As my recent Russian presentation was winding down, I felt good. I did not mangle the difficult words, like that for “carbon fiber” (uglerodnogo volokna), people had laughed at the appropriate places, and everyone was duly impressed by my beautiful Trek 1.1, which I had brought to the show-and-tell.
After the lively Q&A, my professor, with a troubled expression on her face and tears in her eyes, clasped her hands over hear heart and moaned, “Oh, Heatherichka! Your presentation stabbed! The way you talk about your mother is so very sad.”
Although my prospectus says otherwise, myreal inspiration to use translations, prefaces, and emulated plots and characters of European plays into Russian came from my utter confusion at my professor’s response to my presentation. Not the first time I had made such a mistake (of note: the time I said chatte instead of chat to a group of 14 year-old boys) nor the last, I realize now that these unintended gaffs speak more about my own cultural ignorance than about linguistic mastery (or lack there of).
Linguistic differences are so much more than quarks of a language system. Their meaning necessarily includes the context of the speaker and hearer (or in the case of my 18th century plays, the writer, translator, reader, and audience member).
When writing my presentation, I chose to use the proper names for “mother” (mat’) and “father” (otets), because in American English the use of these monikers denotes the formality of the situation (a graded presentation) and respect for my listeners and my parents.
However, I assumed that the same rules governed Russian presentations and familial relations… oh! was I wrong!
In Russian, my use of these terms conveyed to my teacher the para-textual meaning of coldness and emotional distance. Recast in this way, when I was telling the story about how my father road his first century (100 mile) bike race the day after I was born, I was simultaneously conveying a story about how my mom hated my dad’s love of bikes (which is not true, at all!).
One of the biggest methodological concerns I have in my own research is the question about how educated Russians were trying to inscribe European cultural forms into their own cultural production. As long as I can keep these examples of my own attempts to do just that, hopefully I will be able to understand what their goals, assumptions, and linguistic and cultural knowledge were all about.