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Twice Lost in Translation

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Message Nicolai Petro
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Correspondent Fred Weir's recent report ("Russian Orthodox Church calls for dress code, says miniskirts cause 'madness'," Christian Science Monitor, January 20, 2011) portrays Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin, one of the Church's senior prelates, as a silly, reactionary misogynist. Fr. Vsevolod's letter responding to critics is cited as proof, but Weir's quotes from this letter are either egregiously mistranslated, or simply invented.

For example, Weir says that Fr. Vsevolod calls for a national dress code that would "force women to dress modestly in public and require businesses to throw out 'indecently' clad customers." In fact, Fr. Vsevolod says nothing whatsoever about "forcing" or "requiring" anything.  He appeals for a public discussion of proper public attire, for both men and women. That is all.

According to Weir: "Women, said Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, can't be trusted to clothe themselves properly." Again, there is nothing in the letter to suggest this.

According to Weir, Fr. Vsevolod says: "It is wrong to think that women should decide themselves what they can wear in public places or at work." What he actually said was: "Throughout history, and among all peoples, a person's external appearance has never been an entirely private matter. How women conduct themselves in public places, at institutes, at work cannot [therefore] be an exclusively 'private matter.'"

According to Weir, Fr. Vsevolod says: "If a woman dresses like a prostitute, her colleagues must have the right to tell her that." This cannot be translated, since there is nothing like it in the letter.

According to Weir, Fr. Vsevolod says: "if a woman dresses and acts indecently, this is a direct route to unhappiness, one-night stands, brief marriages followed by rat-like divorces, ruined lives of children, and madness." This passage bears at least some resemblance to the text, though I would not have taken it upon myself to simply omit Fr. Vsevolod's poignant words about "children's shattered destinies," and the loneliness of lives broken.

Furthermore, I would not have translated "bezumie" as "madness," which has the connotation of insanity and anger. The appropriate word here would be "recklessness" or "thoughtlessness." Vladimir Dal's dictionary of the Russian language, which is the gold standard in these matters, gives us this example of its usage: "Happiness made him reckless; he forgot himself." (Schastye obezumilo ego, on zabylsya).

Journalists reporting from abroad hold a very special trust, since readers often base their opinions about other cultures on popular reporting of it. We expect them to do their utmost to convey the subtle nuances of a foreign cultures and religions, or at least to provide translations that are reasonably accurate.

Sadly, in this instance, Weir did not live up to these expectations. The result is a narrative in which Russia and the Orthodox church are both "lost in translation."
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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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