Challenges of the Russian Language

By Stacey
May 5, 2014 · 3 min

Russian is often given short shrift by Western translation professionals, resulting in bad translations of a major language.

Challenges of the Russian Language | One Hour Translation

Russian has been increasing in importance and volume in the translation industry for some time now, prompted by the fall of Communism and Russia’s slow route towards a free market and world participation (although recent events in Ukraine may be stalling them again). Russian is spoken by about 150 million people in the world, placing it squarely in the Top Ten of languages spoken worldwide, making it an ideal choice for any aspiring translation services professional.

But Russian has plenty of challenges as well, and not all of these challenges are obvious just from studying the language. Translating Russian can get a translator into hot water, actually, if they make a few poor assumptions – like the ones I’m going to mention here.


There is an unfortunate tendency of professional translators to think of Russian as an ‘emerging’ language – not necessarily consciously. Russia’s long isolation from the Western world has given it an outlier feel, and so the urge to use transliterations from English is strong. For example, many otherwise fine translations will replace a word like ‘mortgage’ with ‘мортгедж,’ despite the fact that Russian – a mature and extremely developed language, already contains the word ‘ипотека.’


At the same time, Russian is very slow to adopt new terms or create new words – much slower than English. This often results in an English word that doesn’t have a direct equivalent. In these cases it’s always preferable to write out an explanation of the English term rather than choose some equivalency at random or invent something wholly new in Russian. As one example given to me by a knowledgeable translation friend, there is no word in Russian for the relatively new (to Russia!) concept of an insurance claim – so when the term comes up the translator should just bite the bullet and explain it.


There are plenty of aspects of Russian that a good translator has to keep in mind when translating Russian:

  • The word order in Russian sentences doesn’t matter the way it does in English or other languages, so you have to use a lot of context and thought to get the meaning right.
  • There are three genders and a formal and informal mode in Russian, so even a simple thing like the word ‘you’ in reference to a person could be translated several different ways depending on context and other factors.
  • Italics: A non-translation quirk, but still relevant to anyone working to translate Russian: When the Russian script is italicised, it looks quite different from the Roman version – this is correct, and normal, but takes some getting used to!

Russian is a grand old language with a great deal of history and cultural weight behind it, but it’s challenging to Western translators mainly due to prejudices we bring to the table. It’s vital to approach Russian with the care and respect it deserves.

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