If We Don’t Talk About It, It’s Not Real

syrian observatoryImage courtesy of The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

One of the better ways to see what ails the Russian intelligentsia nowadays is to read what its leading lights write about goings-on in other parts of the world. Almost without exception, these meditations and interventions are so at odds with reality, so chockablock with rank prejudices and basic factual errors, that they shed no light whatsoever on these goings-on as such.

They inadvertently reveal other things, however. For one, it would seem that Putin and Co.’s massive, painstaking, long-term project for closing the Russian mind and making everything foreign, everything beyond Russia’s frontiers, utterly contemptible, alien, repulsive, ridiculous, and incomprehensible, has been a rousing success, a success all the more impressive in that it has been achieved at a time of unprecedented global integration and myriad possibilities for people all over the world, especially in relatively prosperous, well-educated countries like Russia, to get detailed, reliable information about events in other parts of the world.

For two, the new Russian “internationalists” are tellingly selective in the subjects on which they choose to pontificate. For example, the Russian military has been bombing Syria to smithereens for fifty-one months, but you would be hard pressed to find any of the Russian public intellectuals otherwise so eager to comment on matters such as Brexit and Trump’s impeachment even so much as mention their own country’s disastrous role in the Syrian conflict. It is as if they were completely unaware anything were happening in Syria, much less that their tax rubles have been funding a genocidal crackdown against a popular revolution to remove a murderous hereditary dictator and his wildly homicidal, repressive regime.

Hence their rhetorical vehemence when it comes to the rather persuasive allegations that their country’s government has been meddling in less obvious and less obviously destructive ways in the internal affairs of other countries. Utterly powerless (or so they imagine) to do anything about the Kremlin’s more outrageous crimes (genocide in Syria, ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine, the occupation of Crimea, etc.), they judiciously disappear Russia’s destructive neo-imperialist adventures from the public discourse, while violently denouncing the mere suggestion that Russia’s violent geopolitical ressentiment could have more “subtle” manifestations, such as disinformation campaigns and assassinations of “enemies” on foreign soil. \\ The Russian Reader

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