Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time deciphering Russian expressions and coming up with passable English translations. I happily crossed them off my mental translation “to do” list and moved on to other, more puzzling problems of modern slang or impenetrable political jargon. But now it turns out that dozens of common expressions are actually part of longer sayings, and the full texts of these sayings change the entire meaning.
Take the expression собаку съесть, literally the highly unappetizing “to eat a dog.” Figuratively, this means to know something really well. Рита – журналист, знаток человеческих душ, собаку съела на мужской психологии. (Rita is a journalist, an expert in the human soul, who knows all there is to know about male psychology.) But the full saying is quite different: Собаку съел, хвостом подавился (literally: he ate the whole dog but choked on the tail.) This means: he was almost done with a huge and difficult job, but at the end he messed up a small aspect of it. In this situation English speakers sigh: The devil is in the details.
Then there’s the expression ума палата (literally, “the palace of the mind”), said of someone who is brainy. Красоты у Лидии не было, зато ума палата. (Lidia may not have been pretty, but she was smart as a whip.) Ума палата is often the name of school competitions, newspaper columns, or contests – something like “Battle for the Brain of Russia” – or at least the Brain of School #156.
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