I usually avoid watching English-language films dubbed into Russian. Not only as – for obvious reasons – I prefer seeing them in the original, but also because I’ve had some bad experiences.
One of the worst has to be the time I sat down with some Russian friends to watch the David Fincher classic “Seven.” You know, the one with Brad Pitt and Kevin Spacey, where Spacey plays the maniac killing folk in accordance with the Seven Deadly Sins.
I’d been going on about it for weeks to anyone who would listen and eventually got hold of a Russian-language version. “This is such a cool film,” I said, slipping the pirate disc into my DVD player. “The end will blow you away.”
There were some minor translation errors throughout, but nothing that really spoiled things. But then we reached the startling conclusion, where Pitt, having found out that Spacey has decapitated his pregnant wife, is debating whether or not to plug him full of lead.
In the original, Spacey gazes deep and meaningfully into Pitt’s eyes and says, “Become Wrath”’ – i.e., the final sin and the completion of his life’s work. “If you kill him, he will win!” co-star Morgan Freeman warns. It’s an iconic moment in modern cinema and one I’ve watched at least a dozen times.
But, in the Russian version, Spacey mutters - with all the emotion of a bored primary schoolteacher - “Uspokoisya.” Or “Calm down.” After which Pitt pulls the trigger.
“So what was all that about?” one of my friends asked, as the credits rolled. “Why did you think the ending was so great?” enquired another. I was too stunned to reply.
Another film – just one of many - to suffer spectacularly from the misfortunes of a sloppy translation was Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” the decent sequel to his “After Sunset.” In it, the hero, played by Ethan Hawke, is complaining about his frequently-absent businesswoman wife to former lover Julie Delpy.
“My life is 24-hours bad,” Hawke whines. But in the Russian version, Hawke’s complaint is less credible, not to mention a touch confusing. “My wife spends twenty-four hours a day in bed,” he says. “She’s never at home.”
Delpy, nevertheless, nods understandingly.
In a way, I quite like these abysmal attempts at translation. You get a new perspective on the movies, at least. It also helps explain why many locals think most Western films are steaming piles of incomprehensible garbage.
They are. In the translations, at least.
Another reason I rarely watch Russian translations of films is – they don’t swear. Despite the expansive arsenal of obscenities boasted by the language of Tolstoy and Chekhov, the blanket ban on swearing in the Russian media renders translations of, say, Quentin Tarantino films mild in the extreme, as characters label one another "twits" and tell each other to "buzz off" in place of the four-letter frenzies of the originals. Reservoir Dogs without the motherf**ckers? It's just not the same.
I’m not the only one, er, “cheesed off” with this. Around fifteen years ago, a former cop by the name of Dmitry Puchkov – better known as Goblin - began making his own faithful translations of movies like Carlito’s Way, Pulp Fiction, Goodfellas, and so on. Swearing and all. At first he made them for his and his friends’ own enjoyment, but it wasn’t long before they reached a wider audience, one hungry for anti-heroes who didn’t sound like their grandmothers.
Of course, these faithful yet obscenity-littered versions were never shown on television or in the cinema. Which is a real pity. Goblin’s translation of Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa is just as good as the original. If not better.
Actually, Goblin is probably better known among Russians for his parody versions of Hollywood blockbusters. Using street humor and slang, his twisted “translations” of movies like Lord of the Rings – rendered as The Mob and the Ring – are utterly unrecognizable from the originals. Wildly popular, pirate copies are on sale all over Russia.
But for me, its Goblin’s translations that make him so vital. You could even – I suppose -say he has done much to foster a greater spirit of mutual understanding between Russia and the West. If you care about that kind of thing. As for me, I’m just glad my friends no longer think Scarface was a wuss.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).