21st Century Language:
Russian at the Conference

By Nina Bogdan

How are changes in a language over the years noted and measured? One little-considered way is to identify the presentations made on it at successive ATA conferences.

One role of ATA in our modern world is to follow certain trends in the evolution of language use. These trends are linked to the commercial need for translators and interpreters in certain language pairs. The evolution of language in general is a fascinating topic, but love of language alone is not enough to ensure a language professional’s economic survival. The varied selection of Russian language workshops at the ATA conference this year covered many of its “flavors,” from “1001 Ways of Translating Children’s Poetry from Russian into English” to “Chemistry 1: Basic Nomenclature of Organic and Inorganic Compounds.” The latter workshop was, unfortunately, cancelled, but deserves mention as it represented the far end of the specialty spectrum.

The last twenty years have been significant for the Russian language. The breakup of the Soviet Union  has actually caused a decrease in the use of Russian, as many former republics have moved to revive use of their own native, and neglected, languages and to discourage the use of Russian as the primary means of communication. In fact, according to Nicholas Ostler, in his book Empires of the Word, A Language History of the World, Russian is the only current top ten language which is “…set to lose speakers in the twenty-first century.”

The rejection of Russian is not difficult to understand if one is at all cognizant of the role of the Soviet Union on the stage of world politics in the 20th century. Nevertheless, it was during Soviet rule that literacy rose to unprecedented levels in Russia and its republics, and the success of this policy was due to the standardization of Russian in the schoolroom and beyond.

The ironclad control of the Soviet government over every facet of its citizens’ lives is no more, and the evolution of Russian continues as Russian society itself and its institutions continue to evolve. One of the workshops offered at the conference, “Translation and Corporate Governance in Russia,” would not have been offered twenty years ago, simply because there were no corporations in Russia—as the Western world knows them—until relatively recently. With the vocabulary of the commercial and financial worlds having become an integral part of the Russian language, terms such as “Joint-Stock Company” and “Limited Liability Company” are now commonly used and known. Nevertheless, the word “business,” which is directly transliterated into Russian, still does not have positive connotations for most Russians.

A workshop that delved into the vocabulary of the world of law was titled “Translating Court Forms: Lessons Learned.” Legal terminology in general is another evolving branch of the Russian language. The main idea of this particular workshop was that, to better serve the Russian émigré community in the U.S., the Russian language must be manipulated and massaged to encompass American legal terms and concepts—no easy task, to be sure.

Workshops on grammar are, by necessity, ubiquitous, and this year was no exception, with the offering of “Aid for the Imperfectly Articulate: Tips on English Article Usage.” The Russian language does not have articles such as “the” and “an”, which can make translations into English rather challenging. This is unlikely to change no matter how much Russian evolves.

Finally, a workshop at the conference titled “The Susanne Greiss Lecture: Lost in Translation—the Verbal Content of Visual Art,” discussed the concept that works of art are deeply rooted in verbal culture. This particular topic had a specific interest for language professionals but the topics of Russian art and literature in general are of endless and timeless interest. Interestingly, even during the Soviet era, when the Russian language was undergoing what might be termed forced or unnatural change (the language of political repression or the penchant for acronyms to disguise real meaning, for example), there was never any real attempt to negate the contributions to language by Russia’s greatest 18th and 19th century writers and artists, specifically, of course, Alexander Pushkin, who is generally acknowledged to be the creator of modern Russian.

Of course, “modern” Russian is a relative concept like anything else, since the Russian of Eugene Onegin, one of Pushkin’s most famous works, is not the Russian of today’s high-tech, computer-driven world. The opening of Russia to the West by Peter the Great gave impetus to the introduction of many “foreign” (that is, Western European) words which unquestionably changed the language but also made it richer. And today, few, if any, people will say “электронно-вычислительная машина” (electronic calculating machine) rather than the English import “компьютер” (computer). Some may argue that this is a pollution of “real” Russian by imported words, but what is Russian, if not the culmination of centuries of linguistic imports and infusions, adopted and adapted, that have served to create the multi-faceted, complex and uniquely beautiful language that we speak today?

As we move forward in the 21st century, we wonder with interest what new presentations will be offered on the language at upcoming ATA conferences.

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