Fulbright FLTA memories. Part 2. Translating Dovlatov back into Russian with my American students.
What I want to share in this post was probably my favorite part of my teaching Russian as a foreign language experience, which was teaching language with the help of literature (or is it literature with the help of language?).
In the second semester, the Russian teacher at UNH, Daria Kirjanov, taught a course called, “Stories of Displaced Lives: Russian and Eastern European Memoirs of Exile.” As part of this course, the students of Russian were supposed to attend a language lab class, the purpose of which was reading some of the course materials in the original. I got my own language lab class with three beginner level students. The beauty part was I didn’t have a rigid program to follow and had the freedom to create my own materials (a million thanks to Daria for that!).
It went well, but at some point I got this nagging feeling that “variety is the spice of life.” I needed and wanted to vary my tasks. I thought long and hard. When we got to Dovlatov, it hit me, “Why don’t we reverse what we’ve been doing and translate literature from English back into Russian?”
I decided to work with Dovlatov’s “The Suitcase.” Firstly, because it suited the topic perfectly; secondly, because I found it online in both English and Russian; thirdly, because it is written in the past tense.
The past tense might be the single simple aspect of the overall complicated Russian grammar. There is only one past tense and all you have to do is change the ending of the infinitive. For example, жить - жил, работать - работал, ответить - ответил (masculine). It’s beautifully straightforward.
We only worked with the foreword as we didn’t have time for the whole piece. I cherry picked the portions I knew the students could handle and provided a glossary of the words they didn’t know. We then compared their translations with the original. You will find an example below and you are very welcome to give translating Dovlatov a shot too. I have included the beginning to give you some context.
The students did a great job. Curiously, they made two types of mistakes: writing everything in direct word order (subject+verb) and including every single pronoun in the sentence. For example, they wrote “Он не тронул Бродского.” for “А Бродского не тронул.” (At this point, I would like to remind you that these students had only started learning the language 5 months before.)
Thanks to this perfect combination of Daria’s course on immigrant writers, “The Suitcase” and the simplicity of the past tense in Russian, my beginner students could have a go at translating Dovlatov. How cool is that?!