Химия: chemistry,
as in test tubes

So there I
am in the kitchen, busy at the stove while the television is on in the
background. I’m paying more attention to the sauce I’m stirring than the TV, so
the trailer for Как я встретил вашу маму (How I Met Your Mother) is just
background noise with a few words breaking through: … друзья (friends)…. Нью-Йорк (New York)… бесстыдство Барни (Barney’s brazenness)…

That is,
until they get to: химия между Маршаллом и Лили (the WHAT between Marshall and
Lily?) Stop stirring sauce. Oh, the “chemistry between Marshall and Lily,” which
was translated literally as химия. This must sound something like “the halology between Marshall and
Lily” or “the mathematical statistics between Marshall and Lily.” It makes no
sense at all. Why haven’t people complained?

after some poking around on the interwebs, it appears that lots of people here
in Russia should have been complaining about mysterious chemical experiments being
conducted on the population. In one text, a friend says to a couple in love: Мы знаем, у вас есть химия. (We know
that you have a chemical reaction.) Another person comments about some married friends:
Я бы сказал, что эти
двое разбираются в
химии (I’d say those
two know their way around the science of chemistry.) Surely some translator or
editor thought: Really? That can’t be right…

Note to
translators: If it sounds wacky, chances are your translation is wacky.

Just to
clarify: in English, chemistry can be used figuratively to describe the
interaction between people. People can have bad chemistry or great chemistry,
meaning they rub each other the wrong way or they are totally compatible.

In Russian
you don’t call this chemistry, although you might call it a form of
electricity, at least at a first meeting:
Какая-то искра проскочила между нами, и я понял…она — моя. (A kind of spark passed between us and I
realized — she was mine.)

This might be
simply контакт (contact),
as one woman describes it: У нас с
ним сразу возник контакт, и я
поняла, что мы
близки духовно (He and I felt a connection right
away, and I knew that we were spiritually close.) Or связь (connection, tie) of one kind or another:
Сильную эмоциональную связь, возникшую между нами, порвать невозможно (The strong emotional
connection between us can’t be broken.)

In Russian
scientific terminology, this connection appears to be called аттракция (attraction), but this is
probably about as comprehensible to the average lovelorn Russian on the street
as химия. Когда появился Петя — умница и
красавец — Оля среагировала на возможность (которую стала замечать благодаря своему развитию), и у
нее возникла взаимная аттракция с Петей (When Petya appeared — smart and handsome — Olya reacted to the possibility
— which she had begun to notice due to her level of development — and she and
Petya were attracted to each other.)

Well, that
sure takes all the romance out of it.

Among mere
mortals, however, it’s more common to describe the connection as a form of
compatible linguistics: Мы говорим на
одном языке (We speak the same language.)
Мы поняли друг друга c полуслова (We finished each other’s
sentences, literally “we understood each other from half a word”). Разница в
несколько лет нисколько не мешает нам
с Сергеем находить общий язык (Several years difference in our ages
haven’t kept Sergei and me from finding a common language.)

People might
be drawn to one another, which one woman describes in almost desperate terms: Мы испытывали необъяснимую тягу друг к другу.
Пропал интерес ко
всему. (We were
inexplicably drawn to each other. We had no interest in anything else.)

Or they might just be right for each other: Мы созданы друг для друга (We were made for each other.) Now
that’s something everyone can understand.

Michele A.
Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter, author of “The Russian
Word’s Worth,” a collection of her columns. Follow her on Twitter