She Hates Long Words

Panel 1. “Zoo.”
Panel 2. “Lion.”
Panel 3. “She hates long words.” “Giraffe.”
Panel 4. “Ca-mel.”
Panel 5. “Cro-co-dile.”
Panel 6. “Tortoises.”
Panel 7. “Sor-ce-ress.”
Panel 8. “Should we go paste her back together?” “Lunch comes first.”

I borrowed this educational comic strip from the Facebook page of Natalia Vvedenskaya, whose name Russian Readers with long memories will recognize as a Petersburg historic preservationist and grassroots activist whose passionate writings have been featured on three occasions in the last four years. Ms. Vvedenskaya is also a marvelous teacher of the Russian language who enjoys sharing on social media the games, comics, and other teaching aids she herselfs draws, builds, and devises for making the language more accessible to her pupils and learning it more fun. In this case, her task was to make the onerous business of dividing words into syllables into a little adventure.

While I had the honor and pleasure to study Russian with many inspiring teachers, a little part of me wishes I could unlearn Russian and starting studying all over again with her. I thank her for permission to reproduce this comic strip here.

Translated by the Russian Reader. To help me continue producing this website you can donate at your discretion at paypal.me/avvakum

Weaponizing Russian: The Gasan Gusejnov Controversy

guseynovGasan Gusejnov. Photo courtesy of Radio Svoboda

Gasan Gusejnov Refuses to Apologize for Remarks About Russian Language
Radio Svoboda
November 8, 2019

Gasan Gusejnov, a lecturer at the Higher School of Economics, has refused to apologize publicly for a post on Facebook in which he called the Russian language “miserable” and “cesspool-like.” According to Gazeta.Ru, the professor believes it would not be ethical for him to respond to the decision of a university commission, which had advised him to apologize.

The ethics commission at the Higher School of Economics recommended the professor apologize for his remarks. They were “ill-considered and irresponsible,” said the commission, which also claimed they had harmed the university’s reputation.

Gusejnov, in turn, told journalists he already given university administrators all necessary explanations and had no plans to apologize to anyone. He stressed that he had written the post as a private individual and had not yet received any official demands from the university.

A lecturer in the humanities faculty and a doctor of philology, Gusejnov published his post on Facebook in late October.

“In Moscow, with its hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Tatars, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, Chinese and Germans, it is utterly impossible to find anything in other languages, except for the miserable, cesspool-like Russian that this country now speaks and writes,” he wrote.

Gusejnov’s post sparked a controversy on social media and in the media. Facebook deleted his post for violating its rules. The professor himself later explained that he had meant the language of hatred and aggression used in the media, social networks, and opinion journalism. According to Gusejnov, it was “an extremely dangerous environment and an extremely dangerous tool.”

This week, as the public debate about Gusejnov’s remarks continued, Vladimir Putin spoke at a meeting of the Russian Language Council. According to the Russian president, war had been declared on the Russian language worldwide in order to reduce its space [sic]. As Putin said, this was being done by “boorish Russophobes,” “fringe groups,” and “aggressive nationalists.”

The president did not specify what threats he had in mind. But he did instruct the government to amend the current laws “On the State Language” and “On the Languages of the Peoples of Russia” and create a “single corpus of dictionaries and reference books” that would dictate how all government entities used the language. Putin did not mention Gusejnov in his remarks.

Thanks to Dmitry Kalugin for the heads-up. Translated by 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