University homepage | Suomeksi | På svenska | In English

The Craft of Carpet Weaving, or What Are Miracles Made of? – Ljuba Tarvi

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 4, 2009

Translation Studies


© 2009 Ljuba Tarvi


Ljuba Tarvi

One mind is good, two minds are better.
Russian proverb

Sometimes, life gives you a present you still have to live up to. For me, the six amazingly creative years of my research cooperation with doctor, professor, and enchanter Ritva Leppihalme will forever remain such a gift. When a couple of months ago Ritva advised me to apply for a position I was sure I would not get, I complied. The position promptly went to a much worthier insider, but preparing the portfolio proved to be an unexpectedly useful exercise that allowed me to get a bird’s view of the ‘carpet’, to use Nabokov’s metaphor, of my professional life.

In what follows, I will try to recreate the roads that led me to my wonderful ‘PhD adventure’ in an attempt to understand how much of my journey was due to my own will and how much to fate. To this end, I will first consider a more tractable problem.

1. The Craft of Carpet Weaving

Philosophy, as Wittgenstein once remarked, “consists of assembling reminders for a particular purpose”. The problem I mentioned above is indeed as old as philosophy: are we masters of our destiny or are our paths predetermined? The very linking of ‘masters’ with ‘destiny’ and ‘our paths’ with ‘predetermined’ is clearly oxymoronic, thus demonstrating the complexity of the problem even as it is posed.

Luminaries like Shakespeare (“All the world’s a stage”), or Pushkin (“What’s our life? – A game!”) seem to admit our ability to make brave life-changing moves. Others, like Vladimir Nabokov, believe that the ‘carpets’ of our lives are pre-woven and all we can see is their underside, where the threads are tangled. The problem is: given that the power of tying, tangling-untangling, or cutting certain knots of the carpet seems, to a certain extent, to be vested in our own hands, can our personal choices make changes in the design of the upper side?

2. What Are Miracles Made of?

Since human beings are social creatures, carpets are never woven alone, and hence the ability to choose partners is crucially important. I would like to talk about a very special type of partnerships – let’s call it ‘bi-pro” for short – a professional (‘pro’) cooperation of two (‘bi-’) people who are not colleagues within the same academic unit. As I intend to argue, the ‘bi-pro’ model seems to work both as an independent model and as a model complementary to the prevailing system of academic partnerships at universities, which are normally closely-knit families in a complex hierarchical arrangement. I quote a phrase from a second-rate mafia movie: “careers are made when people with good intent help each other”. In the ‘bi-pro’ model, ‘good’ means advantageous although non-profit for both partners.

In terms of physics, the process can be described as an attraction of two electrons on different orbits around one nucleus – one closer to the nucleus, which implies a bigger energy charge and a greater speed, and one in the neighbouring orbit more distant from the nucleus. In order to jump to a closer orbit, the further electron needs an extra quantum of energy. The problem of the extra quantum of energy is the key one, and it never comes free – in terms of human interaction, it can be gained through, for instance, education (information is energy). In line with Hegel’s dialectic logic of being as an essence – being (Sein) → becoming → determinate being (Dasein) – merely quantitative changes pass, beyond a certain point, into qualitative differences. Therefore, passive waiting for a miracle jump to happen would lead nowhere – one has to gain an additional quantum of energy, and one has to be ready and equipped for a jump.

An inhabitant of the academic world for four decades, I would dare to suggest that the ‘bi-pro’ model works at least in Russia, the Netherlands and Finland, and at least in such fields as language teaching, literary studies, comparative linguistics and translation studies. As I intend to show, I have been lucky to have had three ‘bi-pro’ encounters, each changing the design of the carpet of my life in a no less dramatic way than the encounters in my personal life.

2.1 ‘Bi-Pro’ Encounter One

The first miracle happened during the early years of my professional life, when I was teaching English at the University of the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. I liked my job immensely, but after several years, when the major problems were over, I started noticing certain signs of impatience and irritation in dealing with students. To counter those unpleasant tendencies, I discussed them with our university psychologist. His advice was seemingly simple: treat your students as partners in a communication, turn instruction into an exchange of information, arrange interaction. In other words, my discontent was re-channeled in the direction of a challenging goal which required a huge amount of effort on my part, but, paradoxically, eventually gave me an extra quantum of energy for the transition that followed.

I had no idea how to convert instruction into interaction, but gradually started turning the habitual individual ‘home readings’ of lengthy scientific articles into some kind of action. I would, for instance, come into a classroom, greet my students in a restrained way, put my bag on the table and go to the window. Pause. Dozens of eyes on my back. I would finally turn to them, handkerchief clutched in my hand, and say that a terrible misfortune happened at our organic chemistry laboratory – after yesterday’s experiment, the mouse Masha, the laboratory’s pet, was found dead in her cage. Overdose? Neglect? Then I would hand out copies of an orthodox research paper and a list of guidelines briefing the class who was responsible for what on the shift when the ‘tragedy’ happened. What a pleasure it was to see my students, in pairs or trios (team work is a great time-saver), looking through a highly specialized and dull article full of terms and figures in search for the reasons of ‘Masha’s death’. The ‘guilty team’ members had to defend themselves, using material from the paper under discussion. My task was to keep the discussion in English, which required elaborate preparation, since students virtually demanded the linguistic means to express themselves in English.

During the eighteen years of my career at Novosibirsk University, my fifty-something colleagues at the department of foreign languages allowed me any experiments under one unspoken condition which I gladly accepted: I was not supposed to use my growing popularity for promotion. The word, however, spread that in Novosibirsk there was a teacher who could play English both with kids of preschool age (a sizable ‘piece of butter’ on the thin ‘slice of bread’ of my salary) and university students. As a result, I got a call from Academician Galina Kitajgorodsky of Moscow University, a pupil of the famous Georgy Lozanov of Bulgaria and a pioneer of intensive methods of language instruction in Russia. When Galina Alexandrovna invited me to come, I bought a ticket for the first flight available. My four-hour presentation ended in several exclamations which I still remember: “Where have you been?”, “This is ingenious!”, “But – you should start with this, change that, add this …”. Thus I became a member of Kitajgorodsky’s team with the task of creating readers to accompany their text-books. I remained at Novosibirsk University and I was not paid for my extra job, but my personal gain was enormous: under Galina Alexandrovna’s supervision my elaborations improved greatly. After several years of our ‘bi-pro’ cooperation I got an unexpected bonus: when Kitajgorodsky started a five-year project of intensifying methods of language instruction at the Finnish-Russian school in Helsinki, I was included in the first team she sent there. A year later, the carpet of my professional and personal life changed beyond recognition.

2.2 ‘Bi-Pro’ Encounter Two

When still in Russia, I started, practically by chance – at the request of a girlfriend to help her cope with translating a monograph from Russian into English – combining my teaching with translations. This led me to another ‘bi-pro’ encounter – with Professor Michael Hazewinkel of Amsterdam University, a mathematician and the editor of the Kluwer science series. With my numerous duties, I could translate only one book a year, but Dr. Hazewinkel could be sure that my translation would require minimum editing. What, in turn, I appreciated in Michael as a partner was that he ensured that every year I had a book to translate and that he arranged immediate feed-back by native speakers in the subject field, which allowed me to constantly improve the quality of my translation products.

Unlike my first ‘bi-pro’ partnership, in this case I had a chance of making some profit – I was earning currency! – but the intermediary, a Soviet vintage style state committee called VAAP, was claiming up to 85% of what I was making in taxes. The money that I got then was really small; besides, instead of currency the VAAP paid me in ‘checks’ that worked as a currency substitute in special ‘Beriozka’ shops inside Russia.

And an unexpected bonus followed! Without any request on my part, Michael smuggled into Russia, practically on his back, my first Macintosh as far back as in 1988, when computers were a rarity not only in Russia. Amazed, I asked him why he took all that trouble and Michael explained that by replacing my type-written manuscripts with diskettes he not only facilitated my translation work but saved his own editing time. I must confess that I was so much afraid of my new tool that, with Michael in Amsterdam, the computer remained unpacked until his next visit to Novosibirsk a year later.

2.3 ‘Bi-Pro’ Encounter Three

In Finland, where I have been living for the last eighteen years, I had my third, and so far last, ‘bi-pro’ encounter. The beginning was, as usual, purely pragmatic – I decided to get an MA degree in my native language. At the age of 47, unexpectedly easily, I passed the entrance exam at the department of Baltic and Slavonic languages of Helsinki University, and a year later, to get my minor, at the department of English.

During the first year of my three-year undergraduate studies, nothing miraculous happened – I was just constantly amazed at my ability to study quickly and with good grades. During my second year, I discovered Vladimir Nabokov –  bilingual writer, translator, playwright, critic, etc. Immediately, I started looking for any courses connected with Nabokov in any of his capacities. The closest course I discovered was a pro-gradu seminar in translation studies Dr. Ritva Leppihalme was offering at the English department. I came to her office in the spring of 1996 to ask for the list of literature for the autumn seminar – a student’s action, as she told me later, unprecedented in her long teaching practice. As a result, during my third and final year as an undergraduate student, I had two pro-gradu seminars – in the Slavonic and English departments – and both on Nabokov.

What I will remember from Ritva’s lectures and classes is the warm atmosphere of friendly interaction and her undisputable authority which was always felt but never imposed. It was Ritva who advised me to take Andrew Chesterman’s course in translation theory, which became a valuable addition to the package of knowledge I got at my new alma mater. With his lectures, Dr. Chesterman, a luminary with the gift of presenting complex problems in a simple way, opened up for me the beauty of theory.

As soon as I got my MA degree, Ritva, to my great surprise, suggested I could continue working under her supervision. We had a long talk, and I frankly told her that I was planning to summarize my experience as a language teacher in a textbook on the Russian language written in English and based on the principles of intensive learning. But Ritva’s persuasive drive was so huge that I, having come to politely reject her unexpected offer, asked for more time to think her suggestion over. During the following winter, I combined collecting material for my future textbook with reading up on the theory of translation. Gradually, the latter activity turned out to be much more challenging, unpredictable and, hence, irresistible. Doubts, however, persisted because I suspected that even with a defended PhD I would practically have no chance, due to my age, of being employed in my new capacity. I convinced myself that I could always return to language teaching, but this was actually a delusion because at that point I knew little about the sweet captivating torture of my new occupation.

I returned to Ritva’s office earlier than promised, and for the next six wonderful years Ritva used her gift for clear scientific expression to channel my raw and shapeless passion for Nabokov into a PhD thesis. Inspired by every new book I read, I was bubbling with ideas, while Ritva patiently read and firmly cut away the loose ends, thus keeping me focused and balanced in all the thirty-two pirouettes required in this ballet.

Financially, the project was practically non-profit – all I got was a regular student’s stipend, travel grants to conferences and the traditional three months grant for finalizing my PhD thesis. But again, wonder of wonders, my PhD thesis was crowned with a bonus: three years as a professor at Tallinn University – another richly undeserved gift of fate.

Until the present day, almost five years after my PhD defence, I still ask myself what Ritva saw in me, why she singled me out from her numerous students, why she took the trouble of persuading me, and how she was able to manage my inexhaustible energy and to smooth down our ‘culture bumps’. My encounter with this wonderful woman was nothing less than a miracle that once more changed the design of the carpet of my life beyond recognition.

3. ‘Bi-Pro’ Model Regularities

I would assert that my three ‘bi-pro’ encounters are enough for generalizations because they have all been cut on the same pattern. Here is the list of regularities I have noticed.

First, miracles do happen, they are designed and executed by partners with ‘good intent’, and have concrete names – in my case, Galina, Michael, and Ritva. The most romantic of Russian writers, Alexander Grin, seems to be right to maintain that the scarlet sails of dreams are sewn by people’s hands.

Second, in terms of the Bakhtin chronotopos, all my ‘bi-pro’ encounters were temporary (terminated when the mutual obligations were fulfilled), and academically segregated (Ritva and myself, both belonging to Helsinki University, were never colleagues).

Third, in the professional relationships described, there is a ‘senior’ partner and a ‘junior’ partner. The initiative comes, normally, ‘from above’, from a senior partner. Probably, because they possess, in terms of physics, a bigger quantum of energy, they have a better chance to notice a junior partner who ‘moves at a lower speed’. One more possible explanation – the popular Law of Attraction, stating that like attracts like.

Fourth, one can meet with a miracle only if one is moving towards it, passive waiting does not work. To be noticed by a senior partner, one has to produce something material, a text reflecting some idea – something that can be read and judged, an item of World 3, as Karl Popper would call it. Such a stance requires a certain courage: Peter the Great of Russia would compel his boyars to speak out at assembly sessions so that, as he put it, “everybody’s folly could be seen”.

Fifth, professional relations of this type are based on a clearly imbalanced foundation which could be described via an oxymoron – ‘distant proximity’. By this I mean that there should always be a respectful distance between you and your ‘bi-pro’ partner(s), which is probably the only way of showing them that you admit and accept their superiority.

Sixth, a ‘bi-pro’ cooperation is a special arrangement based on an oral agreement, in which case a breach of promise is fraught with moral rather than legal or financial consequences. Hence, a ‘bi-pro’ partnership demands complete honesty and can easily be destroyed by a lie.

Seventh, of great importance is the condition for the junior partner which I could define as ‘no request’ – all the offers and bonuses can be offered only by a senior partner. As Michail Bulgakov said through his almighty Woland in Master and Margarita, “Never ask for anything! Never and nothing, especially from those stronger than you. They will make their offers and give everything themselves!”

Eighth, my ‘bi-pro’ partners led me from one aspect of my profession to another – they sharpened my abilities to teach, to translate, and to do research. None of the three partnerships was, however, profit-making. If something is priceless, how much is it worth?

Ninth, there is no age limit for ‘bi-pro’ partnerships. When I worked with Galina Alexandrovna, I was very young; when I cooperated with Michael, I was reasonably young; when I started my project with Ritva, we both were grandmothers.

Tenth, if even one of the above conditions is violated, a miracle turns into a soap opera.

As I have tried to show, the ‘bi-pro’ model is a model of academic cooperation which can be either alternative or complementary to the conditions offered by the university system. The model seems to work both for university outsiders who have not had a chance to follow the regular academic path, and for university insiders who are dissatisfied with their academic environment. The most efficient and financially safe way is a combination of both models, as was the case in my first two ‘bi-pro’ partnerships.

4. Conclusion

Let us return to the initial problem of whether my three life-changing ‘bi-pro’ partnerships have been a part of my ‘life carpet design’ or if they have changed it. Frankly, I can only guess since, like everybody else, I see the tangled side. However, because I know better than anyone else how much effort it required me to get where I am, I am inclined to believe that if my life had taken a different course, by now I could have been a retired language teacher with a distinguished career crowned by a decent pension. Maybe, I have lost both a career and a pension, but I have not lost my life. As they say – plant a character, harvest a destiny.

My translated books, readers, PhD thesis and published papers have occupied their place on my shelf – they are now end products, Gogol’s ‘dead souls’. Dreams fulfilled are dreams killed, and much more important is what was happening to my mind and my soul when I was writing those texts. At present, I am not ready for a new ‘bi-pro’ encounter because I am now working on a new text which, I presume, might lead me into literary studies. Or, maybe, I will quit it all and start a completely new life cycle because I have also noticed a curious regularity in the interdependence between my personal and professional partnerships. I am curious to see what new pattern the carpet of my life can reveal and whether I will follow this pattern or try to re-design it.

I would like to conclude these very personal and extremely subjective notes by citing some more Russian poetry which presents models of partnership. Philosophers, like Boris Pasternak, are often pessimistic loners: “I’m alone, / Everything around is being drowned in hypocrisy, / To live a life is not to cross over a field”. Socialist realists, like Nikolay Zabolotsky, are optimistic loners who believe in purposeful self-evolution: “Do not allow your soul to be lazy, / In order not to crush water in a mortar, / Your soul has to labor / Day and night, day and night”. Romantics, like Bulat Okudzhava, see partnership as salvation: “Let us take each other by the hand / In order not to perish one by one”. My thesis is as follows: pessimistic loneliness leads you nowhere; if you are a hard-working optimistic loner, you chances to broaden your horizons are reasonably good; if, however, at a certain period a partner who shares your aspirations is ‘holding you by the hand’, you are certain to succeed in making your life more eventful and meaningful.

Anyway, with my motto ‘Quality pays’, I am a firm believer in miracles built on hard work. I would readily echo Michael Cronin, one of the true conjurers in translation studies, who appealed to us at a recent Tampere conference: “Let us re-enchant our lives!” Why not?