Saturday, October 3, 2009

White Noise/ A Clockwork Orange

If you’ve ever read DeLillo’s novel, White Noise, you’ll understand something important about this blog. In White Noise, the protagonist founds a brand new academic discipline called Hitler Studies. The field takes off, his reputation soars, and scholars rally to the field of inquiry.

There is something slightly dubious about creating a field of inquiry dedicated to evil, and Hitler Studies doesn’t quite to fit the spirit of its sister disciplines such as cultural studies, area studies, post-colonial studies, etc. Not matter—if we can do White Studies, we can do Hitler Studies. The man’s crimes warrant study, don’t they, if we don’t want to repeat the experience with a megalomaniacal racist. Ultimately, the hero holds a conference which is well attended by German Studies intellectuals the world over.

The problem is that the hero doesn’t speak a lick of German and lives in fear of being uncovered as a fraud. He relies on translation. He furtively takes German lessons, but too late. The impending arrival of German scholars who actually read texts in the original threatens to unmask him.

This is the crisis of this blog. Its authors know nothing about the Russian language. We’re like hearing-challenged folks hosting a music appreciation site. We fear the imminent invasion of real Russian-speakers with comments that will, themselves, be unintelligible to us.

But I’m sure foreign language study would have killed my appreciation for the subject matter long ago. Reading in translation has a few advantages: for instance, nothing gets dumbed down as we read it, and nothing seems overly” exotic to somebody who can’t speculated on the “real, untranslatable” essence of a word. But of course, even somebody with no Russian encounters a few words now and again. It’s interesting to see the kind of words English speakers encounter most often: kulak, gulag, politburo, byte, etc. I’d be curious to know the key Russian words that even Russian historians and writers refuse to translate, and whether these words form a pattern with any significance.

The English learned their legal terminology from the Normans. Why will we learn from the Russians? One remembers a Clockwork Orange for Anthony Burgess early speculation that the world might one day speak some kind of Russianized cockney. He presupposed Russian conquest, whether military or cultural. Or perhaps he just thought the violent world of the future could only be rendered with reference to Russian words and sounds.

Anthony Burgess

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