Someone Who Speaks Russian Needs to Tell Me What’s Going On Here

I’m pretty sure it’s a review of Old Man’s War. It looks like it could be amusing. I can’t tell if it’s ultimately positive or not, but on the other hand, who cares? I like that someone put in this much effort.

43 Comments on “Someone Who Speaks Russian Needs to Tell Me What’s Going On Here”

  1. It is a review of Old Man’s war. He thinks it’s funny, and that you’re not like Heinlein after all, but my listening comprehension isn’t as good as my reading ability, and the music is too loud for me to get everything he says.

  2. It’s a not very favourable review of Old Man’s War. Not really funny. The biggest joke is that John Scalzi is to Robert Heinlein as Napoleon Dynamite is to Rocky Balboa. Sorry.

  3. Napoleon Dynamite? Really? Huh. And while I like Starship Trooper, I thought Armor was better. So there. Of course, with respect to Armor this could be a case of something best left remembered rather than reread.

  4. “Not very favorable” doesn’t start to describe it: (2:28) “…in other words, the book is dumb, the idea is stupid, and the author is a fool. Although it’s still interesting to read.”

    The “review” is a textbook example of what we call “lost in translation”. All the irony of “Old Man’s War”, along with the fact that it is rather a parody of darker “existential threat to humanity” works is wasted on the “reviewer”, who proceeds to reveal 90% of the plot. I would attribute his total failure to comprehend the novel to poor English (hinted in the “Nevar Forget” sign at 1:37), but the deep mistrust between our worlds probably also shares blame. The narrator sees in John (of all people!) a warmonger: “Like many Americans after the catastrophe on 9/11, Scalzi believes in aggressive military policy: ‘us or them'” (1:34). The “main philosophy” of the book is summarized as “…we don’t understand them, so let’s kill them” (1:50).

    It seems like the material is based on the English version of the book, because the author continuously refers to the literal translation of “Old Man’s War”, rather than the title of the Russian translation “Doomed to Victory” (Обреченные на победу). Still, I wish I had the time to read the translation and see if it doesn’t in some way contribute to this monstrous misinterpretation.



  5. But this begs a couple of questions: what language did he read the book in Russian or English, what is his native tongue Russian or English, how fluid is he in his second language (did he live for a decade in the US).

    We know for a fact that humor rarely works out side of the country of origin and less so outside of the language it is written.

    On the other hand, this might be the perfect review for another russian.

    Wenn ist das Nunstruck git und Slotermeyer? Ja! .. Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput!

  6. Mike D:

    I did catch the 9/11 allusion, of course. Which reminds that most people don’t know that everything in the book except the last chapter was written prior to that particular event, so any discussion of it as a reaction to 9/11 is incorrect on its face. However, the book came out in 2005, so it’s not unreasonable that people think the one has to do with the other. Wrong, but not unreasonable.

  7. Around 1:39-1:40, he uses image snippets from the Bayeux Tapestry. But in the actual BT, the comet (Halley’s comet) does not appear next to that particular tower (which for some reason is duplicated in the image snip). Kinda wonder why someone would do that – maybe he used an image someone else created? I agree with John that it is certainly a lot of effort, for a negative review. :-)

  8. Looked to me like the double tower in the tapestry was somehow related to the twin World Trade Center towers, but I can’t be sure of that.

  9. “We know for a fact that humor rarely works out side of the country of origin and less so outside of the language it is written.”

    Exactly. Because whenever you watch/read something dubbed/translated, a lot if not most pop culture references for example just vanish and are replaced by things known in the other country.
    Or they sound completely awkward when translated faithfully.
    But it’s quite clear that the reviewer didn’t have any interest in actually listening to the real story, so it’s more of a case of only seeing what you want to see.

  10. @ Old Aggie, there is (or was, I cannot find a version right now) an image/meme generator based on elements from the Bayeux tapestry. Which would allow this placement, so I guess either that was used or an existing image from that system was plucked from the net.

  11. John:

    I certainly never saw any parallel between OMW and 9/11, and even now that I’ve thought about it, don’t. Neither does the reviewer, he just argues that the events have caused you and many other Americans to become more warlike, hence what he interprets as the main idea of the book.

    old aggie:

    I suspect the reviewer’s motivation is purely monetary: a negative review creates controversy, and consequently a lot of views from the land of high income, which translate to advertising revenue.

  12. I dunno about humor necessarily being untranslateable. Many kinds of humor, perhaps, but I find that the humor of a tall tale is less obscure; I very much enjoyed Walter Moers’ Zamonia books, for example. (Of course, they are translated from a cousin-language of English, so that is also a probable factor.)

  13. On the topic of humor that doesn’t translate: I used to live with a native of China. He got me into wuxia movies even more than my childhood had. While watching one that was in Cantonese with English subtitles, he burst out laughing, but the subtitles didn’t seem to indicate any humor. When I asked what was up with the rather long LOL, he explained the joke. It all depended on Cantonese puns, and wasn’t remotely funny in English.

    Additionally, despite having practically native-level fluency in English, he didn’t get British humor at all, if it was anything more sophisticated than slapstick.

  14. I’m surprised at the ‘Never forget’ reference. The Russians have their own from WWII, using that very phrase verbatim. In fact, ‘Doomed to Victory’ might even go so far as to define their sentiments immediately after 1945. Interesting. The Russian people still remember WWII, at least that was my memory of it in 2002. Perhaps they’re beginning to forget? Curious. Tangential thoughts, not much else.

  15. A little bit of internal Soviet humor for you: what do you call a device that you stick up your ass that doesn’t buzz? A Soviet device you stick up your ass that buzzes. See? Doesn’t have quite the ‘buzz’ a Muscovite might otherwise see, but sort of falls flat here.

  16. He mistransliterated your name, too…unless I’ve been mispronouncing it. It’s SKAHL-zee, right? Not SKAHL-tsee? (I mean the way YOU pronounce it, not the way your barefoot ancestors pronounced in the old country.)

  17. IMHO the guy likes OMW.
    However, nobody in Russia ever got points (from other Russians) for saying that anything was better than sliced black bread in borscht. On the other hand if you slagged something, well then that just proved to your gospodin you could not be hoodwinked or held accountable for your counter-revolutionary statements by hard men on the other end of a long green table. “It’s still an interesting read,” is good praise from this world weary 27 year old. The video comes without deep context although I’d be willing to bet that a lot of other reviews by this gent adopt this same tenor. Of course I’m probably the sovcyem durak here and y’all are welcome to step on it with me.

    Heads up @Xopher Halftongue. Not all sounds make it into russki yazeek. The H in hero is non-existent for example, and “hero” comes out “Geee-row” in Russian.

  18. Rich, I think Xopher Halftongue was referring to the consonant on the last syllable, that the speaker is using a more Italianesque reading of John’s last name as Скальци, rather than as John himself pronounces it, which would be closer to Скалзи (or maybe even Скэлзи? I’ve not heard him myself). :)

    (not a native speaker myself, but a translator for some years – not an interpreter, but a translator – so I won’t speak against the opinions of the native speakers above, but I thought I saw the issue in the misunderstanding here, sorry to put my nose in)

  19. Oh, also, blog title subhead? Now I’ve got that song in my head, thanks.

    Fortunately, I adore Kate Bush (yeah, yeah, yo-o-o-o), so that’s alright then.

  20. On the “humor doesn’t translate” theme, I’d point to Stanislaw Lem as an example of humor that translates very well, thank you. The Cyberiad is hilarious, but all of his stuff has a large helping of dark absurdity.

  21. Michael Kandel is the reason Lem is funny in English. Most authors probably aren’t so fortunate as Lem in their translators.

  22. @Jenny, I agree that good translation is essential; excellent translation probably also explains why Haruki Murakami’s (much lighter & more subtle) humor comes through as well, although this has proven to be the case with more than one translator of his work.

  23. The only humor I remember from OMW was the old folks (before they got their new bodies) making jokes about … how do I say this … intestinal issues. I don’t remember if “prunes” were ever specifically mentioned, but it basically occurred as a bunch of old man prune jokes. I didn’t find it particularly funny, and English is my native language. I can’t even imagine how it would occur to someone from a non-US culture in another language.

    I don’t know if its universal or a US centric thing, but there seems to be a thread of old-man-prune jokes in the US. I just started using Hulu and came across season 1, episode 1 of “21 Jump Street”. Never saw it before, was curious. So I watched it. It was really, really bad. Johnny Depp starts off a street cop and his veteran partner pretty much keeps talking about all his bodily function issues, including hemoroids, ulcers, and similar ailments of the gastrointestinal track.

    It was… weird.

  24. Maybe these are the rushes for an animated version of OMW that the studio forgot to mention to you?

  25. Evidently he didn’t read The Lost Colony, wherein our protagonist…well, spoilers.

    I wrote a mystery set in Berlin on the eve of WWII. I must be a Nazi.

    Exposition ≠ Endorsement

    Or, less charitably, it’s fiction, dingbats!

  26. For what it’s worth, I found your blog via other links, and liked your blogging writing style, and decided to try reading your books too. I am really, really enjoying /Old Man’s War/, enough that I am reading it only a few pages at a time to make it last longer. (I, um, may have an odd perspective on reading :) )

  27. Hi, John! The comment on YouTube point me here. This is my review and I indeed call you stupid. Sorry about that :) It was a joking simplification to make the point.

    I read your book in english.
    I should note that I missed out on any sequels.

    So this is not a deep analysis of the novel but mainly my impressions, arranged and brushed up :)
    I’ve tried to translate text as best as I can.

    “This is a book about the old men who defended the galaxy.

    Do you remember an army of old barbarians in Pratchett’s books? “Old’s Man War” starts quite similar. The main characters, retired seniors around 75 years olds, enlist into the space guard to protect humanity.

    This might have become a wonderful story about rocket propelled rocking chairs and bulletproof diapers. But Scalzi dodged a nice idea and on the first couple of pages gave every character new body. This happens pretty quickly – all the gaffers in the book turn to genetically modified green giants. I think the book could be called not “Old Man’s War”, but, as well, “The Marching Uruk-hais”.

    Somewhere around 50 pages seniors are being told about political situation, and after that we going to see, in fact, war. Scalzi’s world is full of aliens and humanity simultaneously fighting them all. Among the opponents are, for example, intelligent deer, carnivorous slime and race of the battle hamsters.

    The structure of the novel is very similar to Starship Troopers. It’s also more a chronicle of the career, not a book with a strong continuous story-line.

    And, yes, many have compared John Scalzi to Heinlein. But, frankly, if Scalze is “a new Heinlein” then Napoleon Dynamite in this case – “a new Rocky Balboa”.

    Scalzi is not like Heinlein. Classic had some original thoughts about democracy based on the veterans. The idea of an armored space suit for its time was groundbreaking – Starship Troopers was written in 1959.

    Scalzi can answer to this only with soup cooked on a TV. As many americans after 9/11 he seems to believe in an aggressive military policy. “There Can Be Only One”, off all the cases. But he can’t prove this motto.

    This is a logic paralysis and it’s the corner stone of the plot. In fact, the people in the “Old Man’s War” constantly waging wars just because they can’t find common ground with the aliens. It is a novel with the philosophy, “We do not understand them, so kill them all!” The century of speculative fiction’s evolution just poured down the drain.

    But most surprising is not a garbage, which author using as ideological basis, but the speed at which novel loses it’s fake beard. If it was not said directly in the text, i doubt anyone would be able to identify the characters as an elderly. Pages full of middle-aged burghers who fuck like 15-year-olds. The senility reflects only in a couple of banal jokes. For example, charcters call their group “Old Farts”

    In other words, the book is primitive, main idea is paper-thin and the author is stupid.

    But its still an interesting read. Scalzi is not a genius, but he is cheerful and in this he is more close to Joss Weedon than Heinlein. You will find a lot of jokes, a lot of
    dialogues and like Weedon, serious story from time to time becomes situational comedy.

    I.e. a sitcom.

    In general, do not expect from this novel any pearls of wisdom and balanced discussion about age. Old Man’s War is the book where army of green goons squishing the civilization of intelligent hamsters.”

  28. Dmitry: Your English sucks.* Try reading the Russian translation. You’re totally missing what the book is about.

    It is a novel with the philosophy, “We do not understand them, so kill them all!”

    No, it’s a novel where there are some people who believe that. More of them believe “unless we kill them, they’ll kill us.” The idea that that’s the book’s philosophy is laughable. (Have trouble parsing that sentence? That’s because your English sucks.) The statement above is like saying “1984 is a novel with the philosophy ‘War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength’.” Maybe you believe that, too.

    Also, you’re stupid. No, I don’t really think you’re stupid. I just want to show you how idiotic that sounds.

    *To be fair, it’s better than my Russian. That’s not a high bar though.

  29. Dmitry, I appreciate that you decided to come post on John Scalzi’s blog and explain your review. Your point of view is interesting, though I believe you completely misunderstood the book.

    You said, “This might have become a wonderful story about rocket propelled rocking chairs and bulletproof diapers. But Scalzi dodged a nice idea and on the first couple of pages gave every character new body.”

    No no no no no, that would have been a terrible story, in my opinion. It’s no wonder you were disappointed if you were expecting some kind of comedy involving old people. But that’s not what the book was intended to be,

    Starting with people who were relatively old was a plot device. They have a lifetime’s worth of knowledge and experience (which makes them valuable to the military), but their bodies are wearing out. For some, the promise of a brand-new technology-enhanced young body and the promise of a substantial payout after serving a term in the military is an attractive option. So the books start with a character who has a choice, which is one good way to start a novel. Then, once he has made that choice, the reader follows him as he experiences the consequences of the choice.

    It’s not about killing them all. Here is a sentence from a Publisher’s Weekly review of Old Man’s War: “As bloody combat experiences pile up, Perry begins wondering whether the slaughter is justified; in short, is being a warrior really a good thing, let alone being human?” That’s more like it, in my opinion.

  30. Xopher Halftongue, thank you for your rebuttal :) In my defense I can say that I read in English since I was twelve, right now live in New Zealand and was trained on David Foster Wallace’s parables. So if there was any reason for me to not understand the text high chances it wasn’t a language. And yes, I know my writing sucks, I just don’t do this much often.

    >you’re stupid
    I also writing for some russian gaming sites and this is probably nicest characteristic this week :)

    Hi, BW )
    Please do not take it to seriously.
    This was a part of experiment in new media and some inside jokes of course could be lost in translation.

  31. Dmitry, it would be interesting if you would read the book in Russian and see whether that changes your opinion. Somebody farther up this thread mentioned the title in Russian. I don’t know how available it would be in New Zealand, though.

    Also, don’t forget that it was Mr. Scalzi’s first novel, and though it was a pretty good story, he’s had years of experience in which to improve. Try “Redshirts,” if you can get hold of it. It’s meant to be funny, and if you have ever watched “Star Trek,” you might appreciate the humor.

    I majored in Russian in college (many many many years ago), by the way, and I’m absolutely certain that my comprehension of Russian was much much better than my proficiency in writing it. So I wouldn’t worry too much about your writing. I think you made yourself clear enough.

  32. I note with pleasure but no surprise that John is more easygoing about this than I am! Of course, for him to reply to a review would be the Author’s Big Mistake, where as for me it’s just a fan getting…well, not exactly mature.

    Dmitry, I apologize. While I still think your review is desperately wrong-headed, I was a bit rude. Thank you for taking it with humor. But really, you didn’t get the point of the book at all.

  33. BW, thanks. I keep hearing good thing about Redshirts and definitely going to read it.

    And yes there are russian edition of Old Man’s War but I’ve passed on it.

    It’s just an awfulness of the russian sci-fi market. Their print numbers are small, books are cheap. Author could get as little as $200 for book. Publishers print horrendous orthodox-space-opera stuff and they even steal faces of famous actors for covers (

    So translation are often quick and botched, I think many people who can read english ignore them.

    Xopher Halftongue, no worries :)

  34. @ Dmitry Veselov

    Among the opponents are, for example, intelligent deer, carnivorous slime and race of the battle hamsters.

    I’d forgotten about the battle hamsters.

    As many americans after 9/11 he seems to believe in an aggressive military policy. “There Can Be Only One”, off all the cases. But he can’t prove this motto.

    The parallel would only be valid if 99% of the other nations on Earth were trying to exterminate Americans. Last time I checked, we haven’t pissed the world off quite that badly, though the century is young.

    This is a logic paralysis and it’s the corner stone of the plot. In fact, the people in the “Old Man’s War” constantly waging wars just because they can’t find common ground with the aliens. It is a novel with the philosophy, “We do not understand them, so kill them all!” The century of speculative fiction’s evolution just poured down the drain.

    As I alluded, this reading is cut off at the knees in The Lost Colony. If you can bring yourself to give Scalzi another shot, I’d recommend skipping the sequel The Ghost Brigades – which is more of an aside to the main narrative – and trying The Lost Colony, then see if you still think kill ‘em all is the moral of the story.

    @ Xopher Halftongue

    Dmitry: Your English sucks.* Try reading the Russian translation. You’re totally missing what the book is about.

    Better than my Russian too :-/

    As someone who’s worked hard to become trilingual (English/Spanish/Japanese/still working on Korean), I can attest that mastering another tongue is no trivial task, and I know from conversations with Russian speakers that English and Russian as some of the more disparate human languages.

    That said, I don’t think Dmitry’s trouble is his command of English, but his decision to take the depiction of a hyper-militaristic society and a pitilessly hostile universe as endorsement of said fictional society’s zeitgeist. I’ve crafted some cultures that you couldn’t pay me to visit.

  35. Um, The Last Colony that is…I’ll be over here cleaning the egg off my face now :P

    You check for spelling, but it’s the subtle things that always slip through the cracks…

  36. I seem to recall that one of the foreign editions of The Last Colony was titled “[The] Lost Colony” in whatever language it was (Italian?). Whether this was accidental or deliberate was not clear, but John was, as usual, mellow about it. Unless I’m inadvertently making the whole thing up, anyway.

    Dmitry: Glad you came by and let John and the rest of us know what it is your video said. :) That said, do see his note above — he wrote Old Man’s War before 9/11, all but the very end, so there’s actually no connection between that event and the setting of the book. (Not to mention that while the Colonial Union’s motto is “kill them before they kill us”, that’s not necessarily what John Perry and the other soldiers believe, and certainly not what John Scalzi believes.)