Lost in Translation

by Nikita


I’m lost. On my phone, on my map and in real life. I try to decipher the name of the street, but it is impossible to work out the display. Thanks to microtechnology, I can’t even work out if the characters are from the English or Cyrillic alphabet. And then thank God, help arrives. I love the Anglo-Saxon expat always full of kindness towards others. An international communal glue. I crumple the map and we move together. The conversation is inevitable, with the usual routine questions: “Where are you from? How long have you been in Moscow? What are your impressions of the city?” Amazingly, it transpires though that my ‘guide’ is indeed Russian and not an expat. How is this possible with such a perfect British accent? I congratulate her. She explains that she teaches diction to Russians that already know English well and adds that the choice to become a Pygmalion was required, since it is no longer in fashion to work as a spy …captivating!

I soon discover many aspects of Russians, specifically the local multilingualism and I categorise it. Those over 45, especially females might speak French; men over 65 tend to know German; under the age of 25, with headphones attached to their ear speak English well, but, as in any part of the world, do not know how to give directions, as they do not even know where they are. Russians between 25 and 45 years old are lovers of Italian and Spanish holidays and their respective languages. There are those who learn Polish and Czech since the Russian economic market still relies heavily on the former Soviet Union. Finally, there are all the foreigners coming from the Commonwealth of Independent States, who often speak Russian in addition to their mother tongue. I suspect that communication difficulties are not mainly due to the knowledge of languages, but rather to cultural or social factors. How many times have people asked a question in English or another language (or even in Russian) and been subjected to a shake of the head or even complete ignorance? It is not because people are necessarily rude or unwilling to help but because they do not know the appropriate response. This lack of collaboration in Moscow (like other big cities of the world) is because it is full of immigrants who simply do not know the city, or Muscovites, segregated in the suburbs, where housing costs less, who do not recognise any longer a city in perpetual change.

Selection_181Undoubtedly helpful for understanding Russian is the many words adopted from Western European languages such as Latin, Greek, French, Dutch, German and English. Once you learn the Cyrillic alphabet, these terms release their meaning: restoran, bar, kafe, taksi, aeroport, trotoir, aptieka, biblioteka, supermarket etc. For fellow Europeans this makes learning other European languages much easier than we realise, especially when comparing it with some Asian languages, for which, after aeons of intensive study and the learning of numerous characters, can still result in only the very basic of understanding. The communication, however, is not one-sided: often, we ourselves are questioned in Russian. How strange – since we are not Russians and we would expect that this shows, almost like being a Caucasian in Africa or in Asia. It’s like if an Italian in Rome would ask for directions to a man in short sleeves, shorts, socks and sandals! Clearly, not an Italian. But in Moscow it is possible, because the city is a melting pot of ethnic groups, like London or New York, with different languages, religions, traditions and customs.

The moral is: learn the Cyrillic alphabet, dust off the basics of a second European language which will guarantee you elementary communication. Trust in the gestures of a Russian, or take up Russian classes – one to one, in groups, in private schools or for the more ambitious at University, and let yourself be carried away by the charm of this challenging language with its complex grammar. Satisfaction, sooner or later, will come. And even though you may not read the beloved Pushkin in its original language, you will feel, more integrated and autonomous in your stay in Moscow.