Lost Without Translation: Foreigners Try to Use Moscow Metro

PHOTO by Kirill Kalinnikov / RIA Novosti
“No Inglish, no”

Last week information desks were launched at four Moscow Metro stations – Kurskaya, Paveletskaya, Ploshchad Revolyutsii and the vestibule connecting Pushkinskaya and Tverskaya. Metro administration announced these new additions to the underground service as a convenient way to ask any question about the subway system. The best part is, the service is available in both Russian and English.

MOSLENTA decided to test it out and see what its like to navigate the Moscow Metro despite no prior knowledge of Russian. In order to do that, we recruited two English-speaking expat volunteers living in Moscow.

Sam, 22, Nigeria

New Information Desks

Before approaching the info desk for the first time I was afraid the staff would react inappropriately if I asked them something. I was pleasantly surprised. I was supposed to ask directions to the Mezhdunarodnaya station at the Tverskaya desk. It’s a complex route, but the Metro employee explained the line switches I needed to make and emphasized the need to read the signs on trains to board the one that has “Mezhdunarodnaya” written on it.


I asked another question at the Ploshchad Revolyutsii helpdesk – how do you get to the Ostankino Technical Center? The staff said that I can take the metro and the tram, but suggested that I save money by taking the metro and then walking.

I also found out which subway pass I should buy if I plan on staying in Moscow for a month. I was told about the monthly pass and the famous Troika pass card. It was all very clear, although I wasn’t offered assistance in buying the passes.

I was under the impression that the staff for these desks were hired based on their qualifications. Both employees I talked to used classic language structure and phrases found in Russian-English translation textbooks. I don't think English-speaking tourists will have a problem understanding them.

At the same time, I felt that the staff didn’t have a lot of experience speaking English in real life – they felt constrained and shy when talking. I also noticed that, although they listened to my questions carefully, they were somewhat standoffish in typically Russian manner – I didn't get a smile throughout either conversation.


Digital Information Terminals

Since there are only four information desks at the time, I was asked to try out the red and blue information terminals which are installed at the center of each metro station. Each has signs in English – “Information” and “Emergency call” – so it gives the impression that an English service is available through the terminals.

I tried sking for assistance through the terminals at Belorusskaya and Kitay-Gorod – both regularly frequented by foreigners – but the operators refused to help me.

They bluntly answered that information is offered only in Russian and then disconnected the call.

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Cashiers and Other Metro Employees

I’ve asked for help from Metro employees four times and was provided assistance three. The first one was at Belorusskaya on the cirle lime. I was supposed to find out which exit I need to take to get to the Aeroexpress (the airport-bound express train). To my surprise, the station had neither a policeman nor an attendant on duty, so I had to ask maintenance personnel.

The orange vest-clad woman didn’t speak English, but was very sympathetic and used her initiative.

Although she couldn’t explain properly, she took my arm and walked me to the correct exit. She then lead me out to the street and showed me the way.

A similar thing happened with the cashier at the Kitay-Gorod station. She didn’t speak English, but I could explain with gestures that I needed three tickets. I also asked police officers for help. The senior officer spoke a bit of English and told me how to get to Okhotny Ryad. He used his folder, which, apart from police documents and photographs, had a Metro map.

At Belorusskaya station – on the Zamoskvoretskaya Line – I was refused assistance.

I asked the cashier for five tickets, but as soon as I started speaking English she waved me off.

She not only didn’t speak English, but outright refused to even try and understand me. If it wasn't for the person in the queue behind me, I don't think I'd have been able to buy a ticket.

So my general impression is that Metro employees are not ready to communicate in English. If a foreigner has a question, it’s unlikely they will receive an appropriate answer. The worst part is that some of the staff don’t even try to understand the question.

Sam, 28, United Kingdom

New Information Desks

I was assigned the Komsomolskaya info desk. To start off, it’s not that easy to find. Since the station is linked to three train terminals and two metro lines, I had to walk around for a while before discovering the location of the desk. I even took the wrong exit and had to return, thinking “Damn, I need to go back inside, back into the flowing crowds.”


On my second attempt I found the stand – it was waiting for me at the entrance from the Leningradsky and Yaroslavsky terminals. It was unusual to ask for assistance in Moscow using my native language. It felt as though some sort of a Russian charm was lost at that moment – you know, when they’re rude to your face and look down on you, but do it from the heart, giving the impression that they’re taking care of you.

I asked for directions to Lesoparkovaya station. The man at the desk patiently, albeit aloofly, told me to go to Chistye Prudy, switch to the “orange” line (he actually said “oranzhevaya/orange,” I guess he thought it would be clearer this way), take it to the terminal station, then make another switch and exit at the next station. I was even warned that due to maintenance the train may be delayed.

I asked if they could perhaps draw the instructions, and was given a detailed map where they traced my route with a pen. Overall, my assistant’s English was somewhat lacking, but he was doing his best.


Cashiers and Other Metro Employees

I can’t say the same about the cashier at that station. She knew only one English word and it was, incidentally, “one.” She said it with a rising inflection and raised one finger, asking how many tickets I needed.

When I nodded and asked for the ticket’s price, she attempted to pass me over to the price list. She soon realized the futility of this endeavor and instead used her calculator to type and display the required amount: 50 roubles.

Frankly, I expected worse. To be perfectly honest, I’ve never even dreamt of someone in the Moscow Metro helping me in my native language. So I guess you could say I was pleasantly surprised. Moscow Metro is developing for the better. Although somewhat slowly. There's still a long way to go before making it comfortable for foreigners. And please, try to be more cheerful. At least during the escalator rides.

Author: Filippo Valoti Alebardi, Alexey Afonskiy