Sarcasm Does Not Translate

Yesterday Donald Trump said, “Russia, if you are listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” I was shocked to hear the Republican candidate for President of the United States making this comment.

Then later in the day Trump told us, “I’m being sarcastic.” Rudy Giuliani reassured us that there was no need to worry by stating, “He was telling a joke.”

Sarcasm and Russia spoken within the same conversation sounded familiar to me. I thought back to the days when my Russian grandmother was living with us.

Baba did not speak English, and my mother did not speak Russian, so the days were long and difficult as those two women had to pass the day in forced silence. Some of the stories I remember were humorous, while others were not.

I recall the day when Mom told us about the difficulty she had as she attempted to change the sheets. It should have been an easy chore, but that day it was not.

Mom climbed the very steep stairs to the two upstairs bedrooms with clean sheets in her arms. After removing the dirty sheets, the telephone rang, so she went downstairs to answer it.

She returned to find the dirty sheets so thoughtfully put back on the bed. Exasperated, Mom pulled off the soiled sheets, and the phone rang again. Baba tried to help, and you guessed it, she put the dirty sheets on once more. She was just trying to pull her weight around the house and was probably confused by my mother’s actions.

The other incident occurred during dinner one night. My mother can be funny, but at times, her jokes can be dripping with sarcasm.

At my house we always ate supper, not dinner, and when Baba was at the table, Mom was always reminding Dad to include his mother in our conversations by acting as an interpreter. With five children at the table, there was always lots of commotion as each one of us tried to talk about our day, often at the same time. Mom was trying to be thoughtful.

This particular evening, my mother turned to Dad and instructed him to tell Baba that “she had a beautiful complexion. Tell her it must be because of the easy life she had led.”

Mom was simply attempting to add some levity to the conversation. Of course she knew of my grandmother’s very difficult life during the war, although I don’t know if she knew that Baba had spent months sleeping in barns, in a train station, and on an unheated train during the coldest winter of the twentieth century.

But Mom was always insistent that my father translate our suppertime discussions, so Dad told her what she said about Baba’s beautiful skin. Well, Baba did not laugh. She was clearly very upset.

My mother was not trying to upset my grandmother. She was very innocently trying to make her Russian mother-in-law smile. She truly did not realize that sarcasm does not easily translate. Baba heard Mom’s words and did not see the joke.

As I listened to Donald Trump tell the world that he was just “being sarcastic,” I thought back to that night around the dinner table. Mom did not know how her words would upset my grandmother, but I don’t believe for one minute that Donald Trump was being sarcastic. He knew exactly what he was saying.




About kjw616

I am a genealogy detective. I have already written one book about my Irish family's journey from 19th century Ireland to the United States- a family history sprinkled with personal anecdotes. My second book was intended to be a similar story about my Russian ancestors. Instead, it turned into a tale of just my father's immediate family. It is the tale of what happens when 6 children from New Jersey are moved to the Soviet Union by their Russian-born parents during the Great Depression. It details who lives, who dies, and who is able to return to NJ during a time when leaving the USSR was not an easy endeavor, particularly during World War II and the Cold War. It is my hope that those interested in history during this time period will find this story fascinating as well as those fellow amateur family historians who will learn some of the tools such as, visits to the National Archives, and local libraries I used to uncover this story.
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