About language in Zrada

Kuteinykove city limits sign
Kuteinykove city limits (photo: Donbass Realities)

I’ve been getting questions about the language in Zrada. Not the swearing (well, some about that); the actual language. The most common question is a variant of, “Does everybody in the Ukraine speak fluent English?” The answer, of course, is “no.”

Zrada is full of people speaking Russian or Ukrainian, including Carson, who’s fluent in both languages. Slavic languages are structured quite differently than are Latin-based or Germanic languages (both of which count English as their own), so simply transliterating Russian dialog into English would get old fast. For example, neither Russian nor Ukrainian use articles; the sentence the book is on the table is expressed in Russian as book on table. Could you stand three-hundred-plus pages of that? Neither could I.

The result: when characters speak languages they know fluently, it looks to you like normal English (for the most part). When the characters speak in a language that’s not their strongest, you’ll notice.

There used to be more Russian and Ukrainian words in the dialog. My alpha readers convinced me that they slowed things down because readers had to stop to look up the words. As a result, I took out ~90% of them (including the Slavic swear words…sorry).

Russian and Ukrainian are distinct languages that use different versions of the Cyrillic alphabet, with different pronunciation and spelling. The relationship between the two is something like that between Spanish and Portuguese; Ukrainian is more like Polish or Slovak than Russian. I spell transliterated words appropriately for whichever language the character is speaking.

BTW: even zrada is a linguistic problem. Some of you have noticed that it’s not a Russian word (even Galina has to explain it to Carson). It’s Ukrainian and Czech; in Polish, it’s zdrada. I think the reason it turns up in Google searches as Czech is because there are a lot of books written in Czech with zrada in the title. (I hope that Czech readers searching for the translated Daniel Silva book titled Zrada will find mine instead.)

Nearly all the places mentioned in this story are real, though sometimes modified to suit the characters’ needs. The same place can have somewhat different names depending on the language. For instance, Makiivka is the Romanized Ukrainian name of the city Russians call Makéjevka. To keep from driving myself and you crazy, I use the transliterated place names from Google Maps or Google Earth. In this case, that usually means the Ukrainian-language names. It also means you can look them up easily if you want to follow Carson and Galina as they drive across the Donbass.

Clear as mud? Got questions? Want a discussion of Slavic forms of a Germanic four-letter-word that appears 74 times in the story? Leave a comment!

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