What Does It Mean That Russian Is An ‘Inflected Language’?

Obligatory picture of Red Square.
Obligatory picture of Red Square.

Before I started learning Russian, a lot of the sources I read said it was hard. Not only does it have a completely different alphabet, they warned, but it’s an inflected language. A quick search of this term—inflected language—revealed that Russian nouns change depending on where they are in a sentence. That is, nouns have different cases. Changing the case is called declining. The names of the cases used in Russian are nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, prepositional, and instrumental. This post will deal with nominative (used for the subject of a sentence), accusative (used for direct objects), and dative (used for indirect objects) in more detail.

To understand case in general, take these sentences in English: The cats eat and I love cats. In the first sentence, cats is the subject, while in the second, it is the direct object. It’s the same word, though. It may function differently in the sentence, but it doesn’t change spelling or acquire an ending or anything like that.

Russian is different. Those sentences in Russian would be: Кошки едят [Koshki yedyat] and Я люблю кошек [Ya lyublyu koshek]. I’ve made the word for cats bold in both the Cyrillic and the transliteration so you can see that it differs slightly. In the first word, it’s in what we call the nominative case. In the second, it’s in the accusative case.

As it turns out, every noun in Russian has different forms like this. A few foreign words don’t change (this is called being undeclinable or indeclinable—I’m not sure what the correct English term is) but for the most part, every Russian noun has six endings for the singular form and six for the plural. These follow a pattern, so it’s not quite as hard as it sounds at first (though it does take a bit of practice to get used to lopping off endings and adding new ones while speaking out loud in conversation). Some words change irregularly, though, and these must be memorized.

What this means is you can do all kinds of things with Russian sentences that simply wouldn’t be possible in English. You can change the word order a bit and even leave verbs that give a noun its case when these verbs would be understood. Take the following example that I found on a patriotic Russian’s Twitter bio. I liked it so much I had to save it. Unfortunately, I cannot find the person who had this, so maybe he changed his bio since then.

Душу-Богу. Жизнь-России. Честь-никому.

The transliteration would read: Dushu-Bogu. Zhizn-Rossii. Chest-nikomu. It means “I give my soul to God, my life to Russia, and my honor to no one.” But technically, there are no verbs present in the bit I quoted above. The verb “I give” (Я даю [Ya dayu] or even just Даю [Dayu]) is implicitly understood, and the inflection of the Russian language helps us see this.

In the first part, душу [dushu], which means soul, is in the accusative case because it is the direct object of the implicitly understood “I give.” The nominative case of this word is душа [dusha]—note how the ending differs! The next word, Богу [Bogu], is the dative case of Бог [Bog], which means God. Dative is used for indirect objects, i.e. the recipient of something given. So you can see that the cases of the words in the first part show that the subject is giving his soul to God.

The second and third parts work in much the same way. Жизнь [Zhizn] means life. It’s also in the accusative case. In this instance, the nominative and the accusative look exactly the same due to a grammatical rule in the Russian language that I don’t want to go off topic to explain here. России [Rossii], the second word, is the dative case of Россия [Rossiya], which means Russia—hence the meaning of this second part: “I give my life to Russia.”

In the third part, we have another word in the accusative case, as you probably guessed: Честь [Chest], which means honor. Like the word жизнь [zhizn], it is the same in the nominative and the accusative case as well due to that grammatical rule.* The next word, никому [nikomu], is the dative of никто [nikto], which means no one. So it means “I give my honor to no one.”

Of course, when I translated this bit above I took a bit of license with the source text. I cut out the repetition and phrased it in a way that flows in English: “I give my soul to God, my life to Russia, and my honor to no one.” This is not the only accurate translation—it’s just the one I personally like the best. If you wanted, I suppose you could split the sentence into three separate sentences. It’s up to you.

If you’ve ever wondered if Russian is difficult to learn or not… well, you’ve probably got your answer now. I don’t like it when people lie and say a language is easy when it’s actually quite complicated. So I won’t lie: Russian is hard. You won’t be learning it in three months. (Sorry!) You probably won’t be learning it in a year, either. (Though I suppose in theory if you did nothing else and were able to spend some time in a Russian-speaking country, you could pick up quite a lot.) There’s so much good stuff to read in it that all the effort is worth it.

Plus, all that grammar is just fun, isn’t it? I’m not even joking here. I could talk about Russian declensions all day long. If you’re confused by any of my explanations, feel free to ask questions in the comments. Please don’t ask me to explain English grammar terms, though. That stuff ought to be taught in school—and if you haven’t learned it, you should go learn it on the Internet because a little bit of grammar study never hurt anybody. 🙂

*Note: Fine, I’ll explain the grammatical rule briefly because I’ve probably made you curious. Certain nouns called third-declension feminine nouns have the same form in the nominative as they do in the accusative. And all masculine inanimate nouns also have this feature. Confused yet? 😉 This is why I spent so much time studying in undergrad—it takes time to learn this stuff well!


By Heart

Inspired by today’s prompt at The Daily Post

When I saw today’s writing prompt—what’s the first poem that comes to mind if you’re asked to recite a poem from memory—my mind immediately jumped to Russian poetry. (No surprises there.) For my oral exam in second-year Russian, I had to memorize a poem and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s a Pushkin poem called “It’s time, my friend.” Here’s an English translation. (I am uninspired to translate, due to an exhausting day at work!)

It’s time, my friend, it’s time! The peace is craved by hearts…
Days flow after days — each hour departs
A bit of life — and both, you and I,
Plan a long life, but could abruptly die.

The world hasn’t happiness, but there is freedom, peace.
And long have I daydreamed the life of bliss —
And long have planned, a tired slave, the flight
To the removed abode of labor and delight.

Of course, it is so much better in Russian, so here’s the original for those who read the great and mighty Russian language.

Пора, мой друг, пора! покоя сердце просит —
Летят за днями дни, и каждый час уносит
Частичку бытия, а мы с тобой вдвоём
Предполагаем жить, и глядь — как раз — умрём.

На свете счастья нет, но есть покой и воля.
Давно завидная мечтается мне доля —
Давно, усталый раб, замыслил я побег
В обитель дальную трудов и чистых нег.

Akhmetov’s Speech

Rinat Akhmetov, a Ukrainian tycoon from Donbass (a region in eastern Ukraine that has expressed a desire to secede and join Russia) aired a video on his TV station on Tuesday. It is embedded below and is in Russian only.

(Click here to see on YouTube.)

The thing about Akhmetov is this: he was in favor of the pro-Russian separatists until releasing this video, in which he is against them and instead for a united Ukraine. I think he realized he’d rather be a large fish in a small pond (i.e. a powerful tycoon in a not-so-powerful country) than a small fish in a large pond (let’s face it, there are many more powerful tycoons in Russia than in Ukraine). He did not morph into a Ukrainian patriot overnight. There’s a ton of interesting stuff in this speech, but I will talk about that in a later post.

I have done a quick translation of the speech below. I haven’t translated anything in ages, so go easy on me if I made any mistakes. 🙂
Continue reading “Akhmetov’s Speech”

Tyutchev’s ‘A Spring Storm’

Since it’s May, I cannot resist sharing this Russian poem with you, written by Fyodor Tyutchev. The translation is from here.

Spring Storm

I love a storm in early May
When springtime’s boisterous, firstborn thunder
Over the sky will gaily wander
And growl and roar as though in play.

A peal, another – gleeful, cheering…
Rain, raindust… On the trees, behold!-
The drops hang, each a long pearl earring;
Bright sunshine paints the thin threads gold.

A stream downhill goes rushing reckless,
And in the woods the birds rejoice.
Din. Clamour. Noise. All nature echoes
The thunder’s youthful, merry voice.

You’ll say: ‘Tis laughing, carefree Hebe –
She fed her father’s eagle, and
The Storm Cup brimming with a seething
And bubbling wine dropped from her hand.

Long-time readers may remember that I’m a great admirer of Tyutchev—I wrote about his poem “Cicero” on this blog last August.

Since the translation can never be as good as the original, here’s the original Russian.


Люблю грозу в начале мая,
Когда весенний, первый гром,
Как бы резвяся и играя,
Грохочет в небе голубом.

Гремят раскаты молодые!
Вот дождик брызнул, пыль летит…
Повисли перлы дождевые,
И солнце нити золотит…

С горы бежит поток проворный,
В лесу не молкнет птичий гам,
И гам лесной, и шум нагорный —
Все вторит весело громам…

Ты скажешь: ветреная Геба,
Кормя Зевесова орла,
Громокипящий кубок с неба,
Смеясь, на землю пролила!

A Paradox

I have observed a strange paradox: the better I have become at Russian, the worse I have become at translation. I can’t figure out if I am assimilating the knowledge of Russian at such a deep, native-speaker level that it’s hard to render this in English, or if I’m just lazy and out of practice doing translation. (After all, I used to do a ton of translation on my old blog, but I stopped doing that after I started this blog.)

I’d like to think the former is correct, but I suspect it is the latter.

Ramzan Kadyrov and the Boston Terrorist Attack

Screenshot of Kadyrov's instagram
Screenshot of Kadyrov’s instagram

Wondering what Ramzan Kadyrov said on Instagram about the terrorist attack in Boston? Wonder no more, because I, your faithful correspondent, have translated his statement.

“Tragic events took place in Boston. People died as a result of a terrorist attack. Earlier, we expressed condolences to the residents of the city and the people of America. Today, the media reports that a certain Tsarnaev was killed in an attempted arrest. It would have been logical if he had been arrested and an investigation conducted to explain all the circumstances and degree of his guilt. We see that the security services needed results at any cost to appease the public. Any attempts to make a connection between Chechnya and the Tsarnaevs, if they are guilty, are in vain. They grew up in the United States; their views and convictions were formed there. It is necessary to search for roots of evil in America. The whole world needs to fight terrorism. This is something we know better than anyone. We wish a recovery to all the injured and share the Americans’ feelings of sorrow. #terror attack #Boston #investigation/result/consequence”

It’s important to note that his last hashtag (следствие) can be translated in multiple ways and it’s not completely clear what he meant (though I am inclined to go with the “consequence” translation, as in this attack is a consequence of America’s actions).

I translated this article in response to a piece on Quartz that did not fully understand what Kadyrov said. Unfortunately, at this point many people are relying on Google Translate for the statement, and we all know Google Translate isn’t always accurate. Feel free to use my translation (but please credit me!).

Saturday Night Poetry: Pushkin

Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these. That’s sad, as I used to do this nearly every week when I had my old blog.

Tonight’s poem is by Aleksandr Pushkin, the father of Russian literature. It’s called “It’s time, my friend, it’s time!” and it has a very special place in my heart. When I was in second-year Russian over three years ago, I memorized this little poem (in Russian, of course) for an oral exam.

This translation is mine – don’t be too harsh in judging it. I fully admit I am a terrible translator of poetry.

It’s time, my friend, it’s time! the heart demands peace – 
Day by day flies by, and each hour takes away
A small part of existence, but we together
Intend to live, and look – at once – we die.
In the world is no happiness, but there is peace and free will.
Long have I dreamed of another lot –
Long have I, a tired slave, planned an escape
To a faraway abode of labor and pure delights.

Continue reading “Saturday Night Poetry: Pushkin”

Happy International Translation Day!

Today, September 30, is International Translation Day! If you know a translator in your life, let him or her know that you appreciate the massive amount of effort it takes to learn a language, and then render material in that language into another. Nataly Kelly has a great post here about how important translation is.

In honor of International Translation Day, I want to share some literary translation I have been working on, just for fun. This is my rendition of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard, his early novel based on his experiences living in Kiev during the Russian Revolution.
Continue reading “Happy International Translation Day!”

Are Translation Certifications Worth It?

I know I already used this photo, but it’s too perfect not to use for this post.

I have been considering the idea of engaging in professional translation for some time. (Notice I did not say that I want to be a professional translator. This would be more of a temporary position, as I want to return to school next year. Though after that, I would not mind becoming a professional translator.) For a while, I was thinking of doing translation, but I knew I did not have a high enough level of Russian to do so. Now I think I have a high enough level, I just need practice and experience.

Which brings me to my point: what are your thoughts on translation certifications? I know there are some programs in the United States that offer a certification in translation of a certain language pair (NYU’s program comes to mind). I think they sound like loads of fun, but I can’t decide if they’re actually worth it. Plus, I have had trouble finding one with Russian-English, but that’s a different problem altogether.

The ATA (American Translators Association) also offers a certification exam but I know I don’t meet the requirements for that yet. Plus, it’s expensive (you have to be an ATA member to even take it) and I wouldn’t want to invest in it unless I were going to become a professional translator full-time, which isn’t something I want to do quite yet. (I’m not done with academia. There are too many hilarious experiences to be had. I mean, have you looked at my “Adventures in Academia” tag? So many crazy experiences, and so many more I haven’t even written about.)

Translators – any thoughts on certification? Are you certified? Why or why not?

Literary Translation and the Nobel Prize in Literature

On Wednesday, I hosted literary translator Lisa Carter on this blog. I also wrote a guest post for her blog, too, about literary translation and the Nobel Prize in literature. I am too tired to blog properly today, so just read my guest post on her website if you have not already.

After today, only six more days left for Blogathon. Isn’t it crazy? I can’t believe I’ve blogged so much!
Continue reading “Literary Translation and the Nobel Prize in Literature”