Moscow's English translations of the official Soviet statements on the Korean jetliner were sprinkled with quaint and creaky colloquialisms. Ronald Reagan, said TASS, is acting like an "ignoramus" who sheds "crocodile tears." Protesters who picketed the Long Island estate of the Soviet Ambassador to the United Nations behaved like "hooligans." All this international outrage amounts to a "hullabaloo." It was as if a Soviet translator had stumbled onto a dusty dictionary of Anglo-American slang, circa 1913.
Close. In fact, Soviet translators have been weaned on Dickens, Thackeray, Twain and other 19th century writers, which explains why Moscow's attacks, once translated, sometimes seem comically grandiloquent. The colorful terms of last week entered the Russian-English dictionaries at the beginning of the century. Ignoramus, first popularized in England in the 1600s as a synonym for dunce, is Latin for "we do not know." In the original Russian version, the word is nevezhda, which means "an ignorant person." Krokodilovy slyozy, which translates literally as "tears of the crocodile," derives from a Russian fable similar to the Western tale. Hullabaloo, which harks back at least to the 18th century English wolf-hunting cry of "halloo-baloo," appeared as shumikha, which means "uproar." Hooligan is simply khuligan in Russian, with precisely the same meaning in English.
Washington resorted to some musty translation of the radio dialogue between the Soviet pilots. As one of the pilots closed in on the fated airliner, he is quoted as exclaiming, "Fiddlesticks!" Fiddlesticks? Despite the fact that the word went out of fashion before Yuri Andropov could even have heard of Glenn Miller, it is a remarkably apt translation of the Russian. What the pilot said was "Yolki palki," an exceedingly mild oath that translates literally as "the sticks of a fir tree," and is the exclamatory equivalent of "Yipes!" on a preteen U.S. playground.