Like the countless domed churches and monasteries with their
towers and crosses scattered over sacred pious Russia, countless numbers of tribes, generations, nations seethe in all their variety and rush over the face of the earth. And each and every nation which carries its innate promise of strength, which is full of the soul’s creative abilities, its own well-defined peculiarity and other gifts of God, is distinguished by its own word by which it expresses any object and reflects in that expression a part of its own special nature. Knowledge of the heart and wise insights into life distinguish the Briton; the Frenchman’s ephemeral word flares and disintegrates like a frivolous dandy; the German will ingeniously devise his own clever but insubstantial word, which only the few can understand; but there is no word which has such verve, such boisterousness, which bursts right from the breast, which boils and quivers as a wittily spoken Russian word.
—from Donald Rayfield’s translation of Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. This reflection on different languages’s ability to find the right word—with plenty of Russian pride—is inspired after our hero, Chichikov, has asked a local peasant directions to the local landowner, the miser Pliushkin, and the peasant has referred to his master as a “botcher” combined with “a very appropriate other noun, not admissible in polite speech, that we omit here.” Hence begins a discussion that will make a translator think twice: how to translate “a wittily spoken Russian word”?