Voices from another shore

I read somewhere that Tsar Nicholas II spoke accentless English and some years ago a Belarusian friend gave me a book of the letters of the Imperial family written when they were held in captivity by the Bolsheviks. Some of the letters Nicholas wrote to his wife were in flawless English. This set me thinking about some of the interactions between Russian and other languages.

Pushkin spoke mainly French to his parents and it was his old nurse, Arina Rodionovna, who spoke Russian to him and told him old Russian fairy tales. This, coupled with his native genius, influenced him to write in Russian and thus help to develop, almost single-handedly, a modern literary Russian language.

Studying Pushkin at university, we learnt that he was influenced by Byron. I remember trying to read some of Byron’s shorter poems, such as The Giaour and dipping into Childe Harold to try and get a sense of what it was that Pushkin actually got out of this verse which now seems to me at least turgid and virtually unreadable. He must have read it, either in a French or Russian translation, since there is some debate about how good his English was, evidenced by the fact that his English grammar book had only had some of its pages cut.

Turgenev spoke very good French, spent a long time in France and was a friend of Flaubert. To Dostoyevsky, speaking French was an affectation and inauthentic. This is perfectly captured in his characterisation of the writer Karmazinov and his ludicrous ‘Merci’ speech in The Devils, believed to be an attack on Turgenev and his liberal views.

I remember reading the obituary of a Russian emigre who became an academic economist in America. He came from a large, aristocratic Russian family of prodigious linguists and was considered rather slow because he only spoke 12 languages. The obituary recorded his insatiable appetite for knowledge: if he came across something which sparked his curiosity, for example weaponry, he would study it in such depth that he would become an expert in the subject.

When Mstislav Rostropovich died in 2007, Desi Dillingham, his friend and neighbour in Little Venice (London) for the last 18 years of his life wrote in his Guardian obituary:

“He was a delight, often phoning to ask for a special favour – and often one that would not be easy to deliver – such as a dinner party for 10 in his flat that evening. The request would always end with “if you can’t help me, I suicide immediate”. He spoke, it was said, 10 languages, none of them well.”

I love that last sentence. Because even if you don’t speak a language well, at least you’re making the effort to communicate, which is after all the purpose of language.

The writer who has come closest to bridging the linguistic divide is Nabokov. He was brought up trilingual, speaking Russian, English and French and claimed that he knew the English alphabet with its letters on his toy building bricks before he learnt Russian. He is an astonishing example of a writer who wrote brilliantly in another language. I am sure there are other examples but only Conrad (who only learnt English from the age of 18 and even then it was his fourth or fifth language) and Beckett (who considered writing all his work in French) come to mind.

One of Nabokov’s life long ambitions was to write a poem in either Russian or English whose meaning, nuances and rhythm could all be exactly translated from one language to the other. He is probably one of the few people who could have done it, but he never succeeded.


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