I’ve run into a couple of difficulties arising from my reading lately, and I thought I’d share them, since they affect more than the words in question.
1) This is what I think of as the “echelon” problem, because of a long and unfortunate tradition among translators from Russian of rendering the word eshelon ‘special train’ as “echelon,” simply because that English word corresponds in form and etymology to the Russian one. They overlook the slight problem that the English word has no meaning even remotely corresponding to the Russian; it means ‘a steplike troop formation; a level or grade in an organization or field of activity,’ and nothing else—except to specialists in Soviet literature, who have absorbed this peculiar bit of translationese to the point that I have had a hard time convincing them that it exists nowhere else and that the “translation” should be retired forthwith. A similar problem came up yesterday in reading a Boris Akunin story called Strast’ i dolg [Passion and duty], set in an alternate Russia which has revived tsardom, along with its Table of Ranks and all the rest of the imperial paraphernalia. The sentence in question reads: Pogibel’ deistvitel’nogo tainogo sovetnika prishla nazavtra, na raute u angliiskogo poslannika sera Endryu Vuda: ‘The ruin of the Active Privy Counselor came the next day, at a raut at the residence of the English ambassador Sir Andrew Wood.’ The dictionary translation of the word raut is “rout.” Now, this is a different case from eshelon because there actually is an English word rout meaning ‘a fashionable gathering or assembly, a large evening party or reception,’ but the word has been obsolete for over a century and it’s unlikely anyone but a devotee of Victorian literature would be familiar with it. (Side note: I learn from the OED that there are in fact ten different routs, ranging from ‘a company, assemblage, band, or troop of persons’ to ‘the act of searching, or of turning out something,’ including the hapax ‘some kind of horse’: 1697 Vanbrugh Æsop i. iv. ii, Your Worship has six Coach-Horses,.. besides Pads, Routs, and Dog-Horses.) To render the word “rout” would be unconscionable—I would say “at a reception”—but I’ll bet there are plenty of lazy translators who would do it.
2) I was reading a NY Times story yesterday called “Siberian Dam Generates Political Wrangle Over Power” when it occurred to me, not for the first time, to look up the Russian for ‘dam.’ The dictionary translation is plotina, but I can never remember it because I rarely see it in Russian texts. The story concerned the Sayano-Shushenskaya dam; I did a Russian search on the name and discovered the feminine gender is caused not by plotina but by GES, the Russian acronym for ‘hydroelectric station.’ That’s why I can’t remember plotina; what we call the Hoover Dam, the Russians would call the Hoover GES. GES does not mean ‘dam,’ but it is used where we use ‘dam’ in the usual contemporary context of large concrete structures for generating power. There must be other examples of this phenomenon—different terms used in similar contexts—but I can’t think of any right at the moment. Anyway, it’s an interesting test of a translator’s skill; if you don’t know the language well, you’ll wind up using a dictionary definition rather than the situationally appropriate word.