Recurring Ideas From Old Books

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Семейное сокровище: the family treasure

If there is one thing that unites all expats, it’s the fear of The Call — the telephone call from a parent or sibling, who tells you to get on the next plane home.

My call came four months ago. I flew home to help my father recover from a fall. I then stayed when his condition worsened, stayed for his last days and then laid him to rest next to my mother. Through all of this, Moscow and a weekly column were a million miles away.

Since then, I’ve started going through 60 years of family history packed into a small suburban house, dipping into the family river of time and pulling out Brownie uniforms, psychedelic bell bottoms, a Barbie Dream House, ID bracelets, World War II food-ration stamps, 78s of Fyodor Shalyapin and even the painted tin teapot one grandmother brought when she emigrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century.

But perhaps the greatest treasure my parents left is their library — about 10,000 volumes, including hundreds of books on Russia. There is one entire bookshelf dedicated to Russian textbooks, starting with a pre-Revolutionary primer and ending with a late 20th-century phrase book.

All I can say is: With textbooks like these, no wonder we English-speakers have had a hard time learning to speak Russian.

Take one textbook from 1936 with the quaint title “The Basis and Essentials of Russian, Containing All That Must Be Known About Grammar and Vocabulary in Order to Express the Most Frequently Recurring Ideas.”

Right under the title, however, is a nasty little epitaph: Волков бояться, так и в лес не ходить (literally, “If you are afraid of wolves, don’t go in the woods.”) In other words, if you want an easy language to learn, put this book down and switch to Spanish.

Although the grammar in this volume is still sound, the language is hopelessly dated. For example: “‘Ты шумишь,’ сказала она смеясь” is rendered in English, “‘Thou makest noise,’ said she laughingly.” These are definitely not the kind of “frequently recurring ideas” I wish to express — in either Russian or English. On the other hand, from this volume I learned that in 1936 there was a Бюро по обслуживанию иностранцев (Office of Services for Foreigners), with the catchy acronym БЮРОБИН. Who knew?

My favorite textbook was prepared for the Defense Ministry in 1945, the first in my batch to concentrate on spoken Russian and not literary texts. Still in the glow of wartime friendship, the lessons consist of cheery dialogues in which two Yanks (I’m thinking Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) chat up the saucy Citizen Petrova (Soviet film star Любовь Орлова), with help and advice from her madcap sidekicks Борис and Фёдор.

The Yanks figure out how to navigate the city, tell time and negotiate purchases at the market in colloquial Russian designed to impart the niceties of grammar. Я ничего не знаю о ваших пяти рублях! (I don’t know anything about your five rubles!) is a handy phrase to know — and a good way to work on the prepositional case.

Finally, the Yanks get interested in the local customs. Много ли водки пьют русские? (Do Russians drink a lot of vodka?) Boris replies: Русские никогда не напиваются. (Russians never get drunk.)

Right, Boris. Fyodor is more honest: Я не люблю пьяных, но я пью водку и пиво. (I don’t like drunks, but I do drink vodka and beer.) Но мне не нравится просыпаться на улице. (But I don’t like to wake up on the street.) Citizen Petrova takes the high road, explaining to the boys, В каждом русском доме вы найдёте водку, пословицы и гостеприимство. (In every Russian home you’ll find vodka, proverbs and hospitality.)

Now this is closer to the kind of “recurring ideas” I wish to express in Russian. It will be good to be back.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based interpreter and translator.