Tuesday, November 01, 2005

I've received a Ukrainian Diaspora newsletter by email today: e-Poshta, created six years ago by Myroslava Oleksiuk of Toronto, Canada.

Most of it are stories on Ukraine reprinted from Western and Ukrainian papers (The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, Ukrainska Pravda, Vysokyi Zamok) and other sources (The Action Ukraine Report). There's also some advertising (Ukrainian Family Cruise: A week of fun, exploration and fellowship on a 7 day Exotic Western Caribbean cruise with Ukrainian families from across North America; From $410 (USD) per person; Tour hosts: John Kuper and Jury Krytiuk; Complete information at: www.ukiecruise.com), and a tiny share of original content. According to Ms. Oleksiuk, the newsletter's goal "is to keep the Ukrainian community and its exponents, both local and international, informed, interconnected and most importantly, proactive - politically, culturally and with respect to the media."

A nice, useful endeavor; my only problem is with the language aspect of it.

Although the newsletter is promoted as bilingual, it is not: the languages of the originals - English and Ukrainian - are retained consistently throughout e-Poshta, but no translations are provided. If the target audience were limited to the English-speaking Diaspora community, I wouldn't have any questions. However, when one aspires to reach out to "the Ukrainian community and its exponents, both local and international," one should keep in mind that a great many of those people aren't fluent in English, while some don't know Ukrainian. By the latter I don't mean the so-called Russian-speaking Ukrainians, many of whom aren't as dumb as they're often portrayed and understand Ukrainian perfectly well; I'm talking of those relatively few individuals who happen to lack Ukrainian roots but are still interested in Ukraine. Translating the English-language content into Ukrainian and the Ukrainian-language pieces into English would thus be highly beneficial.

Also, careful proofreading of e-Poshta's own Ukrainian-language content would help to avoid some potentially ridiculous situations. Here's what I mean:

The first text I read today was a letter to Victor Yushchenko by a Diaspora poet and writer Yuriy Tarnawsky. The reason I began with it isn't pretty - what caught my eye was a truly weird spelling of the president's last name in Ukrainian in the headline introducing the letter:

It looks like a transliteration from English to Ukrainian, done by someone not completely literate in Ukrainian, someone not completely familiar with the Ukrainian alphabet, someone whose first language is probably English. A second- or third-generation Diaspora someone. Maybe not.

The correct spelling of the Ukrainian president's name is this:

The sound represented by the four consecutive Latin consonants in Yushchenko's name - 'shch' - requires only one letter in Ukrainian and Russian - - not two, as the logic of transliterating from English would have it - .

Then there's also Mr. Tarnawsky's short bio - written in broken Ukrainian, with punctuation, grammar and spelling mistakes:

No one is perfect - yes, I know.

But the irony is that Mr. Tarnawsky has written to the Ukrainian president in order to complain about certain individuals' poor Ukrainian language skills.

Here's my translation of part of his letter:

Dear Mr. President!

I turn to you because of the two incidents that happened to me during my visit to Ukraine in September-October this year, the incidents which constitute a violation of the law on the use of the Ukrainian language by state officials.

On Oct. 13, I was mailing a package from the Kyiv's main post office, and to my request to address me in Ukrainian instead of Russian, operator #3, M. E. Kotyk, responded to me angrily and still in Russian, saying that she was not a Ukrainian and did not speak Ukrainian. When I asked her to call her boss, she refused to do it and acted in an offensive manner toward me.

The following day, Oct. 14, when I was settling some business at the Pechersk department of Ukroshchadbank #300012, on Istytutska St. in Kyiv, N. A. Bobyr, cashier #575, refused in a similar fashion to explain to me in Ukrainian why she hadn't satisfied one of my requests; she kept saying she didn't speak Ukrainian. When I insisted that I did not understand her explanations in Russian, she eventually screamed to me in Ukrainian what the matter was.

Her behavior toward me was, again, extremely offensive.

I am asking you, Mr. President, to hold these two persons responsible for unlawful and unprofessional behavior while they were acting as public officials.

Finally, I am forced to mention how disappointed I was on my return from the trip, disappointed with the state of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine. While in the 1990s a great majority of people I addressed in Ukrainian replied to me in the same language, this time such instances were only rare exceptions. I can't forget the shame I felt when, during the celebration of the national football team's advance into the World Cup final, at Maidan in Kyiv, the whole introduction was pronounced in Russian, and all the athletes, including coach Oleg Blokhin and captain Andriy Shevchenko, addressed the public in Russian. And of the four addresses of minister Yu. Lutsenko that I saw on TV, three were in Russian and only one in Ukrainian! My impression is that the state of the Ukrainian language has deteriorated since the Orange Revolution and your ascendance to power. I had been expecting the opposite.


I wonder if Mr. Tarnawsky, in his next letter to Yushchenko, asks the president to deny Ukrainian entry visas to Ms. Oleksiuk and the rest of e-Poshta's team, to punish them for those typos and for making a fool out of him.

Seriously, though, I wonder if Mr. Tarnawsky realizes that the two women he wants the president to prosecute are most likely surviving on $100 a month or so; that to meet many of those people who used to respond to him in Ukrainian in the 1990s he'd have to go to Moscow or to Lisbon, where they work and get paid for it, not to Kyiv and not even to Western Ukraine; that fining, firing or imprisoning a lowest-rank Russian-speaking state official isn't gonna teach him or her Ukrainian...

Also, I wonder, would Mr. Tarnawsky write his letter if these women gave him shit in Ukrainian, not Russian? As a native Ukrainian, I can attest that there are as many rude Russian-speaking people in Ukraine as there are Ukrainian-speaking - and both types are equally annoying, so much so that at some point you stop noticing what language they are using to bark at you. But you have to live in Ukraine to acquire this attitude; a short visit once a decade won't do, of course.


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  1. Wow, thanks for sharing this - it's been a long time since I've seen linguistic nationalism expressed in such an irritating way. I have to confess, I've lost patience with people who politicize language to this extent, and luckily, so have (in my experience) most people in the former Soviet Union. Getting hot and bothered about these things in the manner of Mr. Tarnawsky is so 1992 in my opinion. Over a decade later, most people in places like Ukraine and Moldova (I can speak more for the situation in the latter country) have realized that while national identity and independence from the Russians are wonderful things, those wonderful things have also been accompanied by certain problems more pressing than language. To wit, rather than worry about what language they use to buy a kilo of tomatoes or pay the utility bill, lots of people in these countries (and certainly postal clerks and bank tellers) first need to worry where they're going to get the money for these transactions.

    Ultimately, language is just a way for two people to communicate, and to get up in arms about petty bureaucratic tyrants (who come in all nationalities, as Veronica said) using the "wrong" language almost shows some sort of inferiority complex or insecurity about the ability of the "right" language to take root among the population. Take it easy, Mr. Tarnawsky, all the laws in the world won't keep the people of Ukraine (note that I didn't say "Ukrainian people" - last I checked, Ukraine, just like most post-Soviet states, is a multi-ethnic country) from deciding what language to use in their personal and professional interactions. I understand that the situation was in the context of a post office, thus the person involved was a government official, which was what made the use of Russian "illegal" - does this guy think these people should be fired if they are unable to speak Ukrainian or uncomfortable doing so? What if they've had the job for 20 years and it's the only thing they have in the world?

    Luckily, many of the people who supposedly feel so strongly about the languages of their ancestors have made profitable moves to places where they speak English, German, French, or Spanish, as the case may be, with the postal clerks and bank tellers. When I've traveled in former Soviet countries, except in Estonia, I've never had anyone give me attitude about using Russian, and I dread the day when public sentiment in places like Ukraine and Moldova becomes so close-minded that I can expect such a reaction.

    I hope I haven't offended anyone with this, but it really does irritate me to see people who have no actual stake in a country's day-to-day life trying to tell people there how to live (ok, so I'll admit that Americans do that often, too, but I try not to do it myself).

  2. I generally don't see the problem with the language at all! If you understand it - why not speak it? I speak both Russian and Ukrainian fairly decently, and it wouldn't be a great deal for me to use either. I don't see why it should be for the others. If I were to talk to a British person, would I insist to use Russian or Ukrainian? No, I think English would do just fine. What we are talking about here is language, not political affiliation. The more languages we speak - the better.


  3. I know this kind of diaspora people ;-) but experienced the complete opposite of that in Kyiv this year. While in 2004, people who would address me in Russian and realize that I do not understand well, wouldn't change to Ukrainian but to English, even if I asked them to speak Ukrainian... - a complete change in 2005! Of course, it was the Eurovision Song Contest, but if you kindly (!) ask (not clamor) the people to speak Ukrainian because you don't understand Russian so well, they would change to a friendly and fluent Ukrainian (well, if they heard my Russian... ;-)). The problem is the attitude. What goes around comes around!