Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book Review - Dermo! The Real Russian Tolstoy Never Used (Edward Topol)

When people decide to learn foreign languages, they often take an interest in learning obscene expressions and other fun, colorful phrases.  I don't blame them!  I, too, find these phrases fascinating, even though I try to avoid using them in speech.  My stance on all this is as follows:  no matter how much you may dislike offensive language, it's better to learn these words and be able to recognize them, than to ignore them and pretend they don't exist. 

In fact, if you really don't like using foul language, and you want to make sure that nothing you say will offend the wrong person, then you should definitely study the lexical units that make up the body of русский мат.  Without this knowledge, you may get into an awkward situation. 

Let's say a close Russian friend of yours who likes teach you a new way of saying "Awesome!".  That word for awesome happens to contain one of the four lexical units that make up the body of русский мат.  This means that even though it's a phrase meant to express positive emotions, the root makes the word automatically offensive.  This basically means that if you don't take a closer look at the words people (especially your younger friends) teach you, you risk unknowingly using rude language and potentially offending someone. 

In this blog post I will refrain from typing out any explicit examples of мат, but for those who want to acquaint themselves with the necessary lexical units, look at this page and make note of the first four major bulleted entries.  The other words on the page are also fair game in terms of rudeness, but the first four are the ones to focus on. 

Now, why am I talking so much about мат?  It's because I'm reviewing Edward Topol's book on Russian slang, titled Dermo! 

In short, I wasn't impressed by this book.  From the style of writing, it seems like more of a fluff-filled book intended to humor people rather than a legitimate reference on Russian slang.  What's disappointing is that the book could have been a lot better if certain things about the transliteration system were improved (more on that in the Negative Aspects section), but without those things being fixed, the contents are basically useless as far as language-related information.  Topol touches a bit on various cultural nuances, but I found his "advice" dubious.  Now, it's very possible that Topol wrote most of this book in a tongue-in-cheek manner, but not every Russian learner who buys this book will pick up on that.

If you're seriously interested in Russian slang and want to buy a book on it (one that is written in English), get a copy of Barron's Dictionary of Russian Slang, by Vladimir Shlyakhov and Eve Adler.  The latest version is from 2006, and you'll get more out of the Barron's book than Topol's book. 

Publishing Information

The full title of this book is Dermo!  The Real Russian Tolstoy Never Used, and it was written by Edward Topol.  Topol is a Russian novelist who primarily writes in Russian, and this book is one of the few (or perhaps the only one) that he's written in English.  

Looking at the inside cover, one can see that this book was published in 1997.  That is, 16 years before the time of this post. 

In most cases, I wouldn't consider this to be a big deal, but we're dealing with slang and colloquial expressions.  16 years can make a huge difference.  There are, of course, many expressions that survive the test of time very well, but I wouldn't be surprised if many of the words and phrases in this book now sound quite dated. 

Book Structure

The book contains an introduction, ten chapters, a 15-page glossary (Russian to English), and a brief 2-page glossary (English to Russian).  The chapters are arranged by theme (insults, business, sex, general phrases, etc), and all contain word lists (the Russian word, its transliteration, and an English translation).  Some chapters have examples of Russian poetry, commentary about Russians by Topol, personal anecdotes, or other musings on Russian culture.  The Russian-to-English glossary is in alphabetical order and covers most of the Russian words mentioned in the book.  The English-to-Russian glossary is far shorter (only two pages) and is more like a "cheat-sheet" for quickly translating English swearwords into Russian. 

Positive Aspects

I criticize this book pretty heavily in this post (partly so that future writers of such books can learn from these errors!), but I do think it's good that people write more about Russian slang, especially in English.  The informal, almost silly tone of this book has the potential to kindle interest in slang among casual learners, and they may delve into more serious resources afterwards. 

Another redeeming quality of this book is that Topol does in some cases include literal translations of certain phrases, which I think is important.  Not all books do this, so it is a plus!

Negative Aspects

The transliteration system leaves much to be desired.  This book includes a "Translator's Note" at the beginning, including a sentence that reads: Russian words presented in the Roman alphabet have not been transliterated according to any of the standard transliteration systems; priority has been placed on ease of pronunciation.

I'm not sure what to make of this.  Ease of pronunciation?  I notice that the first page of the book contains the word *трехэтажным. It's supposed to be трёхэтажным, but the ё somehow got omitted even in the transliteration.  (In the book, it reads *trekhetazhnim rather than tryokhetazhnym.  If the person reading this book didn't already know this word, he might have never thought there was supposed to be a yo sound).  Let's look at this word again... uh-oh! It looks like the ы was also not properly transliterated.  This is just from looking at the first page, but it gives you an idea of how inconsistent this book is about showing how things should be pronounced.  Not to mention that there are also some places where the transliteration is just plain wrong - разэдакий is transliterated in the book as *razyedakiy.  The letter э is never transliterated as ye, and there is no ye sound in the word, so why is there a ye in the transliteration?

Now, one could say that I'm making too big of a deal here.  One could say that these flaws are not all that serious - anyone who's studied Russian for a couple of years would know the basic sounds of all the letters, would know about о and е reduction, and probably wouldn't need the transliteration at all.  BUT, there is one enormous pet peeve that I haven't mentioned yet.  There is a complete absence of stress marks.  That is, there are no signs whatsoever, neither in the Cyrillic, nor in the transliterations.  This is, hands down, the biggest problem I have with this book.  I mean, let's say that you do want to use offensive language for some reason and you decide to  write down phrases from this book and pronounce them as you think they should be pronounced.  Unless you're already near-native, you'll probably make a load of mistakes.  (Though, even if you manage to pronounce them all the way they were meant to be pronounced, you'll probably end up sounding like you're from 1997.)

Another problem with this book is that Topol does not always show which words are мат and which are not.  Sometimes it's already obvious, like when the English translation also contains harsh language.   But, as I mentioned in the intro, it's not so obvious when the word has been translated into English as something not explicitly obscene.  The book also happens to have sections containing ordinary, non-slang phrases like доброе утро, спасибо, and the like, and мат-based words and other rude expressions are mixed in with these benign phrases.  So, if I were Topol, I would have included a system of symbols to go with each word (for example, (!!!) means мат, (!!) means rude language that isn't considered мат, (!) means informal/colloquial language that isn't considered rude, etc.)

The last thing I want to mention are Topol's commentary on Russians, life in Russia, doing business in Russia, etc.  Some of Topol's personal anecdotes might be amusing for some, but I would take any of his cultural marks about Russians with a grain of salt.  If you want a good reference on Russian culture and traditions, get The Russian's World: Life and Language by Genevra Gerhart - it's a very informative book. 

Who should use this book?

I can't strongly recommend this book to any type of person in particular.  An advanced learner of Russian who's curious about Russian slang that may be outdated may get something out of this book, but I say if you're already at an advanced level and want a serious look, get the Barron's book and/or find some Russian-language publications on the subject.

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