Untranslatable Words and Incommensurable Worlds: Word Circulation in Shifting Language Ideologies

In this paper, “Untranslatable Words and Incommensurable Worlds: Word Circulation in Shifting Language Ideologies,” I follow the trajectory of two Russian words over several cases of use: byt and poshlost. While poshlost is well recognized in the English language, byt remains a mystery.

“In this paper I am looking at two “untranslatable” Russian words that may or may not have made their way into English. I discuss language ideologies emerging in connection with the “domestication” of a new word. How do words make their way into language? What regimes of circulation, acceptance, and discard make them used or rejected by the speakers of the recipient language? What politics of translation surround these transitions? Drawing from theorization of language ideologies by Kroskrity and Silverstein, and theorization of untranslatability by Jacobson, Benjamin, and Povinelli, I am trying to trace two “untranslatable” words in their new contexts – “poshlost” and “byt” – and reconstruct what does the “untranslatability” do to the actual practices of translation and dissemination of notions and discourses in sociopolitical context.”

This is a fascinating kind of work, and I am happy to have been privileged to spend some time on tracing these words and layering out my ideas in connection to them. This is a class paper written back in the day that will likely exist as such and won’t have any continuation in my own work. I have so many writing projects, I have to abandon a lot of them at a certain stage and moment; it is a pity, but there is only a relatively narrow spectrum of my work that I can devote my attention to.
I attempted about incorporating its part on “byt” in my dissertation (as a more pertinent part), but what it boiled down to is that I think I have a footnote somewhere around my writings that I continue working on, mentioning Svetlana Boym and Jacobson who considered the word “byt” untranslatable.
I think we should not marry to the idea that untranslatable words are a thing, in a sense that every word is untranslatable from the language of one individual into the language of another individual, but that does not preclude us from understanding each other in a sufficient measure.

If you are interested to know what I am working on right now, pledge me a +$1 on Patreon and get access to protected content. I am not putting it out for everyone to see because of prematurity of such measure, but I plan to showcase the documents that will work for everyone to see and glean the use relevant to their own tasks. And I invite you to follow me on this journey.



Reflections on Translation in Literary, Everyday, and Anthropological Practice

I put on academia-e-d-u my reflections on translation that I prepared for a seminar in linguistic anthropology. I might not be able to attend the seminar scheduled for October because of the delay of my student visa, but I figured, if I won’t record the thoughts that this invitation prompted in me, they will remain in the noosphere.

Thanks to Professors A.W. and C.H. for the opportunity to think about it.

Whenever we think about translation, it is about (mis)translation inasmuch. Vladimir Nabokov famously required another Vladimir Nabokov to translate his own work (the list of qualities of his ideal translator that he named narcissistically centered Nabokov himself, who, at least in his own assessment, of course, possessed all these qualities).  Some writers refused to translate themselves. Others, translating, transformed their own work to the degree it became an independent new work. The funny stories of mistranslations abound. In a sense, the situation when a speaker ventures into the unfamiliar territory of the new language brings risks. These risks are not unlike the risks that anthropologist experiences stepping onto the land where she did not live before—or even if she lived, in her new capacity of the researcher that defamiliarizes the familiar to her. The speaker of a language not mastered fully is in a similar situation. They are definitely outside of their comfort zone and up to surprises.

In my own practice, I used translation for the literary impossible purposes of recreating “the violet in the crucible,” by Percy Shelley’s expression, in my daily experience of living abroad from the country of my native language—Russia—for more than seven years, and in my anthropological practice. All these versions of translating things from one language into the other, from one culture into the other, were closely intertwined. I will begin with literary translation, talk about everyday translation, and finish with the translation in anthropological practice. The different ways to translate things lead to the Babylon point of bifurcation of the languages that might be not a curse but a blessing. All these instantiations are called into existence in order to be considered in the light of the main idea of this writing: there are no different languages; “language” is a social construct.

Before you frown at the triteness of the expression “social construct” or say “so, is everything social construct nowadays?”, allow me to elucidate my thesis. When I first heard myself to profess this conviction, which happened at a lecture of Expressive Culture at UT, Spring 2019, I was probably more surprised to hear it than anyone else in the audience. Yet,
Unfortunately, academia-e-d-u acting out and does not show the preview. I already wrote them about this and another piece that I uploaded and that I will introduce here soon, but it remains to be known how quickly they will fix it. But you can still download my talk (and write me a comment about it, too!)
Translation is a mystery that will never stop bothering me! I wish the same to you.

Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, San Francisco, November 2019

My abstract for the ASEEES Convention in San Francisco 2019 was accepted and presentation scheduled. Unfortunately, as of now, I do not know if I can attend due to my visa delay about which I wrote on my Tumblr wierdmirrors.

I want to share the title and abstract of my future presentation, however.

Title: “Affects of (Im)Mobility in the Remembrance of the Soviet Sublime: Staying in a Siberian Village.”

Abstract: This work investigates mobility and moving that people conduct in agential and affective infrastructures in the rural industrial Eastern Siberia. How do people make decisions regarding their mobility and what conditions these decisions? While literature and the public habitually assume that precarious actors stay put in post-industrial places because they lack resources to move for better opportunities, this work uses ethnographic methods to demonstrate that the sensorium of staying is better explained by people’s desire for a separate state—a microsovereignty—as well as by the affinity to the Soviet sublime, the lack of want to submit to the official government and absence of desire to enter the regimes of the ordinary available elsewhere.


My presentation is scheduled to take place at “Promises of Infrastructure” panel(s). The title of the panels evokes (perhaps a little bit too closely) the title of the book “The promise of infrastructure” by Nikhil Anand, Akhil Gupta, and Hannah Appel that came out in 2018. But they were not the first to use this phrase either.

I think the “promise(s) of infrastructure(s)” nicely encapsulates the tangible, phenomenal side, which is the materiality of infrastructure, and affective, noumenal, and, if you wish, feelings-related, desires-hopes-dreams-and-fantasies-related side of infrastructural and technological development.

The panel, which is planned to happen in two separate sessions, involves a lot of Sibirianists, so this is going to be a loss for me if by that time I will still not be able to attend.

Patreon: the Opportunity to Support Me and Gain Insight Into the Process

Recently, I decided to dust off my Patreon (if that’s the word I want), and had fun filling in the About page and writing two (one and a half, as I joke) updates there. If you follow my trajectory over the years, I am sure you will be interested to get in posession of the state of affairs. That’s what I wrote:

I am a socio-cultural anthropologist focused on the affective, or feeling-related side of mobility and immobility. I study how our deep-seated feelings, such as nostalgia, melancholy, and hope influence our decision to stay in a place–or go. My research question is, what keeps people stay put in a place despite the overwhelming economic hardships and failing infrastructure? If you think, lack of resources–sure, but this is only a part of the answer, and not that big of a part as you might assume. Personal factors play an important role. I devote my work to proving it through a set of evidence consisting of ethnographic data.

The things that I am reflecting on here, on Patreon, fall into several categories:

– the struggle of my scientific writing;

– academia;

– the content of my work, which is the questions of mobility, (im)mobility, vulnerability, poverty, affect, nostalgia, melancholy, hope, and nonchalance.

I will post here the new renditions of my work, and the comments are always welcome. I am seeking to make sure that what I am doing is resonating with the world. Ideally, this space would become a peer-review space where I can bounce off my ideas of other people.

I enjoy my academic journey; I hit a lot of milestones as they came: I was able to put together panels at big conferences such as American Anthropological Association and the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies; I applied to and got numerous grants and can teach people how to write a successful grant application; and I taught courses like Expressive Culture and led seminars in socio-cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and visual anthropology: Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, Culture and Communication, and The Photographic Image.

The struggle of the writing of the dissertation and articles that accompany it is a difficult one, even for me, despite that I love writing, and I am able to produce great volumes of text. I’ve read plenty of books on how to facilitate the process of writing, and I am going to share resources here on Patreon as we go along.

I fully intend to transform the text of my dissertation into a book; right now, my work is titled Cities of the Future: Landscapes of Nostalgia and Hope in Post-Industrial Eastern Siberia.

Patreon is a semi-private space that I am creating for myself and those people who might want to join me on this travel of writing this book and solving its main question.

I first thought about Siberia as a rich ground of exploration in 2008, shortly before I got pregnant with my one and only child. In the neighborhood library in Moscow, my home town, I began writing a novel based on Siberian material and immersed myself into Kolchak’s story, the mythology of the lost gold of the Russian crown, and many intricate tensions between the Red and the White sides of the Russian Civil War. As we know only all too well, the Bolsheviks had an upper hand. Twenty plus years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Siberian spaces continue their development as a multiplicity of cultures, Russionized but also preserving national colors, textures, and forms.

Read more here: