Fulbright FLTA memories. Part 2. Translating Dovlatov back into Russian with my American students.

In this post, I am talking about using Dovlatov’s book to teach 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.

Talking about Dovlatov in this kind of course was absolutely inevitable. But his works came later in the semester.

What we started from was Silver Age poetry. Since my students had only been learning Russian for 5 months, we started from the easiest and most obvious thing to do – reading and translating the poetry into English.

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 suits 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.)

Чемодан. The suitcase.
Foreword

So this bitch at OVIR says to me, “Everyone who leaves is allowed three suitcases. That’s the quota. A special regulation of the ministry.”
No point in arguing. But of course I argued. “Only three suitcases? What am I supposed to do with all my things?”
“Like what?”
“Like my collection of race cars.”
“Sell them,” the clerk said, without lifting her head.
Then, knitting her brows slightly, she added, “If you’re dissatisfied with something, write a complaint.”
“I’m satisfied,” I said.
After prison, everything satisfied me.
“Well, then, don’t make trouble…”
A week later I was packing. As it turned out, I needed just a single suitcase.
I almost wept with self-pity. After all, I was thirty-six years old. Had worked eighteen of them. I earned money, bought things with it. I owned a certain amount, it seemed to me. And still I only needed one suitcase – and of rather modest dimensions at that. Was I poor, then? How had that happened?
Books? Well, basically, I had banned books, which were not allowed through customs anyway. I had to give them out to my friends, along with my so-called archives.
Manuscripts? I had clandestinely sent them to the West a long time before.
Furniture? I had taken my desk to the second-hand store. The chairs were taken by the artist Chegin, who had been making do with crates. The rest I threw out.
And so I left the Soviet Union with one suitcase. It was plywood, covered with fabric and, had chrome reinforcements at the corners. The lock didn’t work; I had to wind clothes line around it.
Once I had taken it to Pioneer camp. It said in ink on the lid: “Junior group. Seryozha Dovlatov.” Next to it someone had amiably scratched: “Shithead”. The fabric was torn in several places. Inside, the lid was plastered with photographs: Rocky Marciano, Louis Armstrong, Joseph Brodsky, Gina Lollobrigida in a transparent outfit. The customs agent tried to tear Lollobrigida off with his nails. He succeeded only in scratching her. (1) But he didn’t touch Brodsky. He merely asked, “Who’s that?” I said he was a distant relative…
On May 16 I found myself in Italy. I stayed in the Hotel Dina in Rome. I shoved the suitcase under the bed.
I soon received fees from Russian journals. I bought blue sandals, flannel slacks and four linen shirts. I never opened the suitcase.
(2) Three months later I moved to the United States, to New York. First, I lived in the Hotel Rio. Then we stayed with friends in Flushing. Finally, I rented an apartment in a decent neighborhood. I put the suitcase in the back of the closet. I never undid the clothes line.

 

Glossary
(1)
Бродский, m., adj., Accusative, animate, the ending is –ого.
to touch = тронуть
to ask = спросить
merely = всего лишь
to reply = ответить
distant relative = дальний родственник
(2)
later = через (is written at the beginning of the sentence)
to move = перебраться
with friends = у друзей
finally = наконец
decent = приличный
to put (in a vertical position) = поставить
in the back = в дальний угол
The original
(1)
А Бродского не тронул. Всего лишь спросил — кто это? Я ответил, что дальний родственник…
(2)    

Через три месяца перебрался в Соединенные Штаты. В Нью-Йорк. Сначала жил в отеле “Рио”. Затем у друзей во Флашинге. Наконец, снял квартиру в приличном районе. Чемодан поставил в дальний угол стенного шкафа.


 

The students did a great job. Curiously, they made two types 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?! 

Special thanks:
I would like to thank Daria Kirjanov for giving me the language lab class and the freedom to teach it the way I saw fit.
I would also like to thank Alma Classics for the foreword in English and multiple resources for the whole book in Russian.  
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Fulbright FLTA memories. Part 1. Teaching Russian from scratch: my proudest achievement.

In this post, I am sharing my experience of teaching Russian as a foreign language.

I am a teacher of English as a foreign language, but last year, thanks to the Fulbright FLTA program, I got an incredible opportunity to teach Russian as a foreign language at the University of New Haven (CT, USA). In this post, I want to share a tiny portion of this experience.

When you win a Fulbright FLTA grant, you don’t get to choose your host institution or your duties there. The only thing you can do is accept or decline the grant offer (but why on earth would you do that?). I got an offer from the University of New Haven and happily accepted. According to my terms of appointment, I was going to be a primary teacher for beginner level students.

Truth be told, teaching beginners was the last thing I wanted to do. In my defense, I just didn’t know how rewarding it would be because I had never taught beginners in my entire life. Anyway, I went through with it and I don’t regret it for a minute.

When I say beginners, I mean absolute beginners – people who literally knew zero Russian. In the first semester, we worked on the basics, like the Cyrillic alphabet, pronunciation, noun cases and verb conjugation. The second semester was when I started doing what I enjoy most – develop my students’ speaking skills.

 We actually started working on speaking several weeks into the semester, but speaking basically went like this, “What is it? – It’s a cat.” or “Where do you live? – I live in West Haven.” These and similar questions were introduced in the course book we followed. Answering these questions, while admittedly necessary, wasn’t particularly exciting because the answers were so obvious and predictable. My aim was to engage the students in more natural, relevant, and meaningful conversations. In pursuing this aim, I discovered that Russian is an incredibly difficult language to learn. Just kidding. … I discovered that I could get by with very little grammar or vocabulary. And I didn’t need a lot of time either. My class started at 8 am. The time slot between 7:55 and 8:05 was enough.

Achieving my aim was simple. All I did was ask questions, consistently and relentlessly, five minutes before and after the beginning of every single class. That’s it. No more, no less.

We started from “Как дела?” (How are you?) which, fortunately, is a very simple question in Russian. The students already knew two ways to answer this question, “Хорошо.” (Good / Fine.) and “Отлично.” (Excellent.) because I had been using these words to comment on their performance since the very beginning of the school year.

Little by little, I added more questions and answers basing them on the material covered in the book but making them more relevant. For example, the book introduced the conjugation of “хотеть” (to want) and used such examples as “I want to study Russian. / I want to live in Moscow.” I thought to myself, “How relevant are these sentences if they are already studying Russian and have never been to Moscow?” and added the following to my morning QA session, “Do you want to sleep?” – “Yes, I want to sleep,” which sounds very relevant in the morning, doesn’t it?

As a result, my students could have a conversation that went something like this:

 1 Some phrases might sound awkward in English because I am giving direct translation. 
2 Some phrases might look complicated in English but aren’t in Russian due to differences in grammar. 

If you think about it, this is a conversation you might actually have with your friend at the beginning of the day. I went through these questions at the beginning of every class, so the students got used to them and answered effortlessly. And the beauty part is the students enjoyed the freedom to vary their answers depending on the circumstances of the day, which made the conversations truly meaningful.

I consider these short conversations to be my proudest achievement in teaching Russian in one year. Helping students get there from scratch gave me the satisfaction that advanced groups don’t.

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