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15 April 2012

Master Class #1: V.V. Putin’s speech to the Duma

Another day, another Putin:
so much depends on presentation
Last Wednesday, the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, V.V. Putin, addressed the Duma for the last time in his capacity as head of the government, before he returns to his previous eminence as Head of State.
     His speech was interesting on a political level—in my opinion principally because it illustrated the impotence of the Duma—but that is not the concern of this blog, which is to try to help Russians speak and write English in such a way as not to embarrass themselves. Putin spoke in Russian, of course, but the Office of the Prime Minister provided an English translation on-line and I think it is fair to use that as an example for purposes of criticism.
     I am going to start with a few grammatical points, and then go on to the more interesting question of style.

                    “Thankfully, we don’t have to approach anyone with hat in hand.” (p2) This is a common mistake for “cap in hand” and is made by people who do not understand all aspects of the British class system. From the eighteenth century onwards, members of the bourgeoisie wore “hats”, while the working class wore “caps”. Though class distinctions have largely gone, people still wear hats at Ascot and caps at football matches. In eighteenth century Sweden, the two political factions were known as the Hats and the Caps. The latter was a party of peasants and clergymen who favoured alliance with Russia after their country’s defeat at Poltava, and were mocked for being soft, like night-caps. The former was a party of gentlemen, who wore hard tri-corn hats and favoured a more forward policy, in alliance with France, with the aim of recovering their empire on the Baltic, a policy which eventually took the country into the Seven Years War on the losing side. In general today, a respectable person approaches someone with hat in hand as a mark of respect. What Mr Putin was saying was that Russia no longer had to beg, as working people sometimes used to have to do. A different metaphor is called for there.

                    “We have launched a new Russian passenger liner, Superjet 100, which has been made in digital format for the first time.” (p. 3) I have no idea what this means. “Digital format” applies to information and has no meaning in connection with physical objects like aeroplanes. Aside from that, Mr Putin should have said “airliner” because “liner” by itself usually means a ship. And it is ships, including “liners”, that are “launched”. Aeroplanes are, these days, “rolled out” (from the hangars in which they are assembled).

                    “The last four years have brought to our national thrift box the oil and gas of Vankor and Talakan….” (p. 3) A “thrift box” is a container into which poor but thrifty people put small change in the hope that one day they will have amassed enough money to make some otherwise unaffordable purchase, like a new cap for him or a Sunday hat for her. What Mr Putin ought to have said was: “In the last four years Russia’s fossil-fuel reserves have been augmented by discoveries in Vankor and Talakan…”

                    “Over 50 highly complex tunnels and railway bridges have been built.” (p.3) What is a “highly complex tunnel”, and how does it differ from a simple tunnel. Why not just say “tunnels”?

                    “By 2013, the domestic demand for innovation will amount to 1.5 trillion roubles just through the programmes pursued by companies partially owned by the state.” (p. 5) This sentence has no meaning. “Innovation” refers to a quality not a quantity. It cannot be expressed in monetary terms. If Mr Putin meant “innovative goods” which could be valued, that too would be largely meaningless without some sort of definition of what constitutes an “innovative good” (or service). Does it include new types of hamburger, different sorts of hat or cap, or complicated new financial instruments?

                    “Corruption in this sphere is unacceptable.” (p. 5) This provokes the question: in what sphere is corruption acceptable?

                    “Russia should have no schools in emergency conditions.” (p.7) Does this mean that when war breaks out, the stock markets crash or forest fires burn uncontrollably all schools should be closed? But Mr Putin does not say that. What he says is that in those conditions the country should have “no schools”. On its face, that means that the buildings should be demolished, the teachers fired and the children sent home for good. I suspect that was not what he was really trying to say. He would have been better to have put his point more straight-forwardly: “Russia should not have any schools in an unacceptably dilapidated condition.”

      I could go on, but that is enough on grammar. With regards to the wider question of style, Mr Putin would be well advised, as would all other Russians in positions of power, to avoid conveying the impression, whether true or not, that they are hard, unyielding, unsympathetic men who would feel more at home in the Army than they do in government.
     The way Mr Putin speaks in Russian (and this point I have checked in the original) is not unusual amongst powerful people in this country. But that does not make it any more appealing to outsiders. The word абсолютно (absolutely) is commonly used in Russian but should usually be avoided in direct translation in English as it sounds peremptory and ostentatious.
“We need to bring the investment level up to at least 25% of GDP by 2015, and later by (sic) up to 30%. This objective is absolutely attainable. In 2011, we had about 20%, so the (sic) growth of 25-30% is absolutely possible.”
     Perhaps this sort of talk sounds impressive to members of the Duma, but to those who might read the English-language version of Mr Putin’s speech I suspect it will most likely be considered rather silly, like the dictator of a shambolic country who makes a fetish of punctuality. If I were Mr Putin’s publicist, I would have tried to convey the tone of a man talking to colleagues, rather than to subordinates:
“Last year investment was 20% of GDP. We need to increase this substantially. I believe a rate of 25% is achievable within three years, and up to 30% eventually.”
     The same peremptory tone is conveyed in many other parts of the speech, occasionally with the unattractive addition of a direct threat. For example, while talking about creating “a modern system for training skilled workers”, Putin says,
“This level of education is the direct responsibility of the regions…. Please note that unconditional compliance with this mandate will be a prerequisite for provision of all federal budgetary transfers.”
     Does the Prime Minister, in a solemn meeting with the country’s legislature, really mean to threaten local government with the withdrawal of all Federal funds, which in Russia surely means more or less all funds, if they do not display “unconditional compliance” with his wishes?
     When I read that passage, I began to think that no amount of style-editing could make this speech entirely acceptable to the world that I come from, in which rulers are expected to treat those they rule as at least theoretical equals. There is a good English expression which few Russians seem to know which expresses, amongst other things, the limits to Potemkin-style editing: “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
     Every Russian I have explained that to has reacted with either horror or offence. I have been told how insulting it is to compare a Russian with an animal, and especially a female pig. I always respond by telling them that they should lighten up, understand that it is only a figure of speech and remember what Winston Churchill said about pigs.
     The great man’s grandson once recalled that when he was a boy and used to go and stay at Chartwell, Churchill’s country house in Kent, the old man used to enjoy taking him with him when he went every afternoon to inspect his favourite animals, the pigs. There was one particular old sow that used roll on its back and let Churchill senior scratch its belly with the tip of his walking stick.
     “A dog looks up at man,” the elderly statesman would explain to his grandson as they leaned over the edge of the sty, “and a cat looks down on man. But a pig looks you in the eye and sees his equal.”

1 comment:

  1. I'm a pure Russian (though I lived oversees for couple of years) but even to me Putin's way of speech is unacceptable. I switch the program on TV when they show him speaking, especially giving orders, reproaching and threatening people in the audience (who are BTW also state authorities or people of power). That makes me blush for him. I can see why westerns cannot understand that approach. That’s impolite and uncivilized.