September 14, 2020

The Hunt for Movie Russian

The Hunt for Movie Russian
What time does Sean Connery go to Wimbledon? Tennish. IMDb, "The Hunt for Red October." Screenshot by the author.

I was all set for movie night this past weekend. On the docket: Hunt for Red October, the classic thriller about the captain of a Soviet submarine (the Red October, referring to the 1917 revolution) that goes rogue and tries to defect to America, with the help of hero Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin). My wife and I plopped down, popcorn in hand, ready for some great Cold War naval sequences.

And then Sean Connery opened his mouth.

I have nothing against the guy; gotta love the classic, unapologetic 007, but his way of speaking Russian… Yikes.

I’m not one to “Um, actually,” but the use of Russian in this film is definitely subpar. So I thought I'd take a look and see exactly where it diverges from the everyday Russian language we all know and love.

I guess we should have been warned in the title card:

The title card of "Hunt for Red October."
More than one language in a title card; ambitious. | Paramount Pictures; screenshot by the author.

A title in (kind of) Cyrillic letters appears, then proudly shifts into the title of the film, in English: “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER.” The implication being that the Cyrillic means “Red October.” Except it doesn’t.

The first word is fine: /krasniy/, red. The second, though, is a mess.

The Russian word for October is октябрь (Oktyabr’). But here that word is made up of Cyrillic and Latin letters to create a pastiche mildly reminiscent of the English word “October.” 

This reminds me of a meme:

A meme making fun of Russian letters used as English equivalents.
Shegg Ueb, vtst dsttsdggu io! | Facebook user Steve the vagabond and silly linguist

Back to Sean Connery. In the opening scene, Captain Ramius (Connery) and an officer are on the top of the ship’s conning tower. The shot starts on his eyes before panning out. His comrade says, “It’s cold this morning” (the way we know is the subtitle, not necessarily the dialogue). Connery responds with a grunt, before saying some Scottish-sounding word that I’ve never heard among Russians. It’s translated as “Very cold.” The classic "Ochen' kholodna" probably would have worked just fine.

Fortunately (mercifully?), the action onboard the Russian sub switches to English-language. However, the Russian returns when our American heroes come face-to-face with the Russian crew, leading to one of the most awkward sequences in the film in terms of faux-Russian-ness.

A climactic scene of the film.
Captain, prepare for poor Russian pronunciation off the port bow! | Paramount Pictures

Connery's character notices the handgun displayed on the hip of one of the Americans, and quips flatly, "Kakov nipudt pakaru," which doesn't mean anything. I interpret the intended meaning as "Kakoi-nibud' bakaru?," loosely translated as "some kind of cowboy." But why the word "kovboi," Russified "cowboy," wasn't the go-to is beyond me.

Regardless, this leads Jack Ryan to break the ice by commenting on how the captain thinks the American is "some sort of cowboy." In response, Ramius says, "New pa ruhsskey."

What exactly this means, or even its intention, is tough to pin down. I assume the writing was aiming for "Nu, po-russki?" meaning "Well, in Russian?" Or maybe the idea would have been better conveyed with a "Vi govorite po-russki?": "You speak Russian?"

And don't even get me started on the intonation.

With all that said, Hunt for Red October is an excellent movie that you should definitely, definitely watch. And it's far from the only film in which Russian is treated with goofy abandon. Action films are just another reason to learn the language.

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