Справка: A Reference on References

If I had to pick a single least favorite word to translate, it would be spravka, splashed across the top of my document like this:


Even inline, in the middle of a sentence, it’s no treat. But as the title, it carries significantly more weight: my reader is looking to the title to get a sense of what they’re getting themselves into. That’s a lot of responsibility for a single word or short phrase, and unfortunately, I have a lot of options to choose from.

The authoritative Russian monolingual dictionary by Ozhegov (my copy is from 1989, 21st edition) lists two definitions for spravka: 1. Information on something obtained by someone after a search or in answer to a query. 2. A document containing such information. In most places I encounter it, spravka has the second meaning, but imagine receiving a translated document where the title reads “Document Containing Information Obtained by Someone After a Search or in Answer to a Query.” Even this lengthy and descriptive title gives no hint as to what information the document contains.

And this is a problem. In English we like to title and refer to our documents in clear, differentiated ways, such as “Transcript,” or “doctor’s note,” or “Proof of Marriage,” or at the very least “Certificate.” For other documents, such as letters from institutions confirming that someone is enrolled or employed (or not), we avoid titles altogether. After all, it’s a letter, why does it need a title? “To Whom It May Concern” introduces the tone of the document well enough, and carries about as much specific meaning as spravka.

Nevertheless, clients don’t seem to like it when I omit the title, which they can very clearly see in the original, whether or not they can read and understand it. And sometimes spravka appears in the middle of a sentence, where I have no choice but to render it somehow. So I scramble for something that comes close without being too specific: certificate, informational document, report, record, letter of confirmation/verification… In the process, I’ve had to reject some convincing, but ultimately inappropriate alternatives:

Reference: once offered as a correction by a client, possibly by analogy with spravochny material, ‘reference material.’ The “Help” menu in software is often translated as spravka as well, which adds to the confusion.

Inquiry: this variant, which reflects neither of the meanings given by Ozhegov above, may come from a reparsing of the phrase navesti spravku, ‘obtain information,’ as ‘make an inquiry.’

Official Document: while spravkas are often official documents, they are also written by private individuals to officially confirm certain information. Besides, “official document” also covers other document types (IDs or passports, original certificates and diplomas, etc.), not just confirmations.

And why do I keep having to translate documents with this vague and frustrating title? It comes down to the peculiarities of Russian bureaucracy. While in most US contexts, simply stating certain information or referring to a registration number is sufficient, in Russia institutions may require that you go back to the official body where such information or registration is officially kept and secure a document—yes, a spravka—formally stating the information and bearing the official body’s stamp and signature. Maybe if in the US we were constantly being asked to provide these kinds of informational documents, we would have a concise and specific term for them. But alas, instead we are left with this lexical gap.

What’s your (least) favorite untranslatable word? I invite you to commiserate in the comments.

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