Russian Language Blog

Humor that’s lost-and-found in translation Posted by on Mar 6, 2013 in Culture, language

A couple weeks ago, I mentioned “elephant jokes” as an example of humor that translates well because most of the examples don’t depend on language-specific wordplay. So today, let’s consider some puns and quips that are difficult or impossible to translate into English because they hinge on Russian homonyms or on ambiguities of Russian grammar. After all, one of the satisfactions in studying a foreign language is being able to comprehend idiomatic usages that would totally choke the best translation software.

I’ve tried to select some simple examples from online that illustrate general points of Russian grammar apart from the humorous content. We’ll start with a fairly straightforward one:

После трёх рюмок коньяку француз переходит на минеральную воду, а русский — на «ты»

This one would make total sense in languages such as German, Spanish, or French. It’s just a bit hard to explain to most English speakers, because we haven’t used the “informal thou” for centuries. As a cultural note, some Russians like to officially mark that “switch to ты” with a hokey little ceremony known as брудершафт.

Anyway, the quip means:

After three glasses of cognac a Frenchman switches to mineral water, while a Russian switches to “ты”.

Grammar point #1: A рюмка is a “stemmed glass” (as for wine or champagne). In после трёх рюмок, both the number and the noun are genitive, as required by the preposition после — and the noun рюмок is genitive plural, not genitive singular.

Grammar point #2: Since коньяк is masculine, you’d logically think that коньяку must be the dative singular. In fact, it’s a special form known as the “partitive genitive” that expresses “a bit of something.” Partitive genitives ending in -у/-ю are used ONLY with certain masculine nouns, and nowadays these -у/-ю genitives are
sometimes considered slightly old-fashioned or rustic. So deliberately using коньяку (instead of the normal genitive коньяка) gives it a more folksy/colloquial sound.

Алкоголь усиливает половое влечение – хочется упасть на пол и не вставать.

Here, the untranslatable part is that the adjective половой can mean either “sexual” or “related to flooring” — because the nouns пол (“sex; biological gender”) and пол (“floor”) are identical in conjugation, despite their different etymologies.

Thus половое влечение would normally mean “sexual attraction,” but the second clause takes it in a different direction:

Alcohol increases [sexual attraction / the floor’s attractiveness] — you wanna fall on the floor and not get up.

Grammar point #1: Russian has numerous verbs of adjectival origin prefixed with у- and conveying “to make something X-er”. Thus, сильный is “strong” and усиливать/усилить is “to make stronger; to strengthen.” Cf. лучший, “better,” and улучшать/улучшить, “to improve.”

Grammar point #2: Note the use of the impersonal хочется (“it is wanted”) where in English we might say “you want” or more formally “one wants”.

Grammar point #3: Note the stress in на пол, “onto the floor”.

Here’s another quip based on Russian words that are nearly homonyms (at least in some of their forms):

Старость – это время, когда половина мочи уходит на анализы.

The noun мочь means “strength; might”, but моча is the polite/clinical term for “urine”! And their genitive singulars are homographs, but the stress is different — мочи, “of strength,” but мочи, “of urine”. Thus, depending on how one reads the joke out loud:

Old age — that’s the time when half of your [strength/urine] goes for laboratory tests.

Grammar point: Although уходить/уйти is literally “to go away on foot,” the construction уходить/уйти на что-нибудь is figurative — it means “go into” or “go toward” in the sense of “to be exclusively dedicated to.” Много работы ушло на борьбу с раком, “A lot of work has gone into/toward the fight with cancer.”

Of course, not all wordplay is deliberate. We’ve all seen those Internet lists of “unintentionally funny ads” or “actual answers from students’ exams” (e.g., “an angle greater than 90 degrees is called obscene“).

Well, that genre of humor is equally popular in Russian, and provides more examples of humor that relies on peculiarities of Russian, such as its flexible word order:

Продаю коляску для новорождённого синего цвета.

Here, синего цвета (“of a blue color”) is obviously meant to modify коляска (“small cart; baby carriage”), but the writer was rather careless about the phrasing and it appears to modify новорождённый (ребёнок), “newborn [child]”. The nearest thing in English would be writing “I’m selling a blue-baby carriage” instead of “a blue baby-carriage.”

And this next one defies translation — it’s funny because the distinctively Russian idiom на руках can sound ambiguous:

Дети до пятилетнего возраста проходят в цирк на руках.

Interpreted literally, it says “Children under the age of five may walk into the circus on their hands.” However, the idiomatic meaning is “Children under the age of five may be carried into the circus in a parent’s arms.” (With the implication that, once inside, the child will sit on the parent’s lap — i.e., they won’t be charged for a seat).

Grammar point: The verb проходить/пройти is quite often heard with the meaning “enter” or “come on in!”, even though more literally it’s “pass; walk by.”

Finally, let’s consider a few more examples of deliberate puns. The fictional Штирлиц (Shtirlitz) is a sort of Soviet/Russian James Bond who appeared in a popular series of novels and films — he was a patriotic Soviet superspy (real name: Vsevolod Vladimirovich Vladimirov) who infiltrates the Nazi SS under the German pseudonym Макс Отто фон Штирлиц. And he inspired a huge number of jokes — mostly in the form of one-line quips based on (usually untranslatable) Russian wordplay, where an ambiguous word in the first clause takes on an unexpected meaning in the second clause.

For example:

Штирлиц погладил кошку, кошка сдохла. “Странно” — подумал Штирлиц, поплевав на утюг.

Here, гладить/погладить can mean “to press (clothing)” but also “to stroke/pet (an animal’s fur).” An analogous joke would be:

James Bond was pressing the Enter key when it suddenly caught fire and melted. “That’s strange,” thought Bond, spitting on the hot iron.

Grammar point: The verb дохнуть/сдохнуть/ (past (с)дох, (с)дохла) means “to die” and is polite and neutral when used in this way about non-human animals. But it’s considered rather crude and tacky to say it in reference to humans. (It’s like using “carcass” for a human body.) For this very reason, дохнуть is common in jokes, and you may also see the phrase phrase пухнуть и дохнуть (“puff up and die”).

Another Shtirlitz classic where the ambiguity of a word is humorously resolved in the second half of the joke:

Штирлиц шёл по лесу и увидел голубые ели. Подойдя поближе, он увидел что голубые не только ели, но и пили.

Literally, this can be read as:

Shtirlitz was walking through the forest, and saw some light-blue spruces. Approaching a bit closer, he saw that the gay men were not only eating, but drinking, too.


The two key points here are (a) голубой is literally “light blue” but colloquially “a gay man”; and (b) ели is the nominative plural of the noun ель (“a spruce tree”) and the past plural of the verb есть (“to eat”). You could eliminate the ambiguity by using the conjunction какон увидел, как голубые ели can only mean “he saw the gay men eating.” (On the other hand, он увидел, какие голубые ели could only mean “he saw how light-blue the spruces were”.)

Although it’s impossible to translate the word-play, one can devise a somewhat analogous English joke:

Once more, James Bond noticed the woman with the arrogant gaze. “She’s pretty — too bad that all her friends are snobbish homosexuals,” he thought.

And finally, an untranslatable Shtirlitz joke that is slightly off-color (but not excessively dirty) — and therefore, of course, enormously popular with Russian children:

Штирлиц открыл сейф и вытащил записку Мюллера. Мюллер
взвыл от боли.

Shtirlitz opened the safe and pulled out one of Müller’s memos. Müller howled in pain.

What the heck’s going on here, and why is Müller screaming?

First, as a usage note: вытаскивать/вытащить can literally imply “to drag out something heavy” (as in pulling someone up from a well), in contrast with the more neutral вынимать/вынуть, “to pull out.” But colloquially, the two words are often synonymous.

Second, записка is “a note, memo” — deriving, of course, from писать, “to write.” But писька (with a soft-sign) is a childish anatomical term equivalent to “willy, peter, ding-a-ling”. (Deriving from писать, “to pee”.)

Third, the accusative construction за письку can be compared with держать кого-то за руку, “to hold someone by the hand”.

Thus, он вытащил записку Мюллера is “he hauled out a memorandum by Müller,” but with a slightly altered pronunciation, он вытащил за письку Мюллера would mean “he dragged Müller out by his wiener”!

P.S. Don’t feel at all sorry for Мюллер — while Штирлиц was a totally fictional Soviet spy, the Мюллер in question is real-life Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller.

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  1. Fizmat:

    >по’лы vs полы’
    Wiktionary disagrees with you on this point. Floors is полы’. And I have never heard nominative plural по’лы actually used to mean “genders”. Probably it’s just rarely needed. Still rare but more common usage of “по’лы” is the plural of “пола'” = “lap (of clothes)”.

    Not necessarily heavy. It’s directly translatable as “pull out” in most cases.

  2. Tom Maholski:

    Thank you very much for writing such informative articles about Russian. I enjoy your posts. The other night on the TV show “NCIS-LA”, a man had слон carved into his forehead. It did not mean elephant, but was an acronym for a Russian prison activity. But I picked up on the word immediately even though I could not understand why he had elephant on his forehead.

    I was born and raised an American, and did not start learning another language until I was in my 60’s. When asked why I was learning Russian, I would tell the asker, I intended to read War andPeace in Russian before I die. And that should take until at least when I reach the age of100 years.


  3. pti:

    Eventhough I am native Russian speaker – I love reading this! Thanks.

  4. Rob:

    The other night on the TV show “NCIS-LA”, a man had слон carved into his forehead. It did not mean elephant, but was an acronym for a Russian prison activity.

    Hmmm… according to Википедия, С.Л.О.Н. in prison slang stands for “Смерть легавым от ножа”, which is basically “Kill the cops/pigs”. (More literally, “Death to pointer-dogs from the knife.”)

  5. Rob:

    Thanks for the corrections, Fitzmat!

    It motivated me to go check the etymologies for пол as in “floor” and пол as in “sex.” Not only are they apparently unrelated to each other, but apparently neither one is related to поле, “field.”

    However, “пол-as-in-sex” does have a historic link with половина, “half” — which makes sense, I suppose.