Monday, December 3, 2012

Cherrypicking in an Apple Orchard

Mea Culpa.

One of the occupational diseases of speculative fiction writers is a tendency to speculate and write fiction, and I seem to have had a doozie of an attack last week. The post I put up yesterday, "Gained in Translation,"contains more than a set of factual errors. It is full of unwarranted conclusions based on cherrypicked data points, its faults compounded by a lack of understanding of the historical context of the attempted analysis.

In short, I retract, and apologize for, my attempt at a glib generalization of a relationship between, on the one hand, the structure and grammar of the Chinese language, and on the other, their effects on the works themselves, extrapolated to a wide range of works and authors. The fault therein is mine. I will not delete that post, or redact any part of it, as that would be dishonest, but if I could un-write it, I would, and better yet I wish I could un-think it. Whether or not I have offended anyone with my ill-considered comments, they were an offense against truth and integrity, and I apologize for that.

Still leaves me with Russian, though. I speak the language, read it fluently, I worked my way through Princeton as a teaching assistant in the Slavic Languages Department, I switch from Russian to English and back again hundreds of times a day as part of my day job and family life, and much of the time I run against the simple and undeniable fact that many phrases, concepts, implications fall trippingly off one tongue and not the other. There are no words for "privacy" and "appointment" in Russian while English lacks  the capacity for the multiple levels of diminutives built into every Russian-language interaction, but for most of my students back in Russian 101 it was the cascade of cases and the deluge of declensions that brought them a semester's worth of misery.

Consider a simple sentence: "A dog bit a boy."

In Russian, "dog" is "sobaka," "bit" (verb, past tense, masculine - yes, verbs have genders!) is "ukusil," and "boy" is "mal'chik." So it's "sobaka ukusil mal'chik," right?

Not exactly. "sobaka" is feminine so the verb has to agree with that, and "mal'chik" is in the accusative (because you have to accuse someone before you bite them, right?) so it's "sobaka ukusila mal'chika."

Let's make this a little more complicated. "A dog bit a boy with teeth at home." This obviously brings us to locative and instrumental, so we end up with "sobaka ukusila mal'chika zubami doma."

Or do we?

Let's scramble the English sentence. "Home bit dog with boy at teeth." Uh... no.

What if we scramble the Russian? "Doma ukusila sobaka mal'chika zubami." Which makes perfect sense, as the literal meaning of the sentence did not change at all. What changed is the emphasis, the connotation, the shading: it isn't the subject that goes first, but the focus, the most important word. So if your point is, you aren't even safe in your own home anymore, you'll put "Doma" first; if you are implying it's the boy's own fault you'll start with "mal'chika;" and if you start with "ukusila" you are probably writing poetry and you need your meter to come out right.

This is not to say you can't express the same sentiments in English, but the techniques are different. Nabokov certainly expressed a measure of contempt for English in the introduction to Lolita: 
My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses — the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions — which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.
And this, upon a single word:
Toska - noun /ˈtō-skə/ - Russian word roughly translated as sadness, melancholia, lugubriousness.

"No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
And so it remains: my Russian language in the back of my head, its siren song pulling at my sentences to extend them beyond all reason, shooing at my words to make them play leap-frog, tempting me to suffixate perfectly good verbs and nouns to add scintillacula of meaning not implicit in their original configurations.

On the other hand -- the closest I can come to saying "I value my privacy" in Russian is something along the lines of, "I like to be left alone" or "I appreciate peace." Not quite the same. Is there a relationship? Is toska something one feels when one's existence is devoid of privacy? That would be an elegant explanation, so neat one could almost overlook its obvious falsehood for its esthetic attraction.

How often do we say things in a certain way simply because we can? Or because we can make it sound good?

I made a big mistake in my previous post: I tried to speculate upon a subject I knew little about. It did not come out at all well. There is no question in my mind that language does not control conscience: the lack of a word for "privacy" does not in any way imply that Russians enjoy being spied on, nor is there the slightest hint that the imperfect correspondence of Russian "uyut" and English "coziness" changes the way one relaxes at a fireplace with a comforter and a cup of Glühwein. But how we write about it -- I think that's something worth considering.

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