Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Russian Undertakings

© 2013 Marie Guillot
A two-fold language story

Graphic by Marie Guillot

At the other end of the line, Boris's English is tinted with a Russian colour. Of course, mine has an equivalent tinge, due to my French native tongue. Thus, we are more likely to be able to communicate properly.
My problem is simple enough. Having learned the basics of Russian decades ago, I now want to write a short text in that language, in order to read it at my son's wedding: Marina's family is from Ukraine and now lives in the USA. That's where Pierre met her.

I am based in Cork (Ireland) and Boris, a seasoned polyglot translator, lives in Dublin. We agree on this: I'll prepare the English text and a draft of the Russian version, using my old books. Then, I'll email him the English bit and we'll complete the job over the phone.

In the late Sixties, there was a belief in France that the business world would become Russian-oriented. As a consequence, our Engineering College was, for the first time, offering a course in that language.
Professor Yvanovitch was a Russian exile; he was doing research in Strasbourg University and his current project was to develop a device helping students in their pronunciation of foreign languages. 
The principle was to record a sentence spoken in native speech (his, for example) and to display the correlating sound waves on a makeshift 'oscilloscope-cum-microphone'. Then the students repeated the same words, while comparing their own waves to the teacher's pattern. Not an easy exercise, but, with good guidance and many attempts, persevering students could certainly improve their intonation that way.

Starting my first draft, I immediately realise that I had forgotten the order of the Russian alphabet, not an ideal situation when using a dictionary; but this hurdle is only a small one compared to the bulk of the work.
As I move forward, my short text keeps shrinking: from a carefully hand-carved English creation, it becomes two short plain sentences, in the line of 'wishing you happiness all your life'. Almost heart-broken, I email them to Boris and we set up a time for the phone call.

With the receiver in one hand and a pencil in the other, I am ready to start. Boris interrupts me, right there. As a professional editor, his duty is to make suggestions. The first one is a slight modification to my English text. I am able to appreciate the service, because I 'do that to others' on a regular basis.
I get on with my reading, detaching each word for clarity. He listens to the whole text and repeats it slowly, taking one word at a time. I try to follow him, while scribbling a phonetic equivalent, using a code that I am making up as I go. Most words have to be adjusted, because of a declination or a conjugation, or else they are utterly wrong. All my adverbs are correct (ah!). Admittedly, my enthusiasm is a little bit dampened.
The wedding takes place next week: 'To read or not to read, that is now my question'. 

Unwittingly, my brain takes over: two days later, I wake up with the answer. Thanks to all that exercise with my books and Boris, there are simple words and numbers that are now coming back.
Full sentences are dropped altogether: I'll make a list of words and call it a 'poem'. Brilliant! Not only do I feel more comfortable with this version, but I can probably learn it by heart too. It goes something like this:
Ukraine, France, America
Today / Celebration / Together
Three cultures / Two hearts / One love 

Reflecting on all this, I think again of Professor Yvanovitch who, obviously, had not entirely wasted his time with us. I wonder if he was actually a dormant spy. Many of them were discovered after the Cold War, on both sides of the East-West front. It would not have mattered to us anyway, as we were really fond of him. His dedication to the little homemade apparatus was also touching. As apprentice engineers, we were able to appreciate the work behind the curtain, so to speak.

There we are now, two days before the wedding, settling in New Jersey.
A meal is organized, to finalise the acquaintance of both families, seventeen persons in total, including children. Each participant is encouraged to 'say-a-toast'.
I decide that this is my opportunity, not as intimidating as a wedding. Standing up, I recite my poem as well as I can, in Russian first, then in English. A reasonable applause follows, intertwined with some laughs.
I ask the person sitting next to me: "Why the laughs? My accent?"
"No, not really. It does not matter."
  "What does not matter?" I reply, a little worried.
"Well, Marie, you actually said two sisters instead of two hearts. But, believe me, we understood your intention and we are all very touched."

Two days later, the real thing. I feel quite relaxed: no worry about languages anymore! The young couple is about to exchange their vows. Both perfectly composed, eyes in eyes, they recite them: first Pierre, in Russian; then Marina, in French. Next comes English: "…To love you…in sickness…"
The world is vanishing around me.