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