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  • Yelena McCafferty

Another type of alcohol problem

Updated: Nov 26, 2021

Interpreting Russian terms for alcohol isn’t always straightforward, as Yelena McCafferty explains. She investigates the history of how these terms emerged.

How do you solve a problem like alcohol? I am not talking about alcohol addiction, or about how alcohol can affect our memory and attention. Nor will I dispute or support a recent study claiming to show that alcohol helps to speak a foreign language more fluently because it reduces their nervousness or hesitation. Rather, I am thinking of a couple of lexical issues relating to alcohol that I have come across as a police interpreter and which deserve to be given some further attention.

It’s no secret that alcohol and crime can sometimes go together. During police interviews questions can come up about how much a suspect had to drink and what strength the drink was. This is where the confusion can start.

For instance, if someone says they only had 100 grams of vodka, what exactly does that mean? Is it an interpreter’s slip of the tongue? Did they mean to say millilitres, not grams? Or if someone is asked how strong their beer was, why would they reply it was five degrees? Surely they mean five percent rather than 5⁰C (or Fahrenheit)?

This whole topic is something that has puzzled some of the police officers that I worked with. And while hearing grams and degrees in Russian instead of millilitres and percentages was nothing unusual for me, I was just as puzzled about where these measurements came from – so much so that I decided to do some further research into the topic.

I have learnt that in January 1940, during the Soviet-Finnish war, Stalin approved a commissioner’s request to include 100 grams of vodka and 50 grams of lard into the ration of Soviet soldiers because of the extreme weather conditions. If we try to work out how much this was, 100 grams of vodka is basically two shots, but is it equal to 100 millilitres? No. While a litre of water equates to 1,000 grams, a litre of a 40 percent vodka is, according to various formulas, 950 grams. So strictly speaking, it is incorrect to interpret 100 grams of vodka as 100 millilitres, although saying “approximately 100 millilitres” may pass.

1940 is as far back as I could go in references to vodka in grams so it could be that it was Stalin’s war time decree that gave rise to this “less educated” use of grams for this drink. Another opinion is vodka for Russians is more than a drink, it’s almost a type of food. I have also read a light-hearted view that grams are used for simplicity as it takes too long to articulate “millilitres”.

What about degrees to measure strength? Are they equal to the percentages we are used to seeing on bottles where concentration is measured as the percentage of pure alcohol in the product by its volume?

It turns out that the degree system used in the USSR was different from the percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV), and that this system showed higher concentration. For example, if one litre of 40° vodka contains 572 grams of water and 381 grams of ethanol, one litre of 40% ABV vodka will contain 635 grams of water and 318 grams of ethanol which works out as equal to approximately 35⁰.

While the USSR adopted the percentage by volume system after it started exporting vodka to the “capitalist” world in the 1970s, it seems that in colloquial Russian you still hear degrees being used here and there.

This raises a question for us as interpreters: how do we interpret “100 grams of vodka” from Russian to English? Just as it is – in grams – or “approximately 100 millilitres”? I will leave this decision for you to make, but on one assignment I was asked, after a police interview, if I knew why the suspect had said “grams” when we were talking about a drink. At that point I thought it was appropriate to give some cultural background, explaining that vodka and grams often go together in colloquial Russian. I believe interpreter’s explanations like this are helpful to all parties: the police officer will realise that the use of this odd collocation wasn’t because the interviewee was generally confused or was trying to confuse others. And the interpreter will thus convey clearly that it wasn’t a slip of the tongue; it is actually a feature of the language itself.

A version of this article has been published in the May-June 2019 issue of the Bulletin, a bi-monthly magazine of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting.

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