Alexander Anichkin, who comments here as Sashura, has a funny post about some language used by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that is both undiplomatic and untranslatable, namely that the EU, in supporting the US, “played the role of the well-known ‘under-officer’s widow,’ who flogged herself” (выступил в роли небезызвестной “унтер-офицерской вдовы”, которая сама себя высекла). For one thing, the word унтер-офицер [unter-ofitser], which I have rendered as the nonexistent “under-officer,” has no good equivalent in English; my Oxford dictionary defines it as “non-commissioned officer,” but as Sashura points out, this does not capture the “униженность и оскорбленность” (humiliating and insulting nature) of the Russian tsarist term and occupation. And the Gogol reference is well known to Russians but opaque to others; it’s from his great comedy The Government Inspector, and Sashura provides the original and three translations:
Городничий. Унтер-офицерша налгала вам, будто бы я ее высек; она врет, ей-богу, врет. Она сама себя высекла.
(The Government Inspector, перевод Arthur A Sykes, 1892)
GOVERNOR. The sergeant’s wife lied when she told you I flogged her—it’s false, yei Bohu, it’s false. Why, she flogged herself !
(The Inspector-General, translated by Thomas Seltzer)
GOVERNOR. The officer’s widow lied to you when she said I flogged her. She lied, upon my word, she lied. She flogged herself.
(Le Révizor, traduction pa Marc Semenoff)
LE GOUVERNEUR. — La femme du sous-officier vous a menti, menti, j’ai ne l’ai pas faire fouetter. Elle s’est fouettée elle-même.
I was deeply impressed by Sykes’s “yei Bohu” for ей-богу [ei-bogu] ‘really and truly! I swear to God!’; I can’t imagine what he thought English playgoers would make of it, and I wonder if cultivated Russians in the 1890s pronounced the -г- of богу as /h/ or if he’d been hanging out with southerners/Ukrainians. It’s interesting, too, that as the phrase has passed into general Russian usage, it’s lost the sarcastic sense it has in the play (the woman was in fact whipped by the governor, who is producing a ridiculous and unbelievable lie to exculpate himself) and become a term for self-abasement.
Sashura also mentions the phrase “кузькина мать,” famously used by Khrushchev, so I will take this opportunity to brag a bit by quoting the relevant entry (“we will bury you”) in Safire’s Political Dictionary, one of the editing jobs of which I am proudest:
One of the Russian leader’s favorite expressions was the picturesque peasant threat “We’ll show you Kuzka’s mother!” (kuzka being a kind of grain beetle, and its “mother” being the deeply buried larva); the hopelessly overmatched interpreters gave up and started translating this as the more familiar and comprehensible “We will bury you.” (For this eye-opener the lexicographer is grateful to editor and researcher Stephen Dodson.)
To clarify the implication, to show someone Kuzka’s mother — an underground larva — is, by implication, to bury them.
And if you’re interested in hard-to-translate idioms, don’t miss Victor Mair’s latest Log post about the Chinese expression 规矩是死的, 人是活的 “Rules are dead, people are living” and the variants and implications thereof.