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.

Anthropology of the Everydayness in the Izmaylovo Gallery in Moscow, 03/26/2017 – photosАнтропология_повседневности – text (in Russian)

“Aнтропология повседневности” – текст выступления в галерее “Измайлово” в Москве 23 июня 2017 года. О методах антропологической работы, автоэтнографии и о субъективности антропологического знания, не означающей, впрочем, произвольности. Об использовании поэзии как научного метода.

In this talk on autoethnography, anthropological methods, and subjectivity of anthropological knowledge (which does not mean arbitrariness), in Moscow on the 23rd of June, 2017, I am mentioning Courtney Morris, Chelsi West Ohueri, and S.C.

Thank you for your all-defeating radiance.

Governmentality of Dental Care

The best exploration of the “at the dentist” sensibilities I’ve ever encountered is to be found in Ann Cvetkovich’s “Depression: A Public Feeling” book.

The repetitiveness of the experience, the mundane, the quotidian, the pain you are subjecting yourself to, sort of nice abrupt civil exchange of platitudes while you are in the chair, is the center of the visit to the dentist. Everything that forms this experience, what is never seen as worthy of reflecting, might be the subject of wonder.

Cvetkovich describes her battle with depression, stopping to examine attentively the episodes usually floating beyond the reach of our attention:

“In addition to his enthusiasm about my life, Dr. B was also very enthusiastic about the future of my mouth. My teeth were very worn down from a life-time of jaw clenching, that now much-publicized sign of stress that turns your dentist into your psychoanalyst (and sells another bite guard). The root canal involved multiple sessions of drilling, poking, and crown fitting, and my many hours in the dental chair that year were an experience of welcome submission. I was too bereft of agency to do more than simply show up for the appointments and let the doctor do as he deemed necessary. I would focus my gaze on his blue overhead light or beyond it to the holes of the acoustic time in the ceiling and go blank. Afterward I would return to work with my jaw completely numb,unable really to feel the difference between the frozen and unfrozen states, but with a sense that I was taking care of business.” (Cvetkovich, 2012, 48)

She shows how the routines, despite their un-noticeability, nevertheless, matter as one struggles to keep oneself afloat, sized by depression.


The experience with dentists that I had in my childhood almost exclude the possibility of viewing the dentist as a figure of familiar friendliness.

Soviet dentists were true Stoics. And so were their young patients. The children stomatological office was located right in the school. Kids were called there during the classes for regular check. Not a bad idea in itself. However, the slow drill; insufficient anesthesia; cheerful, laughing disregard and shaming in response to your complaints and moans of pain in the chair; the temporary filling with arsenic—everything was directed at developing stoicism, endurance, the resistance to hardships, and served as a clear warning about the future which awaited us. It was a tool of training for the reality into which we were born.

I received my first lesson in psychotechnics allowing to escape the thoughts about pain from my father, a military officer. The method deserves being stored in the Soviet secret agents’ golden rules collection. “Do not think about the drill, do not concentrate on your pain. Think like you are walking up and down the aisles in the toy store.” It was not uncommon that children were held by force, threatened to be treated for a cavernous tooth through their nose if they refuse to open their mouth. And, as a rule, someone among little patients cried vocally, getting in response exclusively irritated rebuffs.

As my light-eyed doctor her instruments, I thought–understanding all the petty-bourgeois commonality and incredibly oblivious privilege of even the possibility of these musings–that the drilling without anesthesia must be one of the worst torments imaginable, a Nazi-style, elaborate torture. The way dental care is institutionally structured, is definitely revealing of the type of governmentality and people-production functioning in the state.