ARE YOU FALLING?

I’m reading Janet Malcolm’s “Iphigenia in Forest Hills” in the latest New Yorker (abstract here), about the trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova for murder (she allegedly paid Mikhail Mallayev to kill her husband), and this passage struck me for obvious reasons:

The fourth week of the trial had produced an arresting illustration of the malleability of trial evidence. During a police search of Borukhova’s apartment, an audiotape had been found and seized. It was a garbled, fragmentary, almost inaudible recording of a conversation between Borukhova and Mallayev, speaking in Bukhori and Russian. The conversation had taken place in May of 2007—five months before the murder. The prosecution had asked an F.B.I. translator named Mansur Alyadinov to make an English translation and called him to the courtroom to read from his text as the tape was played. The conversation had been secretly recorded by Borukhova during a ride in a car. But what was being discussed was not a murder plot. The tape recorded one of those irritatingly banal conversations which we helplessly overhear on trains and in restaurants from people talking on cell phones. The fragments of boring dialogue that came through had no relevance to the case. Why, then, was Leventhal [the lead prosecutor] playing the tape to the jury? The reason became apparent in the final two lines. The courtroom suddenly awakened from its torpor as it heard Mallayev say to Borukhova, “Are you going to make me happy?” And Borukhova replied, “Yes.”
One can imagine the translator’s own happiness when he heard those lines—and Leventhal’s when he read them in the transcript. Two interpretations immediately present themselves—both damning. The first is that Mallayev was sleeping with Borukhova and asking about a future encounter. The second is that Mallayev was talking about money—was she going to make him happy by giving him money to murder her husband? In either case, it looked bad for Borukhova. However, when Scaring [Borukhova's attorney] cross-examined Alyadinov it began to look less bad. This is the idea and the beauty of the cross-examination. A successful cross-examination is like a turn of the roulette wheel that restores a lost fortune. First, citing a translation that Borukhova had made for him, Scaring got the F.B.I. translator to concede that, among other blunders, he had omitted the English words “Mother’s Day” from his text, and that a mystifying discussion of a “crazy house” was actually a discussion of the madhouse that the airport was on the day—Mother’s Day—that Mallayev travelled to New York from his home, in Chamblee, Georgia. Then Scaring took care of “Are you going to make me happy?” In Borukhova’s translation, what Mallayev had said was “Are you getting off?” The car had reached its destination. He had used the word padayesh [падаешь]—literally meaning “Are you falling?”—in an idiomatic sense to ask if she was getting out of the car. The translator had heard padayesh as obraduyesh [обрадуешь] (“Are you going to make me happy?”). The mistake was understandable: on a very hard-to-hear tape the word could easily be misheard. But that the mishearing so favored the prosecution, that it so well advanced the narrative of an unsavory association, suggests that this was a mishearing by design—unconscious design, perhaps, but design nonetheless. We go through life mishearing and misseeing and misunderstanding so that the stories we tell ourselves will add up. Trial lawyers push this human tendency to a higher level. They are playing for higher stakes than we are playing for when we tinker with actuality in order to transform the tale told by an idiot into an orderly, self-serving narrative.

Malcolm is an excellent writer, and I recommend the whole article if you can find a copy of the magazine.
Addendum. If you read Russian, there’s an interesting discussion at Avva; Anatoly says that both phrases, “ты обрадуешь?” and “ты падаешь?,” are very odd, but adds that he doesn’t know anything about the dialect of Bukharan Jews in New York ["кто знает, как там у них все наслайсено в диалекте нью-йорских бухарско-русских евреев"].

Comments

  1. I’ll have to read it– I grew up in Forest Hills. Those of you who think of the old US tennis championships when you hear ‘Forest Hills’ need to know that the Long Island Rail Road runs through it, and there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ side of the tracks. I’m pleased to say that I grew up on the wrong side.

  2. You mean there are places on the planet Earth where it is difficult to obtain copies of the New Yorker? I’m shocked. Shocked.

  3. Kári Tulinius says:

    Iceland is one of those places. Most of the time The New Yorker isn’t of much interest to me, but I do love a good true crime narrative and The New Yorker is a great supplier.

  4. Bathrobe says:

    “Are you going to make me happy?” reminds me of a funny misunderstanding I had with a Vietnamese guide in Da Nang quite a few years ago.
    The guide spoke fairly poor English but was very eager to please. I thought I’d made my requirements clear (in a nutshell, “no tourist traps”), but for some reason I wasn’t very satisfied with his services. I told him that “I wasn’t happy”. His immediate response was: “OK, do you want me to get you a girl?”
    The problem, of course, is that “not happy” in English can mean both literally “unhappy” and also “not satisfied, not content”. For a Vietnamese, “not happy”, on the other hand, is the same as saying “sad” (buồn, which, I came to realise later, is a word associated not only with existential sadness but also feelings of loneliness that could be satisfied by companionship with the opposite sex.
    The point, I guess, is that happiness is different things in different languages :)

  5. Bathrobe says:

    Then there is 不高兴 bù gāoxìng in Chinese, which literally means “unhappy” but is normally understood as something approaching “angry”.

  6. Bathrobe says:

    Come to think of it, even in English “unhappy” can have the obsolescent sense of “unfortunate”.

  7. I don’t suppose the New Yorker has the audio on line? I’ve never heard padat’ used to mean “get out of a car” although it could well be a slang or even regional usage. I couldn’t find any examples using Google either. In a recording with bad audio “obraduyesh” would probably be most people’s sensible guess, not unconscious favoring of the prosecution. Any native Russian speakers want to chime in?

  8. And unhappy can be a euphemism for angry.

  9. it could well be a slang or even regional usage.
    Yeah, I suspect the Russian spoken by Bukharan Jews in Queens differs pretty strongly from the standard.

  10. Thanks for the link to Avva. Seems from the comments that most Russians agree – using “padat’” to mean “get out of a car” is not normal Russian. Doesn’t prove that Bukharans from Queens don’t use it that way of course, but I think Malcolm is a little too eager to push the “mishearing by design” theory. The New Yorker article gives no indication that the expression is, at best, very idiosyncratic and may not be understood correctly by native Russian speakers. Sloppy.

  11. The defendant’s name is, in the circumstances, rather dissonant, since she seems to have brought no good luck (masel tov) nor a blessing (baruch).
    Speaking of guides who have trouble with English, I once had one in Israel who, while he had no trouble comprehending English, had extreme trouble with the pronounciation. Among other things, he once exhorted us to “look at the ship!” while in the middle of the Negev Desert.
    He actually meant for us to look at a flock of sheep being tended by a Bedouin.

  12. That of course should have been mazel tov, not masel tov.

  13. shynar says:

    “Anatoly says that both phrases, “ты обрадуешь?” and “ты падаешь?,” are very odd”
    I have heard in Kazakhstan many drivers saying “падай”, which means “get out” in a joking way.

  14. Andrei says:

    I just read the article and started researching the “падаешь” clause. (I’m a native Russian speaker and) I’ve never heard any form of this verb used to mean “get out of the car” (although I can, I guess, imagine a dialect which employs this meaning. I would be slightly shocked).
    What’s more realistic is to use “падаешь” to state that the other person’s cell phone signal is getting weak.

  15. Andrei: The comment above yours seems to indicate that the “get out of the car” use is common in Central Asia.

  16. dameragnel says:

    I thought of you guys (this site) when I got to the padayesh/obraduyesh part of Malcolm’s article and am very gratified to find this discussion. I, too, am native Russian and found the padayesh usage very strange. Shynar’s comment about the usage of paday in Kazashstan is really helpful. It makes Borukhova’s explanation much more plausible to me.
    Thanks, Hat, for Avva’s comment: His word “наслайсено,” which I have never heard, made my day!
    On another note, did anyone find as ludicrous as I did: Malcolm’s comment, that her husband Daniel’s kissing of his four year old daughter’s vagina was “merely kinky” and did not work as an explanation of the girl’s fear of him. Is my work as a therapist making me oversensitive here? “Kinky” for him, for sure, but for a four year old? I need a reality check here.

  17. I find that odd too. My first reaction to your question was to think “Surely Malcolm didn’t say that herself, she must have been presenting someone else’s viewpoint,” but I found the “kinky” remark (it’s at the end of page 55), and it is indeed Malcolm’s own. She has a strange point of view on these things. I think most people would agree with you.

  18. dameragnel says:

    Thanks. I needed that.

  19. Seconding the weirdness of the kinky line. I was riveted by the piece, but must have re-read that part a half dozen times trying to figure out what I was missing.

  20. I’ve had occasion in the past to notice Malcolm’s weirdness, though I can’t remember any details at the moment. Hell of a writer, though.

  21. She wrote a book that I found helpful, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, but then I lent it to someone. There’s that peculiar coincidence of all her books being about people whose initials are JM. She was married to old-time New Yorker editor Gardner Botsford until his death. I read his autobiography; it wasn’t terribly interesting, despite his having had some reasonably good material to use, but then his wife did write The Journalist & The Murderer, about Joe McGinness’s non-fiction being TOO interesting.

  22. Camille says:

    Loved the article – she’s a great writer. But I was pretty horrified by the “merely kinky” remark. How would a child not be afraid of a sexually abusive parent? (It’s ABUSE – not “merely kinky”.) I think the sexual abuse was worse than the domestic violence. The adult mother should have been able to take care of herself. The child was a helpless victim.

  23. I hope you never serve on a jury, Camille. How can you judge what happened simply by reading an article in the New Yorker?

  24. The adult mother should have been able to take care of herself.
    Surprisingly, they don’t. (Sorry, I can’t see the main article behind the paywall.)I’ve seen this too many times, both where I live and as part of my job description, and there aren’t any easy answers. If they want to leave, where can they go? And the guy will come after them and try to hurt them, rather than let them go. If they can get the guy to leave instead, through a court order, how do they pay the bills? If they don’t speak English, it just intensifies the situation–how do they deal with police system, courts, shelters, counselors, food pantries, finding a job,…not to mention what must be a shock to have the father of their children–someone they formerly trusted–trying to harm them.

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