Thursday, November 7, 2013

Лучше Девушка - My Russian Picture Book


It’s probably about time for a Russian-themed blog post, since (according to Pageview stats) 11% of my albertnet audience is Ukrainian and another 4% is Russian.

This post is about a children’s picture book that I wrote in Russian for a high school class.  The book itself is presented here, with my shockingly bad illustrations, along with a handy English translation that gave me some trouble (more on this later).

Beyond the story itself, I describe here how my brother wrote computer software to enable me to actually type out the story in Russian.  (This was a pretty big deal back in 1986.)  Meanwhile, the simple tale is greatly enriched by the story of my civil-war-torn Russian class, so I’ll give some background on that, with further observations sprinkled among the storybook pages.

The translation

It’s been a very long time since I studied Russian, and in the interim I’ve stuffed my head with French and Latin and also killed off a tremendous number of brain cells riding my bike too hard.  Thus, when my mom—having decided I can finally be trusted with a precious family heirloom—returned to me the picture book (which she had been archiving), I was unable to read it.  I had written the book using the simplest prose imaginable, but now I found myself stymied.

I made a little stab at translation using Google Translate, but gave up quickly.  For one thing, you have to enter each word using the Cyrillic alphabet of Russian, and the mouse-based methodology for this is clunky:

Second, when writing this book my spelling was less than perfect, and it’s difficult to Google-translate misspelled words.  Consider сотворил above:  in my book I’d spelled it сотровил.  And then there’s the grammar to consider.

And so, oddly enough, I had to find somebody to translate my own book into my native tongue.  I wasn’t about to post a craigslist ad, because a) how could I validate the ability of some random would-be translator? and b) my budget for this project is based on my income from this blog—that is, it’s nonexistent.  Fortunately, my daughter has made a new friend in school who is fluent in Russian (she speaks it at home).  This friend not only translated my book, but read it aloud to us in Russian, which was a pleasure to hear.

The font and typesetting

The teacher, when assigning us the children’s book, said we had to bind all the pages up nicely, with a cover and everything, and I refused.  “This isn’t an arts and crafts class,” I said snottily.  (Like so many teens, I was a jerk.)  “But I will type it,” I declared.  I didn’t know exactly how I’d do this, and of course the teacher assumed I was just BS-ing her.

I asked my brother Bryan if he could create a Russian character set for me on the computer, and software that could typeset my story.  He didn’t ask, “What’s in it for me?!” but immediately accepted the challenge just because it sounded cool.  He didn’t have his own computer—not so many people did back then—but we had access to our dad’s Hewlett Packard 85 computer (described here).  The only problem was, its built-in thermal printer used a spool of paper that was only about four inches wide.  So Bryan borrowed his friend Thaine’s HP-86, and wrote a program on it using the HP version of the BASIC programming language. 

The program drew the characters using the graphics capability of the computer.  Bryan had me design the characters myself on 8½-by-11 graph paper.  They were huge—one graph-paper box per pixel—and he shrunk them down with the software (this was long before scanners and I have no recollection of how he got from paper-based drawings to computer pixels).  His program gave me rudimentary word processing capabilities and mapped the Cyrillic characters to their nearest QWERTY keyboard equivalent.  The font was lovely; in fact, his characters were far prettier than those of the existing English-language font sets available for a dot-matrix printer.  Compare:

When I’d written the story, typed it, printed it, and added my pictures, it did seem like a shame to just staple it.  Before I even had time to think about how I might bind it, Thaine’s girlfriend Erika offered to make a cover for me.  She used black silk for the back cover, and a brilliant red floral pattern in silk for the front cover.  My teacher, expecting a stapled stack of papers, was pleasantly surprised.  Then, when she opened the book, she was astonished.  “It’s typed!” she cried.

“Well of course it’s typed,” I replied casually.  “I told you I was going to type it.”

The backstory – my Russian class

Before I get to the picture book itself, it should be useful and amusing for you to read about my Russian class and how the personalities involved shaped my story.  During my junior year, I decided to take Russian simply because I’d been studying French since 7th grade and was kind of burned-out on it.  Most of the other kids in my class chose Russian because it had the reputation for being the easiest foreign-language class on offer—an “easy C.”  This was because there was only one teacher, Илена Нетровна, who was the nicest old lady on the planet.  (I haven’t changed any names in this post, because throughout I’ve used our classroom Russian names.  Нетровна isn’t my teacher’s last name, but her patronymic—literally, “daughter of Peter.”)  During a test, you could wave Илена Нетровна over and flat-out ask for the answer and she’d give it to you.  She didn’t have the heart to leave a student behind, so we learned at a tectonic pace.  (Russian is easy to begin with, because it is such a logical and consistent language, and much easier to pronounce than, say, French.)

My class was like the band of misfits you’d find in a teen coming-of-age movie.  There was Тимофей, a leather-jacket-clad punk rocker whose bleached hair was arranged in corn-rows and set in epoxy; his female counterpart Маша, whose hair was also bleached but merely swooped straight up (I had the hots for her); Матвей, a pal of mine I feared had a drinking problem (but then, I was a goody two-shoes type; in England he’d probably have been thought a “hale fellow well met”); and Адам, a very small dude (dare I say Fun-Size?) with an outsized knack for troublemaking.  There were others who were much better students, the best being Катя, who was really nerdy but kind of attractive, and who was cursed with a nickname so cruel I won’t repeat it here (hint:  it combined her reputation as a nerd with an accusation of meretriciousness).

(An interesting aside:  the CIA came to our class to try to recruit us into an intensive language program, promising us exciting cold-war spy jobs where we’d eavesdrop on Soviet radio communications.  Nobody bit.) 

The first year passed with the whole class in lockstep, meaning that very little of the language was actually covered.  Perhaps for this reason, or perhaps because Илена Нетровна (phonetically “Elena Petrovna”) got tired of being disrespectfully called “Yilyenna” (which probably cannot even be rendered in Russian), we got a new teacher the next year, who was just out of college and commanded more of the guys’ attention.   (We were teenagers, so it didn’t take much.)  She decided that one half of the class was ready for harder work, so she split the class into Russian 2 and Russian 3, dividing her attention between the two groups.  The so-called Russian 2 students immediately renamed themselves “The Dumb Group,” and renamed Russian 3 “The Smart Group,” and (notwithstanding that I was technically in Russian 3) dubbed me the “Leader of the Dumb Group.”  I felt like Max in Where the Wild Things Are.

Why me?  Well, in that school district, at least at that time, being smart really was uncool and good grades could be the kiss of death socially.  So I tried to hide my good test scores, not just by covering them up, but by playing dumb.  Well, one day we got back a big test, and Катя bragged to a friend that she got like a 97%.  Somebody—it might have been the teacher, or somebody else who happened to see my paper—told Катя that I’d gotten a 100%, after which (the cat already being out of the bag) I ribbed her a bit about being beaten by a dumbass.  Maybe I ribbed her a bit too much—she got really flustered and I thought she was going to actually start crying.  I felt bad, but from that day forward I was like a hero to the Dumb Group:  a guy who could hold his own against the nerds while still being a troublemaker at heart.

Was I really a troublemaker?  I guess I was, though I can’t remember exactly how I misbehaved.  I must have, though, because one day the teacher (the new, young one) dragged me out of class into an empty classroom and chewed my head off.  She was really ticked, her face flushed, and then I noticed her undergoing another physiological effect that seemed inappropriate to the situation (a response usually associated with either cold weather or a specific stimulation unrelated to anger).  It was one of the most remarkable situations of my life to that point, and though I must have cleaned up my act somewhat, I can’t say I was totally inclined to turn over a new leaf.  I did work a lot harder, though, when we tried to read a chapter of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (a brilliant novel) in the original Russian.  That effort seriously humbled me, and I guess I needed that.

Okay!  Onward!  As you read my picture book, you’ll surely pick up on my anti-elitist theme; it’s about as subtle as being struck across the face repeatedly with a frozen sea bass.  Obviously I was quite the little hypocrite; after all, what could be more showy and pompous than being the only kid in the class to type his story?

Лучше Девушка

Here is the first page of the story, exactly as it appears in the book:

That “139” in the corner must be an artifact of some glitch in my brother’s software.  I should have whited it out.  My name in the upper right, Юрий, pronounced “Yuri,” was my chosen Russian name (there being no real equivalent for Dana).  Since there’s a lot of wasted space with my full-page format, hereafter I’ve cropped the pictures a bit, resized the text for easier reading, and added the English translations.

I think “music classroom” is pretty klunky (though it’s a literal translation of what I wrote).  If my daughter’s friend had lived in Russia, perhaps she’d know a better term for this.

I guessed wrong on the Russian spelling of Scrabble.  It’s actually СкрЭбл.  (In my defense, we didn’t have the Internet back then.)  I probably made all kinds of mistakes in this book.  It’s kind of amazing my daughter’s friend could read it at all.

This page presented a particular challenge for the translator.  She said “soccer,” because that’s what футбол (or футболе in the accusative case) translates to.  And yet, Олег is quite obviously holding a football.  Needless to say the game of American football isn’t played in Russia.  Where is this story supposed to take place?  I never even considered this.  Looking back, I did a pretty half-assed job on this picture book, notwithstanding the great work others did on it.

Look at those shoes.  The sad thing is, I can’t draw any better today.

This bit about the Talented And Best club was a dig at an actual society (whether it was regional, national, or an assortment of individual clubs, I have no idea) called TAG, for Talented And Gifted.  To be a member was the ultimate stigma socially.  Right around the time I wrote this story, I got into some pretty hot water over TAG.  I had a really plum word processing job at the Boulder Community Hospital, typing lab procedure manuals into the computer and formatting them neatly.  (Before this, these manuals had been typed on a typewriter or handwritten, so it was impossible to update them.)  There was only one personal computer in the whole place, in the big boss’s office, which was fine when I started because the lab was between bosses so the office was empty.

Then they hired this blowhard who sat in there all day talking on the phone, never conducting hospital business, always working on something like getting his car fixed.  It was unpleasant to work with him breathing down my neck, and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could go on.  One day he got into an argument with his teenage kid, right there in the office while I was trying to work.  The argument was about TAG.  I’d most likely have kept my mouth shut, but then my boss dragged me into it.  “Say, Dana, you seem bright.  Have you been offered membership in TAG?”

I replied, “Yeah, I was invited.”  He asked if I accepted, and I said I had not.  He asked why, and—who knows, maybe this was intentional career suicide—I just couldn’t restrain myself from saying, “I think TAG is just a club for kids who don’t have any real friends.”  His kid broke in, “See, Dad?  See?  It’s just like I was sayin’!”  Needless to say I didn’t last long in that job after that.  I guess I really did belong in the Dumb Group.


  1. Dear Sir,

    I'd like to know the Font, that is in the "image" soon after the desktop.

    1. I'm not sure I understand the question. If you mean the font in the image after the desktop computer photo--that is, the crude dot-matrix font of the English text--it may not have a name (or if it does, I don't know it). The font of the Russian text after that (and throughout the picture book) is the one I drew, that my brother rendered on the computer (using its graphics). I guess I should give it a name. I hereby name it "Cyrilikka." Alas, it no longer exists, except in my book!