Старая-старая шутка

В старом советском анекдоте покупатель спрашивает в магазине, нет ли у них рыбы, на что ему отвечают, что у них нет мяса, а рыбы нет в магазине за углом.

Эта шутка хотя и специфична для советских времен, отражает особенности тогдашнего состояния русского языка. Точно так же можно было спросить “девушка, нет ли у вас двушки?”, “закурить не найдется?”,  “нет ли у вас свободной минутки?” и так далее.

И все-таки эту шутку, немного вытянув и изогнув, можно приспособить и к английскому:

In an old soviet joke a customer inquiries in a grocery store: “you don’t happen to have any fish, by any chance?” “No,” answers the store clerk, “here we don’t have any meat. They do not have any fish in the store around the corner”.

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But there’s still something missing  in the clumsy English version of the joke: the absence of personhood that is so prominent in the Russian version. Twisting and bending the communication tool even more – here’s what we get:

“There is no fish in the store, is there?” – “No, here there is no meat. It is around the corner where there is no fish”.

And yet, there are layers over layers over layers of context which are most of the time not available  when you are trying to translate an old soviet joke.

A modern “grocery store” is full of produce and little necessities where you often don’t even communicate with any clerk anymore:  you slalom from fruits and vegetables to meats to bakery to wine to deli and back to the automated check-out machines and you speak to yourself or to your cat who expects you not to forget his favourite brand of cat food , or you speak to your partner, or to your children, or just to yourself: “there’s no soya milk in this store, is there?” Ah, yes, in this well-lit warehouse, they don’t carry soya milk.

A soviet grocery store, on the contrary,  is a barricade meant to separate the conspicuous consumption elite – the grocery clerks –  from the masses. Even though under socialism every store theoretically belongs to the masses, in practice those who literally own the place  who and set the rules are clearly visible. The Grocery Clerks are well-fed and full of self-esteem and sense of their own pride and social status. Their side of the barricade is usually slightly elevated. The masses are inquisitive, often disorderly, and are fully aware of their lowly position. The glass barricade separating the elite from the masses shows what is available in the store, but there is a possibility, a slight chance, that that there is something valuable and interesting that did not make it – yet – into the glass display. Your inquiry whether there is some valuable but hidden commodity behind the barricade may result in that commodity instantly becoming available, with you being ahead of the rest of the public, you being the head of the queue, your consumption status being suddenly elevated – albeit only temporary.

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There is a matching joke, a mirror, or, rather, a dual story, where the roles are the same, but the philosophical side of the story is a bit more modern.

In this joke a customer inquires why there is no caviar in the store and the store clerk replies: “Because there is no demand for caviar”. The curious customer spends a couple of hours in the store and is astonished to discover that yes, no customer ever demands any caviar.

Of course, the truth, if it exists, about why there is no caviar in the store remains hidden, waiting to be discovered, but the customer is stunned by the apparently entirely valid (but hollow) explanation – by correlation. 

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