I love the show The Americans. It’s one of the best shows on television and captivates me every week. One of the reasons I enjoy it is that I get to practice my Russian, as all of the scenes featuring Russians (the Russians who are not deep-cover spies, that is) are usually in Russian with subtitles.
But I noticed something about the subtitles a while back that fascinated me: they do not exactly translate what the Russians are saying in Russian. They translate the sense, but not the literal meaning.
This means something extraordinary for this show. It means that the Russian dialogue is not a translation of the English dialogue shown in the subtitles. That is, the script writers did not write what they wanted the Russian characters to say and then had it translated into Russian. It appears as if both the English and the Russian were composed in their respective languages as originals. I’d heard rumor that the writers tell Russian-language speakers the gist of what they want said and the conversations are written in Russian.
See, in my day, I was a pretty good speaker of Russian. But if you gave me something to translate into Russian from English, it’d bear the echoes of my native English. Whereas a Russian, expressing the thought in Russian would say it differently from the way that I would’ve come up with. But this is not the Russian on the show. Even though I, or any other competent Russian speaker, could produce grammatical and comprehensible Russian translations of ideas originally expressed in English, the Russian on the show feels more authentic. It feels more… Russian.
This is remarkable attention to detail and authenticity and really does add an air of verisimilitude to the show, even though the overwhelming majority of viewers will have no idea that this has taken place.
To show you what I mean, I have recorded a dialogue from the April 25, 2018 episode “The Great Patriotic War,” featuring a conversation between two Soviets: Tatiana, an official with the Soviet embassy in Washington, and Oleg, a former KGB agent, previously assigned to that embassy who’d returned to Moscow some years before.
Transcribing the subtitles was easy and done in a couple of minutes. Transcribing the Russian was much harder. I had to listen over and over in some cases to parse out the words uttered at a frequently blistering rate and often mumbled or slurred, as native speakers of any language are wont to do. After multiple (and I mean multiple) listenings, I believe I have produced as accurate a transcription as possible. If anyone watches the episode and hears something different, by all means, let me know.
The table below presents the English of the subtitles, the English translation of the Russian spoken, and the Russian original. You’ll see how the English does not quite capture what the Russian is saying, which in a couple of instances is far more poetic than the prosaic subtitles would lead you to believe. Enjoy!
I wondered if you were still here.
Well, that means you are here as before.
Ну значит ты тут по-прежнему.
I heard you were in town.
Had to see for myself.
I heard that you were in town.
So far, I hadn’t seen you with my own eyes.
Слышала, что ты в городе.
Пока своими глазами не увидела.
|I thought about you. All the time.
I didn’t want to write—you understand.
|You know, I thought about you. Very much.
I wasn’t able to write a letter, you understand?
|Знаешь, я думал о тебе. Очень много.
Не мог писать письмо понимаешь?
What’s not to understand?
What is there here not to understand?
Что тут не понимать?
|You know why I went home.
|You know why I returned home…
My parents, they…
|Ты знаешь почему я домой вернулся…
|I know why you left.
What brings you back?
|I know why you left.
But why have you returned so?
|Я знаю почему ты уехал.
А зачем вернулся так?
|For work. To study.
|По работе. Учиться.
|We have engineering schools.
|In the [Soviet] Union there are also [places] to study.
|В Союзе тоже есть учиться.
|Are you good?
|Well, okay. Everything good with you?
|Ну ладно. У тебя всё хорошо?
|It’s all right.
|Running the place yet?
|Are you the boss?
|Ты что начальникой?1The actor mumbled the beginning of this line. It sounded like he said Вы что начальники using the formal pronoun for “you” instead of the informal they use throughout this conversation. It’s possible I haven’t reconstructed it correctly here.
|Same job, actually.
It would help me a lot if you could just tell me why you’re here.
|No. Everything is on the same responsibilities.
Maybe all the same you will say why you arrived?
It would be a little easier for me to talk with you.
|Нет. Всё на той же должности.
Можно все-таки скажешь зачем приехал?
Мне бы было по проще с тобой разговаривать.
|You don’t believe me.
|What, you don’t believe me?
|А что мне не веришь?
Hard things happened between us. But I think you know I’m an honest person.
You can tell me the truth.
I won’t hurt you.
Between us it was different, but, in my case, you have no cause to doubt my decency.
Say as it is.
From me you will have no unpleasantness.
Между нами было разное, но, по-моему, у тебя нет повода сомневаться моей порядочности.
Скажи как есть.
От меня у тебя неприятности не будет.
|I’m telling you the truth.
I’m an honest person, too.
|I’m saying to you as it is.
And my decency also does not get close to doubt.
|Я говорю тебе как есть.
И моя порядочность тоже не поближет сомнению.
|I know it was you.
You told the Americans about my operation.
I told them… I thought it was you.
But you got out of it, didn’t you?
|I know that it was you.
You told the Americans about my operation.
I also said so—you yourself know to whom—that I think about you.
And you’ve come out of the water dry. Well done.
Your father helped, yes?
|Я же знаю что это был ты.
Ты рассказал американцам о моей операции.
Я так и сказала—сам знаешь кому—что я думаю о тебе.
А ты вышел сухим из воды. Молодец.
Отец помог, да?
|Tatiana, this is crazy…
… you told them I —
—they interrogated me— I…
I could’ve been killed.
|This is nonsense, Tatiana.
The dossier went out from you?
You know that they interrogated me. Me, they could’ve shot me.
|Это бред, Татьяна.
Досье отошло от тебя.
Ты знаешь что меня допрашивали. Меня… меня расстрелять могли.
|But here you are.
You have any idea what you did?
Do you even care?
I was so stupid to trust you.
But you taught me something that’s for sure.
That will never happen to me again.
|However, here you are alive and well.
Do you even understand what you did, Oleg?
Or is it all the same to you?
I, like a fool, trusted you.
Still, here’s a good lesson for me.
Never again will I get stuck like that.
|Однако, вот ты жив и здоров.
Ты хоть понимаешь что ты сделал, Олег?
Или тебе всё равно?
Я как дура тебя доверяла.
Ещё вот хороший мне урок.
Больше никогда так не влипну.
|I didn’t betray you.
|I would, I didn’t betray you. I would, I would never in my life…
|Я бы… Я тебя не сдал. Я бы, я бы в жизни никогда…
|Remember when they were going to make me a rezident?
Now I’m lucky to still have the same damn job I had five years ago…
Thanks to you and what you did.
|You remember, you remember they were planning to make me rezident? And now, I miraculously hang on to the same responsibilities that [I had] five years ago and all this is because of you!
|Ты помнишь, ты помнишь меня собирались делать резидентом? А теперь я чудом удерживаюсь на той же должности что пять лет назад и всё это из-за тебя!
|I’m sorry things haven’t gone the way you wanted.
|Forgive me. Forgive me that it didn’t work out just as you had planned.
|Прости. Прости что не получилось так как ты планировала.
|You’re right. Being sorry doesn’t do any good. The only thing that’s done any good for me is moving on.
|And you know, in general… what sense [does it make] to reconcile? You know what helped me? I simply turned the page.
|А знаешь вообще. Какой смысли смиряться? Знаешь что мне помогло? Я просто перевернул страницу.
|You moved on?
But maybe you should look behind you sometime and think about all the things you destroyed on the way.
|Turned the page?
But maybe it’s worth it for you sometimes to turn around and look: the grass does not grow where you have passed by.
А может тебе стоит иногда оборачиваться и смотри: не растёт трава, где ты прошел.