Volume 3, No. 3 
July 1999

Igor Yatskovich



Translation Journal

Some Ways of Translating English Phrasal Verbs into Russian

by Igor Yatskovich

Though not pretending completeness, I hope the readers will find this article helpful in understanding the essence of some semantic correspondences in the English and Russian verbal systems. It is common knowledge that in order to provide an adequate translation, the translator must be able to sense nuances in the semantics of both the source-language and target-language texts. English phrasal verbs (e.g. give up, break in, fall out) are of great interest to me in this respect because they possess quite a number of semantic, grammatical and stylistic peculiarities, sometimes making their accurate translation into Russian difficult. Of course, in dealing with the translation of such lexical units into his or her native language, the translator can consult the appropriate bilingual dictionary, but what about the profound comprehension of why this or that phrasal verb is translated only this and not any other way?
In addition to their function that is analogous to that of English prefixes, Russian verbal prefixes resemble English adverbial particles in their semantic functions.
To get a good idea of English phrasal verbs' semantic nuances, let us first look at their conceptual features. In theory, phrasal verbs are generally considered to be idiomatic combinations of a verb and an adverbial particle. The exact status of the latter is still being debated, scholars being divided on whether it is an adverb, prepositional adverb, postpositional prefix, special part of speech, etc. However, here we are interested only in the features of adverbial particles.
   In general, the main function of phrasal verbs is conceptual categorization of reality in the speaker's mind. They denote not only actions or states as "ordinary" verbs do, but also specify their spatial, temporal or other characteristics. This ability to describe actions or states more precisely, vividly and emotionally is determined by the adverbial components of phrasal verbs. By combining with these elements, verbs of broader meaning are subjected to a regular and systematic multiplication of their semantic functions. While the English verb has no consistent structural representation of aspect, adverbial particles either impart an additional aspective meaning to the base verb (e.g. the durative verb sit merges with the particle down into the terminative phrasal verb sit down) or introduce a lexical modification to its fundamental semantics. In most cases adverbial elements denote the general spatial direction of the action or express its qualitative or quantitative characteristics, like beginning (set out), duration (bum along), completion (think out), intensity (hurry up), and so on.
   Obviously, such semantic peculiarities of English phrasal verbs must influence the process of their translation into the Russian language, which has a highly developed system of verbal prefixes. In addition to their function that is analogous to that of English prefixes, Russian verbal prefixes resemble English adverbial particles in their semantic functions, also indicating various qualities of actions and states. Like adverbial particles in English, Russian prefixes are lexically strong. For example, the Russian prefix "раз-" denotes 1) division into parts (раскрошить); 2) distribution, direction of action in different directions (разъехаться); 3) action in reverse (разминировать); 4) termination of action or state (разлюбить); 5) intensification of action (расплясаться) [The Oxford Russian Dictionary]. Thus, in translation from English into Russian, the meaning of the English adverbial component of the phrasal verb is mostly conveyed by using the Russian prefix that reflects the character of the described action or state most accurately. To a greater degree, this refers rather to nuances of semantics than grammar.
   When dealing with translation of English phrasal verbs or pre-analysis of their adverbial elements' meaning, one should always keep in mind their astounding polysemy, which sometimes borders on homonymy. Compare the following: take in 4 (to receive sb in one's home with welcome, as a guest) and take in 12 (to deceive sb) (Longman Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs). It holds true for Russian prefixes as well, the same ones rendering different shades of meaning in different uses (see examples above). That is why it seems almost impossible to create a consistent rigid system of lexical correspondences between English adverbial particles and Russian prefixes, without encountering numerous debatable problems.
   Strictly speaking, proper translation of English phrasal verbs to a high degree depends on the context in which they are used, which suggests the appropriate interpretation of the described action. Having stated the specific characteristics of the action denoted by a certain phrasal verb, one can seek a Russian counterpart prefix, which is the closest in rendering the same idea and meets the lexical and grammatical requirements of translation into the target language.
    For example, the sentence "The attack had gone across the field, been held up by machine-gun fire from sunken road, encountered no resistance in the town, and reached the bank of the river" [E. Hemingway, A Way You'll Never Be] should be translated as «Атака развертывалась на лугу и была приостановлена пулеметным огнем с дорожной выемки, не встретила отпора в городе и закончилась на берегу реки». According to the Longman Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs, in the above context the phrasal verb hold up has the following meaning: 2. to delay (sth or sb). The Russian prefix "при-" adequately renders the idea that the attack was delayed just for a while.
   The sentences "There was a little fire there. Nancy built it up, when it was already hot inside" [W. Faulkner, That Evening Sun] have the following translation: «В очаге еще были горячие угли, она их раздула, и пламя вспыхнуло". The adverbial particle up in the phrasal verb build up imparts the idea of increasing the size of the fire and shows the intensification of the action. According to the definition given in the Oxford Russian Dictionary, the most appropriate Russian prefix should be "раз-", indicating the intensification of action.
   For the sentence "Three or four times while I was going through their envelopes, I was tempted to get up and make a formal protest to M.Yoshoto" [J. D. Salinger, De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period] the best translation would be "И когда я просматривал их работы, меня не раз так и подмывало вскочить и обратиться с официальным протестом к мосье Йошото", as there is a proper semantic correspondence between the adverbial element through in the phrasal verb going through and the Russian prefix "про-" in the verb "просматривал", both denoting exhaustive action.
   English phrasal verbs can be highly idiomatic, their meanings being unpredictable from the sum of their constituents' meanings (e.g. take in (to deceive), lay down (to build), let on (to tell a secret). In such cases, where the context or professional experience fail to reveal the sense of a phrasal verb, a good explanatory or bilingual dictionary can be of great help to the translator. For example, for a person who is not a native speaker of English, in the sentence "He liked to break in his assistants slowly" neither the context, nor the adverbial element of the phrasal verb hint at the real meaning of the combination break in. According to the Longman Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs, the phrasal verb break in has the following "unexpected" meaning: 4. to help (smb) to become accustomed (to work, etc.) . The Russian edition of this very dictionary (Английские фразовые глаголы. Англо-русский словарь, Russkiy Yazyk Publishers, Moscow, 1997) treats this meaning in the same way: 4. вводить (кого-л.) в курс (новой работы и т.п.).
    I think that a thorough study and consequent understanding of semantic correspondences in the English and Russian verbal systems can be quite a powerful tool in the translator's arsenal.