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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ramping Up the Rhetoric

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?????????: sacrilege, blasphemy, outrage

Sorry folks -- I'm still on a political riff. Usually when the world goes nuts, my technique for emotional self-preservation is to curl up with a novel by one of the great authors. But this time not even Bulgakov is doing the trick.

As I have followed responses in Russia to recent events in Estonia, I've gotten as caught up in the language of the "discussion" -- if we can use that word -- as the politics of it. I've been thinking a lot about what author Lynn Visson wrote on Soviet political discourse and how to translate it in one of her seminal books on Russian-English interpretation.

For example, the Soviet linguistic tendency to struggle for everything, even peace -- ???????? ?? ??? -- was usually tamed to "to campaign for peace" in English. Criticism was easier to translate: ????????? ?????? (to oppose, to speak out against, to be against) was the standard way of expressing disagreement. Adverbs were added to up the ante of ire: ?????? (strongly, literally "heatedly"), or ?????????? (resolutely, firmly). When something really bad happened, officials used the verb ???????? (to condemn).

These Soviet expressions of censure today seem positively decorous. This past week, ????????? (condemnation) was lowest on the scale of outrage.

In approximate order of increasing bellicosity, the scale went something like this: ????????????? (outrageous), ????????????? (heinous), and ??????????? (untenable). Then there were various metaphors and statements of violation: ?????????? (insult), ????????? ?? (to violate something, literally "to spit on" something), ????????? (to mock, to scoff at), and ?????????? (violate, defile).

? ?????? ????????? (people in Russia are outraged). ?????? ?? ???????? ??????? (Russia will not accept this decision). ??? ????????????? (it's heinous). ??? ????????? ??????????? (it is totally unacceptable.) ??? ???????????? (it's a crime.) ??? ???????? ???????????? "???? ?? ??????" (it's a cynical electoral ploy -- running a PR campaign on the bones of the dead). ??? ????????? ?? ??????????????? ???????? (again, literally "spit upon" commonly held European values). ?? ?????????? ?????? ????? ??????????? ????????? ??? ???????????? ???????! (We protest against this barbarian mockery of historical memory!)

Next came action verbs, among which ????????? (to demand) and ????????? (to force) were featured prominently, although sometimes an even stronger verb was used: ?? ????? ?????????? ???????! (We won't let anyone rewrite history!)

Then talk moved to the next higher level: ?????????, which, depending on the context and speaker, can mean sacrilege, blasphemy, or outrage. In this particular context, speakers seemed to have in mind sacrilege. ??? ????????????? ??? (it is an act of sacrilege.) ??? ????????? ??? ????????? ??? ??????? ?????? (they defiled the memory of those who died.) ??????????????? ??? ??????? ??????? -- ????????? (it is immoral to defile the memory of the dead.)

At the top of the scale of outrage is the extraordinarily loaded word ?????? (fascist) and the adjective ??????????. After reading pages of this stuff, it seems the word has several meanings. It can mean "pertaining to the Nazi regime," "sharing characteristics and ideology of the Nazi regime," or "something I don't like" depending on the speaker and context. This is, of course, pretty much the same usage as in English, with pretty much the same result: It pushes the hot button, and once uttered, you can forget all rational discourse.

If we leave aside all issues of right and wrong for a moment, here's my $64,000 language question: Is this emotionally loaded language a function of cultural values and rhetorical style, reflecting a language and culture in which expressing emotions is a strong positive value? If so, translations should be toned down to convey the same approximate level of emotional engagement.

Or: Is this wildly bellicose language that is totally inappropriate for elected officials and leaders?

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