In accordance with this week’s themes of my mistakes in Russian I thought I would include one that I made thanks to a tiny, dinky little prefix.
A few years ago I translated for Muslim refugees that came here to America from Russia. Within the first week of arrival they were required to attend cultural orientation. This orientation included all sorts of information about paying bills, wearing deodorant, brushing your teeth, not standing too close to people and other things that you’re expected to do as an American.
Because of my experience with these refugees I knew that domestic abuse was a common problem. So when we got to the part in the cultural orientation about how it’s not acceptable to beat your wife or kids in America I got really serious and really wanted to emphasize this:
“В Америке строго запрещено убить жену”.
The refugees all just looked at me and said, “Ну, да” (Well, yes.)
In the past when I explained this to refugees there was usually surprise and a dispute about why is that anyone’s business and so on. So when this group just agreed with me without even flinching I thought maybe I wasn’t making myself clear:
“Может быть в вашей культуре считается нормально убить жену или ребенка, но у нас это очень серьезное преступление”
Again, raised eyebrows, no disputes and just kind of looks of ‘duh’.
As I was driving the refugees home I realized my mistake. Бить means to beat. Put a tiny little prefix -у- on it and it means ‘to kill’. So I had been saying, “In America it is forbidden to kill your wife”. Then I probably made an even bigger jerk of myself when I said in the second sentence, “Maybe in your culture it’s considered okay to kill your wife or child but in America it is a very serious crime”.
Of course I knew the difference between the two words. I just spaced it in the moment. That’s why I stopped trying to translate.