Reader and fan Will Thompson wrote to Mark Liberman, who passed his letter on to me, about a recent article by Ellen Barry in The New York Times, discussing a book by the Russian political analyst Nikolai V. Zlobin in which he explains weird/different American cultural norms to Russians.
Will notes that towards the end, the reviewer states:
He [Zlobin] devotes many pages to privacy, a word that does not exist in the Russian language[.]
And Will is suspicious of that claim.
I got the assignment because I have a Russian husband, who has himself published some essays about some of the unexpected cultural differences a Russian encounters in America, and we’ve been dividing our time between Moscow and Amherst for the last 15 years. I’ll start by saying that when I read Barry’s article, my first reactions to the differences Zlobin wrote about that she describes were that they all sound just right. I had to laugh about the “standing in line” differences, because I have sometimes had to remind my generally very polite husband not to breathe down the neck of the person currently at the ticket window when he is next in line, but to back up and give them some space. (And he has had to teach me to be a little more aggressive in line in Russia.)
So our topic is whether the word “privacy” exists in Russian. If you ask “Google translate”, you get eleven choices, and given my own moderate knowledge of Russian, none of them looked equivalent to “privacy” in the sense of valuing your privacy, or wanting to know about Facebook’s privacy policies. And when I asked my husband about it, he agreed that there isn’t any Russian word that’s equivalent because indeed, our particular concept of privacy really isn’t part of Russian culture. So Zlobin is right.
What are Google’s 11? Here they are, with Google’s own ‘back translations’:
1. konfidentsialnost’ – confidentiality, privacy, secrecy
2. chastnaja zhizn’ – private life
3. sekretnost’ – secrecy, privacy, privity (?), secretness
4. neprikosnovennost’ chastnoj zhizni – privacy [‘inviolability of private life’]
5. ujedinennost’ – privacy, solitude
6. ujedinenie — privacy, solitude, seclusion, isolation, retreat, retirement
7. prajvesi – privacy, private immunity [a borrowing from English, still rare, I think; my husband hadn’t heard of it]
8. tajna — secret, mystery, secrecy, confidentiality, privacy, Arcanum
9. lichnoe delo – private matter
10. intimnost’ lichnoj zhizni – privacy [lit. intimacy of personal/private life]
11. intimnaja sfera – privacy [lit. intimate sphere]
Maybe number 7, the borrowed word ‘prajvesi’ is our ‘privacy’, but its newness just confirms the fact that there was no Russian word that really corresponded to our ‘privacy’, presumably because there was no such notion in the culture to be expressed.