Boston — On Sept. 6, an article in the Soviet Union's largest newspaper, Pravda, made passing reference to a shortfall in state revenues caused by decreased income from alcohol taxes. This signaled Harvard research fellow David E. Powell, a specialist in Soviet social isssues, that the current crackdown on alcoholism in the Soviet Union may be working. To such a specialized reader, Pravda provides at least a partial view of the inner workings of the governmental machinery.
Wouldn't it be nice to display that world to inquiring American readers whose Russian is limited to nyet and da?
That's the proposition of a daily English-language translation scheduled for a November publication by Charles C. Cox, a Minnesota businessman.
In preliminary runs, this new translation (largely intended for scholars and libraries) has been troubled with translation issues that some scholars say cast serious doubts on its value. Supporters and workers on the project respond that such Russian translation disagreements are commonplace.
Extracts from Pravda and numerous other USSR publications have been published by the venerable Current Digest of the Soviet Press since 1949. But because the new Pravda translation will deliver the paper's full text (delayed by at least several days), the Minnesota publishers herald it as a ``unique source material essentially denied Americans for 60 years.'' The two facsimile issues available from Mr. Cox so far put into the average American reader's hands a cryptic artifact of the censorship and offic ial double-speak in the Soviet Union.
Andrew Sedych, editor of the Russian 'emigr'e newspaper Novoye Russkoye Slovo, published in New York City, observes that he ``ran away from Russia in order not to read Pravda.'' But Kremlin-watchers and students of Russian society slog determinedly through the thin (usually six-page) newspaper every day, searching for fragmentary insights often buried in a sea of gray polemic.
It is not an easy task. Harvard's Mr. Powell calls Pravda ``dull, unutterably boring,'' and says it is ``designed to lull people into a kind of insensibility. . . . You will get in Pravda what the Politburo considers appropriate.''
What the Politburo considered appropriate for the lead item in the Aug. 18 issue, according to the English-language prototype, was an article running under the headline ``To Each -- According to His Labor,'' which proclaimed: ``Concern for people is [the] law of the life of a socialist society.'' Another Page 1 article, subtitled ``Attention to the Stockpiling of Fodder,'' began, `` `We have three mechanized teams,' explained the head agronomist of the farm, R. Sibgatullin.'' A tiny story at the bottom of the page tells of ``a hunger strike against the bloody repression of the Guatemalan people by the pro-American regime which rules that country.''
The language in which such Pravda stories are told is calculatedly doctrinaire and arcane. ``Even the average Soviet citizen cannot understand Pravda very well,'' says Boston University's Yelena Gessen, who translated Soviet defector Arkady Shevchenko's English-language memoirs, ``Breaking with Moscow,'' into Russian.
Ms. Gessen, a lecturer at BU's Russian Studies Institute, found what she considered glaring errors in the two English-language Pravda prototypes put out by Cox: ``machinery'' rendered as ``techniques,'' ``farm'' rather than ``livestock section,'' and the mechanization of water supply to livestock called ``mechanized irrigation.''
Prof. Maurice Friedberg, head of the Slavonic studies department at the University of Illinois -- who has been associated with the Current Digest of the Soviet Press, the source-document for much scholarship in this country -- verified these errors and others by telephone.
On the other hand, Boris Sorokin, an associate professor specializing in Tolstoy at the University of Kentucky, maintains that the Pravda translations by the Minnesota project are ``remarkably accurate'' and added that ``there are four or five different ways of translating Russian into English.'' Asked about errors identified by other translators, he replied: ``This is a wonderful idea shouldered by people who may not themselves be experts in Russian. [But] I am sure as they get launched with daily prod uction'' they will weed these errors out. ``Who is going to care if it is a farm or a livestock section?''
``We realize that we are not going to be letter-perfect,'' publisher Cox acknowledges. His chief translator, Alexander Guss, professor emeritus of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., argues that Russian translations are generally full of controversies over which reasonable scholars disagree.
At the heart of this confusion is the fact that Soviet journalism is a hermetic world governed by volumes of censorship regulations and close bureaucratic scrutiny.
Boris Bochstein, managing editor of Novoye Russkoye Slovo, served for 11 years as a staff editor for Moskovskaya Pravda, a capital-city counterpart of the national Pravda. He says the operative slogan in the mind of Soviet journalists, when it comes to anything but safe, party jargon, is ``Don't think about it, don't write about it.''
``Practically nobody [asks for] Pravda,'' observes George Estafy, technical assistant at the New York Public Library's Slavonic Division. The far more colorful Literaturnaya Gazeta (Literary Gazette) gets better circulation at the library, as does Izvestia, the other general circulation, national newspaper of the Soviet Union, and Krasnaya Zvyezda, or Red Star, the military journal.
The Soviet managerial journal Ekho has ``carried a wide variety of controversial articles,'' adds Dr. Mark Beissinger, an assistant professor of government at Harvard's Russian Research Center. ``A lot of other journals and newspapers . . . are more rich and interesting than Pravda.''