Translating Drag into Russian.

Ben Cohen writes for Global Voices about the linguistic (and other) issues involved producing a Russian version of RuPaul’s Drag Race:

Since forming three years ago, the RuPaul VKontakte group has attracted a dedicated team of 10 translators and has expanded to reach an audience of over 5,000 regular viewers across the former Soviet Union. They’ve translated over 70 episodes of the show (now in its ninth season), in which men assume female personae, dress as women, and compete for the title of “America’s Drag Superstar” through a series of grueling performance challenges. […]

Translating one episode of the show can take anywhere from four days to two and a half weeks. As soon as an episode becomes available, the translators communicate through a group chat and decide amongst themselves who will take which section, usually a 10-20 minute clip of episodes that run up to 45 minutes long. Everyone sends in their translations to a designated editor who then splices together the subtitles. “Everyone does as much as they can,” Nikita said.

Still, sometimes the translators get stuck. Take, for example, the rap challenge in season 6, during which contestant Joslyn Fox (whose real name is Patrick Joslyn) used the word “motherfishin.’” In drag culture, “fishy” describes a drag queen who has such a feminine appearance they could be mistaken for being female in real life. And to a native or near-native English speaker, the play on words with a certain expletive would not be lost. But without such a vocabulary in Russian, the play on words could be lost to foreign viewers. Nikita explained, “The biggest problem with translating RuPaul’s Drag Race is a lack of developed drag culture in Russia, and with that, a lack of vocabulary associated with it.”

“I thought about [motherfishin’] for two months and then I had an epiphany,” Elizabeth Rusakova, one of the group’s primary translators, told RuNet Echo. “There is a fish called sterliad’ (sterlet), and it sounds like a combination of the word sterva (witch) and bliat’ (f***)…In my head, something clicked, and I realized that is the perfect word.”

Sometimes, it’s a little less complicated. When one of the contestants wins a challenge, RuPaul always tells them “Condragulations!” which the team on VKontakte routinely changes to pozdragliayu instead of the usual pozdravliayu (congratulations), thus creating an equivalent vocabulary for Russian viewers.

I applaud their ingenuity! (I should note that although blyad’ is the functional equivalent of fuck, its literal meaning is ‘whore.’ For “sterlet,” see this LH post.) Thanks, Bathrobe!


  1. You probably know a Brezhnev-era joke about a fish-farm hybrid of vobla & sterlyad’?

  2. Jim Doyle says:

    Drag jargon is already pretty difficult to render into mainstream American English, let alone any other language, and it’s meant to be that way. It signals membership in a very circumscribed sub-culture, so the references are as oblique as necessary and change as often as necessary to maintain external opacity. I’m sure the same was true of Polari back when it was more necessary and more current.

  3. Sure, that’s why it’s such a challenge to translate (and why the successes are so gratifying).

  4. In regard the translation of motherfishin’, I am puzzled by the article’s focus on the adjective fishy, which is a straightforward derivative of the noun fish, meaning a biological woman (contrasting with a drag queen). Supposedly, the term comes from a “fish” fitting into the clothing and accoutrements “like a fish to water,” although this may be a folk etymology.

  5. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    ‘Drag jargon’ may be an English thing but cross-dressing as such is not unusual in Slavic folk rituals.

    A spring custom called Siuda Baba observed in the Cracow area

  6. J.W. Brewer says:

    FWIW this online guide to the show’s (English) lexicon gives the adjective “fishy” w/o including the noun “fish” and offers a rival etymology (along with a warning that “fish” may not take word positively even if it was positively intended by the speaker).

  7. I make no claim to know the term’s actual etymology. The one suggested in the link is certainly plausible, and it suggests that fishy may have come before fish, if the reference was to the smell of vaginal fluid. However, in my experience (which is substantial but second hand, as I am not myself a drag queen), whichever word is older, it’s fish that is thought of as the primary lexeme. And I should have mentioned that fish is definitely used as a derogatory term for biological women; it does not have to have a negative connotation, but it usually does. That was one of the factors that made me wonder whether the Russians had done a good job translating motherfishin’.

  8. Bathrobe says:

    I wondered about this entry in the glossary:


    1. A prostitute. More specifically, a street prostitute. A person who solicits sex on the street. Short for the word “Hooker.” Among drag queens, this term is used both as a term of endearment, and as well as an insult.

    I would have thought that it was a particular pronunciation of “Whore”…. But perhaps I’m wrong.

  9. @Bathrobe: That suggests that whoever produced that glossary was not a very careful etymologist. My understanding of the origin of ho agrees with yours, and the OED confirms it, listing the etymology as “alteration of WHORE” with no further comment.

  10. Annette Pickles says:

    NSFW: Primary evidence for the etymology of fish from Drag Race alumnae and fan favorites Trixie Mattel and Екатерина Петровна Замолодчикова after around 0:49 on the 3rd episode of their YouTube series UNHhhh:

    “But I felt real fish…”

    I wonder how the Russian translators handled the blend hunty… some combination of звезда моя and пизда?

  11. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    I wouldn’t say that ho is an “alteration” of whore, but its normal non-rhotic pronunciation.

  12. @Stephen C. Carlson: I assume that’s how ho originated, but the vowels are now quite different. The OED give /hɔː/ for the British pronunciation of whore and /hɔ(ə)r/ for the American; the latter could be rendered non-rhotically as /hɔə/. In contrast, the only British and American pronunciations listed for ho are /həʊ/ and /hoʊ/, respectively.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    Ah, but which side of the horse-hoarse merger was whore on pre-merger? Would that affect the vowel in a clipped form (which might not be exactly the same as a non-rhotic form)?

    For me whore rhymes perfectly with poor (which is homophonous with pore and pour for me), and ho rhymes with po, considered as a clipped form of poor as in po’ boy. (Is po’ just non-rhotic poor? I dunno because I’m not non-rhotic and if I were my vowels might be different in other ways.)

  14. David Marjanović says:

    which side of the horse-hoarse merger was whore on pre-merger?

    Judging from German Hure, it should be on the hoarse (FORCE; THOUGHT + r) side.

  15. J.W. Brewer says:

    More broadly, “ho” (also spelled “hoe”) in AmEng is I think widely understood as an AAVEism, and while AAVE is non-rhotic, it’s not like AAVE vowels (plus what does/doesn’t get elided or reduced in what context) are *just* regular GenAm sans rhoticity. Put another way, I would not necessarily expect the word to come out identically in all non-rhotic American accents.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    whore : When I first encountered this word (in English literature of the past centuries), I was not sure of how to pronounce it, but in a number of instances the context made it clear that it rhymed with poor (not with “door”). Perhaps that is now obsolete?

  17. Eli Nelson says:

    @marie-lucie: As far as I know, the pronunciation of whore rhyming with poor (and not door) is not entirely obsolete, but it’s uncommon to hear it because of a combination of factors. For some reason (maybe the influence of the standard spelling?) the pronunciation rhyming with door became dominant among speakers of most accents even without without the the poor-pore merger (the OED entry, first published in 1924, refers to the pronunciation /hʊə(r) as “now dialectal”), and the poor-pore merger becoming more common over time means that it’s harder to find people who use “dialectal” pronunciations that maintain a distinct “poor” vowel. But I remember seeing the word spelled “hoor” in a dialectal context in a Steven King short story from 2003 (“Rest Stop”), and unless this was just eye-dialect (I don’t know how likely that is), it suggests that King thought of the pronunciation with the /ʊə~ʊ~u/ vowel as still existing in regions of the US when he wrote the story. (Googling, I also found a Reddit question that asks “What’s the proper way to spell whore, Frank Reynolds style?”, which seems to be looking for the spelling corresponding to this pronunciation.) I would guess that this pronunciation of “whore” is probably at least as uncommon as the pronunciations of of “whale” etc. that maintain a “wh” sound distinct from the “w” sound of “wail”.

  18. m-l: See our 2012 discussion. In short, whore with the CURE vowel rather than the FORCE vowel is now dialectal. However, in many dialects CURE has merged or partly merged into FORCE, thus making it impossible to distinguish. In particular, because poor is one of the words most often merged in this way, it is not a good standard of comparison. John Wells chose the lexical-set names (see Wikipedia) very carefully in order to avoid such confusions.

    Update: My college English professor (in 1978) had a marked New York City accent and pronounced whore with CURE, as did my father (born 1904 in Philadelphia).

  19. Well, lots of people rhyme poor with door (e.g. 74% of UK respondents to John Wells’s opinion poll). Which said, whore comes from OE hōre, which became /huːr/ after the GVS. But this lexical set (words with ME ọ̄r) has been notoriously unstable, with word after word getting affected by vowel lowering. Course, court, four, pour, source, door, floor, whore and many others defected from the CURE/POOR set a long time ago, your did so more recently, and poor, moor, sure etc. still oscillate between the two pronunciations: in mainstream British English, the choice is between a more conservative /ʊə/ vs. a more innovative /ɔː/ (not that the innovation is all that new — it’s been around for ages).

  20. In my conservative and extramural accent, stressed your remains CURE. The unstressed version is NURSE, as are surely (“Shirley, good Mrs. Murphy, shall follow me all the days of my life”) and sure adv. (but not sure adj., which is also still CURE).

  21. The Scots National Dictionary has this interesting bit:

    HURE, n. Also hore (Jam.); hoor. Sc. forms of Eng. whore, a prostitute […] [hu:ər, I., m. and s.Sc. †hø: r, ne.Sc. †hi:r]
    [O.Sc. hure, huir, id., from a.1400. The pronunciations [hø: r, hi:r] represent the normal Sc. developments of O.E. hōre (cf. the rhyme with muir in the ballad of Hughie Graeme (Child No. 191 A. xxii., C. xi.) and P.L.D. §§ 35, 128.). The pronunciation hu:ər] is that adopted from 17th — 19th c. Eng.]

  22. J.W. Brewer says:

    I too have seen eye-dialect “hoor” in dialogue in novels etc. But I think that reflects a rather different dialect (and not just in rhoticism vel non) from the dialects where the eye-dialect comes out as ho or hoe.

  23. Note that in AAVE door is do’, rhyming with ho.

  24. Whore rhyming with poor (and not pour) seems to be associated with the NYC area, at least in the popular imagination. Anthony Moltisanti memorably used it on The Sopranos.

  25. Er, Christopher, I mean.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    Scroll down a bit here to find a beautiful pun that assumes the poor/pore merger and non-rhoticity.

  27. I, of course, didn’t get it. But I got this:

    “What has six legs and goes ‘hodeedo hodeedo’?”

    “Three African Americans running for the subway.”

  28. J.W. Brewer says:

    I had thought of the ho-de-do ho-de-do joke (I grew up in a subwayless area so when I first heard it back in the ’70’s they were running for the elevator). I’m not sure if “ho” is an actual AAVE short form of “hold” or if this where the stereotypical “stage” version of the dialect diverges from reality.

  29. David: …the poor/pore merger and non-rhoticity

    That is, the poor/pore/paw merger, as in:

    AMERICAN TOURIST [stopping GBS on Piccadilly]: Say — are you Shaw?
    GBS: Positive.

  30. J.W. Brewer says:

    Hmm. But to Piotr’s last point, are there eye-dialect texts out there using “haw” to represent a non-rhotic pronunciation of “whore”? Does this put (non-rhotic) Lord Haw-Haw in a different light? The New Orleans equivalent of a sub/hoagie/grinder/etc isn’t called a paw-boy and I think for most Americans that spelling would cue a different pronunciation than po’ boy does.

  31. I would say “poe boy” or “paw boy” are pronounced distinctly differently, but both sound fine as the name of the sandwich. (I would use the former pronunciation myself.). Moreover, “haw” is plausible as a pronunciation of whore in a very heavy AAVE accent (although not, I think, the typical AAVE accent I encounter in the midlands of South Carolina), but it seems like a different word from “hoe,” whether the latter refers to a woman or a garden tool.

  32. JWB: L-vocalization renders hold as [howd], the final consonant of which assimilates with the [di]. (AAVE does not have a weak form of the most of the time.)

Speak Your Mind