Tag Archives: Russian

A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma: my unexpectedly fun and rewarding discovery of Russia.

In this post, current undergraduate Joseph Rattue, who studys at Somerville College, offers a candid and entertaining reflection on his year abroad while studying Russian from scratch.

Four years ago, I sat looking through some testimonials in Oxford Modern Languages leaflets at an open day, in awe of the list of amazing places students had been on their years abroad. With law internships in Berlin, banking placements in Zürich, and events management in various châteaux in the picturesque French countryside, it was a list of great promise. A list that would convince anyone of the excitement and glamour of a degree in French, Spanish, German or Italian at Oxford. A list from which the location of the year abroad for Beginners’ Russian was markedly and suspiciously absent. After some digging around on the internet through the Russian sub-faculty’s web page, I found the city where second-year Russian Ab Initio (from scratch) students go for their year abroad, and didn’t think much of it in the face of the cosmopolitan metropoles I’d read about earlier that day. Today I have a photo plate of it on the wall above my bed.

Yaroslavl. Probably not the first word that comes to mind when you think of a place to spend your year abroad. Unknown to most people outside Russia, it sits modestly 272.3 km north-east of Moscow, and a trying 13-hour overnight train ride south-east of St. Petersburg. If I thought the scale of these distances was daunting before I arrived at the airport “in” (45.8 km south of) Moscow, it got even more extreme when I asked the minibus driver when we would reach the train station to go to Yaroslavl, only to discover that Yaroslavl was considered “next to Moscow,” as the 6-hour bus ride ensued. After the 5am start in the UK, it would be fair to say we all slept pretty well that night once we’d arrived at our home stay hosts’ flats.

Yaroslavl, photo by Joseph Rattue

For anyone wondering why I haven’t mentioned what we were actually doing there, fear not. All in good time. First, though, there are some things to do with the structure of the Russian Ab Initio Course which need some explaining. If you read the opening of this post and were a bit puzzled about why I talked about second-years going abroad, you were right to pick up on this. Nearly all Modern Languages degrees at Oxford are arranged for students to go abroad in their third year, unless the degree includes Beginners’ Arabic or Beginners’ Russian, in which case the second year is the year abroad. If you do Beginners’ Russian, you spend the whole of the first year doing almost exclusively language work, with a 1-hour poetry reading class every week in the second term designed mainly to help with the resonance of words, and to give the basic outline of some literary movements in Russia. In their second year, all the Oxford Russian Ab Initio students go to Yaroslavl and do a language development programme designed specifically for them by Yaroslavl State University, making it easier to tackle Final Honours texts in Russian in the third and fourth years. Yes, this can have its downsides; you are away when your friends are back home in Oxford, and your linguist friends are away in third year when you come back. But this does not exactly spell the end for your social life. Without sounding too cheesy, it would not be an exaggeration to say that my social experiences on my year abroad were some of the best I’ve ever had. I went to a new place, discovered a new culture, and made new friends, many of whom will be in Oxford with me this coming year and mean a lot to me.

It’s not often that you go to a monastery with a bear called Masha inside it, or a café where tens of cats live, or a museum with a whole room dedicated to different kinds of traditional irons which can also be musical instruments. Nor is it every day that you sing traditional Russian folk songs and drink mulled wine with your teachers to celebrate “Old New Year” in mid-January because Russia used the old Julian calendar until February 1918. It is these sorts of things that have made my year abroad not only so much fun, but so meaningful and fulfilling. Being in a class with the other Oxford students gave me an immediate group of close friends, and together we discovered Russia. Whether it was watching Yaroslavl Lokomotiv play ice hockey with our Russian friends, staying up to see the sun rise over the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, or belting out Russian pop songs about new year at 1am, the year could hardly have been more full of shared, new experiences that brought us closer to each other and to Russian culture. The other people who made all this possible were our hosts, or “babs” (short for “babushka,” the Russian for “grandma”), who lived with us, fed us, and shared their stories, ideas and lives with us. When I met my bab, Emma, at the start of the year, I could hardly understand a sentence she said. By the end, I was interpreting for her as she told my parents all about her family, past and present, and which English writers she liked reading. I visited Yaroslavl again this summer, 4 months after the end of my year abroad in March, and left a box of chocolates for my friend to give to Emma when she got back from her holiday. Two days ago Emma got those chocolates, and said hi.

All in all, it has been an unforgettable year, one full of discovery, new people, and both academic and personal growth. What felt like a very foreign country now feels like a second home to me. To that end, the Yaroslavl year abroad is the epitome of what a year abroad should be.

Lessons in Translation: The War Hasn’t Started Yet

This post was originally published on the Creative Multilingualism blog. Here, professional translator Noah Birksted-Breen talks about translating the same play three times, taking into consideration different audiences and cultural reference points. You can also read an interview with Noah about Russian theatre here.

I have just finished translating Mikhail Durnenkov’s The War Hasn’t Yet Started for the third time in as many years. I’m in an unusual situation – one translator creating three different versions of the same play. As far as I know, that doesn’t normally happen. I have tried to take advantage of each opportunity to re-translate the play, adapting it significantly to the specific target audience.

In 2015, I translated The War for the first time, for my Ph.D. at Queen Mary University of London. Subsequently, this translation was presented as a rehearsed reading at the Frontline Club in London. I knew that the Frontline Club attracts a specialist audience, already familiar with Russian culture. I left the play in quite a ‘raw’ state. For example, I could indulge my audience with references to ‘dachas’ rather than ‘country houses’. I left the language sounding rather ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’. To English ears, it was somewhat stilted – although it worked for people who already know about Russian culture.

In 2016, Theatre Royal Plymouth produced The War in the Drum Theatre in Plymouth (their studio space with approx. 200 seats). I developed my translation further with the director Michael Fentiman, who directed the production in Plymouth. Fentiman had a good eye for clarifying cultural references which would not be clear to audiences in the UK. So, ‘dacha’ would become ‘country house’. But there were more difficult decisions to be taken as well about ‘hidden’ references.

For example, one scene in The War refers to ‘another country’, without specifying which one. Russian audiences would know from the scene that it refers to Ukraine. Russia has been waging a covert – and later more overt – war against Ukraine since 2014. It felt wrong to name Ukraine in the scene, since the drama works on a metaphorical level, as well as commenting obliquely on real-world geopolitics. Fentiman encouraged me to develop the references in a certain way. For example, the Russian TV journalist who willingly broadcasts a ‘fake news’ story about Ukraine refers to ‘them’ and ‘they’.

Image by Dragonfly Design © created for Theatre Royal Plymouth’s production (2016) of The War Hasn’t Yet Started by Mikhail Durnenkov, translated by Noah Birksted-Breen.

In my second translation, working with Fentiman, I ended up going for ‘those other people’ – which is tacitly xenophobic or at least judgemental. This less literal approach to the original text helped to create the sense of two hostile, warring neighbouring countries without needing to specify Russia and the Ukraine. It even added to the drama of the scene, I think, by highlighting the mentality of ‘us versus them’, which motivated the scene and the play as a whole. (The playwright is looking critically at the ‘us versus them’ mentality, rather than endorsing it!).

In January 2018, a new production of The War opened at London’s Southwark Playhouse. It is produced by the same company, Theatre Royal Plymouth, but there is a new director and therefore the translation will also be different. This has been my favourite experience of translation to date. Working with the director Gordon Anderson, I altered my translation even more than in 2016.

I moved yet further away from translation as a technical process which is ‘faithful’ to the original. Anderson’s TV experience gave him a keen eye for opportunities to edit and shape the dialogue – a step closer to adaptation. In the past, I might have objected. Scholars often feel that retaining the ‘foreignness’ of the play’s language is the highest priority of translation. Yet, my approach to translation has changed over many years – and Anderson pushed me to develop my approach still further. At times, I added to the dialogue and at times, I cut dialogue from the scenes, where I felt that the spirit of the original was getting ‘lost in translation’.

This way of working sees the translator as essentially creating a ‘new play’. Obviously, this ‘new play’ has to embody the spirit of the original, but it needn’t be overly faithful to the original. Translating The War for the third time, I wanted the London audience to experience the drama (the story and structure) of this play, without getting bogged down in the ‘strangeness’ of the language itself. This method captures a more nuanced view of Russian culture. It aims to create a natural-sounding text in English which retains difference, or even ‘strangeness’, in the plotting or characters.

That makes sense when you think about it. After all, Russian culture is not ‘isolated’ in its own bubble. I regularly speak to Russian playwrights who tell me that they are equally inspired by Russian culture as by British playwriting. Any translation must find a nuanced balance between being ‘strange’ (or ‘foreign) and ‘natural’. The language should not be an obstacle for the audience. Otherwise, Russian plays are being translated solely to be watched by audiences who are already familiar with Russian culture.

I have come to believe that translation is more about capturing ‘unfamiliar ways of thinking’. In The War, there are a series of competing realities. Different characters see the world in contradictory ways. The play suggests that ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’ cannot both be true. In other words, The War offers an experience of living in a post-truth era – just as relevant to British audiences as Russian ones. I have come to feel that translation is like telling somebody about a dream you had the previous night. You have to explain what you saw as clearly as possible, in a language which they will understand. The meaning of the dream is elusive…. What matters is how it felt when you were asleep, and finding a natural-sounding way to explain the odd experiences in the dream to your listener. I hope that my least ‘faithful’ translation of The War captures the dream-like but arresting quality of the original play in a clear and lucid language.

Is Donald Trump bright? It’s a translation issue

This post by Professor Julie Curtis originally appeared on the Oxford Creative Multilingualism website.

Strolling past a Paris café recently I was amused by a disarming mistranslation on their menu – ‘Velouté de potimarron du chef’ rendered not as ‘The chef’s cream of pumpkin soup’, but instead by the somewhat bizarre ‘Softness of pumpkin of the leader’. There is always room for approximate translations in the world, and nobody will ever suffer any significant consequences from this particular error, even if the dish is unlikely to find much favour with foreign customers.

However, some mistranslations can have wider repercussions. Donald Trump, in several boastful speeches in the run-up to the election, claimed that Vladimir Putin had described him either as ‘a genius’, or as ‘brilliant’. This claim, which significantly increased perceptions across the world that the Russian government was supporting his campaign, turned out to be based on a simple mistranslation. Putin had described him as a talented man, certainly, but he also added that he was ‘yarkiy’ – a word which can reasonably be translated as ‘bright’ (as in ‘a bright colour’). But when applied to someone’s personality, there is no doubt that what Putin intended was an ironic comment on Trump as a ‘very colourful’ personality. Trump had no justification, therefore, to cite it as a compliment to himself from the leader of a world superpower. What he needed was a better translator.

This reminder that mistranslations can have important repercussions on the international stage is why we need to have lots of well-qualified linguists in Britain. It takes several years of study to achieve the level of knowledge and understanding to translate accurately, and that means that foreign languages are a great subject to study over a four-year course at university. And whether you opt for Portuguese or Japanese, Czech, Arabic, or German, your course will also provide an adventure: the compulsory third year abroad will take you away from your British university routine to live, work or study in one or even two foreign countries. That experience of independent living abroad at the age of 20 or so proves formative in many people’s lives – young people get to discover new landscapes, beautiful cities, or foreign rock music or cinema; they come to appreciate alternative ways of organizing society and family life; they acquire new friends, and even fall in love. All this undoubtedly impresses future employers too: many qualified linguists go on to acquire further postgraduate qualifications in a huge range of subjects, or else vocational qualifications – and then find themselves very much in demand for the most exciting jobs in international law firms, businesses, the world of finance, international organisations and journalism, as well as the more obvious careers of translating and interpreting. Employment rates for modern linguists are excellent.

The decline in numbers studying foreign languages in British state schools over the last twenty years is therefore deeply unfortunate. Differences in languages bring home to us just how different societies have evolved over time, how different peoples develop different priorities in matters as specific as how you should address a stranger, or as broad as how nations view matters such as land-ownership, gender, environmental issues or public transport. Discovering that other people live – and thrive – in differently-organised societies teaches us that we have much to learn and much to share with foreigners. It encourages openness to difference, and promotes tolerance. An increasingly monoglot Britain is likely to become more inward-looking. If modern languages had been truly celebrated and widely taught in the British education system, would British people really have voted for Brexit?

In September 2015 Donald Trump reproached former Florida Governor Jeb Bush – one of his political rivals who speaks Spanish fluently – saying that he should “set an example and speak English while in the United States.” Trump is also currently obsessed with building an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall” between the US and Mexico. If you are a linguist, you learn to listen as well as to hear, to interpret as well as to understand: the trouble with walls is that you can hear nothing coming through from the other side.

Julie Curtis is Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Oxford. She is a Senior Researcher on our 4th strand, Creative Economy: Languages in the Creative Economy.