Cycling from Craiova to Calafat/Vidin: another Balkan trip begins

Several years ago my wife and I did a circle of some 3000 km from Romania through several Western Balkan countries and back again. It was a wonderfully memorable experience. As I found myself with two months free while the weather was still fine, I decided to do nearly the same route again, this time going alone to fully immerse myself in the local languages.

Instead of setting off from Timișoara this time, I decided to enter Serbia further south, near Niš. To save some time in doing this, I took the train to Craiova, the capital of southwest Romania, from which I could easily reach the former Yugoslavia by the new bridge across the Danube and then a brief traversal of Bulgaria. Continue reading Cycling from Craiova to Calafat/Vidin: another Balkan trip begins

What I wish I had know before I became a (Russian–English) translator

It has been a few years now that I’ve made my living as a freelance Russian-English translator. For the most part I’m quite satisfied with the job for the great freedom it involves; I can either work from home or as a digital nomad around the world when so desired. Translators actually based in Russia or in English-speaking countries, where they can provide certified translations, probably get a steady stream of dull-but-unobjectionable birth certificates and university diplomas. Since I am based in a third country, I don’t get those, but most of my work continues to be similar to what one might imagine a translator might do: technical manuals, company websites, advertisements, press releases, subtitles for film or television, the occasional full-length book.

Most of what I had read about the art of translation concerns the rendering of the source text into the target language itself, and how to do this well. And yet there are everyday aspects of the job that no one ever told me about before I started. For example, when I began networking with other translators, a universally popular cause of complaint is clients not paying and the need to spend some of one’s precious time chasing them. But another challenge I knew nothing of was that to get to the really good jobs, one has to deal with such irksome or disquieting offers as the following:

  • Propaganda. Due to the deteriorating economic situation in Russia, some clients in the business or arts world are cutting back, but the Russian state continues to have deep pockets. More and more of the work offered to me has been of a crassly political nature: hit jobs on members of the Russian opposition or on the leadership of neighboring countries. Even with things that initially don’t seem of a propaganda nature, one finds somewhere in the text that the writer suddenly mentions the Ukrainian, Georgian, or Kazakh leadership for curiously precision-targeted disparagement.
  • Science cranks. Two or three times a year I am offered a job translating someone’s book or scientific paper, only to discover that the client is a crank claiming to have discovered perpetual energy or some Time Cube-ish understanding of the universe. Such jobs would have to be turned down regardless, because the text is often garbled enough that it is not subject to translation into another language, but by the time you get to the point that you turn it down, you’ve wasted enough time already communicating with the author to try to figure out what exactly his text is about.
  • Self-published fiction of no literary value whatsoever. Nine of ten potential clients here will back out once they realize what translation actually costs, because the average person really does seem to believe that they can get their 300-page book translated for US$100. The tenth client has agreed to your rate, but the writing is so excruciatingly bad that it doesn’t feel worth it at any price.
  • Online casinos. There are quite a few of these around, and they offer a tremendously high rate, sometimes higher than for the aforementioned siloviki-funded propaganda texts, but should one really contribute to this exploitative industry?

Is it still a job worth doing? Sure, I think so. But it’s not all glamour, and even being able to turn something that one loves into a paying job doesn’t mean that one is saved from all hassles and stresses.

An unexpected corpus: Russian version

Over at his blog Panchronica, Guillaume Jacques expresses his delight about The Jesus Film, that product of some American Protestant sect that has now been translated into an enormous amount of languages, even ones for which written material is extremely scanty. It has certainly been of great help to me as I’ve learned Ossetian, and the existence of separate Albanian translations for Kosovo and the Republic of Albania will help foreign learners feel comfortable with both the Gheg and Tosk variants of that language.

While there is probably no other film so widely translated as The Jesus Film, for my own particular purposes I’ve been pleased to find something else, and where the story is less likely to be familiar to the viewer: the Soviet cartoon Трое из Простоквашино (“The Trio from Prostokvashino”) has been dubbed into a number of languages, mainly from Southern Russia and the Caucasus, for example:

  • Ossetian
  • Ingush
  • Lezgian
  • Karachay-Balkar (I was very surprised by how difficult this language is to understand, I thought I would be able to follow it pretty easily after learning Kipchak languages from further east);
  • Lak
  • Kumyk
  • Tatar (under the translated title Простоквашинодан өчәү)

Clicking the links in the sidebar, one can find one’s way to other cartoons in various languages of the former USSR. There’s even an entire playlist of Ossetian-dubbed cartoons.

MariE tolašemtalašem ‘try hard, strive’ < Tatar talaš

One of the frustrations of working with Tscheremissiches Wörterbuch is that some Mari items are labeled Tschuw. or Tat., but the exact source is not specified and sometimes one has to dig a little to determine the original Chuvash or Tatar word.

A case in point is MariE tolašemtalašemsich bestreben, eilen, irgwendwie zu tun versuchen’. This is marked as a Tatar loanword in TschWb, and the word is clearly of Turkic origin since it has a causitive derivational form MariE tolaštaremtalaštarem. I turned to my dictionary of literary Kazan Tatar, the Татарско-русский словарь (Казань: Мәгариф, 2007), and found a phonetic match: талашу. However, the meanings ‘сспориться, скандалить, переругиваться’ of this verb and its derivational forms were not close enough to the Mari verb to satisfy.

If my Tatar dictionary doesn’t help for a Turkic loanword in Mari, the next stop is a Chuvash one. Ashmarin’s Thesaurus Linguae Tschuvaschorum contains a verb corresponding to the Tatar one and almost certainly a borrowing of it, namely tulaş, and the first meanings mentioned are the same as for the Tatar: ‘беситься, злиться, грызться’. However, buried deeper down in the entry is the meaning we’re looking for: возиться, стараться. This is an understandable extension of the Turkic root tal-, the basic meaning of which is ‘to force; to take by force’.

Thus Mari and Chuvash preserve a meaning of the Tatar word that seems to have died out among Kazan Tatars. Interestingly, Russian too borrowed this Tatar word dialectally and uses it in a similar sense, or at least it did in the 19th century: a verb талашитьсясуетиться, толочься, метаться’ is attested from the Tambov region in the Толковый словарь Даля, compiled by Vladimir Ivanovich Dal’ and published in 1863–1866.

Incidentally, had I carefully examined the Mari–English Dictionary instead of basing myself solely on Tscheremissiches Wörterbuch, then I could have figured out this etymology more quickly, because one of the meanings of MariE lit. толашаш is ‘to quarrel, to squabble, to bicker’, and that meaning is not found in TschWb. However, the Mari–English Dictionary, being a general literary-language reference and not a dialect dictionary, does not list the origin of the item, and I wonder if the word in that meaning was found only in Eastern Mari communities under heavy Tatar influence before the rise of the literary language, and only the meaning ‘try hard, strive’ is pan-Mari.

More adventures in Latin American Spanish

Argentina was a rather surprising experience. In Spain, where I had learned Spanish, the stereotype of the Argentine in television and films must be based on people from Buenos Aires: one hears the same invariable accent with no hint of the immense variety that one would actually encounter in Argentina. As I cycled west across the country, I found the regional accents clearly changing every 300 km or so.

Once I reached the provinces of La Rioja and Santa Fe, I was shocked to discover that the dialect here had not experienced the shift of *y (and *ʎ > *y) to /ʒ/ like Rioplatense Spanish and the Argentinian stereotype. Instead, it was *r that had shifted to /ʒ/, while *y remained /y/. My first inkling of this was when rápido ‘fast’ was increasingly heard as [ʒapiðo], but it happened to instances of word-medial *r as well and took some getting used to in fast speech. A child came up to my wife and I at a campground and asked if we had seen a man in a [ɣoʒaroxa], and only after a minute of thought did I realize he was looking for someone wearing a gorra roja ‘red hat’. Weeks later, in Chile, while I was cycling on the motorway, another tourist stopped his car to ask me if he had missed the turnoff to [βiyaʒika], i.e. Villarrica. I laughed, thinking that he was lucky to have come across a non-local who could understand his question.

I have seen it claimed in several popular sources that the dialects of western Argentina are transitional to Chilean Spanish, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Not only does the shift of *r to /ʒ/ stop at the Andes, but the intonation of Chilean Spanish is vastly different. The Andes serve as a mighty wall. For the first week or so in Chile, I had to concentrate very hard to understand what people were saying, and I could sympathize with the many Spanish speakers who point to Chilean Spanish as the most difficult to understand of all the Latin American varieties. Fortunately, after that first week, my difficulties vanished and the local speech came to feel entirely normal.

I’m not quite able to determine what phonetic quirks set Chilean Spanish apart, and I’m not sure that if I hear this accent qua accent again in some other part of the world, I would be able to trace it to Chile. However, the Chilean colloquial lexicon is very sui generis, and I’m sure I’ll be able to immediately identify Chileans by the presence of certain words. People are very fond of the item ueyá/ueyón, which is not only a generic word for ‘thing’ rather like Philadelphian English jawn, but apparently even works as a exclamation and more. Chileans also tend to end sentences with po’h, a reduction of pues and a particle which has an exotic, non-Spanish air about it, as if something from an East Asian language.

Curiously, while Argentines accepted my use of vosotros without batting an eye, Chileans have been much more ready to make fun of me for it. They complain that the mere existence of such a form is silly, because Spain is the only place in the world where people say that. (Clearly Chileans never get to talk to a Spanish speaker from Western Sahara or Equatorial Guinea.) Once when having dinner with several upper-class and well-educated Chileans, I found tiresome the company of a writer-who-should-know-better who kept claiming that vosotros, and not the word itself as much as the grammatical form in general with its verb marking, was an innovation that appeared in Spain after the colonization of the New World; my appeal to Latin *‑atis etc. was dismissed because, as a foreigner, I surely cannot have any understanding of the history of the Spanish language.

Hopefully, after making my way through Uruguay, Argentina and especially Chile and finding it entirely possible to communicate with the locals (with perhaps a few days of acclimatization), I can now travel in the remaining countries of Latin America without fear. Still, it is always the variety of the language in the place where you first learn it that sounds the sweetest, and I am very much looking forward to passing through Madrid next month.


Valparaiso, essentially Chile’s second city, is both a struggle and a joy for the touring cyclist. While the main business and shopping areas of the city are located in a flat expanse known as the El Plan, the residential areas and many things of touristic interest are spread over several dozen hills. The streets going up these hills have ridiculously steep inclines and not only is it impossible to cycle up them, but even pushing a loaded touring bike requires that one stop every few steps for a breather. Once we safely stored our bikes at our lodgings, we hoped moving around would be easier, but even on foot Valparaiso is a brutal place. A series of funiculars (ascensores) links El Plan with the hills, but these were built a century ago when settlement had not yet spread so far up.A funicular at the top end of the line, with its counterpart far below, and a panorama of the surrounding city. Today, people are living much higher along the hills, and even after one has paid 200 pesos to ride a funicular several dozen meters up, there is still a lot of grueling walking left to be done. Continue reading Valparaiso

South along the Chilean coast: La Serena to Valparaiso

In Vicuña we experienced an earthquake, only the first of many during our time in Chile. The locals went about their business completely unperturbed, and explained that this was no terremoto (‘earthquake’ as the sort of cataclysmic event that razes cities and brings tsunamis), but rather a mere temblor (‘earthquake’ as only a brief shaking of the ground and all the loose items in the house). For us, not used to making such a distinction, it was still a foreboding introduction to this part of the world.

A half-day’s cycling from Vicuña brought us to Chile’s Pacific coast at the city of La Serena.Stretch of sandy beach with coastal developments and mountains in the background. We were surprised to find an almost perfect simulacrum of southern California: sprawl, car culture, row homes, a dry landscape, and plenty of conspicuous consumption. As mentioned before, we too were in consumption mode, so happy to have left Argentina with its import-substitution policy and low-quality products, and here the supermarkets were bigger than in Vicuña. We stayed with some local cyclists in the neighbouring port city of Coquimbo, which does feel a little like the poorer cousin of La Serena, but the “bad neighbourhoods” there are on top of the hill where no visitors need go, and generally the coastal and other low-lying areas are just quiet residential districts like in any other developed country. There was nothing of especial touristic interest in these two cities themselves, but during the days we stayed here, we cycled back and forth between Coquimbo and La Serena several times along the long seafront promenade, which was a relaxing place to be in late December, still the low season. On a clear day, you can turn away from the sea to a view of a snow-covered Andean peak. Continue reading South along the Chilean coast: La Serena to Valparaiso

Cycling the Paso Agua Negra from Argentina to Chile: a cautionary tale

The Paso Agua Negra (‘Blackwater Pass’) is one of many crossings from Argentina to Chile over the Andes. This pass reaches an altitude of 4770 meters, with a good-quality unpaved road but very little traffic, so it has become increasingly popular with cyclists. I read several stories of crossing here (like the excellent description at Andes By Bike) that described it as a smooth journey, so I expected that it would go equally smoothly for us in mid-December 2015. Things were more complicated, however. Continue reading Cycling the Paso Agua Negra from Argentina to Chile: a cautionary tale

West along Argentina’s RN150

From Chamical we cycled a day up to Patquía, where we turned onto the RN150 highway heading west. Patquía itself is a tiny town with no drinking water from taps and a lot of dust. We had to ask at the petrol station if we could pitch our tent there, a request that was readily granted – perhaps due to the vast distances between towns, petrol stations in rural Argentina are quite happy to help cyclists, motorcyclists, or hitchhikers out with camping sites and free wifi.

We didn’t know how feasible it would be to cycle the RN150 west. It passes through the desert of the provinces La Rioja and then San Juan, with very few settlements. Furthermore, a substantial portion of it was only finished in October 2014, so there hasn’t been any time for roadside businesses to appear. We nonetheless decided to risk it, but we each took many extra liters of water. Continue reading West along Argentina’s RN150