Yei Bohu.

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.


  1. par = not pa

  2. The soft g in Bog – God has been, apparently, a long standing tradition in mainstream Russian.
    I posted recently about it (on Facebook, I think), saying that us, Muscovites, say it with a hard g, or even a k. Only to be told off by members of the Politburo of the Russian language, who said that Bog=God should be pronounced with a soft, Kievan, g, even in Muscovite parlance. Not Bok, as I’d thought.
    Learn, Sashura, learn.

  3. Then again, révizor isn’t exactly a French word, either.

  4. In my Russian class ca. 1976, we were taught to pronounce the word as Бох if we had any occasion to say it at all.

  5. Yes, I say Бох myself, but I don’t pronounce the declined forms with /h/ and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone do so. Which doesn’t mean much, of course.

  6. the audacity of Sykes, with his ei Bohu, is astounding, I agree. Maybe he was thinking of ‘by God’, which sounds vaguely similar?

  7. Dmitry Rubinstein says

    I’ve recently finished reading a book written by the aforementioned interpreter (the one that translated the Kuzma’s mother, which was a separate incident from the “we will bury you”). The book is a gem, Viktor Suhodrev was a very interesting person, who witnessed a lot of history – and knows his way around words. Among other things, he explains there, that Khrushov meant something entirely different both by the Kuzma’s mother (in his opinion, the expression meant “we’ll show you something you haven’t seen before”) and by the “we will bury you” whip (by which he meant the usual marxist understanding of the competition of social systems, according to which the eventual triumph of socialism over capitalism is a historical necessity, nothing to do with violence).

  8. the usual marxist understanding of the competition of social systems

    That is how the non-clueless in the West understand the line today (though of course there are still many persons without a clue). In other words, “We will outlast you”, on the notion that the living bury the dead.

  9. “he meant the usual marxist understanding of the competition of social systems, according to which the eventual triumph of socialism over capitalism is a historical necessity, nothing to do with violence.”

    The non-violent intent was emphasized by pounding his shoe on the table. I wonder if Putin missed this point as well.

  10. Dmitry Rubinstein says

    George, you are probably being sarcastic, but just for the sake of the protocol I would note, that the shoe banging was yet another separate episode of Khruschev’s colorful history of public appearances.

    As for Putin, well, the way we say it in Hebrew, “kul kalb biji yomo”.

  11. Yes, it was sarcasm.

    Hebrew or Arabic?

  12. Dmitry Rubinstein says

    Well, Arabic (but the phrase has been co-opted into Hebrew slang as is).

  13. John Emerson says

    I have a book written in Chinese for Taiwan Chinese called something like “Why do Americans act that way?” The two things I remember from it are, 1.) “Americans have only one hierarchy, the hierarchy of wealth; there’s no parallel hierarchy of respect or culture”. (Free interpretive translation). The second is relevant to Mair: In America law comes first, common sense comes second, and connections come last; in China (Taiwan) connections (guanxi) come first, common sense (li) comes second, and law (fa) comes last. (Another interpretive translation of a book not with me). I was told that the lowest-ranking policemen, e.g. traffic cops, have so little guanxi that they can’t arrest anyone who amounts to anything.

  14. Yes, the vital importance of guanxi was one of the first things I learned when I got to Taipei (that’s how I got both my job and my apartment).

  15. So thrilled to see this write-up of one of my absolute favorite blogs. : )

  16. By God, this Russian Foreign Affairs statement is just horrible. And I mean linguistically.

    I don’t think Russian “under-officers” (let’s call them corporals) were especially humiliated and insulted. Roughly and without consulting with relevant authorities, officers from Peter III or early Catherine II times could not be flogged as a form of punishment, that was reserved for the common folk. Which means that removing corporals (wives included) from the risk of flogging was a mark of a higher standing (was it a new thing in Gogol’s times?). And as Unter Prishibeev shows, some of these corporals did think highly of themselves.

    Without any real proof, I very much doubt that larva has anything to do with Kuzkina mat’. It simply stretches credulity to think that anyone could view larva as mother. I guess, Kuz’kina mat’ is just a taboo avoidance from the usual expression of strong emotions which includes mat’, but Wikipedia has a number of plausible sources other than you-know-what.

    I am not sure how сел «на иглу» was translated officially (Одновременно Евросоюз окончательно сел «на иглу» Вашингтона и киевских сказок относительно событий, происходящих на Украине, лишив себя альтернативного, причем объективного, источника информации.) At most obvious level it means ‘to become an addict’ so it gives something like “At the same time, European Union has completely become an addict of Washington’s and Kievan fairy tales etc.” (‘Вашингтона и киевских сказок’ is some strange form of zeugma and is borderline unidiomatic). But in media sense игла means also TV tower, especially iconic Ostankino tower, and is a common expression for the power of Russian TV propaganda. I’ve no idea how to preserve that in translation.

  17. Kim famously rhymed ей богу & понемногу.

    As to Kuz’kina’s mother & larvae, I’m sure any possible connection was just as lost on Khruschev as on today’s users.You can also promise to show somebody the crowdad’s wintering grounds, and just “show” w/o qualifiers, as in English “You will see / I’ll show you [who’s right / who’s the boss]”. Just a generic threat, this promise to show [something nasty].(in Utah Valley, a jeweler’s billboard says “Love her? Show her”, and I always chuckle when I see it)

  18. Stefan Holm says

    Couldn’t игла (needle) be metaphorical for ‘fishing hook’? At least in my boyhood it was possible to catch a perch by bending a needle and attaching a worm to it. Is it possible that сел на иглу might mean, that the EU ‘bit on the hook’ or ‘took the bait’ of Washington’s and Kiev’s fairy tales?

    Hat: I don’t pronounce the declined forms with /h/.

    No, but you sure pronounce (the remainder of) the vocative case with /ʒ/ or /ʐ/ in Боже мой! (Oh my god!). Why, anyway, ‘Bohu’ instead of standard English phonetic transcription ‘Bokhu’?

  19. bootstar says

    сел на иглу – is a drug addiction reference, similar to “put a monkey on your back.” would translate here as “EU is reusing Washington’s infected needle.”

  20. Why, anyway, ‘Bohu’ instead of standard English phonetic transcription ‘Bokhu’?

    Because those are two different sounds, and nobody (as far as I know) uses “kh” for intervocalic г.

  21. Is it Kuzma or Kuzka? Both have been used in this thread. Or is the latter just a diminutive?

  22. I always thought that K. had said “We will bury you” in the sense of “we will metaphorically bury you, i.e. we will be present at your burial, in other words we will outlive you”. Now you’re saying that what he actually said, in Russian, was an obscure peasant phrase that translates as “we will bury you, and by that I mean we will put you in a hole in the ground and put soil on top of you”. Is this right?

    Unteroffizier in the Imperial Russian army was, specifically, the lowest you could be without being a private. So “corporal” works.

  23. Or is the latter just a diminutive?


    Now you’re saying that what he actually said, in Russian, was an obscure peasant phrase that translates as “we will bury you, and by that I mean we will put you in a hole in the ground and put soil on top of you”. Is this right?

    Not exactly. Apparently (though I haven’t gone into it myself) he said (in Russian, obviously) “We will bury you” on a famous occasion and then had to explain it was metaphorical, and then when he used the obscure Kuzka expression translators, not knowing how to deal with it, substituted the familiar burial threat.

  24. Okudzhava also uses ei bohu:
    Возьмемся за руки друзья
    Возьмемся за руки ей-богу
    Here is Joan Baez singing Okudzhava’s Soyuz of Friends (Союз друзей) in Russian. She is doing a definite Muscovite hard g – ei bogu.

  25. LH: Sorry, but I am confused (a common state for me). What is the literal and figurative translations of what Krushchev actually said in the UN regarding burying us? Did he use a Russian idiom or explain his statement using the idiom?

  26. He said “Мы вас похороним!” which literally means “We will bury you!” As Dmitry Rubinstein says, by this he meant the usual Marxist understanding of the competition of social systems, according to which the eventual triumph of socialism over capitalism is a historical necessity.

  27. I think Khrushchev’s phrase was an allusion to Marx/Engels’ Communist Manifesto of 1848, Das Proletariat ist der Totengräber der Bourgeoisie. It’s not a Russian phrase, it’s from the communist tradition. But yes, meant metaphorically.

  28. “You will eat our dust”?

  29. Paraphrasing an old Russian Q&A joke:

    – So “Capitalism stands at the threshold of a grave” – but why?
    – To take a look at poor Socialism down there…

  30. “kul kalb biji yomo”

    “Every dog will have his day” is an English proverb going back to at least Shakespeare’s time: “Let Hercules himself do what he may / The cat will mew and dog will have his day” (Hamlet V:i). However, in English this is considered a good thing.

  31. I think translating городничий as governor is wrong.

    Gorodnichy in Tsarist Russia was a head of town police. Sort of like sheriff, but appointed, not elected. He would be generally a retired officer of smallish rank (retired army leuitenant or so)

    Governor (gubernator) is a much more important figure, ruling over huge province size of small European country. In military terms, he ranks as a general.

  32. The Sykes translation is from 1892. At that time it was common to decorate the depicted speech of colourful foreigners with little snippets of Anglicized versions of phrases in their native language. Thus works set in Ireland would be full of wisha, marry-a, cushla machree and the like, while the French have their dialogue peppered with “sacre bleu”, “mon ami” and so on. Doing it in Russian is little more exotic, but I suppose over the course of a book or play you would get used to it.

  33. Sashura: I think Khrushchev’s phrase was an allusion to Marx/Engels’ Communist Manifesto of 1848, Das Proletariat ist der Totengräber der Bourgeoisie.

    Good point. However, that is not a quote from the manifesto, but a paraphrase. This is the passage: Mit der Entwicklung der großen Industrie wird also unter den Füßen der Bourgeoisie die Grundlage selbst hinweggezogen, worauf sie produziert und die Produkte sich aneignet. Sie produziert vor allem ihren eigenen Totengräber. Ihr Untergang und der Sieg des Proletariats sind gleich unvermeidlich.

  34. I think translating городничий as governor is wrong.

    You’re quite right, of course, and it’s depressing that all those translators were so lazy and/or ignorant.

  35. Judging by the recordings of “Soiuz druzei” I’ve heard, Okudzhava pronounced ей-Богу with a hard “g,” not a soft “g.” This makes sense, as the song rhymes it with понемногу, дорогу, к острогу, etc.

  36. gorodnichiy
    No, no, there is no mistake in translating gorodnichiy as governor meaning chief of local administration on the Uezd – County (US) or Canton (France) level, not as Governor – Gubernator, chief of administration on Guberniya (Governorship) – State (US) or Département (France) level.
    Historically, in Gogol’s time and till 1862 they were appointed by the government (the Senate) on proposal by the Governor-Gubernator and combined police, magistrate and law enforcement functions as well as other local administration functions. The word Governor avoids the democratic implications of, for example, the word mayor, or just police or law enforcement as in, for example, prefect.
    wikipedia on Gorodnichiy

  37. Sashura: I take your point but, on the other hand, to UK and US readers “governor” implies power (elected or appointed) over a very large area, which is clearly misleading. The head of government of a county or a small town isn’t called a governor. Governors run things like Bengal or Arkansas.The problem is that there isn’t really an modern UK/US equivalent for “unelected official with general government authority over a small area”.

    Maybe the colonial one might work – “district officer”?

  38. SFReader says

    Here is a good description of local authorities in 19th century Russia in this Encyclopedia of Russian life in 19th century (referred by languagehat a few times)Уездные

    Gorodnichiy represented police authority and central government. But towns also had elected town council and elected mayor (or golova) which appear to have lacked real powers.

  39. I think “district officer” is a good solution, far less misleading than “governor.”

  40. Under Petrine Table of Ranks, gorodnichy is Class 8(Collegiate Assessor) which corresponds to army major and he would be addressed as Your High Nobleness.

  41. marie-lucie says

    (Le Révizor, traduction par 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.

    Under-officer is obviously a literal translation of French “sous-officier”. I think there is more than one rank in that category.

    It looks like the right French translation for the title of the main character would be le préfet, an unelected official named by the government and responsible for good order in a département.

    j’ai ne l’ai pas faire fouetter should be Je ne l’ai pas fait fouetter ‘I didn’t have her flogged’ (if that is what the Russian original says).

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