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I’ve met many people who want to read Russian literature in the original language. There’s just one big problem. It’s incredibly difficult. And in order to practice reading Russian, you already need a reasonable vocabulary.
So if you’re a beginner, you can’t practice reading, since you lack the necessary experience. But you also can’t gain experience, since you don’t have the skills yet to practice reading.
Bilingual books in Russian...
What are bilingual books?
Bilingual books (sometimes also called dual language books) are books that show the English translation next to the original text. In our case, that means that you see the English and Russian languages at the same time.
In practice, most bilingual books:
These are the 3 most common formats. After all, the main goal is that you can test yourself, and see if you understand the Russian original. And if you do not understand the phrase, you can easily look it up.
This is my bilingual book of short stories of Anton Chekhov.
In the previous 10 years many new Russian English bilingual books have been published. The reason for that is that the internet makes it easier and simpler to create books, and to add the translation on the other page or below.
If you would want to, you could even create your own bilingual book, by using Russian translate and a Google Docs document. It would require a lot of copy-pasting, and the translation from Google Translate would be missing the point once a while. But you would be able to create it.
That’s not the point, though!
It’s a lot easier to just read the books that others (who are often both fluent in Russian and English) have created.
How do bilingual books help you learn Russian?
To start, they’re the first step to reading actual books. If you’re anything like me, you’re learning Russian because you’re interested in the language, country and culture.
For example, the polyglot Steve Kaufmann said that his main reason to learn Russian was to read the Russian literature.
Now, that was not my main reason why I’m learning Russian. But now that I’m at the level where I can read Russian literature in its original language, I am incredibly happy that I can.
See if you can understand my Russian here:
You need a reasonably high starting point to read Russian books.
Even if you’re reading Russian children’s book, those still require a small-to-moderate vocabulary. Depending on the book, I’d say 500 to 1000 words.
Once you’re at more than 1000 words, you’re starting to get into intermediate territory.
Check Luca’s tips here to improve your Russian. Or watch his video in Russian (with English subs):
Unless you’re meticulously translating every word you don’t know with a dictionary in hand.
Though I know I wouldn't be able to do that. It would get me out of my focus and I wouldn’t enjoy the book.
So what should we do?
Bilingual books are the answer if you’re a beginner
When you’re reading a book that has both the original Russian and the translated English text next to it, you can enjoy both worlds.
You can read the story. See how much you know. And if you don’t understand something, just check the English version.
While checking the correct translation, see if you can direct words back to the original text.
It almost has a ‘puzzle-like' feeling to it.
You read the Russian sentence. You understand 50% of the words. You’re almost grasping the meaning of the sentence, but cannot completely get it because of your limited vocabulary.
Now you check the translation.
You see that you got half the words right. And you see the translation of the words you didn’t know. Now you check in which cases they were, and who was the subject of the sentence.
Everything becomes clear. You’ve learned a couple of extra words, and tested your grammatical knowledge of Russian.
And you’re reading a fun book 🙂
So bilingual books do a great job at:
It’s also a pretty low intensity activity, as you can choose to focus more on the story, and less on the ‘need to figure out exactly how this sentence in grammatically constructed’ type of reading, that often gets used in classes.
So having one of those books next to your bed, to read for about 5 to 10 minutes before sleeping, would be a great way to improve your Russian.
This is me in 2019 at the big lake Baikal close to Irkutsk.
3 tips to get the most out of dual language books
As with any effective method, there are some things you should do to get the most progress out of it. And some things to avoid.
Here are my 4 tips to successfully read the books:
1.Start with bilingual books for children
It might be tempting to start with world-famous Russian literature, since the translation is right next to it. However, if you’re a beginner, you better start with books at your level. Specifically bilingual books for children.
The language used isn’t too difficult. The stories aren’t long. Sentences are short. Everything works together. If you already have a basic vocabulary, then it will be much easier to get into the flow of reading the book.
If you’d start with difficult books, you would end up just reading the translated text.
Starting with children’s bilingual books allows you to understand just enough, so that the puzzle element becomes challenging. But not too hard.
Later I will show you some good children’s bilingual books in Russian and English to start with.
If you’re unsure about your level, check this page that shows you apps that are developed by TORFL (The Test of Russian as a Foreign Language) examiners and professors. If you don’t manage to pass the B1 test satisfactorily, I recommend you start with bilingual children’s books.
2.Pick a book/genre you enjoy
There’s no need to torture yourself. Read a book or genre that you want to read. If you’re not a fan of detective stories, don’t try to read the bilingual version of anything Boris Akunin wrote.
If you do like that genre, please get his books.
The more you enjoy the story, the easier it will be to pick up the book and start reading. And the more time you spend reading, the faster your progress will be.
3.Test first if you understand a phrase before you check the translation
If you want to maximize the use out of each book, you need to do this. Hide the English text with a paper or your hand. Challenge yourself to first only read the Russian version, before you allow yourself to look up the translation.
Bonus points if you spend half a minute thinking about the sentence, its meaning and how the cases/verbs work together.
This changes the exercises from passive reading to active learning. Which has been shown to improve how good you remember things.
I don’t recommend taking this too far, though. You don’t want to spend 5 minutes pouring over a sentence, long after you’ve understood which parts of the phrase you understand - and which you don’t.
You also don’t want to bore yourself. Keep it a challenge, but make sure you still enjoy reading the book.
Bilingual books & collection of stories in English and Russian
Here are a couple of regular and children’s bilingual books. Pick a genre you like, and make sure you’re not overexerting yourself as far as difficult is concerned.
You’ve probably read Cinderella at least once in your life. So you already know the plot. That’s great news, since it makes it a lot easier to guess the meaning of words and phrases. Here’s the English Russian bilingual version of the fairy tale.
The website Russian for Free has 12 short bilingual stories on their website. I really enjoy that they include the audio of the story, and show the stresses on the words. Each story is about a page long, and they have 4 beginner, 4 intermediate and 4 advanced ones.
Crime and Punishment (Преступление и наказание)
On the website Russian Lessons you can find the first 8 chapters of the classic novel Crime and Punishment in English and Russian. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like they’re going to complete it. However, if you manage to get through the first 8 chapters with an 80% understanding of what’s going on… you could even try the original without translation.
Russian fairy tales (Русские сказки)
Yum, let’s eat!
This is a children’s book that shows how all the popular world’s dishes and food are translated into different languages. Be sure to choose ‘Russian - English’ from the dropdown menu, otherwise you may end up with the Spanish or Korean version.
Reading in Russian is a great way to practice your Russian. It’s fun and interesting. You get to practice your grammar skills and learn new vocabulary.
The only downside is that you can’t just start reading if you’re a beginner. You need a decent vocabulary, before reading becomes an option.
Luckily bilingual books are available to bridge the gap between beginner and intermediate. We’re lucky to live in the age of the internet, as every year more and more bilingual books are created.
I hope this post taught you something new, and that the book recommendations help you start reading.
Written by Arie Helderman
Arie Helderman is a Dutch guy who learned Russian. He has a YouTube channel in Russian (Ари говорит по русски) and teaches people how to speak Russian on his site Learntherussianlanguage.com. He also has a personal YouTube channel in English, where he gives his perspective as a foreigner about the Russian language.