Jump to content

Spies in Translation: Russian in The Americans


  • Please log in to reply

24 replies to this topic

#1

Sister Magpie

Sister Magpie

    Fanatic

Posted Mar 20, 2013 @ 10:40 AM

A thread for discussions of language in the show. For instance, small but significant differences between the spoken Russian and the subtitles. Just how terrible are the accents when non-native speakers have to do scenes in Russian? What's up with those Russian names and nicknames?

I think we could also include nods to Russian Culture--like that tea Phillip offers Elizabeth when they first meet, the vodka shots and caviar they share in private.

Celebrate the Motherland and Mothertongue here!
  • 0

#2

Natalie44

Natalie44

    Loyal Viewer

Posted Mar 20, 2013 @ 11:42 AM

Thanks for creating this topic! I love the Russian language and culture, so I'm looking forward to being able to impart some of my paltry knowledge to inquiring minds!
  • 0

#3

empress orange

empress orange

    Channel Surfer

Posted Mar 26, 2013 @ 11:33 PM

For an American show I'm fairly impressed with the accents.
Nina is fluent in Russian. Her former boss is not a native speaker, but he gets the intonations right. I thought maybe he was Serbian or Bulgarian.
Most of the guys from the Russian embassy sound like Russians that lived in U.S. for a long time.
The subtitles are not always word for word, but the meaning doesn't change.
I always cringe when tv shows have "Russian" characters. They usually dress the actors a la Russian villager circa 1976, and the actors generally sound like a cross between Dracula and Boris (Rocky and Bullwinkle).
I work in tv, and many many times had to facepalm whenever we were shooting anything to do with Russia. I'm usually pretty good at calling that stuff out though.
"No, Yvshn is not a real Russian first name", "No, we don't always wear kerchiefs on our heads" lol
Often there is no language coach on set either.
Another spy show "Spooks" had a lot of Russian spies in it, and they failed miserably. The accents were completely off. Any time anything written in Russian was on the screen in was laughable, and the Russian characters were unbelievable.
This show gets it right more or less.
  • 0

#4

Sister Magpie

Sister Magpie

    Fanatic

Posted Mar 27, 2013 @ 10:50 AM

The show could totally fool me if they did it wrong (I had no idea how good or bad Matthew Rhys and the girl playing Irina were in their flashbacks) but this is something I tend to feel really strongly about in general. I love that more TV shows have raised the bar when it comes to subtitles and other languages, allowing characters to speak what they'd be speaking, even if their accents aren't perfect. I remember someone saying about that show Undercover (or Undercovers?) that they were thrilled when a conversation in German was actual German and not gobbledy gook. Probably because the actor playing the lead was a native speaker. Imagine him having to do a scene against fake German.

I can't imagine trying to pull off a show like this without trying to get this right. It's so tied to all the central themes of the show. Even if Matthew Rhys isn't capable of speaking Russian correctly (apparently a joke between him and his publicist who is Russian and tells him just how terrible it is) I'm thrilled that they're committed enough to seriously try it. (I would have also accepted dubbing him with a native Russian speaker, but if they're doing it this way I just want him to improve.)
  • 0

#5

Hal25

Hal25

    Couch Potato

Posted Mar 27, 2013 @ 5:01 PM

I actually prefer the real actors attempting to speak the language, no matter if the attempt isn't perfect. I've gotten so used to Matthew's voice as Philip that it was distracting to hear it dubbed so the Russian would be correct. It almost made it seem like it wasn't really him in the flashbacks.

I enjoy that the Rezidentura is full of real speakers. It really is a lovely language to listen to.
  • 0

#6

FeistyJourn

FeistyJourn

    Channel Surfer

Posted Mar 28, 2013 @ 9:58 AM

OK, I have a question for you Russian language experts. Why is the Rezident, Vasili Nicolaevich, addressed by his full name much of the time, even by his co-workers who know him? Nina does this several times in one episode. The closed captions say, "Vasili......" (first name only), but I clearly hear the actor say "Vasili Nicolaevich". Is this a custom in the Russian language?
  • 0

#7

Sister Magpie

Sister Magpie

    Fanatic

Posted Mar 28, 2013 @ 10:13 AM

I'm in no way an expert, but I assume Vasili Nicolaevich is his first name and his middle name, I think called a patronymic? Probably spelling that wrong. The middle name is always the name of the father with a suffix. So I assumed that it was a level of formality. Like for the most respect you use first name and patronymic, then first name, then a nickname, which would have different varieties depending on what you're saying? Mostly I know Russian names are really complicated. And there's probably a level up from that where you're saying the equivalent of "Mr. Whatever his last name is."
  • 0

#8

vadare

vadare

    Video Archivist

Posted Mar 28, 2013 @ 10:36 AM

I remember reading something about this in Natan Sharansky's book Fear No Evil, about his days in the gulag as a refusenik. If memory serves, unlike in America, where friendship is marked by shortening names, even the granting of nicknames, in Russian culture friendship/familiarity is marked by calling someone by both their first and middle names.

But it's been years since I read that book...I could be totally wrong. But I remember reading that and thinking it was odd. (Especially when I was raised in a home where, if my mother started calling me by my first and middle names it meant I was in big trouble.)
  • 1

#9

Uranium

Uranium

    Fanatic

Posted Mar 31, 2013 @ 7:41 PM

I'm in no way an expert, but I assume Vasili Nicolaevich is his first name and his middle name, I think called a patronymic? Probably spelling that wrong. The middle name is always the name of the father with a suffix. So I assumed that it was a level of formality. Like for the most respect you use first name and patronymic, then first name, then a nickname, which would have different varieties depending on what you're saying? Mostly I know Russian names are really complicated. And there's probably a level up from that where you're saying the equivalent of "Mr. Whatever his last name is."


This is correct. Contemporary Russian doesn't use "Mr." or "Mrs." -- the formal way of addressing your superior or someone unfamiliar to you is to use First Name + Patronymic.

vadare, you've got it backwards :) -- familiarity in Russian is indeed indicated by using a nickname. There are even degrees of familiarity in nicknames, where there is a "standard" nickname and then more affectionate or also dismissive/insulting nicknames. You could hear it in the sixth episode when young Misha (the nickname for Mikhail) called Irina by the affectionate nickname Irisha. The standard nickname for Irina is Ira, and a dismissive nickname would be Irka. You also hear Vasili Nikolaevich call Nina "Ninochka" (an affectionate nickname).

The wiki entry on Russian personal names goes into a lot more detail.

Edited by Uranium, Mar 31, 2013 @ 7:44 PM.

  • 0

#10

chocolatine

chocolatine

    Fanatic

Posted Apr 1, 2013 @ 9:42 PM

The naming in this case is also indicative of the superior/subordinate relationship. Nina calls him Vasili Nikolayevich, and he calls her Ninochka.
  • 0

#11

FeistyJourn

FeistyJourn

    Channel Surfer

Posted Apr 2, 2013 @ 10:32 PM

Thanks, folks, for the super answers. You've satisfied my curiosity about Russian names! :)
  • 0

#12

Hal25

Hal25

    Couch Potato

Posted Apr 3, 2013 @ 6:29 AM

Out of curiosity, what would the various nicknames be for Elizabeth's real name? (Nadezhda-sp?)
  • 0

#13

Natalie44

Natalie44

    Loyal Viewer

Posted Apr 3, 2013 @ 10:02 AM

The most common ones would be Nadya or Nadenka (accent on the first syllable), based on the level of familiarity. A native speaker could give a more complete answer, but my impression (I had three years of Russian in college) is that since Nadezhda is actually just a noun (meaning "hope") that it has fewer diminutive forms than "proper" names such as Aleksandr or Maria. Can anyone confirm that?
  • 0

#14

Hal25

Hal25

    Couch Potato

Posted Apr 7, 2013 @ 8:57 PM

Thanks for the reply! I'm kind of hoping we one day get to see them speak to each other in Russian, but since the flashback scenes went so poorly they had to be dubbed a few episodes back, I'm not holding out hope.
  • 0

#15

Natalie44

Natalie44

    Loyal Viewer

Posted Apr 7, 2013 @ 11:00 PM

I would love to hear them speak Russian...but I also don't want to get my hopes up, only for this beautiful language to be done a serious disservice.

I was hoping for just a one line something or other in Russian when Liz called Arkady. It wouldn't have to be anything super complicated, just something that could be memorized phonetically.

I mean, if this born and bred Arkansan (i.e., me) can speak Russian with a totally passable (by no means native), not horrendous accent, I should think professional actors should be able to memorize a few lines of dialogue.

I guess we'll just have to see, though.

Oh, and for the record, Granny doesn't need to be one of those who speaks any Russian ever; her mangling of Nadezhda was all my poor language-loving ears could take.
  • 0

#16

Hal25

Hal25

    Couch Potato

Posted Apr 8, 2013 @ 6:41 AM

Ah yes, that was just awful (the Nadezhda line.) When Elizabeth said it in the pilot, it may or may not have sounded like a native speaker (I wouldn't know) but at least she managed to say it quickly and without stumbling. Poor Grannie sounded like her tongue had gotten knotted in the process. And then she tried again and it was even worse.
  • 0

#17

Natalie44

Natalie44

    Loyal Viewer

Posted Apr 8, 2013 @ 9:12 AM

I found Liz's "Nadezhda" line perfectly acceptable in the pilot.
  • 0

#18

Gabrielle Tracy

Gabrielle Tracy

    Video Archivist

Posted Apr 9, 2013 @ 11:37 AM

Sister Magpie, thank you so much for starting this thread! It's fascinating so far and I hope posters keep adding to it.
  • 0

#19

Daggart

Daggart

    Channel Surfer

Posted Apr 19, 2013 @ 11:09 AM

What I find distracting is the contrast between the flawless or near-flawless Russian spoken by some of the actors (the luminous Nina, Vasili, Arkady, etc.) and the awful accents on the leads. Seriously, some of the issues could have been taken care of with just a little more dialect coaching and practice. The actor who played Zhukov was especially terrible - the emphasis on his dog's name was on the wrong syllable, and the "isn't that yummy" line he spoke to the dog was just laughable. They should really stick to having them speak English under the pretense of total immersion.

That said, I am very impressed with how they are handling the scenes in Russian and the general portrayal of Russianness. They obviously have Russian or fluent speakers writing the Russian segments of the script. And the research they have done is wonderful. So far, everything I have seen (almost) jibes with what I know of the Soviet system. (My family and I moved to the US in 1989.) Nina's early story rings particularly true - business trips to the Western world were always seen as an amazing opportunity to make extra money from either bringing stuff back (back there, cheap Western goods sold for a huge premium; until I was older, I always thought the word "imported" was a synonym for "excellent") or turning some illegal exportation scheme like she was doing. Overall, I really enjoy watching this show; I think it is the most accurate portrayal of Russians that I have ever seen in American media.
  • 1

#20

chailey

chailey

    Fanatic

Posted Mar 25, 2014 @ 10:33 AM

Hi folks.  Just curious how our new addition to the Rezidentura, Oleg, compares, when it comes to his Russian speaking skills.


Edited by chailey, Mar 25, 2014 @ 10:34 AM.

  • 0

#21

Sister Magpie

Sister Magpie

    Fanatic

Posted Mar 25, 2014 @ 10:41 AM

Hi folks.  Just curious how our new addition to the Rezidentura, Oleg, compares, when it comes to his Russian speaking skills.

 

 

I can't answer for how he speaks but I think I saw an interview with him where his accent in English was real--that is, he speaks English with the same accent as Oleg does, so I assumed he was a native Russian-speaker.


  • 0

#22

winnifer

winnifer

    Channel Surfer

Posted Mar 25, 2014 @ 12:48 PM

According to imdb, the actor was born in the USSR.


  • 0

#23

Hal25

Hal25

    Couch Potato

Posted Mar 25, 2014 @ 4:37 PM

 

I can't answer for how he speaks but I think I saw an interview with him where his accent in English was real--that is, he speaks English with the same accent as Oleg does, so I assumed he was a native Russian-speaker.

 

It's actually jolting for me to hear interviews with the actors who play Nina and Arkady since they don't have accents in real life. I'm so used to their heavy accents on the show when speaking English.


  • 0

#24

winnifer

winnifer

    Channel Surfer

Posted Mar 25, 2014 @ 5:03 PM

I think Russian-accented English is hard to imitate without sounding like Boris and Natasha. We're just so used to hearing bad Russian accents done for comedy, it's hard to take them seriously. I really appreciate the show using actual Russian speakers a lot of the time to avoid this problem. Plus, more Russian on my TV!

 

On another accent front, I was watching an old episode of Brothers and Sisters with Matthew Rhys the other day, and I heard his American accent slip on one word: "little." Which is, in my experience, a word that is almost impossible for foreigners to get right. When they write for actors who aren't from the U.S., they should just avoid that word altogether. 


  • 0

#25

Sister Magpie

Sister Magpie

    Fanatic

Posted Mar 25, 2014 @ 5:51 PM

I admit, I love listening for accent slips from MR--he's had a couple on the show, but nothing so bad that there was any reason to criticize. Sometimes it's when he's having to speak quickly, but some words are just hard. Like the recent "model."

 

He did an interview recently where he talked about that sort of thing, with certain words in any accent being hard for non-natives. So if he saw the word "murderer" in a script, especially if he was tired, he'd just ask if he could change it to "killer."


  • 0