Thursday, October 22, 2015

Russians and Russian

The Guardian has a wonderful piece on Russian and the Russians. Perhaps Kennan and his kind would have appreciated the nuance but it is clear the US today is clueless. I recall my days in Russia, and when I heard "Nyet problemi" I knew we had a real problem. Russians unlike the Poles, who tell you what they think you want to hear, often speak in opposites. Namely they have a tendency to say just the opposite of what it is. Now if you are a Russian you can readily interpret it and respond accordingly.

The closest to this barrier of language is an Irishman telling a joke to a German. First German's have as best as I have experienced no sense of humor. The Irish, from firsthand personal existential experience, have a bit of a perverse sense. Thus a German doctor telling his patient that the biopsy was benign may hear an Irish patient remark, "And I was so much looking forward to a prostatectomy!". Humor dissonance at its best!

The Guardian recounts:

For example, in 1995 after a summit with President Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin poked gentle fun at reporters who had poured cold water on hopes for a successful meeting. He said: “You predicted our meeting today would fail”, which the interpreter translated (not knowing how Yeltsin was going to continue) as “You were writing that today’s meeting was going to be a disaster.” Yeltsin then went on: “I would say that it was you who failed.” The interpreter foolishly decided to stick with the ill-chosen word “disaster” and translated Yeltsin’s gentle rebuke as: “Well, now I can tell you that you’re a disaster,” – much stronger and more comical than Yeltsin had intended. Clinton was convulsed with laughter for a full minute, wiping tears from his eyes and hugging Yeltsin in appreciation of this witty joke – which in fact Yeltsin had not made. Yeltsin himself looked completely baffled, wondering why his wry comment had provoked such a wild reaction.

Now if one is speaking in Russian, albeit with my limited skills, one would even hear something else. I am reminded of my "I don't give a rat's ass!" comment and how my Russian friends tried to transliterate that one. It ended up with a few hours at the bar over vodka reminiscing over various similar senseless remarks in both languages.

But words mean something, but as Alice remarked, all too often they mean what we meant them to not what they are thought to have meant.

It would help that politicians who have really not spent time in other countries try to get better translators and not try to do it on the fly. This even applies to American English and that language spoken in Britain! Or parts of New Jersey.