RUSSIAN NAMES

One of the problems I had when writing ‘Ghost Love’ was how to handle Russian names and pronouns.

One idiosyncrasy of the Russian naming system is that the surname of females comes with an added ‘a’: a father/husband might be named ‘Petrov’ but his wife/daughter would be ‘Petrova’. This was a convention I used in the early iterations of ‘Ghost Love’ but the editor thought it confusing for non-Russian readers (the husbands and wives having surnames spelt differently) so the ‘a’ suffix was deleted. By the way, in Polish we have a similar thing: he is Brodski, she is Brodska, he is Galecki (would be pronounced as Galetski), she is Galecka and so on.

But this wasn’t the only problem with names. In Russia how people address one another is a very subtle process and one which is nigh-on impossible to replicate in an English novel without the reader becoming mystified about who is who. For example:

All Russians take a patronymic as their middle name and when being addressed formally the first name and the patronymic – the middle name of a Russian is always formed from that of their father – are used: a Russian meeting me for the first time would address me as ‘Nelli Vitalievna’ (my father’s name is Vitali so my patronymic is Vitalievna). Tonia always addresses her teacher respectfully as ‘Zoya Mikhailovna’. In the book I avoided Tonia being referred to as ‘Antonina Alexandrovna’ (her father’s name was ‘Alexander’) in order to keep things simple. When I needed a more formal form of address – for instance when Tonia is being addressed by the KGB agent) I got around this by having him call her ‘Citizen Voronina’.

I had similar problems with diminutives. The majority of Russian names have diminutives (like the English William becoming Bill): Alexander becomes Sasha; Pavel becomes Pasha; and Antonina becomes… Tonia. I never referred to ‘Antonina’ simply to keep things, er, simple. Unlike in English, diminutives are never used in a formal setting: they’re exclusively used by friends and family.

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Translation: “This ill at ease feeling when you are not quite sure how to address the person, whether to use “ty” or “Vy”… English-speaking people, you don’t even know how lucky you are! (cartoon courtesy of pikabu.ru)

And now we come on to the reason why Russian novels translated into English are never quite right. Just as in French, Russian has a familiar ‘ty’ (equivalent to the French ‘tu’) and a polite ‘vy’ (equivalent to the French ‘vous’). Most books on the Russian language generally state that the ‘ty’ is informal form and it is used when speaking to friends, to children and to members of your family. The ‘vy’ form is more polite and is used when talking to other adults, by students addressing teachers and by children speaking to grown-ups.

Look, Medvedev, I will call you "ty" and you can call me "Vy", do you understand?
Look, Medvedev, I will call you “ty” and you can call me “Vy”, do you understand?

BUT (and this is one of the reasons why translating stories from Russian to English needs a lot of care) the use of ‘vy’ or ‘ty’ can convey subtleties in rank and in status that are impossible to convey in English. When Vladimir Putin stepped aside to allow Dmitry Medvedev to keep the Presidential seat warm for him for four years, it was generally accepted that Putin remained in power behind the throne. To demonstrate that he was the senior partner in the relationship, Putin addressed Medvedev using the familiar ‘ty’ emphasising his subordinate position while Medvedev addressed Putin using the more respectful ‘vy’. (This was picked up by The Economist (http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2010/06/politics_pronouns).

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