Good evening! Welcome to Russian Book World from The Voice of Russia, a weekly look at books from and about Russia and the context in which they are written, produced, translated and marketed.
My name is Yan Mitchell and in today’s programme we are going to start at the beginning discussing raw material on which everything depends – the Russian language.
I am joined in the studio today by Michele Berdy, one of the best-known English-speaking writers in Moscow on the subject of Russian. Michele has been publishing weekly articles in The Moscow Times for the last eight years and this has now been collected in the book form under the title The Russian Word’s Worth. They give a fascinating glimpse in the heart of the Russian language for those of us who are interested in how the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy is spoken today.
Michele’s lifestory gives hope to all of us who struggle with Russian: its complexities, subtleties and ambiguities. Since
she is not a linguist, a philologist, or even a polyglot she claims no special facility for languages and she is not one of those who, as she says in the introduction to her book, “knows everything about 16th century verb usage in Rostov. She is simply an American lady who studied Russian as a second language at MS college in Massachusetts in those distant days when you could not get rich in Russia and therefore took such courses simply for the love of them”. Michele is, in the best sense of the word, an amateur.
Yet she is also a professional in that she has over the period of thirty years in Moscow acquired a sufficient and deep understanding of the Russian language and therefore the Russian mind, that she has been asked to interpret, among many others, Boris Yeltsin and Nancy Reagan.
Michele moved to Moscow in the late 1970s and she says in her introduction, “Since Brezhnev was in his dotage i have been pondering, discovering, contemplating, positing, theorizing and occasionally arguing about what makes Russia so Russian and how that differes or does not differ from what makes Americans so American”.
Every Friday Michele’s newspaper column appears with discussion of one or another aspect of Russian and how it translates or very often does not translate adequately into English. Her pieces are usually related to topics of current interest. For example, on the 6th August this year she began her column by saying “We are now in Week 5 of the Heat Wave Horror” after which she went on to talk about the Russian words for carbon monoxide, for peat bog fires and for gauze masks. All of these would be new to most experts in Moscow and even to many Russian specialists abroad. The most of us would probably understand the Russian word for “smog” which is “смог” (pronounced as “smog”).
And two weeks later as the heat wave was at its hight and everybody was practically praying for rain Michele wrote about the way in which the Russian word for “thunderstorm” is so much more flexible than the English language equivalent, pointing out its adjectival form is been used to describe everything from religious awe to the character of Ivan the Terrible. And all of this is done with a lightness of touch and wit which i personally find charming. It certainly sugars the pill of laguage learning.
Michele, thank you for coming to talk to us. Before we start, can you tell us just a little bit about how you came to write this book?