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Articles on this issue periodically appear in literary essays. There are pros and cons, and the issue lives on, unresolved.

Here's the problem:

Translators of Russian classic novels into English oftentimes resort to using a dated English term to translate a fairly common (or so I'm told) Russian verb that means

sell [noun] and use the proceeds to buy liquor and get hideously drunk once or a number of times.

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Do feel free to correct me if I'm wrong. I don't mind.

I'm further told that one can "[sell and use the proceeds, etc]" anything one can turn into cash quickly, including, but not limited to, one's estate, honor, faith in humanity, and one's sister's last pair of Parisian silk stockings.

Some translators insist on using the term "drink up."

I distinctly remember reading an article (it could have been a New York Times piece, but don't hold me to it) in which the author complained that, try as he might, he couldn't picture a man "drinking up his sister's stockings." Well, neither can I.

Here's what the OED has to say about the term so many translators resort to at the risk of being ridiculed:

drink up

to spend or waste (money) on liquor.

One commentator notes (indignantly, I would imagine):

It’s perfectly good English. There’s no need to replace it with a wordy explanation.

I (and a bunch of other people) beg to differ. To me, "drink up" means "finish the damn drink already, you stupid twit, we're about to miss the opening."

You can, if you like, read this lengthy and not very entertaining blog post on the subject; there are dozens of others, including a couple of racy pieces from the New York Jumping Times, or whatever. Most of them contain a lot of posturing and caustic asides, but not much else.

My question is ... is there a word or short phrase in English that would convey the meaning (as described above) without making the reader blink, raise his eyebrows and go, "Huh?"

  • 2
    Drink up can mean two different things, so I don't see the problem. E.g., "Drink up, we're going to be late" means what you said, but in "Within three years after his mother's death, he had drunk up his entire inheritance and was left penniless and with a shot liver", drink up means what OED said. – user152004 Jan 18 '16 at 3:35
  • @DanRomik: I see your point. Let me ask you this: have you ever used the OED version yourself? I mean, in real life? – Ricky Jan 18 '16 at 3:43
  • Well, "sell" in this context would probably be "hock" -- ie, sell at a pawn shop. This term applies even when a pawn shop is not literally involved, if the property is disposed of quickly and carelessly in the quest for money. – Hot Licks Jan 18 '16 at 3:52
  • @Ricky no I haven't. I guess I'm not that kind of guy, despite having Russian ancestry... Anyway, if the point that you're trying to make is that this is not a very common usage of "drink up", I wholeheartedly agree. But if you're arguing it's an incorrect usage, that's a stronger claim and both I and, more importantly, OED, disagree with you. – user152004 Jan 18 '16 at 3:57
  • But I'm not thinking of any one word or short expression that means "hock everything and use it to get blind drunk". There may be some things on UrbanDictionary, but they would likely be localized expressions that would not be well-known. But to say not "drink up" but "he drank his mother's inheritance" or some such would be easily understood. – Hot Licks Jan 18 '16 at 3:57
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Translation of literature is a difficult and subjective task. A translator is always balancing many ideals - clarity of meaning, flavour of the original, etc. - and often trying to translate colloquialisms for which there is no exact equivalent. Different translators make different choices about what words they use. Other translators sometimes disagree with them.

The phrase 'drink up' is valid English and does mean what the translator says. The OED is ample proof if that. It's a little archaic, but the Anna Karenina is more than 100 years old. Maybe the translator wanted to convey an archaic sense.

'Drink away' might be an alternative. I'm sure the translator was aware of it.

  • 1
    +1 for your thoughts. I disagree. "Drink away" is more palatable, sure, but the situation where a person will steal from a close relative, sell it, and get drunk or high is hardly unique; there's nothing particularly Russian about it; there's got to be a modern English equivalent, or near-equivalent, or something. – Ricky Jan 18 '16 at 3:34
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    This isn't a discussion site. You asked for alternative, and here is one. – DJClayworth Jan 18 '16 at 4:11
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Squander, perhaps?

To spend (money, goods, etc.) recklessly, prodigally, or lavishly; to expend extravagantly, profusely, or wastefully. Bring to disintegration or dissolution. (OED)

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    +1 for thinking along those lines. But ... but ... "He squandered his sister's last pair of Parisian silk stockings" sounds kind of funny, and not in any good way, either. – Ricky Jan 18 '16 at 11:00

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