The usual suspects have become part of our language

When I was growing up, my elders used a lot of what linguists call "phraseology". My grandmother's speech, for example, was full of proverbs, sayings and metaphors. It's not the same anymore: one rarely hears those colourful phrases, some of which were so Russian I would probably have been stumped to find a good rendering in English. Fortunately, at that time, it was the last thing on my mind. I was just enjoying listening to grandma.
It would seem in English, too, use of phraseology has declined, but people in all countries fi nd ways to make their speech more colourful. One way is to use familiar quotations (in Russian we sometimes call them "winged words").

Are such quotations perceived by native speakers as still attributable to their authors, or as phrases that are part of the language and, as it were, live on their own? The line is blurred.

Take, for example, "the usual suspects". Many remember it from Captain Renault in the movie Casablanca: "Round up the usual suspects." Some have seen a more recent film, The Usual Suspects. I suspect, however, that many haven't seen either but would understand a sports commentator speaking of prospects for the coming season: "There are prime suspects among the usual suspects." Some teams are likely to do well and a few are very likely. This phrase has entered the language. Google it and you'll see: it is there and, as they say, it is having a ball. There are several sources of familiar quotations in English: movies, showbusiness ("the show must go on" - from a song by Queen but used by circus performers long before), or book titles (Ian Fleming's From Russia with Love, for example), not to speak of Yogi Berra ("it's not over 'til it's over" and "it's dйjа vu all over again"). But the most abundant source is politicians. Theodore Roosevelt's "the lunatic fringe" and Harry Truman's "the buck stops here" are firmly embedded. I expect some phrases uttered by Bill Clinton and George W Bush will make it too.

Russian politicians have also done their bit. Former prime minister Victor Chernomyrdin's quip which I translated as "We tried our best, you know the rest" (literally it would be more like "we wanted to make it better but it came out as always") is known to every Russian. Some colourful phrases from Vladimir Putin's repertoire have - let's put it this way - made the cut. However, the biggest source of Russian quotes is - you'll be surprised - old Soviet movies.

These catchphrases have amazing resilience. The old time movies are still favourites; even people who haven't seen them are using their phrases.

Just one film - The White Sun of the Desert, a story of early Soviet years in Central Asia - contains half a dozen gems, including "Za derzhavu obidno" ("I hurt for my country") and "Vostok delo tonkoye" ("The East is tricky"). To Russians, these phrasesmeanalot more than what's on the surface. The fi rst implies a somewhat resigned sense of hurt national pride, and the second a healthy respect, coupled with a little irony, for" the eastern mindset".

Pity the poor translators and interpreters. Does one give a more or less literal translation, with a brief explanation or attribution, or is it better to come up with something conveying the same idea? I've done both, with varying degrees of success, and I certainly gave it my best effort ("I tried my best").

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

This website uses cookies. Click here to find out more.

Accept cookies