In the Beginning, there was the Word. And the Word was…

“Come and translate for me,” he said, and my gut sank.  It’s one thing to translate, you know, unofficially and with only your personal pride at stake.  I lost that a long time ago, linguistically speaking, at least.  But to actually translate at what amounted to an official meeting between representatives of two governments…

Let’s just say I was not thrilled.  Or, if we must cleave to honesty, I was set against it with all of my heart, and made this clear.

He wheedled and pled.  I stood firm.  He pulled puppy dog eyes.  I stood firmer.  He said, “Really, just come there and if I make a mistake, you’ll step in to help.”

Mmph.  I stared him.  Tried to discern his honesty.

“You can speak Russian, you know,” I groused.  He nodded. “Better than me,” I added.  I cut off his objection with a cold glare.

“Will you come?” he asked.

“You will speak.  And only if I think it would be helpful will I add a word here or there.”  He nodded. “And I am not responsible for any international disasters,” I added firmly.  He nodded again.

So the date was set.

And because it was Georgia, it was postponed.  Mind you, for any international development nuts out there, particularly those prone to laughing off all delays on other countries’ cultural foibles, I’ll tell you this was AT LEAST as much due to the expat as it was a local cultural phenomenon.  Let us not cast stones…

Anyway, the day did come.  I was summoned, and I went to the meeting.

“Please let me not cause an international catastrophe,” I prayed to the same God who saw fit for me to freeze during that winter like most of earth’s population.

So the meeting began, and to my surprise and gratitude, the man who’d asked for my help did indeed lead the conversation without expecting me to serve as a real translator.  I began to relax.

Pff.  Never begin to relax.  That is PRECISELY when international catastrophes sense a crack in your armor.

He was describing something and I’d drifted off somewhat.  He turned to me with a frown, his hand gesturing like he was sifting sand through his fingers.  I knew that mildly desperate look in his eyes and leaned forward to hear what word he needed.

“Forestry?” he asked.

Forestry?  FORESTRY?  What, he couldn’t pick a simple word?  FORESTRY?  Who KNOWS that word in a foreign language? Dude, I don’t even know what that means in ENGLISH.

I looked at him poisonously.

That was the only thing he asked of me.  I shrugged helplessly.  I didn’t cause an international scandal.

That night, however, I did look up forestry in the dictionary.  Learnt two different words for it.

I have never used those two words since.

New York

New York


About sputnitsa

Born in the US, I grew up in Africa and the West Indies, and returned stateside in my teens. After a decade in international development, democracy work, and inclusivity training for domestic NGOs, I joined Peace Corps, and after a year, experienced my first Russian invasion. I followed that up by volunteering with refugees and youth, and after some vacation time climbing minarets and mountains, I returned to New York City, where today I work on social justice with college students, produce short films, and write.
This entry was posted in Caucasus, communication, English, foreign languages, language, languages, translating and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to In the Beginning, there was the Word. And the Word was…

  1. And thus ended Sput’s career as an international translator.

    *runs off to check what forestry is in German*

    • sputnitsa says:

      Well? Give us the scoop, already–what IS it in German?? 🙂 🙂

      Yeah, I could do without causing any international upsets, if possible. 🙂 Inshallah….

      • According to the online dictionary, there are two words for forestry.

        forstwesen and forstwirtschaft

        Why do I have a feeling I won’t be using them much? I’ll have to find creative ways to fit forestry into casual conversation…

        • sputnitsa says:

          Why is it there are two words for the most unnecessary word? (she said, incurring the wrath of foresters the world over.) 😉

          Creative ways, huh–I do this by, you know, telling this story. Hahaha! No other way in my life yet… Not until I figure out what it means in English, exactly. 😉

          Lesovodstvo and lesoproisvodstvo

          There you go. 🙂

  2. Yarnspnr says:

    You are obviously a woman of many tales. Thank you for these slice of life articles. You weave a masterful yarn. I’m sure all your experiences rub off in your novel writing. Excellent photography as well. Again, thanks for sharing!

    • sputnitsa says:

      Have I mentioned that I love your screenname? 🙂 Yarnspnr… Awesome.

      It’s funny, I haven’t purposefully brought any of my travel or Peace Corps experiences into my fiction… And I seem to have such utterly different “voices” in my fiction and in my blog.

      So far all of this has rubbed off mostly on my life, attitudes, etc…and I haven’t yet seen how or if it’s impacting my writing. I guess we’ll see. 🙂

      And anytime a laugh at my life brings a laugh to anyone’s life, that’s a pleasure. After all, I laugh about these times still myself. 🙂 🙂

      • Yarnspnr says:

        Thank you very much! I’ve had the name for about 25 years or so. Sometimes I’ve had to use Yarnspnnr but now it’s just as you see it. So now you have to tell me what a Sputnitsa is. If it’s your real name, consider my head bowed in shame! 🙂

        • sputnitsa says:

          Hahaha! No need to bow your head at all.

          Sputnitsa is the feminine form of the Russian word “sputnik,” which means traveler. It’s a nickname I got given accidentally one day on a Georgian (US) beach, when one American friend wrote it in the sand as a joke, and a Russian friend seriously noted that it implied a fellow traveler through life. 🙂

          And as for yours, a nice name indeed. 🙂

  3. ralfast says:

    I once translated for the Secret Service (a strictly volunteer one time thing) so I know exactly what you mean.

  4. Yarnspnr says:

    Sputnik and Sputnitsa, eh? Male and female travelers. I should have known. How could I forget the sweet first little satellite the Russians launched into orbit to take a healthy lead in the space race? I guess it was a male satellite. 🙂 But a cool name as it stands, friend traveler! And a nice li’l story on how it came to be attached to you. Thank you!

    • sputnitsa says:

      Yup. 🙂 Exactly. I always assume it’ll be an easy thing to remember, but actually, of course it’s… not. For me–yes. But for anyone who doesn’t know Russian–nope. Makes my blog address a little impossible for folks, I think. 🙂 What to do, what to do. 🙂

      And thank you! 🙂

  5. Yarnspnr says:

    Well, ‘nitsa’ is very close to a PA Dutch expression my grandmother used to use, ‘nutser’ from ‘nix nutser,’ meaning ‘mischievous’. The PA Dutch came from Germany but I’m sure roots of words from the languages used in the low countries to the Russian steppes would be similar. Sometimes there just are no reasons for language changes. Who knows, in 100 years we may spell all English words like the texters do now. If you don’t believe that could happen, check out Chaucer’s English.

    • sputnitsa says:


      Yeah, Russian words ending with “nik” shift to end with “nitsa” when they are feminized. Feminine words in Russian tend to end with “a”s. There are exceptions, of course. Many concept words are feminine, for instance. Well, that may be my definition of those words. 🙂

  6. J says:

    Interesting that ‘nitsa’ is so closer to NUTser…I’ve always said Sput is a little nuts 🙂

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