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People mill around outside the library after the event and the sun-cleared skies. The American Information Office was a sponsor for the event. Translation issues aside, I hope that the dialogue that we started will continue!

Meeting the Ekaterinburg Public

Having just performed the latest great milestone in terms of my duties here as a Fulbright, I wanted to share some quick impressions since my time is short.

Yesterday evening I gave a public talk at the local library and which was sponsored by the American Information office which is in the same building. Titled: “Rock, Wood, Paper, Pixels: Journalism in the global age of cultural responsibility”, it was more about the role of journalism in promoting cultural understanding and creating an informed public, rather than writing about the arts. This distinction is an issue since in Russia, cultural journalism is seen as purely about coverage of Arts and Entertainment. But, while there is some connection in the American media to this, cultural journalism is also recognized as a deeper sort of writing that goes beyond the isolation of arts coverage and can also provide a more meaningful context for a subject, even (and especially) if the subject is not necessarily rooted in the traditional arts. My focus was on the democratization of media, challenges, benefits and responsibilities of both the author/creator and the consuming public.

The presentation itself was not without its challenges, sometimes humorous, sometimes just frustrating. First, writing it. I found myself dissatisfied with my original direction and its length, especially after coming to understand that a translator would have to interpret everything I said, sentence by sentence. But, after this past week of reading student assignments, watching the news, and talking with my new colleagues, I finally felt I could give this a more complete voice. But I had run out of time after other unrelated issues pulled my attention away. Sleep deprivation didn’t help either. But enough excuses. It came together on time and I felt good about going to the presentation with a reasonable product that could be both sensitive and thought-provoking at the same time.

Heading to the event

I rushed to get dressed now to meet the public, getting down to the hotel lobby a few minutes late. But, then it rained. Not just a light rain. Thunder and lightening, downpours, almost blinding rain. And then there’s me, dressed up for a public talk, hair, makeup, dressy shoes… Just running to and from the car, even with an umbrella held over my head, I was soaked. A trip to the bathroom toilet was only mildly helpful. I’d brought my own roll of TP because I’d noticed it wasn’t common in public bathrooms. But without paper towels or a hand dryer, I just tried to make the best of it. My once dry smoothed hair was now damp, and as curly as ever. A light hair brush didn’t help either. Breath deep, I told myself, and I headed out and back up the stairs to the room.

A bottle of water sat at my designated spot, and as I waited for our hosts to move a large screen television where my presentation would be seen, I opened the bottle…only to be soaked again since it was warm sparkling mineral water. Who knew? I thought to myself as my host desperately tried to find something to dry the table, as I tried to swallow my exasperation by wiping down the cover of my iPad.

We waited a bit until the rain subsided as I chatted with the interpreter and fine tuned a few things on the presentation. Then, suddenly before I realized it, the event had begun, and I realized we were no longer chatting. He was interpreting what the moderator was saying to the entire room. The event was set up as a round table which must have seated 20-25 people and more sat around the walls. Oh dear, I thought. Time to shut up and try and listen to two voices speak at the same time. I had developed the technique of trying to listen carefully to the Russian for familiar words in Russian, or some that sounded similar in English.

As my turn came, I had to overcome my more comfortable style of speaking, and instead I read and then waited. The interpreter had to translate, and I wasn’t always sure when he was done, or if he was just at a loss for the right word. But after awhile, we seemed to find a rhythm. I tried to remind myself to look around. And when I did, I saw many interested faces. As I took a break during the translation, I tried to gauge their reactions, but also to listen to see if I detected anything wrong.

As it turned out, he was oversimplifying what I said, sometimes severely, and thus changing the meanings at times. This proved particularly frustrating for my host who, during the round-table discussion that followed, was actually upset enough to tell the interpreter how his translations were “atrocious”. At one point she tried to help. Instead, we went back to the old pattern and I took some comfort in knowing that at least half the people in the room understood most of what I said in English, without the incompetent interpretation.

If I could use any measure of success, it was this. The talk provoked much discussion and numerous direct questions, the nuances of which were a true challenge for me to understand. Although most of those asking questions were extremely friendly and engaged, at one point a rather arrogant fellow began asking about whether people in the USA would actually want to read “truth” versus “culture”. This was a bad interpretation and I indicated I didn’t understand the question and asked another in return. Later, it became clear that he was asking two separate questions. And “truth” was really “objectivity”, while “culture” was really arts coverage. I think my answer sufficed regardless…saying that although there were some consumers of information were lazy or ignorant of the relative credibility of a source, Americans, in general, craved information of all sorts.

So now the scary part…

Having access to my name in Cyrillic, I decided to Google it to see what had been written about the event. Using Google’s translate function, my heart sank a little bit.

Although I’m not sure how much the bad translations can be blamed on Google, my interpreter, or how the writer further interpreted what they heard, but a few basic facts that were reported would cause credibility issues back home. So I’m here to set the record straight:

1) My MFA in Studio Art/Graphic Design is from Michigan State University, not University of Michigan.

2) I teach Graphic Design and Visual communications, not journalism, at Mott College.

3) Although I have been a writer, designer, and educator for many years, I do not consider myself a “guru”, simply someone who has a passionate interest in the role of arts, media and communications in society.

In the meantime, I enjoyed a lovely dinner afterwards with my extremely gracious host who patiently answered my prodding questions about the event and shared stories of other more or less successful translation events. It was educational to me to hear how my Russian audience expressed their questions about American media and I was curious how well my replies addressed their questions. At one point during dinner, I expressed my sudden horror at the realization during the earlier event that these people in attendance were looking at me as if I could answer for the entire American media culture. Oi vey.

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I fed my still rattled nerves with two variety of pismeni (a sort of Russian tortellini) and some blintske with butter and caviar. Later that night, I cracked open the Armenian Cognac I’d picked up at the grocery store and nibbled away at the Obama pie which I’d broken down and bought, mostly out of curiosity rather than any desire for pie. Overall I’d say it was right on… full of promise but with room for improvement. 🙂

Earlier, on my walk after dinner to the car which was parked a block or two away, the sun hit the clouds just right over the city administration building. Two rainbows appeared and I made my wish figuring it was a good omen. Here’s hoping this is true.

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Note to my readers: This post is a little out of order. I intend to also write about Victory Day and other activities that have occurred through the week. But I have been kept busy between the cultural activities, grading, teaching (yes… all part of being here!) and some news from home that has lead me to change my extended travel plans, and instead go home earlier. I’ll get back to some of this later in this blog website, or another one entirely if that is deemed more appropriate.

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