Thursday, February 5, 2009

Russian, Ukrainian, English: A Tangle of Words

I've just completed another Russian lesson, with the patient Vika, who makes house calls in a valiant attempt to teach me a bit of Russian while I'm here. For my non-Ukrainian readers, you may or may not be fully aware that both Ukrainian and Russian are in use here in Ukraine. Ukrainian, is of course, the official language and spoken most widely in the west of Ukraine. Russia was, also of course, the official language in Soviet times, and is spoken most widely in the east of Ukraine. So why am I attempting to learn Russian? For me, it seemed the language that would have the broadest use in future travel, however I respect and admire Ukrainians' desire to more fully root their own language in every aspect of life here.

Learning a new language--with a new alphabet and new sounds--is a challenge. I feel victorious when I recognize and pick out a word in the stream of conversation, or painstakingly spell out, and perhaps pronounce correctly--a word I see on a sign.

What does this have to do with museums? I've worked on two bi-lingual projects at home in the US as part of a commitment to make museums accessible and interesting for as many people as possible. That's been reinforced for me here, where my lack of language makes my understanding of any given museum experience pretty limited. Most museum information here is conveyed through minimal labels in Russian and/or Ukrainian, and more extensive information through a guided tour--which is often available in English but you need to know how to ask for it in Russian or Ukrainian.

Today, at the Kyiv Museum of Russian Art I had a chance to review their English language audio tour which hopefully, will soon be available for English language visitors. (and English language visitors include not only Americans and Britons, but many others for whom English is a second language). I had visited the museum before, and had been a bit interested in the collection, displayed in a very traditional sense, but had not been able to put it into context. The audio tour, presented on an iPod, was great. I learned about St. George and his eventual adoption as a symbol of Imperial Russia; about portrait painting in the 18th century; and about the 19th century work that reflected more democratic changes in Russian society.

I also came away with an ongoing appreciation for the complexities of language and translation. For instance, I learned that the act of painting and the act of writing are the same word in Russian, so in the English translation, it emerged as an artist writing this work, when discussing a painting. I was pleased to be offered the opportunity to comment on the tour by Tanya Kochubinska of the museum and I look forward to working with her to make a few small corrections, provide ideas from my colleagues in the US on how to manage the rental of the iPods, and then, a successful debut of audio tours at the museum.

Above: poster outside the Kyiv Museum of Russian Art Tanya Kochubinska of the Museum of Russian Art A school group at the Museum of Russian Art

No comments: