I’ve long been interested in Russian literature, so when this title came up in the comments section of my favorite writing blog, I added it to my towering GoodReads “to read” shelf. A book club buddy gifted me a copy earlier this year and so I immediately sat down to read it.
Author: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; H. T. Willetts, translator
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.95
Language scaling: C1+
Summary: One day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet gulag.
Recommended audience: Anyone interested in hyper-realism; anyone interested in Russian literature from the Soviet era
In-depth thoughts: Nothing happens, which will either bother you or it won’t. I’ve long been a fan of the “slice of life” kind of stories, where small struggles gain epic proportions (television shows like The Adventures of Pete and Pete or Seinfeld, movies like Clerks), and that’s largely what One Day… is. It’s just that the backdrop is a prison camp instead of American suburban life. If your tastes overlap with mine, then you’ll get a lot out of it. But if “a book about nothing, set in a gulag” sounds tedious to you, then it probably won’t be a lot of fun to read. (Not that it was “fun,” exactly.)
Because of the specific setting, and because so much of it centers around very small details and very small, easily overlooked items, reading the English translation might be difficult for lower level readers. (Unless you want to look up a whole bunch of new words about army barracks and stonemasony and so on). But for those already familiar with the original, or with a higher level of English, this translation is of interest.
Which of the Winnie-the-Pooh characters do you most relate to?
Rabbit, I suppose? I like to read, I can be bossy, and I find real-life Tiggers to be very trying.
Which of the Winnie-the-Pooh characters has qualities you’d find most attractive in a romantic partner?
My own partner is very much a Piglet, if that’s any indication!
In what way have you “wandered much further” today than you should?
I’m only answering this in the morning, so the day has hardly begun, really. I’ll admit to sleeping in a little, but only a little. Of Winnie-the-Pooh stories you can remember (from the books, Disney cartoons, or other sources), which is your favorite?
To be honest, I don’t remember much from Winnie-the-Pooh. I know I liked the Disney adaptation of “Winnie-the-Pooh and the Blustery Day” when I was younger. I was also quite enamored with the word “blustery” and immediately set about using it in real life.
I also like the Russian animated adaptations. The art is so charming! The crayon backgrounds look just like a child’s drawing, which I think is very appropriate for Winnie-the-Pooh. Plus, this version of Piglet is absolutely adorable.
There are only three, but they’re all freely available on YouTube. Here is the first Винни Пух adaptation: В которой мы знакомимся с Винни-Пухом и несколькими подозрительными пчелами. (In which we meet Winnie the Pooh and a few suspicious bees.)
Which quote from the Winnie-the-Pooh stories would be good for the epigraph in the book about your life?
“I’ve got a sort of idea, but I don’t suppose it’s a very good one.”
When did you last need a few days of complete rest and nothing else?
I feel like that every day, to be honest. I had a really gnarly chest cold for most of February that kept me relatively housebound. I’m better now, but the first two weeks were unpleasant, to say the least.
How do you keep yourself occupied when you have to be in bed all day and night?
Who do you most want to hear from when you have to withdraw to your bed for a few days of rest?
It depends. Whenever I have to go into self-imposed quarantine, it means I have a lot of time to just think; often, I’ll remember a story or a question I had for someone in particular. But usually I can just send them a message on Gchat or Facebook, so I don’t have to make immediate plans to see them when I’m feeling better.
What adverse effects have you experienced while staying in bed for a few days?
I don’t like the deconditioning and loss of stamina/energy I notice when I feel better enough to go running again.
When you first notice a few symptoms, are you more likely to shut everything down right away, or try to power through until you don’t have a choice anymore?
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I try to take it as easy as possible right from the beginning, including lots of garlic, zinc, and lemon tea.
I’ve always been interested in foreign languages — my electives in high school were essentially all the music and foreign language classes I could fit in my schedule — so it’s not surprising that I would fall into teaching as a career.
I’ve made oblique references to studying Russian and Swedish elsewhere; I’ve also studied, in increasing order of fluency, Korean, German, and French. If you peek at my DuoLingo profile, you can see that I’ve also dipped my toes into Turkish. (It’s been a while with that one; I wouldn’t claim any kind of proficiency or knowledge.) While I’m just plain interested in languages, I think it’s important for language teachers to keep up their own language studies throughout their careers.
1. You can understand your students better.
If nothing else, when you have a better understanding of your students’ mother tongue, you can better understand where there might be L1 interference or confusion. My Korean students and friends, for example, often would use the verb “play” in a manner that, while not technically wrong, sounded odd, especially coming from someone older than 10. (“How was your weekend?” “It was good, I played with some friends.”) If I didn’t know any better, I would just be confused or annoyed by this persistent pattern in Korean English. But it’s an idiosyncrasy that’s a lot easier to understand because I know (a little bit) about Korean.
As it turns out, in Korean you can use the verb “to play” for everything from schoolyard games to company dinners (놀다) to just shooting the shit in the park, whereas in English we quickly outgrow it unless it’s in the context of a sport or a musical instrument. I hope that, if I taught my teenage Korean students nothing else, I got them to start using “hang out with” instead of “play with” when talking about their weekends.
2. You can remember what it’s like to be a student.
After a few years of pedagogical training and work, it can be really easy to fall prey to teacher hubris. Being a beginner again helps foster a sense of empathy with your students and their own struggles.
3. You can learn to be a better teacher.
This one is a little tricky if you’re not actually taking a class, but you can probably still be inspired by a good textbook or workbook. While there is plenty of EFL material written by plenty of highly qualified EFL experts, English isn’t the only language out there. The more you can branch out into other languages, the greater pool of inspiration you have to draw from. Maybe the worksheet you did for French is the perfect thing to adapt to your direct object lesson next week, and so on.
4. Your students can feel more comfortable with you.
Many argue for the immersive “target language only” philosophy; this is the approach I was taught when I did my CELTA. While I agree that the immersive (or faux-immersive) environment can be exactly the challenging situation that a lot of students need, and that it sometimes is the best practical situation (e.g. a class of international students who don’t all share the same mother tongue), I don’t think it’s always entirely appropriate. Some students are shy, or not quite confident in the target language–sometimes just knowing that they can ask a clarifying question or use a word in their mother tongue is the Dumbo’s feather that they need to take productive learning risks. The more languages you know at least a little bit about, the more students you can reach.
So I study languages for all of these reasons, but also just because it’s something I’m interested in. I’m not the most diligent student, I’ll admit, but I still make an effort. I’ll get into my own study habits and schedule in another post. But for now, I’ll leave things here.
When is a cup not a cup? When is a glass not a glass? Does it depend on what’s inside? What is the balance between literal translation and the adoption of fixed, familiar phrases in the target language?
For example, if a native English speaker were to offer someone tea, there would be a number of different ways to do it. Outlining all of them here would be tedious and beside the point, but I want to focus on which vessel would be named (if named at all). Pop quiz! Fill in the blank:
“Would you like a _____ of tea?”
And let’s put aside partitives like “bit” or “spot”; let’s look specifically at “cup” and “glass.” Is there one you prefer?
For me, and I think for many native speakers, the appropriate semantic unit for tea is a cup. It’s what flows (ha, ha) naturally. And, indeed, we usually have tea in solid, opaque drinking vessels that can’t rightly be said to be made of glass.
So the discussion over on DuoLingo’s Russian partitive lesson about glass and tea is fascinating and (as of this blog post) has over 100 comments!
Russian differentiates between a number of drinking vessels. Стакан is what you call a “glass” in English: typically, a cylindrical vessel made of glass, with no handle.
But when faced with an expression that would literally be translated as “a glass of tea,” should you translate the words literally, or translate the concept of “a vessel of tea” into the most common and most likely English phrase?
Of course, the point of DuoLingo is to teach you vocabulary and grammar, not to teach you how to translate longer pieces of writing in context. To that end, it sacrifices a natural-sounding English answer to drive home the difference (in Russian) between a “glass” and a “cup.”
But for many users (myself included) it just feels…wrong. This question has a few simultaneous discussions of essentially this issue; this one is the most typical and the most informative.
Things also segued into how tea is consumed globally, with users from other parts of the world (north Africa and Turkey, among others) pointing out that having tea in a glass—the “cylindrical vessel made of glass, with no handle” described by DuoLingo—is commonplace where they live.
So if DuoLingo is insisting on a subtlety that sounds unnatural to many English speakers because of the customs of our particular countries (to have tea in one kind of vessel but not other), how about in translation? If I’m reading a story where the character in the original Russian has a стакан of tea, has something of the nuance or subtlety been lost if the translator chose “cup of tea” instead of “glass of tea”? Is the purpose of a translation to remain as literally faithful as possible to an original (to translate), or to take a story and convey its concepts in the most natural way possible in a target language (to localize)?
There is also the question, again, of who an English translation is really for. Considering the prevalence of English worldwide (and the fact that non-native speakers vastly outnumber the native speakers), I don’t think we can rightly claim that an English translation is first and foremost for native speakers. Should native ear qualms over a glass of tea, or larger issues of “awkwardness” or clunkiness, really matter?