What this blog is for and about

I also offer personally-tailored, individualized English conversation practice (including etiquette) and coaching in writing techniques. Finally, I edit texts such as magazines, business proposals, memorandums, emails so they are presented in English which does not embarrass you or your organization. For further details, please mail me at: language.etiquette@gmail.com

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23 July 2013

End of term prizes: the Hot Air awards

English Language Etiquette for Russians:
helping those in linguistic need avoid
making arses of themselves
in print
A final post before I go on holiday to Scotland where I will be taking in, amongst many other things both reputable and disreputable, the Edinburgh Book Festival, which is one of the great events in the literary world. I will be posting occasional pieces about interesting authors I have seen. Beyond that, posts will have a more Scottish than a Russian flavour until the beginning of September.
     Before I set off, I want to stress one thought (not for the first time!). It is this: a high level of skill at written English is of vital importance in the modern world. Let me recommend two internet items that are relevant here. The first one is entitled: “How your grammar skills affect your salary”. The second one makes much the same point, in a different way, and carries with it the plutological authority (that means they are rich, or does now that I have coined the word!) of Forbes magazine. It is called: “How grammar influences your income.”
     Why do I stress this? Because a friend has sent me two outstanding examples of the linguistic mush which far too many Russian academics put out because they do not write English well (which is no sin) and are not prepared to get their work put into acceptable English by a specialist, like me (which is a sin!). People who spout guff and try to pass it off as clever discourse are said in colloquial English to be “talking a lot of hot air”. The picture on the right illustrates the process. 
     It is important to be clear that it is not only incoherent language which gets in the way of clear communication, it is  confused thinking too. Just because the authors of the two pieces below are high-level academics, does not mean they do not need help with their thought processes as much as their language. My point, really, is that the latter reflects the former. Confused, opaque, over-complicated English is a sure sign of sloppy thinking.
     The prize in this year’s ELERussians Hot Air Awards goes to the a Professor of English at one of Moscow’s leading universities. He has written an abstract for a paper to be submitted to a learned journal with the following title (which is in itself incomprehensible to me): “Metaphorical Potential of Phraseological Units in English Business Discourse”.
     If the title is beyond understanding, what chance is there of a coherent text? This is an extract:
“The author also states that the use of metaphors is a natural way of studying the world. The specificity of perception with the help of some metaphors reflects traditions, and the special features of national character of the native speaker. Phraseological units have both impact and educational functions. The author states that Russian and Western scientists are working on different schemes of metaphoric transformation and methods of classification, which are based on the transparency of the internal form of expressive vocabulary. However, the scientists were not able to reach full agreement, so ‘the last phase of the transformation of the metaphors core is also broadly disputed’. The author also discusses some of the reasons why figurative language is so intensively used in modern business discourse and argues that the criterion of idiomaticity is found to be an inadequate guide in distinguishing between metaphors and phraseological units. The article concludes that the ideological significance of figurative language should not be underestimated.”
     If any reader is able to extract a concrete meaning from that, then I will buy him or her a large drink at the next ELERussians whisky tasting. 
     The problem is not confined to academics. This next piece was written by a distinguished lawyer and is the abstract of an article, also intended for publication in a learned journal. The subject is Russian “atomic legislation”, which is itself a nonsense, since it is not the legislation that is atomic but the industry which is the subject of the legislation. It is runner-up in the Hot Air Awards for the blog year 2012-2013.
     Can any reader make any sense from these words beyond the statement of the obvious that Russian policy on the peaceful use of nuclear power needs to be revisited because of the new economic union with Kazakhstan and Belorussia?
“Furthermore, Russia is going to establish a single economic space with Kazakhstan and Belorussia, so the norms of all parties are to be synchronized. The author states that the development of the normative legal acts is made by different federal executive government bodies and some collectives. The existing bunch of normative acts should be reconsidered, rethought, analyzed and systemized; a monitoring of the use of nuclear energy legislation should be made. It is worth noticing that the systematization of the nuclear energy legislation needs a complex plan of preparing law drafts and normative acts in this sphere. In this connection the work on the systematization are going to allow legal activity for the satisfaction of innovative development of nuclear energy in Russia and gives a broad approach for the regulation of social relations in such potentially dangerous field, as the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”
     Since I might be bumping into Edward Snowden in the departure lounge at Sheremetyevo airport this afternoon, it occurs to me that I could usefully suggest to him that the best way to defeat the American global mail-spying programme would be to persuade everyone to write like the two award-winners above. His friends in Langley, Virginia, would never be able to decode that.


  1. O, how sweet! (I am being sarcastic, of course). In fact, this is a plain word-by-word translation of what is considered to be 'good formal Russian'. When I was doing my PhD on Pushkin and Shakespeare (imagine that!), I was strongly recommended to write like that, because it was 'academic' by Russian standards. When I did not write formally enough, one of professors accused me of using 'slang' (however, the accusing part failed to prove that I ever did)

    1. Totally agree, it has nothing to do with academic people struggling with writing in plain English, it's more about a weird tradition of 'formal academic' writing in Russian. The more complicated it sounds the more 'academic' and 'sophisticated' it pretends to be.

  2. I do not know English well anough to judge the examples presented above (and beg the pardon for my own written language I dare demostrate here), but why not to look deeper in the problem? When I was a student myself I was always confused what my language teachers wanted to see from my transnlations (which we were assigned in the class or as a homework): a rather awkward (in my opinion) word-by-word translation that demonstrated that I'd learned the vocabulary we were required to learn, or a smoother translation of the meaning of the text which (in my opinion again) was much more useful and reasonable, but I always doubted whether it was appropriate for demonstrating that I'd learned what I should in terms of the English language course.

    Another idea: many Russian scholars (and lawyers, who are famous for having a rather verbose style in almost any language) do not (and have been not taught to) WRITE in English. They TRANSLATE their Russian originals (and that's what they have been taught to, and more or less mastered while being students). And since most of them are no Nora Gal (you may have heard of that famous Russian transator) - their efforts end up in examples given above.

    I would rather not confine this to Russians, I've seen enough absolutely incomprehensible papers written by Greek or Japanese authors as well, etc, etc

    However I believe if one is not a professional (and gifted) translator, it may be the less evil to translate a paper word by word. Thus we will at least have an exact translation of the author's own words. In many cases professionals who read that rubbish understand the author'a idea. General public may not, but most of such papers are not meant to be read by a journalist or a ballerina. Of course it is great if they read and find it perfectly understandable. But if not, it doesn't actually matter.

    It is much worse when a translator try to translate "creatively", trying to translate the meaning (s)he actually have no idea of or has not enough knowledge to put in right words. The result may be fully understandble for all... except those whom the author actually meant to address it to. It is better if the result is just ridiculous. Worse if it loses or even misrepresent the gist, the ideas the author tried to make clear to the readers.

    And would also suggest that most of those writers either have never heard of any Ian Mitchell and an idea of proofreading at all or can't afford it, or both.

    1. Thank you, Estee, for that thoughtful comment. I certainly agree that the problem is not confined to Russians. But I can only be in one country at once!

      However, my underlying point is less about language than about what it reveals about thought. In the examples I quoted, I would argue that the messy, illogical language is partly a reflection of messy, half-digested thoughts. See my comments on Bertrand Russell in my reply to Anonymous immediately below.


  3. "not prepared to get their work put into acceptable English by a specialist, like me (which is a sin!" -is it an advertisement or a blog? I just can't understand your recent point- almost every post since the beginning of summer contains such an ad. Ian, do you really think that this can help you or is it just kinda jokes I can't get?

    1. No, they are all ads. I have to earn a living somehow! However, I really DO think that Russians who need to communicate in print with the outside world should pay much more attention to their literary etiquette, which is the underlying point of this blog.

      If they could do this, they would have the drop on half the British and American "communicators" who cannot use the language properly or elegantly either.

      I have spent much of this afternoon sitting in a garden here in Glasgow in the sunshine with a glass of cool white wine reading Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy". That is a model of how to write: beautiful and amazingly informative at the same time, because Russell can express himself clearly, simply and with a dash of wit. THAT is my standard of literary etiquette.

    2. Ian, what your Anonymous reader tried to say (if I may comment on that and if he doesn't mind me guessing on that matter) is that advertising like that is just wasting your time.
      All those people you mentioned in your post would never ever read your blog :)
      For a simple reason that most Russian 'old school' scholars are simply not interested in improving their English at all :) They are quite happy with this bulky illogical stuff:)

  4. I have to admit... i LIKE IT!!! And I would argue, that what passes for "business English" in Great Britain, does not pass for 'Business English' in the United States or with global employees of vast American Corporations, who employ a species of English so truncated and coiled around "nouns as verbs" as to be unintelligible by anyone but an american business person or a small child.

    If I were to translate one of your examples above into US Business English: "Russian is Single-spacing into Kazakhstan and ByelRussia. Normative bunching should be reconsidered."

    I rest my case.