The Russians on The Americans

I love the show The Americans. It’s one of the best shows on television and captivates me every week.  One of the reasons I enjoy it is that I get to practice my Russian, as all of the scenes featuring Russians (the Russians who are not deep-cover spies, that is) are usually in Russian with subtitles.

But I noticed something about the subtitles a while back that fascinated me: they do not exactly translate what the Russians are saying in Russian. They translate the sense, but not the literal meaning.

This means something extraordinary for this show. It means that the Russian dialogue is not a translation of the English dialogue shown in the subtitles. That is, the script writers did not write what they wanted the Russian characters to say and then had it translated into Russian. It appears as if both the English and the Russian were composed in their respective languages as originals. I’d heard rumor that the writers tell Russian-language speakers the gist of what they want said and the conversations are written in Russian.

See, in my day, I was a pretty good speaker of Russian. But if you gave me something to translate into Russian from English, it’d bear the echoes of my native English. Whereas a Russian, expressing the thought in Russian would say it differently from the way that I would’ve come up with. But this is not the Russian on the show. Even though I, or any other competent Russian speaker, could produce grammatical and comprehensible Russian translations of ideas originally expressed in English, the Russian on the show feels more authentic. It feels more… Russian.

This is remarkable attention to detail and authenticity and really does add an air of verisimilitude to the show, even though the overwhelming majority of viewers will have no idea that this has taken place. Continue reading

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Language, Thought, and White Privilege

I am not an expert in race. I am not an expert in anything, really—just a dilettante in a number of areas that I find interesting. One of those areas—language—has been on my mind a lot lately as I’ve reflected on the ongoing crisis in race relations we have in this country.

languageAs our news and social media are filled daily with continuing evidence that racism and intolerance are alive and well in America, some long overdue conversations about White Privilege and systematic racism have been taking place with increasing frequency. But as these conversations take place, it becomes clear that most of us do not realize how deeply ingrained our system of racial injustice runs. It goes far beyond explicit, intentional actions of the kind we witnessed with horror in Charleston, South Carolina last week. That kind of explicit racial hatred is easy to spot and those who insist that we live in a post-racial society will try to claim that such incidents are anomalies.  The system of racial injustice even goes beyond the institutionalized systems that privilege one racial group over another. The pattern of injustice goes right to our very thinking.

Some of us are aware of the implicit biases we have and the implicit associations we make with one racial or ethnic group or another. Others of us can, often to our horror or shame, take an online test to find out what our implicit associations are.  But we needn’t go to the lengths of taking an online test to discover our implicit biases and associations; our language betrays those for us already. Continue reading