Thursday, May 26, 2011

Why Russians Are Not Smiling

A German friend once asked me,"Why are Russian people so gloomy? Nobody smiles here”. I looked around and noticed that indeed, almost nobody in the Moscow subway was smiling. I said, "Why should they?” My friend raised his eyebrow in astonishment and changed the subject.

I remembered our conversation and started searching for the answer to why Russians are seldom found smiling. A few months later I found a very solid and thorough explanation in the article A Smile in Russian Communicative Behavior by Dr. Iosif A. Sternin. Dr. Sternin explained that in Europe or North America, smiling is a sign of politeness. When you see people smiling at you in the USA or Germany, it doesn't mean anything other than an overall neutral attitude toward you. A smile is a “level zero” in communication. By contrast, in Russia, no smile is a sign of a neutral politeness, and a smile is always informative. A Russian smile is always personal. When a Russian smiles to you, he or she wants to say that he or she likes you sincerely. When Russians visit Europe or North America for the first time, they enjoy looking at smiling faces, because they (we, Russians) take it personally. We really believe that everybody abroad is very kind. After a few days, Russian tourists learn that a smile here actually means nothing and start blaming locals for insincere smiles. “They smile at you all the time. You think they love you, but in fact, they love your money”, my friend complained to me bitterly. I tried to explain to her, “You don't have to take it personally, they just want to be polite with you”. Her reply was, “I'd rather them be sincere,”. Every time I cross the Russian border, I remind myself to smile in order not to have that gloomy Russian look.

In Russia, it is not common to smile at strangers. When you smile at a stranger in Russia, you may get the question “Have we met?” in return, because Russians normally smile only to people they know. Also, this is not common to smile when dealing with more serious issues. You wouldn't see many smiling faces in business meetings, because business is serious, and by smiling, you show that you either don't take it seriously or you distrust your partners' words. Russian shop assistants are trained to smile, because smiling while serving people is unnatural for Russians. “I'm taking you seriously, you are important to me, so I don't smile” is the natural Russian approach to a smile.

Russians don't use a smile to cheer up anybody. When visiting somebody, who is experiencing hard times or deep sorrow from a loss, Russians don't smile. A smile would be considered offensive. If you smile, you show that you don't respect the person, you don't care about his or her feelings, and that you find the situation funny.

Quite often, Russians smile not “at”, but "about" something. For example, if I walk down the street and notice that people start smiling when looking at me, I'd think that there is something wrong with my appearance, then stop and check whether everything is fine with my clothes.

Russians need a particular reason to smile. You've heard good news and you smile to show that you consider this news as good. You feel really great and you wear a big smile, so everybody understands you have something really good happening in your life. You have to have a special reason for laughter too. There is a popular Russian saying, “A laughter without a reason is a sign of stupidity” meaning that you might be very stupid or crazy if you laugh at nothing.

If you are interested in exploring and comprehending the Russian culture, I would also suggest Russian Culture by Margaret Mead.

Photo by benjaminasmith

Saturday, May 21, 2011

What Colors Are There In Your Rainbow?

Some languages have names for more colours than others. In my English classes at school, I learned that the word “red” means both orange and red and blue means both dark blue and light blue, however, in Russian, there are two words, “синий” for dark blue, and “голубой” for light blue.

Scientists say that how languages deal with the names of colors doesn’t correlate with people's ability to distinguish colours. Most likely, language have words only for these colours that matter, that are practically important.

At the university, I learned that the old Russian language had a few different names for the colour that we call grey today. In the old times, people not only named colours but also marked the texture. Grey when referred to hair differed from grey when referred to a fur or to a wood. Later, grey became a general word for a colour, and now another word is needed to describe a texture. The only exception are colour names for animals' coat and for hair. So a person with red hair is “ryzhiy” (рыжий), but, say, an umbrella is orange (oranzheviy, оранжевый).

In Russian, there are seven basic colours: in the rainbow
red — красный [krahsnyi]
orange — оранжевый [arahnzhevyi]
yellow — жёлтый [zhohltyi]
green — зелёный [zelyonyi]
light blue — голубой [galuboi]
blue — синий [siniy]
violet — фиолетовый [fialehtovyi]

In English, there are seven colours in the rainbow too, however, they are slightly different. As you may see, the Russian rainbow has no indigo color.

Through the rainbow

Sometimes, a colour is more than just a colour. For example, since 1917, red has been a symbol of communism.

Like in English, “yellow” press in Russian means a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news. I have heard an expression, “this news paper is so yellow that it is more like orange”, that meant that the news paper was well-known for treating news in an unprofessional and unethical fashion. Orange follows yellow in the spectrum, so when the press becomes extremely yellow, it moves toward the next colour.

Light blue, when referred to a man, means gay. By the funny coincidence, police' licence plates in Russia are of light blue, that was the reason for endless jokes.

The word “green”, besides its newest meaning “environmental-friendly”, has some negative connotations. Thus, melancholy щк depression is of a green colour in Russian (тоска зелёная). There is also an expression “to get green with envy” (позеленеть от зависти).

Monday, May 9, 2011

From Russia with Cash

So two out of the three richest people in UK are actually from Russia. Does it mean that all Russians are fabulously rich? Of course not. Then who are they, those Russians, who bought exclusive real estate in the heart of London, football clubs and yachts that cost more than the budget of a small European country?

Once my colleague from London, let's call her Mary, told me a story about how her niece was scared by a crazy man in a cafe. Mary and her niece were buying their coffee and cakes when they saw a man entering the cafe – unshaven, wearing a sports suit, surrounded by armed securities. The girl was about to start screaming, but Mary recognized that the strange-looking guy was the man who is currently in the third position on the top richest list. Yes, it was an owner of Chelsea. This was back in 2006 when not many people in Russia were aware of the scale of the Russian "elite" immigration toward Britain. However, I wasn't surprised by the fact that Russian oligarchs were flooding the capital of the United Kingdom. hat amused me was that ordinary Brits found Russia's financial elite so strange and scary.

Indeed, the oligarchic emigration from Russia of 1990-2008 was so significant that journalist and author Mark Hollingsworth wrote a book with the telling title, "Londongrad." The book starts like a tough detective story — the nervous atmosphere of the over-secured office, untraceable phone calls, and exploding helicopters. The only difference between pulp fiction and this book is that "Londongrad" depicts real life. All things that you can learn from "Londongrad" are true and neatly documented. Being a good journalist, Mark Hollingsworth supported his story with quotes and sources, so a reader can easily check everything that is stated in the book.

The author investigates who are those Russians who now own the most prestigious buildings in the United Kingdom and many other European countries, depicts vividly the tastes of Russian oligarchs, their endless Bentleys, castles, parties and shopping tours to Christie's. He tries to describe their personalities and figures out what drives their anxiety for luxury, opulence, and splendour. But this book is absolutely not about the glamorous life of the super-riches. This is about politics, ethics and the source of wealth. This is about Russia in its after-empire-collapse stage and the world that is changing dramatically. The author talks about the impact that the Russian expansion has on the British and global economy, politics, safety, and culture. He doesn't judge, but asks questions and provokes thoughts.

Though many facts and names in this book were familiar to me, it provided great cultural insight and let me look at Russians through British eyes. I found many new documents there that proved connections between people and facts, and it was eye-opening reading. I started seeing many things in Russia differently. Actually, I have more questions now than when I started reading, but this is how every good book should work.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Two Words Missing in Russian

Experienced translators say, the most mistakes made in translation are caused not by insufficient knowledge of language, but by insufficient knowledge of culture. Why is it so? If we imagined culture as an onion, its core would be values shared consciously and unconsciously by a society, and the verbal language would be somewhere in the outer circle. One of the most important functions of a language is to reveal the cultural content, to explicate meanings with words. So translating is transferring the whole cultural background, including implicit values, to another culture. Sometimes it is as hard and hopeless as convincing tropical birds to survive in tundra.

When a culture has a concept, it inevitably has a word for it. The best situation for a translator and a language student is when the target culture has nearly the same values and concepts, so the target language has corresponding words for them. Unfortunately, situations like these are exceptionally rare when cultures are as distant as, say, English (both, British and American) and Russian. There are two English words that permanently give me a headache. They are tolerance and privacy. Both words are hard to translate accurately, because both concepts are somewhat strange to the Russian culture at this historical moment.

The verb "to tolerate" is often translated into Russian like “терпеть” [tirpeht'], which actually means to endure, to suffer, to bear in Russian. So when an English-speaking host says “I can not tolerate smoking in my house”, his Russian guest understands it in the following way: the host is suffering from some awful disease, probably allergy or asthma, so smoke is somewhat lethal for him. Well, the misconception is tolerable here, since it resulted in non-smoking behaviour. It turns worse when we are talking about tolerance to something more abstract, like religion, sexuality, cultural differences. Here is an example from a guide for immigrants: “Canadians are tolerant to gays”. Does it mean that Canadians, being actually morally suffered from the fact of, say, alternative sexuality of some other people, learned to bear this fact? It hurts them, but they try to bear it? Why not simply ignore who sleeps with whom and stop making buzz about it? Wouldn't it be more polite just to treat people equally and not to tell them “hey, I know that you are different, but I can tolerate it”? Probably, these questions are the result of lacking the concept of tolerance in the Russian culture.

The direct translation of “tolerance” is Russian is “терпимость”, and this word was widely used as an euphemism for bordello in the past. “A house of tolerance” means brothel in Russian. I suppose, this is one of the reasons why today, people in Russia use the calked word “толерантность” [tolerantnost'] instead of its Russian analogue.

The word “privacy” is even worse. The phrase “May I have some privacy?” is normally translated into Russian like “Could you leave me alone” (Я могу побыть один/одна), which is not exactly the same. In the juristic vocabulary, privacy can be translated as “private life” (частная жизнь), but in everyday conversation, it is rarely used. The phrase “I care about my privacy” most probably would be translated as “I worry about my security/safety”. In early Perestroika times, Russian market was flooded with psychological books translated from English, and from those books Russians learned about private area, personal distance and all such things.

Do Russians care about privacy? Of course, like every human being, we need sometimes to stay alone with our thoughts, but in the hierarchy of values it stays below socializing. Russian values are all about collaboration and cooperation, living in a society, sharing aims and goals of your community and fitting your personality into the community. There is a saying in Russian, “Even death is beautiful when it is public/ when the public benefits from it” (На миру и смерть красна), which sounds strange to me, but still it reflects the values that are very old and that are in the very deep core of the culture.

Photo by Alan Cleaver