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15 November 2018

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The Russian Word's Worth

By Michele A. Berdy

This volume represents a collection of 230 columns on Russian language and culture published in the English language Moscow Times. Its author describes herself as: "…an American who learned Russian as a second language, who has lived mainly in Moscow since Brezhnev was in his dotage… For nearly all of these years I have been translating and interpreting in various contexts and for even longer I have been pondering, discovering contemplating, positing, theorizing, and occasionally arguing about what make Russians so, well, Russian and how that [compares with] what makes Americans so American."

Many Russophiles have already discovered Berdy, waiting eagerly for her column to become available each week on the Moscow Times website. This book is suitable for any English speaker professionally involved with Russian and/or living in Russia, learners of the language of virtually any level, and general Russophiles (garden variety or exotic).

Topics Berdy covers include the political (linguistic quirks of Russian leaders), the personally serious (expressing condolences in Russian), the etymological (why the Russian equivalents of complain, pathetic, welcome and salary have the same root), the annoying (especially Moscow traffic and drivers), and the just plain essential (calling and dealing with a plumber in Russia, or excusing oneself to visit the facilities), twenty-first language slang, as well as Soviet-speak remnants. All of these are treated in an entertaining and ironic style, suffused with the author’s deep knowledge of both languages and cultures.

Berdy’s book fills this reviewer, who has been working professionally as a translator of Russian since Brezhnev, with what the Russians call “white envy.” This term describes the type of envy that is 90 percent admiration and inspires rather than embitters. What is there about this volume to give rise to such feelings? Well, there is the delightful writing style and sense of humor on every page, the perfect idiomatic translations of impossible to translate Russian words and phrases, the profound understanding of Russian language and culture and the experiences the author most certainly must have had to develop said understanding.

The book includes a Russian term index (50+ pages), making it usable as a reference. It also should be noted that it is a perfect length for reading on a flight between the U.S. and Russia (counting Frankfurt layovers for slower readers) and would make the perfect gift for anyone (oneself included) about to embark on such a trip.

— Lydia Razran Stone

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Reviewed in Russian Life: May/June 2011