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09 March 2013

Etiquette, Evelyn Waugh and on being rude to underlings

The young translator (left) putting Ms Sviblova's
hour-long speech into French
I recently witnessed one of the most outstanding displays of rudeness which it has been my misfortune to see. I was at a press conference for the Moscow International Photography exhibition which opened recently.
     The main organiser is a woman called Olga Sviblova, who seemed rather full of herself. First, she published a press release which was so long I did not have time to read it—she might have saved the ink. Secondly, she spoke at the beginning of the press conference for a hour. A whole hour! It would have been better if she had confined her remarks to a few headline observations and then introduced the other speakers. Five minutes would have been ideal; ten the maximum. But sixty was so excessive as to make one wonder whether she was doing this for our benefit or her own.
     But that paled beside her treatment of the young Russian lady who had been brought in to translate to and from French for the representative of the Pompidou Centre who was there as his museum was supporting the event. Eventually, she handed the microphone to the Frenchman who spoke in French, and whose words the Russian the translated into Russian for the benefit of the reporters present. 
     But she had hardly started when Sviblova told her to hand her the microphone. Saying she was speaking too slowly, Sviblova proceeded to do all the translating herself. It was such an obvious, public and deliberate slap in the face that the young translator, humiliated in a way I would not have expected outside the Russian Army, could not control her tears.
The same translator after Sviblova
had so rudely shut her up
     The whole audience was shocked, so much so that at the end of the speeches not a single question was asked by any of the press representatives present. I have never seen that in all my years of attending these sorts of events. It rather confirmed Mitchell’s Rule, which states that, with few exceptions, the higher you go in Russians society, the ruder the people get. The highest treat their subordinates like dirt, which is why democracy is such a threat to them, and why the country has to be ruled by deception and force.
     Mulling this over a night or two later, I happened to come across the following paragraph in The Diaries of Evenly Waugh which I have been reading recently. Waugh was still at school when he wrote this:
Friday 31 October 1919 
Parade was quite pleasant; the inspecting general was quite а gentleman, ог аt any гаtе knew how tо behave as such. At the band practice afterwards the bandmaster appears tо have called Cordner-James а ‘bugger’ and he at опсе retaliated bу calling him ‘а bloody fool’. The bandmaster rushed off tо Bоnd and had him degraded tо the ranks and put on defaulters nехt Monday. It seems rather unfair, but it is rather bad form tо swear at one’s social inferiors.
     Anyone who wants to hear a fascinating programme devoted entirely to analysis of Decline and Fall, Waugh's first novel, should listen to this broadcast from the BBC's In Our Time series. 


  1. And who, I pray, said, that this young translator was Sviblova's social inferior? Both women are professionals, they both come to an event and do a professional job. I am a translator, I am not socially inferior. What a ludicrous connection to make! Socially inferior indeed...

  2. Also, sorry, same Anonymous here as the one that left this previous message. Have you asked the young translator's permission to display her photo, alongside this detailed description of how the translator seemed to have been not OK for the job? Personally, I would be furious if I were that young translator... Unless, of course, she asked you to do so.

    1. It was at a press conference, so everyone on the high table was there to be photographed for publicity and any other purposes the press might think worthwhile.

  3. Hello, same anonymous here - I was wondering if you might wish to take some Professional interpreting etiquette lessons for the English? I.e.if a colleague is at home to Mr Cock-up or appears to be at home to Mr Cock-up, a colleagues' duty is to do his best to cover it up, to pretend nothing was wrong and at no time to display on the Internet the evidence of being at home to Mr Cock-up. Sviblova was there at the high table to be photographed for publicity, for the press, etc. The young lady was there to do her job - do you seriously not see the difference? The world of Russian interpreters is hostile, vindictive and unforgiving - they trawl the internet, listening to simultaneous feeds and making ghastly comments afterwards. I can't tell you how sorry I feel for the young lady.

    1. I do too, which is why I wrote what I did. I thought Ms Sviblova "hostile" and "unforgiving", and pretty ugly in a spiritual sense.

  4. Russians are obsessed with hierarchy, being "elite", showing other people their "place" and so on. Especially the ones that managed to claw their way out of the gutter to some position of importance. Its the country of slaves and masters, and it has been that way as long people can remember. I am sure you've read "Of the Rus Commonwealth" by Giles Fletcher, published in 1591. It is striking how little people's psyche changed since then.