Toward the start of our trip through Russia in 2009, my girlfriend and I watched more TV than we would've liked. We'd just arrived in St Petersburg by train from Finland. As we settled into our apartment I turned the TV on and flicked through the channels. I couldn't understand a single word but it was trashiest shit I'd ever seen, that much I could understand. It was the pits. A couple of days later I was woken in the early morning by a call from Australia, and was told there'd been a "terrorist attack" on a train heading from Moscow to St Petersburg. We were due to catch the same train route (but not the same train) the next evening, in the opposite direction. I turned on the TV but there was nothing about the incident on its dozens of channels. I jumped on the computer and for the next few hours, while the TV remained on in the background, alt-tabbed through Russian blogs and foreign news sites as they drip fed information. It wasn't until later that afternoon that the Russian news channels started reporting the incident proper (it seems this kind of media silence is common in Russia; see this BBC article about Russians angered after state TV failed to inform its citizens during the wake of a bomb attack in Moscow). By this stage I already knew what had happened – Chechen separatists had bombed and derailed a passenger train, killing twenty-six people and injuring dozens.
We didn't know what to do, catch the train the next day as planned, or stay put? We were already a little on edge, Russia being an intimidating place for first-time visitors. This is particularly true in the midst of winter when the sun vanishes quickly, and after you'd allowed your tabloid curiosity to consume horrible anecdotes about the place – such as the frequent race bashings in St Petersburg – before arriving (research for our Trans-Siberian railway portion of our trip included, naturally, watching the torture-thriller filmTransSiberian [2008, Brad Anderson]). In the evening the apartment owner popped around to drop off some linen. "You'll be fine, fine, fine" she assured us when we asked if it'd be safe to catch the train as planned. "These things happen every now and then. They [the separatists] will go into hiding for awhile." She may as well have added, "This is Rrrushya!" She was completely nonplussed, just as jovial and lovely as when we first met her. The city seemed just the same too, that day and the next. I expected fewer people on the streets, more police, more suspicious eyes, but we didn't notice any change of pace. And true to the lady's word, we were fine, fine, fine. We had an unforgettable trip, far away from those mangled piles of bodies and steel. Contrary to what TV and the movies have taught us in scientific fashion over many decades, Russia was a beautiful place, full of ordinary, resilient and hospitable people. Unfortunately, the lady was also correct in that "these things" happened again soon after we left. In March 2010 two suicide bombings in the Moscow subway killed forty people and injured a hundred.
What I learned from the presence of the TV in those couple of days in St Petersburg is that in Russia, they love to dub dialogue. Everything, absolutely everything, on TV is dubbed into Russian. Movies, sitcoms, documentaries, cartoons, interviews. You'll be familiar with the bits in news stories where there's a soundbite from a non-English speaker, but rather than using subtitles, it promptly fades out the speech after a few words and replaces it with a patronisingly enthusiastic voiceover translation, whilst the original speech continues semi-muted in the background (this is necessary on radio, unnecessary and lazy on TV). On Russian TV, such dubbed footage is often used – that is, borrowed from Western media outlets – but then dubbed once again, into Russian. This means you often hear three voices simultaneously, a cacophony of languages at different volumes that often forms a ghoulish contrast between what you see and hear. The child on screen may be talking about how it'd be nice to not have her village bombed once in a while, but the louder English voiceover on top sounds like she's reading a children's book to a room full of half-deaf toddlers, and the even-louder Russian voice over the top of hers sounds like she's trying to sell off her stocks before the imminent crash.
Assuming that Russian TV dubs the already-dubbed footage and not the original, it'd be interesting to see how much meaning is gained or lost in this twofold translation process, whether by added inflections or simple mistranslation. When we traveled into Mongolia weeks later, we shared a train carriage with a Mongolian youth ice hockey team and an American student. There was only one person onboard who could speak both English and Russian (the student) and one person who could speak Russian and Mongolian (one of the players). Whenever we wanted to communicate something to the Mongolians we would say something in English, the American would translate into Russian, then the Mongolian player would translate into Mongolian for his teammates, and vice versa. Often a straightforward question or remark would unexpectedly draw laughs or confused stares, on both ends. Who fucked up? Usually it was far more effective to communicate when one of the middle-men were absent, by resorting to frantic Charades-like gesticulations or scribbling drawings on a notepad. Any communication involving translations can be a form of Chinese whispers. But this way we could find common ground through our shared failure to understand each other, and search for similarities outside language, which only pronounced our differences. A laugh, a gesture, a shared cigarette: these were the order of the day.
When we were in Moscow a week after the train bombing, I wanted to watch a film. We were, after all, in one of the most important and historic film capitals in the world and we wouldn't have another opportunity to see one for about two months. A trip to the cinema was mandatory. I knew that it was going to be difficult to see a Russian film with English subtitles, but I thought it'd be possible to at least see an English-language film with Russian subtitles. I asked a guy working at the hostel where we could see a film that hadn't been dubbed. He didn't know, so he asked some others, who also didn't know. Everything is dubbed in Russia, they told me. "We don't like reading subtitles." No shit, but being in Moscow, I knew that 'everything' couldn't possibly mean everything, there had to be some freaks in this city of twelve million who liked to see films in which they could hear what the actors actually sounded like. After some cumbersome Googling on an iPod, I finally managed to track down a cinema that was screening a few English-language films, with subtitles. One of these was Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans starring Nicolas Cage, the 'remake' of Abel Ferrara's classic of half the same name. Perfect!
We caught a train to a suburb and found the cinema, a neat little place with a modest program and well-loved carpeted floors. We bought tickets and sat in the back row of a half-filled theatre. I can't remember if there were trailers or not, but after the lights dimmed I remember the couple next to us chatting, seemingly unaware that the film had begun. In fact, a good dozen audience members continued talking throughout the opening scenes, at full volume. A man sitting alone in the front row picked up his phone when it began to ring and greeted what must've been an old friend. A couple of others made calls. It seemed that for many, going to the cinema was simply like going to a darkened cafe. They could escape the winter outside and socialise, and no adjustments in behaviour were necessary. This was all very fascinating but also very frustrating, for I didn't come just to see Nicolas Cage's weird face, I came also to hear his weird voice. A voice that was drowned out by a cacophony of mumbling Russian voices, and became quickly, irritatingly, dubbed. It wasn't until Cage's character started getting up to some serious mischief and Eva Mendes sexed up the screen, that the conversations were halted and the place began resembling a cinema (guns and tits are part of a universal cinematic language capable of hushing children and adults alike). We liked the film and went home satisfied. Above all the film warmed us through its communal experience, and in the comfort one gets when hearing their native tongue – Australian accents notwithstanding – in a place where you rarely do. We didn't hear much English for the rest of the trip, and Cage's drawling, nasal voice stayed with me in the back of my mind, like a quiet, good friend.
A couple of years ago I was in Kuala Lumpur for a stopover. I dislike Kuala Lumpur a lot – I'd say hate if I weren't open to having my mind changed. I was walking around trying to kill time in the mall-dominated area of the city, when I looked up to see a huge picture of Nicholas Cage floating above me on the face of a building. An advertisement for Montblanc. I found it amusing because Cage had never struck me as billboard-advertising material (except maybe in Japan), and he seemed such an unusual choice to sell luxury watches. I'm sure many yuppies would think twice about forking out for a Montblanc if they'd seen a lot of his films and realised how insane and un-Montblanc he actually is. I stared at the giant, semitransparent portrait of this strange actor, who'd brought such joy and comfort to me and millions of others. Since the Moscow screening, every Cage film I'd seen had transported me temporarily back to that cosy cinema, full of Russians who just wouldn't shut the fuck up. Hoping for the same transcendental effect here, I concentrated on his lips, which were stretched to a goofy half-smile, and wished him to say something – just a simple "hurrrgh" as he no doubt would've moaned when he had the photo taken – but nothing doing. He remained frozen and mute, and all I could hear was the soundtrack of the loud, sticky city behind me. The air suddenly got more humid, the cars honked louder, the smell of exhaust fumes tickled my nostrils a bit more forcefully. I couldn't wait to be home.