Communication with the Russian native speakers: important lessons and comments

Fragments from: Natasha Artemeva The writing consultant as cultural interpreter: Bridging cultural perspectives on the genre of the periodic engineering report //TECHNICAL COMMUNICATION QUARTERLY 7(3):285-299 · JUNE 1998DOI: 10.1080/10572259809364632

P. 286 “The differences between languages as systems imply certain incompatibilities between utterances (Bakhtin) produced by speakers and writers of different languages if they choose one shared language as a medium of communication (Rodman). For example, reports written by nonnative speakers of English or translated by non-English speaking translators are often out of focus from the point of view of an Englishspeaking reader as they employ “a rhetoric and a sequence of thought which violate the expectation of the native reader” (Kaplan 4). Cultural influences, then, often lead to misunderstanding (Schryer,
“Workplace”) One powerful tool for analyzing and then overcoming such misunderstandings is contrastive rhetoric (Purves; Danesi). It illuminates pragmatic errors that are “the result of an interactant’s imposing
the social rules of one culture on his [sic] communicative behavior in a situation where the social rules of another culture would be more appropriate” (Riley 234).”

Pp. 286-287 “For example, the grammatical systems of Russian and English are fundamentally different. English is a language in which grammatical meaning is largely expressed through the use of additional words and by changes in word order. Russian, on the other hand, is a language in which the majority of grammatical forms are created through changes in the structure of words, by means of a developed system of prefixes, suffixes, and endings. Russian, therefore, has fairly complicated systems of noun and adjective declension and verb conjugation (Monk and Burak). These differences affect the way Russian-speaking writers write in English; they also affect the quality of translation.”

P. 287 “Canadian managers and group leaders who coordinated the Russian projects tended to believe Russian engineers were incapable of presenting the results of their work in the form of reports written in English. Because they thought the reports were ineffective, they then questioned the quality of Russian engineering work itself. Russian engineers did not understand the concept and requirements of the periodic report. Both sides thought that engineering was engineering around the world, and so neither was able to accept the fact that each country had its own specific technical/engineering culture, which was reflected in the way written engineering discourse functioned. The Canadian company sent its internal report template to Russia in hopes that Russian engineers would follow it to produce reports of the desired quality. The approach did not work.”

P. 287 “The analysis showed that the Russian engineers were not the only ones needing assistance. The Canadian company also needed to understand a different engineering culture and its different approach to reporting. The Canadians were reluctant, however, to recognize that the North American report was not
universal and its approach might not be obvious to foreign engineers. Noted one Canadian manager, “They should do it the way we do it here if they are working for us.”

P. 288-289 “Misinterpretations of Message Tone Tone turned out to be one reason why Russians misinterpreted Canadian messages. As is appropriate in North America, the Canadians were very polite. Even if they intended to express their dissatisfaction with the work received from Russia, they would not state their negative attitude directly. Rather, they would stress positive sides of the results first and only then would they touch upon the problems. They would never express anger in an e-mail message directly; the tone would be more suggestive than negatively critical. By contrast, in the former Soviet Union, a dissatisfied superior would not start a message to an employee with positive remarks; the message would be direct and often not too polite without any subtleties, and it would unambiguously communicate the supervisor’s dissatisfaction with the results presented by the employee. Most often, the message would be conveyed orally (Hagen). The Russian contractors probably did not detect the discontent expressed in Canadian memos. Those memos were first translated by a Russian-speaking translator—who often missed the intention of the memo because of such drastic differences in discourse pattern—and then sent to the
director of the company, who, most probably, read the first lines that reflected a positive and supportive attitude and never read the message to the end to interpret it correctly.”

P. 289 “Differing Concepts of the Periodic Report
The Russians and the Canadians held radically different notions of the goals and approaches of an in-house interim report (Hagen). In Russian organizations, such reports signal completion of a certain time-task period and are rarely read by anybody but an immediate superior of a technical unit. They usually are written by many employees, each of whom writes a small part. Secretaries often compile extensive reports, and the resulting document rarely bears an easily identifiable authorship. There is little accountability (Rodman) among engineers, unless something goes wrong, in which case the responsibility usually lies with the head of a unit whose results proved to be incorrect. The report documents time spent; it does not indicate directions for future research or raise questions. Such larger issues would be reserved for publication in a relevant scientific journal rather than in an in-house technical report. The Canadians saw a much more important role for the reports.
Differences in the concept of the report thus reflect differences in the perceived value of in-house reports compared to scientific or technical articles. For the Russians, only scientific publications were considered worth one’s while to spend time on, and very few engineers wrote articles. Only heads of units and their immediate colleagues working under their supervision worked on articles. These differences in genres reflected even deeper differences in how the Canadians and the Russians thought of themselves. Russian engineers refused to call themselves engineers. They were used to being called “scientists” and saw their work as a fundamental scientific endeavor, while their Canadian managers viewed them as engineers in the North American meaning of the word and expected concrete technical solutions to
particular problems”.

P. 290. The Canadians and the Russians further divided on the appropriate format for presenting information in the report. While Canadian readers often missed the point of first installments of reports produced in Russia, Russian engineers argued passionately that for a Russian scientific text, the most important thing was the concept of discovery.  Therefore, they would prefer to use a chronological order in the description of their investigation so that they could demonstrate all the difficulties they had to overcome and the path that had led them to a discovery, rather than to state what they had intended to find
before they explained what they had actually done to find the solution— the approach sought by the Canadians

On the other hand, the Canadian managers often saw parts of the format and the sequence of some sections used in their own organization as artificial and not always logical. They complained to me about the template, noting that format should fit the content of a particular project, be less rigid, and be used as a guideline that would help writers to focus their attention on particular sections and work to be done
instead of being viewed by the senior management as the only way to write a report.

For overseas contractors, it was even more difficult to understand why they should follow an unfamiliar format. Russian engineers told me that they had first viewed the template given to them by the Canadian project management as an invention of a particular manager and not as a consistent format used within the whole organization because they had never had such a detailed instruction for their inhouse reports. They interpreted this template as a contract rather than a guide to write a report and intended to follow it to the letter.”*

* Это может быть одна из причин раздражения – вначале жестко следуют жанру, но потом окончательно разочаровываются в его “глупости”

Abstract

PP. 290-291 “First, the Canadian template called for an abstract as the first section of the report. The Russians asked to be told the expected length. This request led to a misunderstanding between the
partners because the Canadian company had been sending published articles on the topic of the project to Russia and was sure that the Russians had learned how to write an abstract from the examples used
in those articles. I was also sure the Russians knew how to write abstracts because scientific abstracts are published in Russia, and engineers were generally familiar with the abstract format. It turned out that the Russian company wanted to know how long the abstract should be not because they did not know how to write it, but because they wanted everything to be spelled out in the template (a contract for them) so that they would not be blamed for not following the letter of the contract.

Second, the history of closed Russian technical organizations led to a misunderstanding about what should be included in the section titled “Review of Prior Work.” When the translator translated the template from English into Russian so that all engineers in the company could follow it, she interpreted this section as limited to a review of work conducted within their institution rather than a comprehensive literature review on the topic of the project. This interpretation reflects a “closed” institution mentality, as libraries in such institutions used to contain mainly reports written by the employees of this particular company, and all research and development conducted in such organizations was usually based on prior in-house investigations”

P. 292

“• top-down approach in North American technical texts versus chronological approach in Russian scientific texts
• paragraph structure: “one paragraph, one idea” in English technical and academic writing versus discussions of many loosely related issues within one paragraph in Russian scientific
texts
• transitional sentences between paragraphs and sections/subsections
• sentence structure: “one sentence, one concept” in English writing versus long compound sentences that include several related concepts in Russian
• theme/rheme in Russian and English”

P. 293

“Because it was next to impossible—and quite useless—to persuade Russian writers to write reports in Russian using the principles of English rhetoric, I soon realized that most of the conference calls were
really for the benefit of the translator. Often, the quality of translation was the source of the Canadian managers’ dissatisfaction with a report. As Rodman notes, translations into English produced in former Soviet republics often contained “the kinds of errors typical of those who speak English as a second language; these errors would create a negative impression on audience fluent in English” (115).”

“The translator should put all her effort into producing a clear, coherent, and grammatical English text without losing the meaning of the Russian version. She should remember that in Russian, it is common to use long, complex sentences containing multiple concepts, while in English, such sentences should be translated as several shorter sentences with transitions between them. More attention should be paid to transitional words (instead of using the colloquial “so,” the translator should use “therefore,” “thus,” “consequently,” and the like, enabling the reader to follow the logic of the text).”

“The translator needs to pay special attention to differences in word order in English versus Russian. In non-emotive Russian speech, the first part of the sentence names the subject of the message and is a
starting point of the communication. The second part contains the message itself, i.e., the new information (theme/rheme or topiccomment structure: because of Y (topic, background or reasons), X
(comment, main point, or action suggested). In English, the main point usually is introduced at the very beginning of the sentence (structure: X [comment, main point, or action suggested] because of
Y [topic, background, or reasons]).

The translator also needs to pay attention to the paragraph division of the text. In Russian, one paragraph often includes several loosely related ideas. Paragraphs (and individual sentences) in Russian texts are usually much longer than in English. The paragraphing will often be different in the English translation compared to the Russian original. The translator should remember that in English technicalwriting, one idea usually corresponds to one paragraph and paragraphs should be connected by transitional sentences.

EXAMPLE:
Text structure: [1) Last sentence of a paragraph; 2) Transitional
sentence that links two paragraphs; 3) First sentence of the next
paragraph].
1. In addition to the external synchronization mode, the interference
generator operates in the internal synchronization mode.
2. As it has been shown above, the external synchronization mode
allows the researchers to perform numerous tests.
3. Therefore, a simultaneous use of two different synchronization
modes provides new opportunities for testing, namely . . . .”

“In both the conference calls and meetings during her visit to Canada, I tried to persuade the translator to emphasize the creation of an acceptable English text, and to explain to her that she should pay more attention to the meaning rather then to the actual wording of the Russian original. As various researchers have noted, translated text, for example, might be longer or shorter than the source text. What matters is that:
the translation should be no longer or shorter than the target
language requires . . . . In good translation, length is determined by
the structure of the target language and not by the number of words
in the source language. (Duff 22)”

“One of the methods she used was the practice of reading the English translation to the writer of the original Russian text, orally translating it back to Russian, and then comparing how far her Russian sentence was from the original Russian sentence.”

P. 295 “”So, if I don’t know a word, I go and ask the writer.” Unfortunately, the Russian writers often did not know correct English equivalents. I suggested to both writers and the translator that they send a list of terms for which they did not know a correct English equivalent to the Canadian company, so that Canadian experts together with me could come up with a glossary of terms. The glossary then would be sent to Russia and used for the translation of new installments of the reports.”

P. 297 “At first, the Russian engineers and the translator expressed surprise at, and then rejected, my explanations about differences in the structure of English and Russian texts, different rhetorical patterns,
and different emphasis on reader awareness. It was not easy to persuade them that ideas in the English versions of their reports should be arranged in the order in which an English-speaking reader expects
them. Eventually, the translator did look into those differences, and some Russian engineers who had visited Canada and attended workshops I taught there were able to grasp new concepts and gave talks on
them in Russia. But others persisted in their opinion that the way they wrote was the only possible way to write technical texts.”

“To work in the global economy, however, technical professionals need to flexible and adaptable. Learning how to do so should be an important part of the education of an engineer or scientist. There is
hardly an engineering company in Canada these days that does not have a multicultural workforce and is not involved in an intercultural cooperation. Thus I am including a component on international
communications in a course on Communication Skills for Engineering Students that I am currently teaching in a Canadian university. Students need to be taught more than just how to write certain
documents. Rather, they need to be taught how to adapt to different ways of writing, how to learn on the job, how to understand other cultures, and the like to become better communicators and, therefore,
to achieve better results in their technical work.”

“In addition, to facilitate international technical communication, engineering companies need assistance that can only be offered by professional technical writing consultants who are proficient in the
languages used by the partners and are familiar with the cultures involved in the partnership. Writing consultants, in the expanded role of cultural interpreters, can provide the kinds of training for both
technical professionals and translators that will help engineering companies to build transitions between national engineering cultures.”

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