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Words Related to Time Show the Difference between Russian and Anglophone Cultures

All translators and bilinguals, especially trilinguals and miltilinguals, i.e. polyglots, know that some words are simply untranslatable. A translation of the word exists, but it simply does not convey the specific cultural context of the language one is translating from. This phenomenon became really interesting to some linguists at the end of the 20th century, and in Russia and Poland it has been really popular since about the beginning of this century. It is known as Linguistic Picture of the World (Rus. Языковая картина мира).

The concepts harks back to Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), a Prussian philologist who saw ordinary speech as the concrete expression of situated meaning, revealing both an individual psychology and a people's mindset or Weltanschauung, the term he introduced into humanities and social sciences. It also takes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis - that the structure of a language determines a native speaker's perception and categorisation of experience - as a guideline for making conclusions about the features of a specific culture.

In this essay, a few words related to time and referring to the duration of action in Russian are linked to the concepts of time and duration specific and characteristic to its culture. The inability to translate them precisely into English highlights the specificity of Russian worldview.

In order to place the specific Weltanschauung of those two cultures in a context, famous models for analysing culture developed by Gary Weaver and Kluchhohn and Strodtbeck will be considered. According to them, the Anglo-American culture is placed on the extreme left, or individualistic, horizontal model, and Russian culture, although not entirely collectivistic, would tend toward the other end of this linear orientation. The individualistic social structure to which the English culture belongs also includes an objective, quantitative philosophic outlook that involves mastery or control over nature and mind/body dichotomy, while the collectivist social structure to which we will assign the Russian culture encompasses a subjective, qualitative philosophic outlook that embraces a union of mind and body.

Most importantly, the Western perception of the world incorporates monochromatic time/action, linear or segmented time, and a future orientation, while the Eastern perception consists of polychronic time/action, nonlinear or comprehensive time, and past or present orientation.

In general, Western Europeans view time as a scarce and valuable commodity akin to money and other economic investments. They strive to “save time”, “make time”, “spend time” and “gain time”. Events during a day are dictated by a schedule or activities, precisely defined and differentiated. Eastern cultures, on the other hand, bring an entirely different orientation to time, responding to individuals and circumstances rather than following a scheduled plan for the day. Russians do not define punctuality as precisely as Americans, for example, do. Thus, time is viewed within these cultural frames as endless and ongoing.

Собиратьсястараться and добираться

The word собираться is one of the most characteristic hard-to-translate words in the Russian language. In English it is translated as "to indend" or "to be going on," but this does not really convey the exact meaning of the word. In order to do this, one has to look at some of the examples and the context in which it is used. Even though the verb собираться primarily points to a certain mental state of the subject, it also carries a rather powerful notion of a process, as shown in this case: Хорошо, что ты позвонила, а то я уже целый час лежу и собираюсь встать (It's good that you called, because I've been lying for a whole hour getting ready to get up). 

The process contained in this verb can be understood as an activity of mobilising internal and sometimes even external resources. The verb собираться, however, also assumes a clear metaphysical process, which does not have any conscious manifestations, as Russian cultural linguist Anna Zalizniak points out. The idea of such a process demonstrates the specificity of the Russian word distinguishing it from other close in meaning Russian words (намереваться, намерен), as well as its equivalents in other languages. 

The experience of intention as a process, reflected in this Russian verb, relates to the perception of the Russian national character, which presumes that Russians "harness for a long time" (or, take a long time to do things). The process of "getting ready" is conceived as a specific activity, which allows a person who is not doing anything, to perceive the time spent doing nothing as an activity that requires some effort, as in: "What did you do today?" "Well, I was getting ready the entire morning to sit down and do some work, but then guests came" (Zalizniak 2017).

When someone says in English they are "getting ready" to do something, it usually means they are really preparing to do something, and the statement cannot be comprehended as a euphemism for not doing anything. The difference in meaning between those two words in English and Russian demonstrates the cultural context from which they derive.

Another word that reflects a specific relationship of a person toward his/her future activities is the verb (по)стараться (to try, to attempt). Its specific nature is clearly seen in contrast to another verb close in meaning, пытаться, as in the sentence: Я стараюсь рано ложиться (I try to go to bed early). In contexts such as this, стараться is understood in its totality. It does not mean that I make an attempt every evening to go to bed early (such a meaning would be conveyed by the sentence Пытаюсь рано ложиться). The former verb points only to a general readiness to realise an activity, which is usually - but not necessarily - accomplished. The characteristic of this verb is, therefore, that it allows one to present not doing anything as an activity requiring considerable effort. It also denotes positive intentions, no matter what the result might be.

The last verb characteristic of the Russian language picture of the world is добираться (to get somewhere). It represents a process of overcoming space not only as long and arduous, but to a certain extent as unpredictable, that is, not controlled by the subject. It also implies a sincere recognition of one's limitations to successfully accomplish something. 

In addition to the aspect of these three verbs denoting a process of doing something while not doing anything, it should be noted that they also involve a perception of overcoming time and space that is not entirely controlled by the will of the subject. Their meaning ingrained in the cultural context implies a higher power that governs out actions. In English, it is hard to find an equivalent for this verb, showing not only that the subject is fully in control of one's own actions, but also that the subject can precisely define and describe his/her own actions. 

So, the juxtaposition of the language image of the world exemplified in the contextual meaning of these three verbs shows that Russians in relationship to native speakers of English have a more flexible perception of time, they are not as goal-oriented, and they do not pretend to have a complete control of their own doings. The fact that all these verbs are all expressed in the imperfective aspect is also indicative of the emphasis on duration, and not on accomplishment of a specific action.

Svetozar Postic

Work Cited:

Weaver, G. R. (2002) "Contrasting and Comparing Cultures." In: Culture, Communication & Conflict: Readings in Intercultural Relations. Boston: Pearson Publishing.

Lustig M. and J. Koester (2010). Intercultural Competence: Interpersonal Communication across Cultures. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Зализняк, Анна (2017). "Языковая картина мира." Энциклопедия Кругосвет.

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