Russia’s Special Operation on English

Language learners know about false friends. Slavic languages have some doozies. For instance, riječ in Croatian means a word, while реч in Ukrainian means a thing; запомніць in Bulgarian means to memorize, while zapomenout in Czech means to forget; proud Serbs might write понос (pride) on the side of a building, while their Russian brothers will likely be curious why they’ve printed “diarrhea” up there. English-speaking learners of French often mistake “assist,” meaning aid, for assister, meaning “attend,” while Spanish learners of English will recall that librería is not a library, constipada is not constipated, and embarazada is not embarrassed.

These all fall into a relatively clear category in which a word might look quite similar but mean something completely different. The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted a different kind of false friend, one without the sorts of clear demarcations of incorrectness characterized by the list above (and there are many more). This is the word “special,” which has been widely used to translate the phrase (here transliterated) spetsial’naia voennaia operatsiia as a “special military operation,” or spetsoperatsiia for short, which probably ought to be a “limited military operation” (I’m referring only to the words here, not the actions that have been accompanying them — I’ll get to those below).

The reason this word is insidiously different from other false friends is that if you look in a Russian-English dictionary under the word spetsial’naia, it is most likely to give you the word “special,” and the same will be true in the other direction. Unfortunately, this is one of those places where dictionaries are not really helpful for translation, at least not on first glance. A more careful look at the English definition could (and should, if it’s a good dictionary) add that this word can characterize doing something for a particular purpose. Hold that thought.

Sometimes a thesaurus can help. So you look up “special” and see what other words in English might replace it, then try looking up those in your Russian dictionary to see what you find. Unfortunately, nowhere will you find “limited” as a possibility even for one of “special’s” synonyms. Neither your dictionary nor your thesaurus will give you what seems to be the right word, so let’s return to the particular purpose idea.

[Straight ahead: Go f*ck yourself; left: go f*ck yourself; right: f*ck yourself all the way to Russia]

It actually helps quite a bit, but only as a sign post pointing your way out to you, like the one I’ve pasted here.

What is the particular purpose of offering what Russian universities call a spetsial’nyi seminar, or in the usual abbreviated form, spetsseminar, if not to delve into something at a higher level of instruction? I would call that an “advanced seminar” in English, not a “special seminar,” as a “special seminar” sounds either very temporary or very sneaky, as in “we’re not going to tell you what’s in this class; it’s special.” Here again, “advanced” is unlikely to be among the synonyms for “special” in your thesaurus, let alone any of the options in your bilingual dictionary.

Lately, Russian programs in the U.S. have been offering higher-level Russian classes, which are sometimes called “Russian for special purposes,” using that sneaky infiltrating “special” that has been lurking like a sleeper cell for us to get lazy. Here, the secrecy of the class begins to feel rather palpable. This is Russian for special purposes after all. Better not ask. To translate it, I need to know what’s in these classes. Nothing hidden, it turns out: they’re focused on developing certain kinds of vocabulary that is not usually the focus of first-year through fourth-year Russian. Business is a frequent topic (good luck with that). This is most likely “Russian for professional purposes,” or even just “Russian for professionals.” Again, good luck finding “professional” as a possible rendering for spetsial’nyi in any general language reference work.

Now, if Vladimir Putin (popularly known as “the khuylo”) intended to launch his military operation for the particular purpose of waging war on Ukraine in an attempt to control it completely and wipe it out if he couldn’t, then we would need to translate his spetsoperatsiia with due diligence, as one meme did it quite quickly, here pictured.

Like Lev Nikolaevich, I don’t have a good conclusion, except to note that Russian can be tricky. And Russians can really break your heart.

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