translation problem

An example of the kinds of puzzles I encounter when translating Russian to English.

As I translate, things often go pretty smoothly. I may have to look up a few words in a given paragraph, but once I decide on a particular connotation, and appropriate English equivalent, I can move on pretty quickly. Sometimes, though, I run into a particular phrase or construction that demands extra effort. I might end up spending fifteen or twenty minutes trying to puzzle it out. The following is an example of such an instance. Here I was stuck on the seemingly uncomplicated three-word phrase—“на то и” (English transliteration= “na toh i”). I will outline here the process I went through to come up with a solution.

The original sentence:

“Однако умные люди на то и умны, чтобы разбираться в запутанных вещах.” –from Мастер и Маргарита, Глава 18-Неудачливые визитеры (Master and Margarita, Chapter XVIII-Unfortunate Visitors).

Difficult words and phrases for me:

  • на то иOn the face of it, this is pretty simple. It is literally, “to it and,” or “on it and,” but looking it up on showed that “на то” (without the emphatic particle “и”) can mean: thereon; hereto; thereto

grok a translation problem

  • разбиратьсяto grasp; unpack; understand; disjoint; sort out; resolve, etc. (interestingly to me, the site also gives grok as a translation for разбираться, and explains it as “science fiction slang from Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.”)
  • запутанный( intricate; complicated; anfractuous; complex; inextricable; foul; labyrinthine; mixty-maxty; tangled; fouled up; fucked up; confounded, etc.

So then:

Working with this I came up with an initial translation: “However, smart people are smart, thereto, in order to understand complicated things.” This is unsatisfying, though, because given the meanings of “hereon,” “hereto,” or “thereto,” (pertaining to something already mentioned, or to a specific matter) it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The crux of this sentence, then, is “на то:”

The next path I decided to go down was to look for synonyms of “thereto,” “hereto,” “thereon,” I came up with these as possibilities, in this context: subsequently; ultimately (from- But these don’t seem to help much either. Do I say: “However, smart people are smart, ultimately, in order to understand complicated things.”? Better, but it still sounds a little clunky to me.

Examples help a lot:

The following are two entries on

  • “на то и обещания, чтобы их нарушать= promises are (like piecrust) made to be broken. (нгло-русский словарь › promise)”
  • “посл. Обещания на то и дают, чтобы их нарушать= promises are like piecrust, made to be broken. (Новый большой англо-русский словарь › piecrust)”

One more try:

With these examples in mind, I did some revision, which also included: some minor changes to the word order; replacing “smart“ with “clever;” opting for “so that,” instead of “in order to” for чтобы; trying out different renderings of the last phrase. In the end I settled on: “Clever people, however, are made clever so that they can unravel complicated things.”

Final Check:

I decided to see how some of the popular online machine translators handle this sentence. The following four are aggregated by

  • From PROMT-OnlineHowever clever people on that also are clever to understand the confused things. [sic]
  • From ? (un-named source) However, intelligent people in the Malthus theory, to understand the complicated things. [sic]
  • From Google TranslateHowever, smart people on it and smart enough to understand the intricate things.-[sic]
  • From Microsoft- However, smart people and smart to understand complex things. [sic]


I do this last check to see if maybe there is something I might have missed. I also am often amused by some of these outcomese.g. “Malthus Theory”? Really?—and I get some satisfaction seeing that there are things that computers still can’t do quite as well as people. While these machines and their software applications are made so that they can unravel complicated things, so far even people of limited cleverness like myself can sometimes do a better job (though, admittedly, with the help of a computer).

So that is an example of, for me, a translation problem. As frustrating as they might seem, and sometimes are, it is exactly these kinds of challenges that make translating such a pleasure to me. I love word puzzles, and translation provides some of the best of them.

© 2014, John Dougherty. All rights reserved

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