No matter how hard you try to master a foreign language, you’ll still be behind those who have spoken it since childhood and who use it every day. So while a Russian translator must be an expert in Russian, he or she only needs to command English just well enough to understand the source text. The reverse is also true: A Russian-to-English translator must be a native English speaker who has learned Russian well enough to translate from it.

For this reason, don’t be misled if you receive a somewhat awkward message in English from a Russian translator. He might be a much better translator into his native language than someone with perfect English who learned Russian at a university.

By the way, an experienced Russian translator wrote this article, though in its original form it looked very different from what you are reading now. We did not simply publish it as it was, since we understand very well that it sounded somewhat unnatural to native English speakers.

Repetition within a Single Sentence

This is another problem with automatic terminology management. For example, if an English sentence contains the word “computer” 3 times, the customer might demand that it be used the same way in Russian. If in one instance the word is missing, the customer may demand that the translator explain why the term was omitted.

The reason is that in Russian, repeating the same word in a sentence is considered poor style, so repetitions are normally replaced with a pronoun or the sentence is rebuilt to eliminate the repetition.

Machine Translation

Machine translation (MT) is one of the current trends in the industry, and it is being used more and more widely. While people do say “machine translation is getting better and better”, this statement does not seem to apply to English-to-Russian translation.

Post-editing of English-to-Russian machine translation almost always requires a complete reworking to bring the translation up to high quality standards. Consequently, it requires as much effort as translating from scratch. The reason is that English and Russian are too different, and engines like Google Translate are still not capable of generating text that is natural and easy to read. In our 10 years of professional experience, we have not seen decent machine translations into Russian. Achieving good quality has required spending as much time as would have been required to translate from scratch, because the machine-generated sentences had to be completely rephrased.

If you decide to use machine translation for Russian, with human post-editing, remember that the translation is cheap at the expense of decent quality. That’s ok as long as you understand this fact and do not need premium quality. Just don’t be misled by the trend. Remember, MT may possibly replace low-quality translators and might be “better than nothing”, but it cannot replace a skilled professional. If it could, professional translators would be using MT themselves. But they don’t, because it doesn’t save any time at all, at least not with Russian.

Summary

We hope this article has helped you better understand some peculiarities of the Russian language, and more effectively manage the quality of Russian translations at your company. Here are some points by way of review:

-          Russian words change their endings all the time, so don’t treat such variations as mistakes.

-          The order of words in Russian sentences may be completely different, so don’t break apart the sentences in the source text.

-          Always provide context, as the Russian language is very sensitive to it.

-          To avoid errors, either do not use placeholders or adapt them to Russian grammar.

-          A Russian translation is generally longer than its English source, so you’ll need to adjust space.

-          There are no local variations of written Russian, as long as there are no mistakes in the text.

-          A good English-to-Russian translator may not be perfectly fluent in English, but must be very good in Russian.

-          Do not rely on machine translation if quality really matters: it’s always a choice between price and quality.

But perhaps the most important tip is to just trust the language professionals.

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