Fascinating article on Global Voices about how Drag Race fever has been spreading in Russia, where, since 2014, a group of volunteer translators on the Russian social media network VKontakte has been working to bring it to the Russian internet.
The VKontakte group has attracted a dedicated team of 10 translators and has expanded to reach an audience of over 5,000 regular viewers across the former Soviet Union. They’ve translated over 70 episodes of the show (now in its ninth season).
There are a lot of challenges, though.
While it is easy enough to watch online, capturing all the nuances of the show for the Russian-speaking world is a challenge. Much of the dialogue in Drag Race includes slang that is particular to the LGBT and drag communities in the U.S.—a lexicon that is not as developed in Russian.
There’s a long bit where translators where stuck for MONTHS trying to figure out how to explain Joselyn Fox’s word “motherfishin'” during the rap challenge.
In drag culture, “fishy” describes a drag queen who has such a feminine appearance they could be mistaken for being female in real life. And to a native or near-native English speaker, the play on words with a certain expletive would not be lost. But without such a vocabulary in Russian, the play on words could be lost to foreign viewers. Nikita explained, “The biggest problem with translating RuPaul’s Drag Race is a lack of developed drag culture in Russia, and with that, a lack of vocabulary associated with it.”
“I thought about [motherfishin’] for two months and then I had an epiphany,” Elizabeth Rusakova, one of the group’s primary translators, told RuNet Echo. “There is a fish called sterliad’ (sterlet), and it sounds like a combination of the word sterva (witch) and bliat’ (f***)…In my head, something clicked, and I realized that is the perfect word.”
Sometimes, it’s a little less complicated. When one of the contestants wins a challenge, RuPaul always tells them “Condragulations!” which the team on VKontakte routinely changes to pozdragliayu instead of the usual pozdravliayu (congratulations), thus creating an equivalent vocabulary for Russian viewers.
And of course we haven’t even MENTIONED the rampant homophobia ingrained in Russian society…
In order to comply with Russian law, however, the VKontakte group’s administrators are forced to maintain tight control over who can access the episodes, most of which are pirated from other sites. “We accept people into the group who are 18 and older. If we can’t see the person’s age on their profile, or they have no photos posted, we ignore the request. If a person doesn’t look their age, we also don’t accept them into the group and sometimes we ask them to confirm their age in a personal message,” Elena, a group administrator, explained to RuNet Echo.
Despite the lengths they have to go to adapt to the challenges of the Russian media space, legally and linguistically, RuPaul’s Russian translation team is in unanimous agreement that their work is vital for fans, LGBT-identifying or otherwise. Another translator, Elizabeth, told RuNet Echo that “Mama Ru is a sip of freedom in a conservative society that constantly surrounds us. The show inspires and allows you to understand that you can be yourself. Mama Ru is a great source of strength.”
Nikita was a blunt about the challenges the group faces, even among the LGBT community. “The gay community in Russia is very intolerant. Masculine or ‘natural’ homosexuals think that all persecution against gays occurs because of the more feminine gays. In turn, they think that because some of them sit in the closet, gays will be targeted by homophobes.” Drag Race’s embrace of femininity takes a stand against those in the gay community who discriminate against people with more feminine identities. The problem often plays out on gay dating sites, where men who identify as more masculine or ‘masc’ often shun those who identify as more feminine by noting “no fems” on their profiles. RuPaul himself has addressed the issue by stating that “the oppressed take on the characteristics of their oppressors.” Nevertheless, Nikita sees the show as a source of hope. “There is even a split in the community and I think that this show can help bring people together.”