Tag Archives: absurdity

Lost in Translation

It was like Kafka.

“World According to Russia,” she said to me over the phone. “Hello!”

“Um.  Hello?”

I was slightly taken back that someone in a Russian office would pick up after the first ring.

“Yes, hello,” she repeated.  “World According to Russia.  How can I help you?”

“Yes, um.  Hello… I mean:  Allo!” and that’s when I switched back to my native tongue, and I don’t know why.  “Zdravstvui’te!”

I was respectful but immediately nervous.  Whenever speaking to any Russian bureaucrat, I tend to lose a grasp on my otherwise unwavering — to some, obnoxious — self-esteem.

It makes no sense to English speakers, but there are several types of Russian.

“Well, it is like dialects?” an American would ask me.

No.  I’d rather think of it as this:  That the entire history of my dear tortured Motha’land had made a mark onto my native tongue of poetic beauty — by splitting it into as many personalities as there were regimes.

First, there is the pretty Russian, used mostly in literature:  I’m pretty good at that one, and I dig the way it translates.  Then, there is the Soviet street talk:  A blend of Yiddish and something crass and always funny, it is the most expressive of them all.

Motha speaks in that one well, and normally our chats result in my dashing for the bathroom, at the end.

“Who needz fuckingg Pilates, eh — vhen ve laugh and laugh like zis?!”  She would sometimes say that from behind my bathroom door, while I would clutch my bladder and beg her to “PLEASE!  STOP!”

She is right though:  My motha’s stand-up routine is the best form of ab workout I have ever known.  But I do not speak her language:  I only marvel at the way it turns its words from inside out, and it makes for such comedy, as a result.

The street talk of the contemporary Russians is something I’ve only briefly overheard on the lips of those hotheaded Muscovites, all clad in black leather jackets and American labels, whenever I catch them being interviewed by BBC.  Most of the time though, they tend to switch to English anyway, which then comes out eloquently and with a very little accent.  The tall female beauties speak in that tongue as well.  They are, however, most often accompanied by older men of stoic nature who speak on their behalf.  And when they speak to women, the men tend to address them slightly condescendingly, or like little girls.

The third personality of Russian — is the one I fear the most.  It is the one adopted by the Russian Consulates, bilingual politicians or lawyers in West Hollywood.  It’s not just legal lingo though.  Again:  It’s NOT a dialect!

This type of Russian is choppy, filled with acronyms and abbreviations that I have no skills for breaking down.  Instead, I panic, ask them to slow down; then, reiterate their statements again and again.  Considering that most bureaucrats are at a lack for time, such interactions don’t end well for me.  The people who should have the answers leave me to my own devices, while they, nearly irate, roll their eyes at my degree of helplessness and walk out on me — or hang up.

The woman on the phone had switched to Russian, too.  I have to give it to her:  She sounded quite pleasant, so far.  Not really perky, no; but pleasant nonetheless.  I guess she never knew who could be calling her.  It could be an American, and an American always expects a certain standard of customer service (the concept of which doesn’t even exist in my native tongue, no matter its personality).

“How can I help you, young woman?” she said to me, sounding almost aristocratic.

I relaxed a bit:  “Um.  Well.  I wanted to know about traveling to Russia with an American passport.”

There was a pause.  She didn’t budge.

“Would one need a visa?” I gave her a little more.

“But of course!”

Aha!  The way she said it almost sounded irate.  Was that a dumb question?  Or did I expect her to be rude?  I tried to sooth the situation.

“Um.  Okay.  Well.  How would one… go about…  THAT?  Da?”

“You would have to bring documentation that proves you’re no longer a Russian citizen.”

“Um.  Okay.  But isn’t having an American passport enough of a proof?”

“Young woman,” her voice got slightly terser.  “Do you know how many Russians live here with both passports?”

I didn’t know.

“Is that like dual citizenship?”  I jumped:  Look at me, being smart ‘n’ all!  But I did have to switch to English to deliver that.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” the woman answered, also in English.

At any moment now, she would hang up on me, I thought.  She owed me nothing.  She was doing this for free.

“Um.  Okay.  What do I do to prove that I am an American and NOT a Russian citizen.”

“You would have to show us papers renouncing your Russian citizenship.”

“Renouncing?!”  That sounded harsh.  Nyet?!

But the answer was simply:  “Da.”

“Um.  Okay.  How do I do that?”

“You have to bring your Russian passport…”

“Well.  Yes, you see:  I do not have one.”

“Then, you must apply!”

The woman proceeded to breakdown timelines and fees.  I panicked and asked her to slow down.  The gist was this:  It would take half a grand to get the passport that I would then have to renounce.  In terms of time, I was looking at pretty much a year.

“Um.  What if I don’t renounce it?” I said.  (If I can help it, I’d rather never renounce anything in life.)

“Then, you still pay and wait to get the passport.”

There was more silence.  I wanted to reiterate, but the absurdity was pretty clear already.  There would be paperwork and fees, then a long wait.  And then, another stage of paperwork, and fees, and more long wait.  But at least, it sounded Russian!

The silence lasted.  The woman almost gave in:

“Unless you were born here…”  She was giving me an inch… a centimeter.

“No,” I said.  I wasn’t sure which language I was using at that point.

I think the woman sensed the shock, because she took some mercy on me:

“When did you come here, miss?”

“Um.  Sixteen years ago.”

“WHAT YEAR?” and just like that, she was about to get irate, again.

“Nineteen… Oh, I dunno.  1997, I think?”

“Ah, yes.  You’re one of those,” the woman said.  “You have no choice.”

“Freedom’s Just Another Word — for Nothing Left to Lose.”

“It should not be denied… that being footloose has always exhilarated us.  It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led West.” 

Wallace Stegner, The American West as Living Space

“What if I walked away, right now, into these open spaces ahead?”

I wasn’t sure if every 19-year-old entertained such thoughts, but as I continued walking in the midday heat of a Southern California summer, I could see the journey clearly.  I could see myself:  A tiny figure whose outline was distorted by the heat rising from underneath the thin-soled Converse shoes, walking slowly but with certainty, fearless in the way of someone who had nothing to lose.

I had lost enough that year to not fear the possible pain of the unknown.  I had lost enough to have nothing holding me in place.  My college applications had been sent off late and only to a handful of unknown institutions with rolling admissions.  Considering it was the end of August, I had assumed I had failed to get in.

Two marriage proposals had happened that summer, by two different men, neither of whom even pretended to understand me much.  A month before, I had lost all of my cash, my car and my place of stay; and the absurdity of my pre-college summer was finished off — with a death.

As a matter of fact, it was the dead that was still keeping me in place.

She had died untimely, from a heart attack-ed.  I was called out of my Anatomy Lab to receive the message.  It was just a note, written on a pink slip that rarely meant good news.  The couple of times that I had witnessed it being delivered into my classmates’ hands, they wouldn’t return for the rest of the day.  Sometimes, they would be gone for weeks; and when they came back, I noticed the difference in their faces.  It looked either like gravity — or weightlessness.  I was about to find out which.

My messenger — an unknowing work-study student from the counselors’ office — ran out on me before I could ask him for any details.

“I have a note,” I told the receptionist in the counselors’ office, while rummaging in my schoolbag for my glasses.

“I know.  They are still on hold,” she answered.

The supervisor of the office loomed in the background, by the copy machine.  I saw his face, however blurry, and knew if I could see him any clearer, he would tell me of his sympathy.  My hands continued shaking, as they searched the bottom of my bag for an item I insisted on needing before picking up the phone.

The next few days had passed in a slow-mo waltz of minutes.  There would be phone calls and somber cards; a weeping husband on a flowery couch; a line of uninvited guests who would never be around whenever I was attacked by a slew of forms and interviews from funeral parlors.

“Whatever you need,” they promised to the weeping husband, as they too began to weep.

Nothing had prepared me for the questions that happened that week, from the people on the other end of the phone:

She was a donor, they said; and could they have my signature — to take her eyes?

Make a list of all the things, they told me:  things to be placed inside her coffin.  Did I know which she had treasured the most?

Choose the clothes she would be most comfortable in, they insisted:  Shouldn’t she be comfortable, wherever she was going?

And was I sure she wouldn’t prefer cremation instead?  (‘Cause that wouldn’t cost us as much, they would mention under their breath:  After all, they weren’t completely heartless.)

The weeping husband continued to assume I was strong enough to take his place.  No one had asked me if I was ready or willing, or knowledgeable of her last wishes.  Perhaps, I had promised more competence than the bulb-nosed man on the flowery couch, who nodded and moaned, accepted troughs of food from the still uninvited neighbors, with their solemn faces and anecdotes about the dead.

“Whatever you need,” they mumbled over his shoulder as they hugged and strained their own faces for emotions.

On the morning of the funeral, I remembered shivering.  They had wanted us to start early:  The first burial of the day.  And the morning would be so cold, and dewy.  The husband continued to weep in the front row of gray plastic chairs, while I accepted envelopes and hugs from people I hadn’t known.

Thank you for coming.

Thank you for coming.

Thank you.  It means so much.

The following week, I had promised to come back and clean out her closet.  The task of deciphering the bus schedules and routes seemed absurd and painfully sad.  I would study the indifferent faces of the drivers as they spoke gibberish about my transfers, and vouchers, and student passes.

I would get off on the last stop and study the desolate grounds and the open spaces ahead.

“What if I walked away, right now,” I thought, “into the open spaces?”

What if I followed the trajectory of black telephone lines or began chasing tumbleweeds:

Where would I end up?  And would I end up free?

And would that freedom feel weightless, eventually returning my joy; my forgiveness?