Gained in Translation: My Eight Years as an International Student

olga 1 - CopyIn this post, Olga Panteleeva shares her experience of being an international student, exploring the advantages and disadvantages of such an experience and her transatlantic academic journey as a whole.  Currently a Lecturer in Musicology at the Faculty of Media and Culture Studies at Utrecht University, Olga earned her doctorate in musicology from the University of California, Berkeley, a Master’s degree from Utrecht University, and her first degree from Saint Petersburg Conservatory. She specialises in 20th and 21st century music culture, the historiography of music of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the sociology of online music communities. Olga is presently working on a monograph, based on her PhD dissertation, entitled ‘Formation of Russian Musicology from Sacchetti to Asafyev (1885-1931)’.



I am writing this post surrounded by dozens of cardboard boxes: still empty or already filled with books and other belongings. In a few days I am moving to start a teaching job at my old alma mater, Utrecht University. My stint as an international student started eight years ago, when I booked exactly the same flight – Saint Petersburg to Amsterdam – and left for a Research Master’s programme at Utrecht University. It seems, therefore, only fitting to reflect on how my itinerant existence started and how it came full circle to this one-way flight.

Moving was easier back then: all my earthly possessions fitted into one appropriately orange suitcase. Now, having spent half a day on the phone with the airline – because my cat’s crate is three centimeters too small – sorted out an American visa for my trip to AMS, and taken care of countless other time-draining formalities that any international student or worker accepts as a given of life – I am left feeling melancholy. The orderly life that I built here in Saint Petersburg, from habitual baking evenings with a friend, to the capoeira class next door, is about to be uprooted again.

The reason I first left was simple. I wanted to write my thesis on the flourishing Dutch music scene – Louis Andriessen, Peter Schat, Ton de Leeuw, Michel van der Aa e tutti quanti. My supervisor at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory Olga Manulkina, who suggested my thesis topic, was well versed in Western musicology and maintained extensive contact network with European, British, and American colleagues. Under her influence, I started to read and appreciate musicology written in languages other than Russian. So, I had to go to the Netherlands and see it all for myself – concerts, ensembles, composers, critics, and musicologists who studied them. Admittedly, the post-Soviet inferiority complex made me imagine a better musicology across the border. Better, not different!

When I was a conservatory student, the discipline of Russian musicology consisted (and largely still does) of rigorous analytical approaches with genealogies going back to the pre-revolutionary era, monographs on individual composers or genres, solid biographical research and analysis of individual works. One of my favorite teachers, Arkady Klimovitsky, is the foremost authority in sketch studies and fundamental research on composers’ manuscripts and correspondence. In the first two post-Soviet decades, there was not much talk in the musicological community about relevance to society and public life. Anything that smacked of external regulations fell victim to the understandable post-Soviet allergy to ideological control. The authority of the Western European canon, albeit with a Soviet inflection, together with the concept of genius, was enough to legitimise the entire musicological enterprise. The notorious question ‘So what?’ never came up.

Thanks to the boot camp of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, where we had eight semesters of Western and Russian music, I was proficient in repertoire and history, as well as in theory and analysis, and proudly took my knowledge onboard that international flight. Little did I know that I might as well have hopped into the TARDIS: all my baggage notwithstanding, it took me years to figure out what was going on on the other side. Gender studies, LGBTQ musicology, feminist musicology, popular music studies, nationalism, exoticism, disability studies, music and politics, music and race, music sociology, performance studies – I walked into my first class at Utrecht unaware of their existence as fully-fledged scholarly fields.

In one of these introductory seminars, taught by Karl Kügle, we read Joseph Straus’s ‘Normalizing the Abnormal: Disability in Music and Music Theory’. I remember being baffled that Strauss based his argument as much on the history of critical and analytical interpretations of Beethoven’s and Schubert’s works, as on his own analysis. Even more suspicious was the absence of large-scale analysis in a theoretical article and Straus’s focus on surgically precise, but isolated examples. The point of the article, needless to say, went completely over my head. As did that of Carolyn Abbate’s classic ‘Music – drastic or gnostic?’.

I was more receptive to Paula Higgins’s ‘The Apotheosis of Josquin des Prez and Other Mythologies of Musical Genius’. Perhaps, that was because I quickly discovered that the Western canon I studied and loved – by definition an immutable holy scripture – differed from that of my peers in Utrecht. I was starting to realise that my body of knowledge was shaped differently because it was produced and inculcated in a different socio-political environment. My assumption that there were standards of knowledge of Western music repertoire, compulsory for every music student, as was the case in the standardised Russian system of music education, inherited from the Soviet times, was one of the first to crumble.

Another thing that started to disintegrate under the pressure of the culture shock was the modernist hierarchy of artistic value. Just how heavy was the blow these seminars dealt to my musicological paradigm, I realised only when it was the time to choose a thesis topic. I came to Utrecht to write a thesis on contemporary music only to find the rebellious modernist ideology – which, I must confess, added much attraction to this repertoire – historicised, contextualised and deconstructed. Innovation as the main criterion of artistic and sometimes ethical and political value fell off the pedestal, too. Guess what was my thesis about? A foray into performance and gender studies. It was called ‘A Nun on Stage: The Vocal Ideal of the Dutch Sixties’ and examined Dutch performance culture of the 1950-60s through the case study of the Dutch contralto Aafje Heynis.

The reason I applied to Berkeley was, again, simple, and like the last time, the simple reasons entailed complex personal and professional consequences. I wanted to go to Berkeley to study with Richard Taruskin, whose work I held in highest esteem ever since my Saint Petersburg years. Professor Taruskin knows Soviet and post-Soviet musicology well, has an extensive network of Russian connections, and maintains cordial relations with my former teachers in Saint Petersburg. Having such a perfect advisor would make the transition for an international student as smooth as possible, one would think.
On the contrary, during his 200B – a behemoth of a seminar with a fiftty-page bibliography – I was constantly on the defensive, because my deeply entrenched ideal of musicology that valued thorough and devoted study of masterpieces, virtuosic analytical skills and fundamental knowledge of Western European repertoire above everything else, continued to fall apart. The gender studies week witnessed one of my most embarrassing moments. In that little speech I declared that I, for one, never felt discriminated against because of my gender; that in fact, the majority of Russian musicologists were women; and that things have become so much better since the 1960s, so why on earth would we still want to talk about gender discrimination? It did not occur to me then that maybe low salaries and the poor prestige of the humanities in post-Soviet space were responsible for the high number of women in these fields. Professor Taruskin’s harsh note on one of my 200B papers pointed out that I started to sound ‘dogmatic and opinionated’ to the extent that it was ‘impossible to have a discussion anymore’. Ouch! It was a long road from there to the feminist and postcolonial perspectives, enabling me to see structural inequality, entrenched in our discipline, which I did acquire at Berkeley in the end.

It took about four years of ideological and personal metamorphosis to shift my focus from navigating foreign cultural norms to seeing and appreciating people and ideas for what they were. When the personal alienation wore off, the paradigmatic rift that took me years to bridge started to fascinate me professionally. If both Russian and American musicological communities were once so deeply influenced by a common source – the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century German musicology – how did they come to have such different motivations and aspirations now? How did these paradigms come to be? Hence my PhD dissertation, which explored the evolution of positivist and metaphysical ideologies over the course of five decades before and after the October Revolution, as well as their institutional embodiment.

This paradigmatic disconnect was most palpable when I translated scholarly articles from English into Russian, such as Richard Taruskin’s popular introduction to the Oxford History of Western Music ‘The History of What?’. It presented a formidable task of translating not only from one language to another, which was hard enough with a style as versatile as Taruskin’s, but from one musicological context to another, in which much of the jargon that English-speaking scholars take for granted does not exist.

Oh, the language barrier, the perennial trouble. My professional language has always been English and for the first three or four years it was an uphill battle. I felt self-conscious about speaking English up until my third semester as a Graduate Student Instructor at Berkeley. At first it was terrifying to walk into a class, where everybody – or so I thought – had superior English skills. It was the weekly exercise in short digestible sentences and constant rephrasing that finally made me forget that I speak a different language.

For me, the hardest thing about functioning in a foreign language was not the long hours it took me to get through a text, not the heightened anxiety, accompanying every social interaction, but the sense of reduced personality that comes with limited verbal expression. For someone who prided herself on writing music criticism for one of the largest Russian newspapers Vedomosti, a branch of The Financial Times, this was a bitter pill to swallow. Even though I communicated perfectly fine, I missed being able to say more with less, to say the same thing in several ways, to express character, not only literal sense. What came out of my mouth felt crude, stiff, and trite.

Feeling trapped inside the cocoon of my insufficient vocabulary, I coped by believing that it was a matter of practice, patience, and waiting until my language skills improved enough for the real me to emerge into the world. Instead – and I did not realise this until much later – when speaking English became effortless, it was someone slightly different who emerged from the cocoon. Instead of clinging to Russian expressions and grammar constructs, difficult to translate into idiomatic English, I went for phrases that everyone used – phrases that apparently said the same thing but carried somewhat different meanings and emotional inflections. I never noticed the moment when enough new meanings accumulated for the sense of diminished personality to disappear. I wish somebody warned me, though, that not all sides of Anglophone communication were worth mastering. It look me ages to learn the “woman in a meeting” speak, and then some time to unlearn it.

These days I have the opposite problem. Recently I gave a talk in Moscow on the positivist tradition in Russian thought on music, the first fifteen minutes of which were torture – hopefully, only for me. Now, how do you say “dissemination” or “conceptualise” in idiomatic Russian, not in verbatim translation, implying a colonial gesture: ‘ya’ll speak English anyway’? It is hard to say if this is first language attrition, or the fact that I left too early to master public speaking in Russian as well as I did in English, or the need to translate between paradigms, but there is still much to be done to dismantle the reverse language barrier. To add insult to injury, I now speak Russian with a slight accent. It attracts much unwanted and exoticising attention, making me long for the olden days, when, amidst the large population of international Berkeley students, I was less exotic.

The reverse culture shock goes deeper than everyday interactions. When I was in the initial stages of formulating my dissertation project, I had an altercation with a colleague, a former fellow student and once a best friend of mine, with whom I went shoulder to shoulder through the five years at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. He came to believe that what I was doing was ‘not musicology’ and did not carry much authority in musical matters. This was a few years ago, but it still hurts, and this hurt is a reminder that the professional and political always have a way of becoming personal.

In telling my story as an international student there is no way around the social awkwardness, alienation, and emotional precarity of a peripatetic lifestyle; surreptitious feelings that I, too, accepted as a given of life and left unspoken for too long. But what are they if not the other side of the coin, for the advantages that such international existence brings? In the process of translating myself into a different paradigm, I gained more than I lost: an appreciation for diverse methodologies and disciplinary conventions; a firsthand experience of Donna Haraway’s “situated knowledges”; an understanding that every student has a different social and educational background; a willingness to question my own assumptions and privilege; and last but not least, mean translation skills. Eight years later, I cannot imagine my scholarly and pedagogical work without these gains.


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