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Сайт Павла Палажченко

The usual suspects have become part of our language

Pavel Palazchenko

Originally published in Russia Now.
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Where do the mannerisms of human speech соmе from? In any language, people will instantly recognise certain familiar phrases uttered famously in books, films or by public figures, and can also be a frequent headache for translators.

When I was growing up my elders used a lot of what we linguists call phraseology. My grandmother’s speech, for example, was full of proverbs, sayings and familiar metaphorical phrases. It’s just not the same anymore: one rarely hears those colorful phrases, some of which were so Russian that I would probably have been stumped to find a good rendering for them in English. Fortunately, at that time it was the last thing on my mind. I was just enjoying listening to grandma.

It would seem that in English, too, the use of this kind of phraseology has declined in recent years. But of course people in all countries find other ways to make their speech more colorful and even playful. One way of doing it, both in Russian and in English, is to use familiar quotations (in Russian we sometimes call them “winged words”).

An interesting question is whether such quotations are perceived by native speakers as still attributable to their authors or as phrases that are already part of the language and, as it were, live on their own. The answer is not self-evident, because the line is blurred.

Take the phrase “the usual suspects.” Of course, many remember it as the immortal phrase of Captain Reno from the movie Casablanca: “Round up the usual suspects.” Some have seen a more recent film “The Usual Suspects.” I suspect, however, that some haven’t seen either of them but would understand a sports commentator speaking of the teams’ prospects for the coming season, “There are prime suspects among the usual suspects”: some teams are likely to do well, and some are very likely.

It seems, therefore, that the phrase has entered the language. Google it and you’ll see: it is there and, as they say, it is having a ball.

There are several sources of familiar quotations entering the English language: movies, show business more generally (“the show must go on” – from a song by the group Queen but used by circus performers long before), or book titles (Ian Fleming’s “From Russia with Love,” for example), not to speak of Yogi Berra (“it’s not over ‘til it’s over” and “it’s déjà vu all over again” are everyone’s favorites). But by far the most abundant source is the politicians. Theodore Roosevelt’s “the lunatic fringe” and Harry Truman’s “the buck stops here” are firmly embedded in the language. I expect that some phrases uttered by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush will make it too.

Russian politicians have done their bit to provide quotable phrases. Former prime minister Victor Chernomyrdin’s quip which I translated as “We tried our best, you know the rest” (the literal translation would be something like “we wanted to make it better but it came out as always”) is known to every Russian. Some colorful phrases from the repertoire of Vladimir Putin have, let’s put it this way, made the cut. But by far the biggest source of Russian quotes is – you’ll be surprised – the old Soviet movies.

It is amazing how resilient these catch phrases have turned out to be. The Soviet Union is no more, we live under a very different system of government and the economy, but those old movies are still many people’s favorites and even those who haven’t seen them are using phrases from them.

Just one film – “The White Sun of the Desert,” a story of early Soviet years in Central Asia – contains perhaps a half dozen gems, including the famous “Za derzhavu obidno” (I hurt for my country) and “Vostok delo tonkoye” (The East is tricky). To a Russian, these phrases mean a lot more than what’s on the surface. The first one connotes a somewhat resigned sense of hurt national pride and the second a healthy respect, coupled with a little irony, for “the eastern mindset.”

Pity the poor translator and particularly interpreter who has to deal with such phrases. Does one give a more or less literal translation, coupled with a brief explanation or even attribution, or is it perhaps better to come up with something similar that conveys the same idea? Over the years, I’ve done both things, with varying degrees of success, and I certainly gave it my best effort (“I tried my best”).