One of my favorite parts from the 1985 classic, Rocky IV, is when Drago, in the finest Russian accent a quintessential Swede can muster, says, “If he dies, he dies.” Essential to this scene is the lip raise; like an invisible fish hook caught on his upper lip and pulled it up toward the corner. My sister and I have spent thirty years imitating this bit and we don’t plan on slowing down. Along with this, we like to emulate Brigitte Nielsen’s Ludmilla Drago. (Ludmilla – who knew?) She uses her Danish roots to channel her Russian accent. “You have this belief that you are better than us. You have this belief that this country is so very good and we are so very bad. You have this belief that you are so fair and we are so very cruel.”
Russians love to hear our language in American movies — and just as soon we love to get angry that they’re translating it all wrong! Then we get even more frustrated that their accents generally suck. Rocky IV is just one example — and no real Russians were used in this movie (prove me wrong IMDb Cast of Characters). In fact, no part of the movie was even filmed in Russia, no matter how much we wanted to believe those Soviet snow and barn scenes. (The movie was actually filmed in Wyoming, Canada, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles).
But funnier still is why don’t they ever hire a Russian consultant to tell them their translations – or accents – are dreadful! These are big-budget movies; certainly the least they can do is watch some old VHS copies of Yakov Smirnoff doing stand up or something? (I’m dating myself with this reference, but beyond Mila Kunis, our penetration into Hollywood is minimal.) I’m not going to go into A Good Day to Die Hard or Man from U.N.C.L.E. – or a plethora of others where the Russian bad guys, usually played by non-Russian actors, have terrible Russian accents.
Recently they’ve been playing Rocky IV on TV to help us binge watch in preparation for Creed. My husband was gripped as if it wasn’t his hundredth time watching the last scene, and I made him pause it (to transcribe it and …) to point out this prime example of lousy translation. In the final scene, right after [SPOILER ALERT] Rocky beats Drago, our American hero, with his token, swollen, cut-up eye is making a speech while the Russian announcer simultaneously translates. Here’s a transcription of what Rocky says and the actual translation of what the Russian announcer was actually saying:
Rocky: I came here tonight and I didn’t know what to expect.
Translator: I stepped out this evening into this ring.
Rocky: I’ve seen a lot of people hating me and I didn’t know what to feel about that so I guess I didn’t like you much none either.
Translator: I thought I didn’t like them either.
Rocky: During this fight, I’ve seen a lot of changing.
Translator: Throughout this fight, I understand that much changed.
Rocky: The way yous felt about me and the way I felt about you
Translator: And I felt that you also changed.
Rocky: In here there were two guys killing each other but I guess it’s better than 20 million
Translator: And I think that it is even better than $20 million dollars.
Rocky: What I’m trying to say is that if I can change.
Translator: I think that each has to change.
Rocky: And you can change.
Translator: You can change.
Rocky: Everybody can change.
Translator: Each can change.
The twenty million dollar one was the biggest one – editing considered – but technically, all of the sentences aren’t translated to properly convey intention. I Googled to see if anyone else has a habit of catching – and maybe even documenting – all these Russian translations faux-pas. Surely some teenager in Brighton Beach has compiled these into some Website where we can all laugh at gifs of Rocky with $20 Million Dollars under it? You know, kind of like in the film, Knocked Up, where Seth Rogan’s character created a website that catalogs all the nude scenes of movies.
And I’m not the type of person that will tend watch a movie and catch all the incontinuities or character errors; I save that for my teenage son and movie-nerd husband. I dive into a film with full abandon, believing the pictures and the words – until I hear a Russian word. Then, I’m like a dog with its ears on end. I sit up alert, ready to examine their accents and translations – and then I verbally red pen them every time they do it wrong.
What does that say about me? (I know there are more members in this club!) The ones among us who find secret delight in discovering typos in books, menus, and billboards? Why do we like to point out imperfections, inconsistencies, or impossibilities? It’s not that we are lovers of the misfortune of others, but that we need reminders that we’re all perfectly imperfect. We seek this validation in other people’s fuck ups.
Is it because we’ve been in competition way too long? The sense of comparison has permeated our identities from such a young age; vying for jobs, for school slots; constantly keeping up with the Joneses or the Kardashians, for bigger houses, for second and third husbands. We have been forced to find ways that help us feel better about ourselves when the success of others makes us feel insecure. The very nature of defining perfection is a subjective trap, but we are caught in a world where we’re all being rivaled against each other, often just to make impossible life comparisons on a linear chart to prove we are becoming more perfect.
Unfortunately, when it is translated to the rest of the non-English speaking world, it might just sound like, “we think we are better than we really are.”