Rational use of Russian bowels

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Headlined as a list of "Top 10 translation fails of 2008", this post at the company blog of Alta Language Services is a mixed bag. There are amusing solutions to translation difficulties (the Arabic, French, and Italian for Maverick), subtle choices with serious consequences (whether Russian troops provide security "for" South Ossetia and Abkhazia or security "in" South Ossetia and Abkhazia), unsubtle choices with funny consequences ("state regulation of bowels use" rather than "state regulation of underground natural resources use"), and so on. Regular LL readers will recognize several of them.

Interestingly, the "bowels" document is still on line at the web site of the European Commission, despite having been featured back in September on the Wu Wei website: "The Summary of the Energy Strategy of the Russia for the Period of up to 2020".

The meaning behind "bowels" seems to have been something like "oil and gas", or perhaps more generally "things found beneath the earth", via a misapprehension of the generality of the English expression "bowels of the earth". On page 9 of the cited document, there's a section headed "Bowels' Use and Management of the State Bowels' Fund", which starts

The current condition of mineral and raw base of fuel-energy complex indicates the necessity of cardinal changes in the mechanisms of reproduction of raw base of carbohydrates. The imperfection of state control system in the sphere of reproduction and use of strategic kinds of raw material can lead to the forced labour-rent of the best supply, slow rates of new fields' development, nonobservance of projects of development, slow rates of supply preparing and other negative tendencies, threatening the energy safety of Russia.

The main task of the public energy policy in this sphere is the reproduction of the mineral-raw base of hydrocarbon and other fuel-energy resources and rational use of Russian bowels for providing the stable economic development of the country.

(Note that "carbohydrates" is used in place of "hydrocarbons" in the first sentence, although "hydrocarbon" is used correctly in the last one.) I suppose that this document was originally written in Russian and then translated into English, though perhaps it was originally written in English by a non-native speaker.

It continues:

For solution of this task we provide:
– perfection and coordination of management of mineral-raw base development on the basis of long-term and half-term programs of bowels' study, taking into account the estimated levels of consumption of inflammable minerals;
– coordination of executives of all the levels, securing by the executives authorities on the strategy of mineral-raw complex development, the main control functions, differentiation of the executive and management functions in the state regulation of bowels use;
– perfection of Russian legislative branch, connected with the bowels use. This provides the opportunity for use of the bowels plots both on the administrative and on the civil and legal basis, including concession contracts, regulation of the mechanism of bowels use with the explicit regulation of all the stages and phases of the process of license making, simplification of the procedure of license issuing on the small fields for providing the local needs in fuel-energy resources, making the licenses and contracts about bowels users' engagements, connected with the bowels use, stages and terms of field developments, checking of financial state of the client when giving him right for bowels use;
– development and realization of programs for the use of bowels plots, including the carrying on the auctions on bowels use and the issuing of transparent licenses for search and development of resources;
– creating the stable legal conditions for taking by bowels users.

I note that this offers a new linguistic perspective on the recent Russian gas crisis.


  1. Pavel Iosad said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 9:42 am

    Oh my. The Russian word was obviously недра, which refers to the subsoil resources. At least one online dictionary (http://www.multitran.ru/c/m.exe?CL=1&l1=1&s=%ED%E5%E4%F0%E0) gives the phrase "bowels of the earth", and in a geological dctionary, too! (The "womb" meaning is given in a mathematical dictionary, but I don't know whether недра or womb has a correct mathematical meaning.) Why anyone would want to translate it in that way is a mystery to me. (But then, many English dictionaries in Russia abound with such mysteries.)

  2. Dan Milton said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 9:42 am

    Liberman writes "The meaning behind 'bowels' seems to have been something like 'oil and gas', or perhaps more generally "things found beneath the earth", via a misapprehension of the generality of the English expression 'bowels of the earth' ".
    The first part of this statement is correct; the second not quite. The problem is simply the range of meanings of the Russian word "nedra", given in my Callaham's Russian-English Technical Dictionary as "bowels; bosom, womb; mineral resources; royalty".
    I've encountered "bowels" often enough in the English table of contents of Russian mining and geological journals, clearly prepared by someone using a dictionary rather any real knowledge of English.

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    Pavel Iosad: …I don't know whether недра or womb has a correct mathematical meaning.

    I don't know either, but the OED's list of senses for matrix, in historical order, somewhat abbreviated, is:

    I.a. The womb; the uterus of a mammal.
    2. a. A place or medium in which something is originated, produced, or developed …
    3. a. An embedding or enclosing mass …
    6. A mould, die, etc. …
    7. a. Math. A rectangular array of symbols or mathematical expressions arranged in rows and columns, treated as a single entity

    The normal Russian word for "matrix" is матрица, but it wouldn't be a shock to find that недра also has some sort of mathematical meaning.

  4. David Marjanović said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 11:49 am

    Over on Language Hat, a certain Yuval has remarked that недра "seems close enough to nether" (etymologically). Just to give us something to speculate on in Prof. Ringe's absence.

  5. Dan Milton said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

    I just noticed the title of the post, "Top 10 translation fails of 2008″. Is "fails" instead of "failures" an in-joke I don't get?

    [(myl) Yes. ]

  6. Arnold Zwicky said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

    More to Dan Milton: there's a modest amount of nouning of the verb fail around, though it's certainly not a standard usage. For some other conversions of verbs to count nouns, see Language Log postings on the noun ask here and on the noun swear here.

  7. Nassira Nicola said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

    @Dan Milton: Perhaps this will help.

    Christopher Beam – "Why is Everyone Saying 'Fail' All Of A Sudden?" (Slate)

    Insert standard "recency illusion" comments here – as Beam himself notes, 'fail' and its intensified sibling 'epic fail' have been around for a good few years – but otherwise, it's a good intro to the phenomenon.

  8. Pavel Iosad said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    @Dan Milton:

    Goodness. And I thought it was only Russian-printed dictionaries.


    That's what we're talking about.

    bosom, womb

    Very wrong. True, недра can be used in a figurative sense, as "in the depths of the Galaxy". "Bosom" and "womb" are quite different anyway!

    mineral resources

    Correct, of course.


    I can't understand this either. Neither the "royalty" as related to a king, nor the more specialized "royalty payment" meaning (which at least has something to do with mining) have nothing to do with недра.

  9. Vika Tokarreva said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    A new price on Russian gas for Ukraine is about $230 for thousand cubic meters. Nobody will say more precisely today.

  10. language hat said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

    Over on Language Hat, a certain Yuval has remarked that недра "seems close enough to nether" (etymologically).

    Wrongly, as I pointed out there.

  11. Noetica said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 7:33 pm

    “Bosom" and "womb" are quite different anyway!

    Not always in French, so perhaps not always in other languages. Petit Robert, "sein”:

    4. (1672) Vieilli ou littér. Partie du corps de la femme où elle porte l'enfant qu'elle a conçu. => utérus, ventre; littér. entrailles, flanc. « Dans quel sein vertueux avez-vous pris naissance ? » (Racine). « jumeaux du même sein » (Balzac).

    Arguably as late as Mallarmé, in fact:

    Ô Mère qui créas en ton sein juste et fort,Calices balançant la future fiole,De grandes fleurs avec la balsamique MortPour le poëte las que la vie étiole.(Les fleurs, 1864)

    Or 1878, according to TLFi:

    Partie du corps de la femme où se développe l'enfant de la conception à la naissance. Synon. entrailles, flanc (littér.), utérus, ventre. […] Fleur du Paradis, Vierge immaculée, Puisque ton chaste sein conçut le dernier Dieu, Règne auprès de ton fils, rayonnante, étoilée (L. MÉNARD, Rêv. païen, 1876, p. 208).

    TLFi records also a later figurative use from 1929.

  12. Noetica said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

    I meant "Or 1876, …", of course.

  13. Noetica said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 8:06 pm

    The same old literary meaning is attested for Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. And Latin? Note that sinus could mean "lap" as well as "breast". Interesting that sinus first meant "a fold, or bend", when we remember that vulva (connected with volvere, "to turn") first meant "womb".

    OED records that bosom can figuratively mean "womb", with a last citation from 1535.

  14. Rick S said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 9:30 pm

    "…checking of financial state of the client when giving him right for bowels use"

    Oh the hazards of unskilled translation! A defecation tax?! Human rights groups worldwide would sh…well, they'd be very upset.

  15. The Heat said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 2:51 am

    Neither the Alta Language post nor the NYC News Service make it clear to me that there was any sort of failure in translating "maverick". The original source says that the Arabic translator "wrestled" with how to translate it. But it doesn't give any reason for thinking that “a bird that sings outside the flock" isn't a completely ordinary Arabic idiom having more or less the same definition and connotations as "maverick". It may only be the literal, word-for-word translation back into English which sounds funny.

    The same goes for the Italian translation. There's no reason given for thinking that "cane sciolto" isn't an ordinary idiomatic expression. In fact, here's the original quote:
    "In Italy, 'cane sciolto' or 'dog without a leash' would be used, said ANSA Italian journalist Matteo Bosco Bortolaso."
    This can easily be taken to mean that this is the appropriate Italian translation for "maverick". These could be examples of translation triumphs.

    I would like to know if the typical arabic/italian reader would greet these phrases with puzzlement, surprise, shock.

  16. Ken Brown said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 6:53 am

    Google has over 57,000 hits for "made of fail" and 13,000 for "world of fail".

  17. [links] Link salad has never told you, quite as often as it should have | jlake.com said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 8:45 am

    […] Rational use of Russian bowels — Language Log with more (as ever) on the perils of mistranslation. […]

  18. Pavel Iosad said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 10:04 am

    @Noetica: well, technically you're right, the OED gives "womb" as a meaning for "bosom" (meaning I.1.d, with a genealogy as far as the Blickling Homilies). However, it is marked "obsolete", with the latest citation from 1535 Scotland.

  19. Pavel Iosad said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 10:07 am

    (Right, read first, then reply)

  20. Merri said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 10:36 am

    I'd say the "womb" item in a dictionary of mathematics could be a wrong translation from French.
    The French mathematics word "matrice" translates both "matrix" (rectangular table of numbers), and also "womb".

  21. Arnold Zwicky said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 11:18 am

    Ken Brown: "Google has over 57,000 hits for "made of fail" and 13,000 for "world of fail"."

    A somewhat different usage from the one discussed above. The reports above are of a count noun fail (in, for example, the plural fails). These new reports are of a mass noun fail, which is common enough to have been declared one of "the buzzwords of 2008" by Mark Leibovich and Grant Barrett, in the NYT Week in Review of 12/21/08:

    Largely used online, this is a verb turned into a mass noun, as in "A bucket of fail." … Often an antonym of win, seen online in forms like "Full of win!" which means "It's good!"

  22. marie-lucie said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

    I don't think the word matrice is used much in French to mean the uterus, at least for human females. L'utérus is what I have always heard or seen written, as in the translation of "cervix" as le col de l'utérus, never *le col de la matrice, and similarly for other parts or conditions of this organ. La matrice has a variety of non-anatomical technical meanings (not only in math), and I think that it is used in those technical contexts much more than in general usage.

  23. David Marjanović said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

    Wrongly, as I pointed out there.

    Could still be a loan from Low German or something, couldn't it?

  24. language hat said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

    As I said there, it's probably originally *jadra (with n- from a preposition) and may be related to Greek ητορ (ētor).

  25. Mossy said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

    Oh dear. The translation is a very literal translation from the Russian, most likely by a Russian speaker. Russians translate the overwhelming majority of texts into English here in Russia. Sometimes clients then give texts like this to English-speakers to edit, and then you have to redo all the "perfection, realization, elaboration, development" phrases. We call this "TASS English," for the translations of TASS reports into English (by Russians) in the Soviet era.

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