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Russian 1125-101 (non-native speakers): Course Description

This description applies to sections 101 and 102.

This is a TBA course. TBA means "time to be arranged" (to accommodate as many students as we can). We hold an organizational meeting for all TBA courses at the beginning of each semester. The time and place of the meeting are posted at our home page,, a couple of weeks before each semester starts. Click Welcome in the navigation bar to read it.

When two sections of this course are taught, one is for native speakers of Russian, and the other one is for students who learned Russian as a foreign language. The assignments are different in length and complexity, but other than that, the two sections are taught the same way.

In 2020-2021, this course is taught online in synchronous, real-time meetings on Zoom. We do not pre-record any lectures or classes. See the links for the Zoom meetings in our "Rooms and times" page. See Zoom under On-line course materials for the basic things you need to know about it.


  • Media reports, usually on current events, from Russian-language Web sites, to be posted on the course Syllabus page for each class.
  • Any good Russian-English dictionary, such as the one by Kenneth Katzner, published by John Wiley and Sons (In The Store under several RussA courses).

Read and translate a story. If the story is longer than half a printed page, translate as much as you have time for. You may take notes, but this is not a requirement. You do not have to write your translation.

As you read the stories with a good dictionary, compile your own glossary of words and expressions that seem to be common, or difficult, or interesting, i.e. create your own personalized guide for reading Russian journalistic prose. Newspaper and Web style involves certain devices and vocabulary items that are not common in other written styles or in speech.

Your notes and glossaries are entirely for your own use. They will not be collected or checked by the teacher.

Automated translation of text by a computer program--the so-called machine translation--used to be a linguist's challenge and is now a reality, albeit seriously flawed. The earliest one we recommended was called Babel Fish; readers of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy will recognize the reference. It is now extinct, but its story is interesting. Then came Google Translate, see below. Comparing automatic English translations to the Russian originals may be a source of interesting linguistic observations, especially on syntax. Sometimes using an automatic translator can save you time--but you always have to be critical of the interpretation that an auto translator offers. As a quick example, here is a machine translation of the famous slogan (attributed to Karl Marx) that has appeared for decades in the masthead of Moscow's Pravda newspaper: "The proletarians of all countries, be connected." And here is a "translation" of an even more ominous (and just as well-known in Russia) sentiment expressed by Joseph Stalin: "When the enemy does not surrender, it destroy." Do you know the Russian versions of these two slogans? Don't ask the auto-translators, ask your teacher.

Google Translate

There are certain syntactic constructions that automatic translators cannot deal with. Here is one example: Как нам их поженить? is translated by online angels as "How to us them to marry?"

Some syntactic ambiguities are built into Russian grammar because of the flexible word order of Russian sentences. To some extent automatic translators, like human translators, can resolve them by looking at word endings. When this fails, it fails miserably. Dick, who loves two women, would be happy to learn that this sentence: И Джейн любит Дик, и Джин любит Дик is machine-translated as "And Jane loves Dick, and Gin loves Dick," even though a human translator would probably not jump to that conclusion.

Not surprisingly, automatic translation yields uninterpretable results with idiomatic expressions. How would you explain this "translation" from a famous Vysotsky song:
I do not love, when to me climb in soul,
Especially, when in it spit.
(The original is Я не люблю, когда мне лезут в душу — тем более, когда в нее плюют.)

Perhaps a more serious drawback of using machine translators is that they will offer you only one of all possible meanings of a word. Whether or not it happens to be the right one, you're not getting the whole picture and therefore may be missing a lot.

These are only some of the reasons why you would be seriously short-changing yourself if most of your work in this course were reduced to reading the output from an automatic translator.

Regular attendance is very important in this class, both for the learning and for the grade. Missing more than three classes without a good reason will affect your grade. Always send the teacher an email if you cannot attend.

The final exam is a story to translate. You'll be allowed to use a printed dictionary (but not a computer). No other tests.


  • Homework and performance in class 75%
  • Final exam 25%
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Dept. of Comparative Literature • Russian Language Program • 240 Goldwin Smith Hall • Cornell University • Ithaca, NY 14853-4701, USA
tel. 607/255-4155 • fax 607/255-8177 • email