6 June is UN Russian Language Day, which coincides with the birth of Aleksandr Pushkin (Александр Пушкин), possibly the most well-known Russian poet, and often referred to as the founder of modern Russian literature. Pushkin was exceptional for not only writing about life as it was known, something unusual at the time, but also credited for writing in the Russian that was spoken by the people, rather than the more formal style that was prevalent in writing at the time.
That’s not to say the old style didn’t appear in Pushkin’s works. In fact, he was able to marry the structures of the formal style with the Gallicisms (галлицизм) employed by the upper class, as well as the spoken colloquial Russian at the time, all the while creating entertaining stories rich with calques, double meanings, and parody. An unfortunate consequence of its complex nature is that translation of his works is a difficult task, and there is no doubt that many are left with the sense that some of the original beauty has been somehow been lost in translation.
In fact, Yevgeny Onegin (Евгений Онегин), a novel in verse which is Pushkin’s most well-known work, has been translated more than 10 times into English, yet none manage to capture the essence of lyrical beauty found in the original Russian. Some of the English translations have garnered literary debate and even mud-slinging between the various translators and critics, one of the most famous of which was between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson. Nabokov criticised Arndt’s poor knowledge of Russian in a review of Arndt’s translation, which paved the way for Nabokov’s own literal translation, which made no attempt to maintain rhyme – and of which Wilson, literary reviewer and Nabokov’s friend, was harshly critical. Wilson described it to his editor at the New York Review of Books as ‘full of flat writing, outlandish words, and awkward phrases.’ His review was so scathing that it led to an all-out PR war between the two in various literary magazines, creating one of the most well-known translation disputes ever.
To read Pushkin in the original Russian is, of course, a wonderful motivation to learn Russian, but if that is not motivation enough, I can think of many more reasons. Russian is spoken by over 250 million people on this planet, and beyond – it is one of the languages NASA require of astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Not only is it a language of exceptional literary works (along with Pushkin, there are such luminaries as Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov, to name but a few), it’s also home to a robust scientific community paralleled only by that of the English-speaking world. Unfortunately, there are still very many research publications that remain untranslated and, as such, inaccessible to non-Russian readers. There’s also the tourism potential of speaking Russian. Although the Soviet Union no longer exists and there can be some residual resentment regarding the use of the Russian language in former soviet spheres of influence, it can indeed prove a useful language for communication while traversing various countries in Europe and central Asia.
It’s all Greek to me…
Russian is written in Cyrillic (кириллица) rather than the Latinized script used in English. Composed of 33 letters, each with upper and lower case variants, Cyrillic is relatively straight forward to learn. Of course, many learners will note that script or handwritten style and type or block print can be dramatically different, so you’ll need to learn this as well.
The development of Cyrillic is often attributed to Saints Cyril and Methodius, two missionaries who spread Christianity to the Slavic speaking regions of Eastern Europe in the 9th century. Of course, modern Cyrillic script looks somewhat different from anything that Cyril and Methodius would have used, but it is widespread: over 80 languages write using Cyrillic, with Russian being the most well-known of these.
Stumbling over your consonants and cases
Once you get used to the writing system, it’s time to get your head round all those consonant clusters which Russian is so well-known for. Russian syllables can have up to four consonants in a cluster, and you can get some pretty unusual sounding combinations such as m+n in monogo (много), p+t in ptitsa (птица), and g+d in gde (где) at one end of the scale to the more intimidating v+s+t+r in vstretit’ (встретить) and v+z+g+l in vzglyanut’ (взглянуть) at the other end. Let’s not forget that even at hello we’re faced with some challenging combos: z+d+r and v+s+t+v in zdravstvuyte (здравствуйте)! How’s that for a tongue twister?
Russian grammar is also often considered very difficult to master due to its highly inflectional nature. This means that Russian not only conjugates verbs, but adjectives and nouns also decline or inflect. Russian has six cases: nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, and prepositional, most of which may be familiar to those of you who have studied Latin, Greek, and German. In short, the complex Russian case system means that relationships between words are conveyed by inflections rather than syntax. So whether it’s the dog who chased the cat or the cat who chased the dog is made apparent by the endings of the Russian words for dog and cat. This allows Russian to have a more open sentence structure, which is another reason it can be difficult to translate Russian poetry into English, where the sentence structure is more fixed.
Whether you’re trying to translate a Russian poem, becoming more familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, or simply learning your first words in Russian, I wish you хорошего Дня русского языка – that is, a good Russian Language Day!