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07 March 2012

Etiquette issue #2: false certainty (Boris Akunin)

Perhaps the most general rule of English language etiquette for Russians should be to avoid anything which smacks of Sovietism. Fifty years ago I might have said “Teutonism”, but that has largely gone from the world. However, Sovietism is still with us in large parts of what used to be the Land of the Soviets.
     One of the many unappealing aspects of Sovietism was the conceited, self-congratulatory nature of so much public discourse. One of the features of that was a habit of expressing a false certainty about the future. This sprang, I presume, from thinking  in Marxist terms about the so-called “laws” of history—laws which have proved pretty unlaw-abiding as it turns out.
     In today’s Guardian, the Russian-Georgian detective writer, Boris Akunin, is reported as having commented on the problems of political opposition in post-election Russia, and the likelihood of violent confrontations between protesters and the authorities.
“Russians furious about Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency fear a wider crackdown after hundreds were arrested following a post-election protest. ‘It is absolutely certain that the period of peaceful protests and marches is over,’ the novelist Boris Akunin, a member of the protest organising committee, told Kommersant FM radio.” (italics added)
     The phrase “it is absolutely certain” sounds objective, but in fact Mr Akunin is talking about events which have not yet been planned, much less taken place. He would have been entirely within his linguistic rights to say “I am absolutely certain”, since he is the full authority for his own views. But to say “it is certain” means he has definite foreknowledge about events, when he does not. Mr Putin might change tack, or choke on a lump of raw fish. The protesters might get bored of protesting, or all decide to emigrate. Hillary Clinton might change sex. Chelsea might win the FA Cup. The Guardian might start publishing jokes.
     To claim perfect foreknowledge of world events is to invoke the gloomy shade of Herr Marx. No falser bottom than his ever polished the seat of a chair in the British Museum Reading Room. I am sure Mr Akunin does not wish to emulate the Prophet Karl, which is why I think it useful to point out how a simple substitution of “I am” for “it is” would change the statement quoted from one which has the horrible ring of authoritarian scientific pessimism to one of personal worry on the part of a man who is involved in, and fully aware of, the situation he is discussing.


  1. I am impressed by the connecting between “It is absolutely certain” and Karl Mark! In my humble opinion, it’s just the translation from the typical Russian «абсолютно ясно, что…». We say that not because it’s really absolutely certain but as an expression. For example, in English it’s "sure" or "absolutely".

    Aliona Vanova

  2. Indeed, the connection to Karl Marx looks a little bit far fetched. It could have been any other social philosopher with a habit of expressing himself in bold statements. However, let's not forget that this blog deals with Russian language and culture.
    However, I feel that the problem here is with Mr. Akunin's intention for his text and its expected audience effect. Our Russian expression «абсолютно ясно, что…» can be easily changed to "It is absolutely 'clear' that", where the degree of clarity is left to audience's evaluation.

    P.S. I just stumbled upon this blog, but could not stop reading it for an hour.
    My sincere admiration goes to Mr. Mitchel.

    1. Thank you, Mr Kutsenko, for your kind compliment about the blog. My purpose is not so much to deal generally with Russian language and culture as with the slightly narrower issue of how they translate into English without giving the worng impression. I quite accept that "абсолютно ясно, что" is a common expression in Russian, and that it translates literarlly as you say. However, my point is that to say "it is absolutely clear..." conveys a kind of psychologically authoritarian sense when put into English, and that that is not attractive. "It is absolutely clear to me..." would, however, have been fine.
      Ian Mitchell

  3. Thank you for the blog, Mr. Mitchell. Very refreshing and a rare find.

    I would comment on this one though. I googled the article, as it is odd that such accurate person as Mr. Akunin could put himself incorrect.

    It is absolutely clear (style intended) that Akunin gave interview to Kommesant FM in Russian. This means, the critics for mis-interpretation should go to the author of the article. As Dmitri commented, Russians omit "to me" in "it is absolutely clear".

    I trust Western journalist working in Moscow could well be your audience too.

    1. Thank you for your kind comment on the blog in general.
      You are quite right about the fact that the interview was in Russian. I know that that is the way Russians talk to each other. The point that I wanted to emphasise, though, was that when translated directly into English, many Russian forms of speeach, both Soviet and post-Soviet (though not so much pre-Soviet), sound curt and often either aggressive or smug, or both. None of these is attractive.