"The vodka is good, but the meat is rotten" is the punchline of a "lost in translation" joke. Essentially, a group of people supposedly wanted to translate English phrases into Russian and then back to English, and one of those phrases was "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." It was fed into a computer and came out in Russian, then fed back into the computer and retranslated into English. But the retranslation came out "the vodka is good, but the meat is rotten." And oh my, how everyone laughed!

This is just one example of such a joke/urban legend. Others include "out of sight, out of mind" translating back as "invisible insanity" or "invisible idiot." Yet another maintains that a Chinese translation of The Grapes of Wrath was called "The Angry Raisins."

The veracity of these claims is not easily determinable. Snopes estimates that these stories have been circulating since the Cold War, when the USSR and the U.S. would have been interested in devices that would translate between English and Russian so as to decode the other country's messages, making these stories quite possibly true. Possible is one thing. Feasible is another entirely.

So let's conduct our own investigation, shall we?

Full disclosure: Do I have access to the same translation devices employed in this story? Of course not. At the same time, translation devices have improved since the 1950s, when this mistranslation is believed to have first come into being. That said, we do have access to the equally dubious BabelFish.

First, a direct English-Russian translation of the idiom "The spirit is willing but the flesh is week" brings up "дух охотно готов но плоть будет неделей." What does this mean? Not being a speaker of even basic Russian (though I'm familiar enough with the Cyrillic alphabet), I couldn't tell you. Retranslating the exact phrase back into English gives us "Spirit is willingly ready but flesh will be the weak."

Which really isn't that far off from the original, is it?

The crux of this story relies on two things: the Russian translator mistook the English word "spirit," meaning "will" or "soul," to mean "alcoholic beverage." Fair enough, you might say; many alcoholic beverages are also called "spirits." And among the most popular alcoholic beverages in Eastern Europe is vodka.

But does "vodka" ever translate directly to "spirit," or vice-versa? The Russian word for "spirit," "дух," appears to also have etymological ties to the Russian word for perfume, "Духи́." It is clear that the Russians also use their word for "spirit" in the same context that the English do. But would an electronic translator automatically translate a straightforward word such as "spirit" to "дух," then when translating it back, refer to a specific spirit? Despite the popularity of vodka -- "водка" -- in Russia, one can surmise that because there are so many different kinds of spirits, the story is probably bogus.

Another part of the supposed mistranslation revolves around "flesh." The English idiom refers to flesh in terms of the human body. The Russian word for flesh is, according to BabelFish, "плоть." Using the same translator to retranslate it back into English, "плоть" becomes "the flesh." While there is more room for misinterpretation here, it is fairly obvious that a direct retranslation would not automatically confuse contexts.

Lastly, the mistranslation story involves two other terms -- "willing" and "weak" supposedly mistranslate to "good" and "rotten." 

BabelFish translates "willing" to "завещать," which it then translates back as "to bequeath." This is an entirely different sort of mistranslation, as it interpreted "willing" as the act of leaving someone something in a will. That said, let's replace "willing" with the synonym "able," which comes back as "способно." That comes back as "it is capable," which is true to the original meaning of the sentence.

Basically, a mistranslation of "willing" is not only possible but likely. But it probably wouldn't have mistranslated as "good."

"Weak" translates as "слабо," which then translates back as "it is weak." "Rotten," meanwhile, translates as "тухло," which retranslates as "it is rotten." These are both extremely straightforward, no-nonsense translations.

Granted, technology has become more advanced since this story originated back in the Cold War. At the same time, however, isn't it sort of ludicrous to believe that the U.S. State Department would wind up with such an incompetent translation machine during such an important conflict? That they wouldn't employ intelligence workers who could speak fluent Russian for the purpose of cracking codes? That straightforward words such as "weak" and "spirit" could come back with either partially different or completely different meanings?

I'm no linguist, but I'm going to go ahead and call this one busted. Then again, as Swap points out, it's still possible. Who knows?


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