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