Speaking the language

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Tsissana Djandjoulia got through to relatives in Tbilisi on Monday afternoon, Aug. 11, and readers the next day learned in a story in the California section what Djandjoulia later told reporter Ann Simmons: ‘Everyone was crying. They don’t know what to do. Everyone is in shock.’

Readers might not have realized, though, that what Djandjoulia actually uttered was, ‘Vsye plakali. Ani nye znaiyet sto dyelat. Vsye v schokye.’ She and others were speaking Russian to a reporter who can glide just as easily into conversational Norwegian.


Djandjoulia and her husband were part of an article reporting the reaction of local Georgian Americans and other émigrés from the former Soviet Union to the ongoing conflict between Russia and Georgia. The interviews took place in the heart of the Los Angeles area’s Russian-speaking community, which is largely based in West Hollywood. Except for her phone conversation with the Georgian deputy honorary consul, all of Simmons’ interviews were conducted in person and entirely in Russian. Simmons’ background -- she was based in Moscow for Time magazine in the early 1990s, has traveled extensively in the former Soviet Union, and has reported from Georgia -- helped to break the ice for the interviews.

Times’ staffers in Los Angeles occasionally send internal e-mail inquiries to the newsroom at large asking for help in translating or interpreting; within minutes, typically, a follow-up note goes out with a ‘Thanks, all, have what I need.’ An informal survey of newsroom staffers shows the resources are scattered but plentiful. There are numerous Spanish speakers, a few who speak Korean, a few who speak Chinese. Among other languages Times staffers speak are Farsi, Hebrew, Arabic and Vietnamese. Sports’ Dylan Hernandez speaks Spanish and Japanese.

And what they don’t know they’re learning: The California section’s Teresa Watanabe speaks Japanese but this summer is in Mexico immersed in learning Spanish; Calendar’s Scott Sandell is studying Chinese; Tami Abdollah, who is fluent in French and can read and write in Farsi and Hebrew, is working on becoming fluent in Farsi.

(As for Times correspondents posted at bureaus around the world, many of them go through intensive language training before they begin reporting from another country, if they don’t already speak its language.)

For the Aug. 12 report, Simmons says, ‘The Georgian store owners and their friends who came to the store weren’t comfortable enough to do the interviews in English; neither were the émigrés from the former Soviet Republics whom I spoke with in Plummer Park.’

The article didn’t note that the interviews weren’t in English; ‘I didn’t even think to put that in,’ she wrote afterward in an e-mail when asked. ‘But we probably should have, particularly since the Georgians speak their native Georgian as well as Russian (I don’t speak Georgian). And it certainly would have given the sense that West Hollywood really is in the heart of the Russian-speaking community. I’ll remember that for next time.’

Simmons was born and raised in London and is of Caribbean descent. When pressed for details she admits she has what she calls ‘varying degrees of knowledge of at least six foreign languages.’ Pressed further, she says: ‘I have a double honors BA in Russian and Norwegian from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. As part of my BA, I studied at Moscow’s Pushkin State Russian Language Institute in the early 1980s, and completed Norwegian language courses at Oslo University and Bergen University, also in the 1980s.’

(Simmons says she fell in love with Russian literature and history after she started learning the Russian language at high school in London. Why Norwegian? Because of Henrik Ibsen, of course: She wanted to be able to read works by the Norwegian playwright in the original.)

Simmons, who joined The Times’ staff in 1997, adds, ‘It’s also quite funny that I am usually ‘interviewed’ by the subjects after conducting my interviews in the Russian-speaking community. The question: How on earth do I speak Russian? And I typically joke, before answering the question, that I know many 6’2” black British women of Caribbean descent who speak Russian. And no, I’m not a former spy….’