Not all Sports are Created Equal

Athletics are an important part of the life of any country, big or small. Lots of sports exist in the world, but some are more international than others. Some, such as ice hockey or basketball, are popular in both America and Russia, but not baseball. With regard to that game America and Russia are polar opposites. For Russians baseball is not only an unfamiliar game, but completely baffling (in Russia anyone who can tell the difference between a pitcher and a batter is a connoisseur).

For Americans, baseball is part of national culture. There is hardly a literary work in America that does not use baseball terms that have long ceased to be esoteric and have entered day-to-day vocabulary(for example, one's "third strike)."

My first brush with the sport occurred when I was translating Stephen King's novel "The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon." The book was published in April 1999, in time for the start of the new baseball season. It is about a girl by the name of Trisha, whose idol is Tom Gordon, then a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox (he now plays for the Philadelphia Phillies). In those years the Internet had not yet become the main source of information, and I remember staring at the word "curveball" and wondering what the hell it could mean. My American friend, the author Lawrence Watt-Evans, came to the rescue. The terms I wanted to know occupied a couple of lines. His letter explaining their meanings ran three pages.

All the same, the novel was not about baseball at all; it did not mention Pafko at the Wall or the Curse of Bambino.

Six years later, I was offered to translate a book called "Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season" by Steward O'Nan and Stephen King. The translation of that book merits a separate column. Words fail to tell you what an ordeal it is to translate a book when you have to reach, not for the dictionary (because there are no such words there), but for the Internet for one in every ten words in order to provide a three-line footnote.

My ordeal lasted until I was two-thirds through the book, and then a miracle happened. I began to understand what it was all about. I could understand why the players played as they did and the decisions of the coaches and the reactions of the fans. From then on I could not tear myself away from the book because, if you know what it is about (and the book's American readers, especially those in New England, for whom it was basically written, do know), the emotions of the fans connected with the game come to the fore.

Translators are among those people who contribute to the cross-pollination of cultures speaking different languages and often have no option but to become pioneers. This brings me on to yet another curious episode: In 1939, a book called "Baseball," which explained all the rules and terms of the game, was published in Russia. While today the terms are just transliterated, in those years they were all translated. A baseman was a storozh (`watchman' or `guard'), a homerun was "beg do doma" (`the run home'), the pitcher was podayushchy (`server') and a batter was otbivayushchy (`hammer off'). But despite this book, the game never took root in Russian soil.

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