As a physics major minoring in math, it’s rare that I get to dabble in the humanities and arts. My work at SCARC is often a welcome break from the grueling number-crunching of STEM. And what better way to give my brain a break than by translating documents from Russian to English? Well… It may not be a break for my brain, but it’s certainly an enjoyable change of pace!
My Russian experience first started in high school, when I read Tom Clancy’s The Sum of all Fears which sparked my interest in the Russian language, culture, and history. Though Russian wasn’t offered at my high school (nor at Oregon State University by the time I got here), I began teaching it to myself using online resources. By the time I had the opportunity to go to Saint Petersburg to study abroad in fall 2018, I was placed in an intermediate language class. I enjoyed my time in Saint Petersburg so much that I went back again in summer 2019 and took another intensive language course (as well as art history and plasma physics). But throughout my time in Russia, I always had a particular worry brewing in the back of my mind: Would I ever be able to apply this language skill in my career?
That brings us to the present day: I’m a student archivist at SCARC and my supervisor told me that there are Russian documents in the F.A. Gilfillan Papers in need of translation – an ideal project for remote work. Francois A. Gilfillan was a chemistry professor at Oregon State University (then Oregon State College) from 1927-1939, as well as the Dean of Science from 1939-1962 and the acting President from 1941 to 1942. My excitement to tackle this project was palpable: This was the first opportunity I’d had to put my language abilities to use outside of Russia. Being able to work on this project gave me a sense of closure for the concerns that festered after studying abroad, yet also opened for me a doorway of new possibilities and learning experiences. For example, most of my prior experience with Russian has been day-to-day conversation and classroom communication. However some of the documents I translated in the F.A. Gilfillan Papers are written in a much more formal tone, which could be aptly labeled as “business language”.
The letter identified as “S02B14F06_01” was especially interesting, made even more so by the fact that these documents are all from the 1940s. As I was translating, I realized that in English I am not very conscious of how much languages can change over a handful of decades. One of the goals of my translations was to preserve the tone and formality of the original documents, which meant reflecting on how my translation of 1940s Russian into 2020s English should be translated into 1940s English. My process was to first generate a rough, relatively literal translation, and then edit to restore the same business-like inflection of the original text, but with more practice I hope I’ll be able to translate faster without an intermediate phase of editing.
This project also encouraged me to continue studying languages (not just Russian but also other languages I’m interested in such as Korean and French). Since Gilfillan isn’t a native speaker of Russian, it was really interesting to read his style of writing and reflect on how my own language abilities have grown, especially seeing some of the corrections made by Mrs. Riasanovsky in the letter from “S02B13F06_02.” I can see myself making those same mistakes a few years ago. I admire Gilfillan for putting his language abilities on display in these letters. Of course perhaps he never expected them to be read by anyone other than the intended recipient, but I myself still fight self-consciousness speaking or writing in foreign languages even to just one native speaker. When I was in Russia this was much less of a problem, as I became so used to using it as a day-to-day language, but it is difficult to keep that mentality when I am no longer completely immersed in the language.
I’ve also learned more battle-hardened lessons from this project, such as reading ahead. I made the mistake of not reading ahead on one of the documents, and after translating the first couple pages I discovered that there was already a translation made by someone else. After that I made sure to read all the way through every document before starting my translation, which can also help me understand the context better. But I don’t consider my translation a waste of time. I was able to compare my translation to the previous translation and reflect on slight differences in wording and stylism. While our two translations hold the same meaning, they do not always use exactly the same words in the same order. I think it’s fascinating how subjective language can be. There’s almost always multiple ways to communicate the same idea, and sometimes those different ways can have different implications as well.
I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to apply my experience and knowledge in a way that may be helpful to our patrons. I hope I can continue to do so in the future.
This post was contributed by Genevieve Connolly, who has been a student archivist at SCARC since April 2019. She has worked on a diverse repertoire of projects including translations, video editing, transcription, and processing and description of archival collections. She will graduate with a B.S. in Physics in spring 2021.