Monday, June 6, 2016

Galic Research!

By Stephen Wilson

                Second City Teachers interviewed Dr Grigory Bondarenko, a Russian academic who is a specialist in Mythology and the ancient Irish language.

                Grigory undertook a 7 year stint in Ireland where he worked as an assistant editor and a research fellow at the University of Ulster where he contributed to the EDil project devoted to the digitisation of the Dictionary of the Irish           Language. Grigory currently works as a director of a publishing company. 

                He is a renaissance man who not only speaks many modern foreign languages, but is well versed in modern Irish, early Irish and Latin.

                He is one of the few heroes holding up a torch on behalf of the Celtic languages which are under fire from the pragmatic ethos of global capitalism. I asked Grigory why he had come to Ireland, how the Irish received him and what were his views on the British Education system.

                I attained the impression that Grigory was not the kind of person to take a romantic or sentimental view of the Celts or indulge in theatrical rhetoric but  prefers to tell  the truth based on proper, proficient  and hard facts. In the introduction to his work, 'Studies in Irish Mythology', Grigory attempted to avoid two extreme approaches which miss the mark at achieving the right research. He states: "It is of course rather difficult in the field of Celtic studies to find the right balance between the scientific, sceptical  hardcore textual analysis and popular vulgarisation on the subject of Celtic myths and legends. When taking the 'scientific approach one can sometimes miss the most overt message of the text, whereas taking the "popular approach" , generalisation often suppresses the delicate and complex puzzle of epochs and realities within the text. For me the most interesting and promising undertaking in my research was always to dig and uncover hidden layers and meaning
within early medieval texts, notwithstanding that sometimes the results are not what one might expect to find'.   After reading the introduction, I read his book not once but a few times and discovered a lot of bright shining gems of knowledge which other authors on the Celts have never covered or revealed. His book is a must for serious students
of either Celtic culture or mythology. For anyone who is interested his works are available on ioso Bondarenko/papers.

                What was the main purpose of your visit to Ireland?
                I visited Ireland a number of times as a student at Queens University in Belfast as well as the University of Ulster.

                The first time I visited Ireland was as an exchange student of Moscow State University going to Trinity College in Dublin. The main purpose was to learn both old and modern Irish. For me there has always been a fascination with the Celtic languages. For those who don't know, Irish is part of a family of Celtic languages which includes Scottish, Welsh,
Manx, Breton and Cornish . Why was I intrigued by the old Irish language and Medieval Irish literature going from the 7th to the 17th century?

                Well, this great Medieval literature is probably in the third place in the volume of tales just after Latin and Greek literature. That is why I was fascinated by its uniqueness, and deep roots in mythology. It has great
power in terms of fantasy, imagination, history and archaic beliefs.

                I have been fascinated since youth and childhood.

                Of course, in the early 1990's many Russians read Tolkien and Green's Mary Stuart. I wanted to know the roots and beginning of this imaginative culture. That's why I undertook to study it. People greatly underestimate this culture.

                How did you get round to spending 7 years in Ireland working on digitisation of the Dictionary of old Irish (Edil Project)?

                We have to make a distinction between the old Irish and modern Irish. The old Irish has a large body of literature by many poets and authors.

                So this is a huge dictionary comprising 7 big volumes of academic format.

                Before I came to Ulster they had partly started working on all this language and literature in digital form by putting it on-line.

                A Russian, Maxim Formin, had been working on this project with Gregory Tonar. I was invited by them to work on this project. It was meticulous and tiresome work. We had to tag the dictionary and the code and then we had to review the dictionary and include all the contemporary research and reviews in papers. We had to add new words to the dictionary and delete mistakes. It was tiresome but rewarding. So between 2007 and 2015, every scholar was able to read sagas in the orginal old language on a website Now anyone can consult it while studying a text. The work was very difficult as old Celtic languages are very difficult. You yourself studied Scottish Gaelic so you can understand this especially when it came to laying out verbs.

                How did the Irish react when they heard about your involvement in the project? And how did the academics respond?

                That is two questions you have asked me and there are different layers or levels in this reaction.

                They reacted with surprise and sometimes shock. Probably shock!

                 Because ordinary Irish don't know anything about the richness of the medieval languages. They don't have good translations of the old Irish into English. There are a lot  of bad translations of old Irish texts.

                 It is worse than what scholars do in regard to the Scandinavian and Icelandic literature. This might be due to Ireland being part of the British Empire for a long time and the fact the Irish were suppressed from Elizabethian and Cromwellian times. They were deprived of their own language and were economically exploited. That is why modern Irish is a shadow of what the Irish language once was. Although there was a revival in the late 19th and early 20th century under the romantics, it did not go too far. It was not in vain, but the economic changes in the 1960's  and 1970's had a big impact on the Irish. After those changes
the Irish lost interest in this romantic and idealistic picture of culture.

                  A sense of irony and disbelief made them more pragmatic. Only a few elderly and educated people recognise the richness of their culture, tales and folklore.

                  Going back to how to people reacted to hearing what I did, the reaction was surprise and shock. Now if a person asks me what I'm doing I just answer that I'm either studying history or philology. It is simpler and easier for them to understand.

                  If you are a German or an Englishman it is easier for them to understand as they still look at Russians as if they are exotic, aliens or even enemies.

                  As for how academics react they can also be surprised. They are slightly puzzled  and shocked at a Russian doing research. They expect it from a German and a Dutchman but not a Russian doing research. Russia is too
far away for them to believe they could do such research in Ireland.

                  There are quite a few Russian Irish studies, but the Irish probably underestimate the professionalism which this has involved.

                  Most academics there don't read in Russian or French and their outlook is very limited.

                  What is your view of the school system in Britain?
                  Well you see, it is very focused on the pragmatic needs of students. The student has a choice of which subject he feels more confident in studying; be it languages, sciences or the humanities.

                  He has a choice between Spanish and French. If he is stronger in science, he will go into this. Of course, there are limitations to this approach. Ordinary schools don't give their pupils enough knowledge in foreign languages.  It is usually taught at a very basic level. For example, a student is encouraged by his parents to study Spanish because he goes on his holidays to Spain. Those limitations extend into the universities. There is no way they can enroll in the humanities and the Irish language and get knowledge about the old Irish language and literature. Their studies are
limited to modern Irish. Whereas in the study of English they include courses in old English.

                  Another problem concerning the British system is they don't include literature as part of the curriculum. Pupils don't study 19th century English because it is considered either too boring for children or unrealistic. If one compares this with the Russian system, we still study the classics and you learn not only Russian, but the classics of Russian literature. The education in Britain tends not to be inter-disciplinary. There is no collaboration between, say history,
and archaeology. Students tend to specialize. So also in Ireland the study of modern Irish is separated from its roots in old Irish.

                  Therefore, students don't realise or perceive the richness of the early Irish literature.

                   Why do so many Russians idealise the British education system and send their children to schools there?
                   The main reason is that English is the language of business, science government and diplomacy. It seems that in the future English will be widely spoken. It is expanding everywhere. Now everyone in Scandinavian
countries speaks English. It is a romance language. Russians want to send their children to schools to get them to speak English as a native language.

                   Another issue is not only the language but  on how the subjects are taught in that a person is strictly advised or taught to study what areas he or she follows. This specialization at an early age makes them more pragmatic.

                   And of course, England is closer to Russia than other English-speaking countries. There are also many rich Russians living in England which is why it is a favorite place.

                   How do you explain the rising popularity of Latin in Britain?
                   Latin is rarely taught in the schools in Britain. I know of only one grammar school in Britain which teaches Latin. Latin is taught at a basic level, or say, at  learning a few proverbs. It is a very logical and artistic language. It is easier to learn than Greek. And English, like French and German, has borrowed a lot from Latin.

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