Me Talk Pretty One Day

67392734_2292618164188215_3196602514246783151_nPopular Russian blogger Dr. Philipp Kuzmenko might style himself the Russian “Doctor Phil,” but the title of his new book admirably owes nothing to modern English. Image courtesy of Feedler

The wholesale destruction of the Russian language at the hands of intellectuals and hipsters trying to look more worldly than they really are is not distressing only because what they do to their mother tongue looks and sounds awful and needless, but also because they pilfer the most threadbare, unattractive bits of modern English to gussy up their own perfectly pedestrian thoughts, e.g.,

В школьников по-прежнему запихивают объем информации, а сегодня надо учить компетенциям, трекам, по которым ребенок сможет добывать знания сам.

Schoolchildren are, as before, crammed with a volume of information, but today it is necessary to teach competencies, tracks with which the child will be able to obtain knowledge himself.

This is not the most egregious example I could find (it popped up on my Facebook newsfeed a few minutes ago), but it nicely shows the kind of wild register switching that happens when people talk and write like this.

There are at least three registers in the sentence quoted above: colloquial Russian (“crammed,” “schoolchildren”), bureaucratese (“as before,” “volume,” “information,” “obtain”), and avoidable, undigested Anglicisms (“competencies,” “tracks”).

Topping this progressivist cake is the cherry of Russian’s inbuilt sexism, if we can call it that, which means that a “child” is always a “he,” not a “she” or “it” or “they.”

Sometimes, the outcome of this permanent mental confusion is almost worthy of the greatest Russian literary register switcher of all time, Andrei Platonov. But he was making a very big tragicomic point, unlike his tin-eared descendants, who are unconsciously turning his uncanny nightmares into linguistic norms.

Why should this bother me, a non-native Russian speaker? Because I work as a translator. Much of the stuff I translate, nearly all of it written by highly educated, extraordinarily well-read Russians, resembles the hodgepodge quoted above, although it is usually even more unintentionally funny, chockablock with so many half-baked, misunderstood Anglicisms that I could think the authors were pulling my leg.

In fact, they are deadly serious.

To spare my readers the same sense that the writers are having a laugh at their expense, I have to translate their hipster worldliness signaling into what they might have said had they been real English speakers with no penchant for tiresome jargon and bureaucratese.

Does this mean I translate their “I’m so clever I’m also thinking in English as I write this” Russian into idiomatic Russian before translating it into real English?

Of course not. But in this case, I could venture such a translation, just for fun.

Мы все еще запихиваем в школьников большие куски информации, но сегодня мы должны учить их умениям, способам, с помощью которых они могли бы учиться сами.

It’s hardly perfect, but at least I used twenty-four Russian words—and one foreign borrowing, naturalized ages ago—to say what a native Russian speaker wanted but failed to say.

Tellingly, Yandex Translate had no trouble translating my hasty rewrite into perfectly decent English.

We still cram large chunks of information into schoolchildren, but today we have to teach them skills, ways in which they could learn for themselves. // TRR

2 thoughts on “Me Talk Pretty One Day

  1. I love this as it reflects my experience exactly in talking to people like the translated author. They go on about some (usually pedestrian) idea and then I stop them and say ‘what was that word? I never heard it before’. And it turns out to be a completely unnecessary borrowing from English.

    1. Thanks for the corroboration, Jeremy. Some of my friends make fun of my alleged linguistic purism by calling me “Admiral Shishkov” (an eloquent defender of idiomatic Russian during Pushkin’s time), but it’s a practical matter for me: it’s hard to make sense of what Russians say and write if it’s quite literally senseless. The weird thing I’ve observed is that there has been much more of this pidginization of Russian under Putin than during perestroika or the nineties. And it’s not limited to nominally liberal or leftist anti-Putin hipsters and intellectuals. Pro-Putin officials are often guilty of the same sin, something of which I was made keenly aware when Valentina Matviyenko was governor of St. Petersburg. Her initially very dull, conservative culture chief, Anton Gubankov (whom my wife remembered as a Komsomol snitch during her time at university), suddenly went “hipster,” advocating for the construction of “kreativnye klastery” all over the city and arguing the city needed its own “brend.” (He tried very hard, during his tenure, to make Dostoevsky that “brend.”) It was remarkable because, otherwise, he was still a Komsomol creep, using his considerable power to shut down or hamper the kind of grassroots cultural events and groups that his newfound guru, Richard Florida, said made cities attractive to nomadic professionals. Gubankov more or less destroyed a long-running, very topical antifascist-anti-racist film festival, famously denounced the Voina group for making “bad art,” and did everything to trip up the wonderful Side by Side LGBT International Film Festival. He did all these things, however, while continuing to speak “fluent” Floridaese, which I imagine would have been incomparable to most Petersburgers at the time. Sadly, it is now taken for granted.

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