Saul Berenson was head of NSA now? What did he have to do with this place? Brody side-stepped out of sight behind a corner to keep listening to the conversation in the office. Apparently not out of sight enough, he soon realized, as a kid from the hub called to him.
“Hey, Charlie, before you log in, check in with the shift supervisor.”
As Brody turned to the kid, the men huddled in the office dispersed quickly. As comfortable as he was in his new job and life, Brody never quite got used to the name they had given him: Charlie Axelrod. Sounded like a frat boy porn star, he thought. He nodded to the kid who had given him the message and left the hub to hunt down the supervisor.
The shift leader was the only man around who was close to Brody’s age. Or at least Brody thought he might be close to the same age, considering his voice. By appearance he looked at least a decade older. Keeping a cigarette constantly between his teeth all day could do that to a person. Apparently, there were no rules against smoking in the workplace wherever this was. Brody finally found the guy behind a newspaper, his feet propped up on his desk.
“You wanted to see me?”
“Yeah, you Charlie, right?” the man asked.
“They’re bringing in a couple of new guys today and you’re on training,” the supervisor said.
“I haven’t done any training before,” Brody said.
“Gotta start some time.” The man shrugged and chuckled at his own joke. “They’re heading towards the hub now. One’s a red head like you. Can’t miss him.”
Brody managed a half-smile in response and headed back to his computer.
He walked back to his desk to see two young men looking around like they’d just arrived off an alien ship. The spindly red-headed boy turned, and, to Brody, it was like looking in the mirror at himself at 25. He introduced himself and directed the boy to the empty desk next to his station. The other boy was Asian and set himself up likewise next to Brody. While the boys got their laptops hooked up, Brody logged in to his own machine to see an email telling him about this training and what information he was supposed to convey. He briefly looked back at the office where he had heard Saul’s name, but it was empty. The men and whatever he could have learned from them would have to wait for now.
As an English major, Brody knew grammar, at least in English. This job taught him to look at grammar even more closely and syntax and see all the ways in which English didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense to anyone new to it. They hadn’t invented an algorithm yet that could replicate American speech patterns. They still needed humans to do that work.
What he knew as normal English idioms, things a regular American English speaker would not think twice about using and would understand right away, had proven to be the biggest challenge in transforming non-native speech into something that sounded native online. So, for Brody, learning this job had not only been a crash course in social media, it had also been like going thru a degree in translation.
Once the kid who looked like Brody opened his mouth, it was clear he was Russian. His name was Alex and despite the accent, he seemed to have a good handle on English.
The other student’s name was Leiming and he was Chinese. His English was native sounding, indicating he likely was raised in America if not born there.
“Let’s start by me reading this out to you okay?” Brody pointed to his screen. “These are some rules of translation that they want us to know. Take notes if you want, but mostly just listen for now, sound good?
“When you’re translating or trying to figure out what a Russian is really saying in English, there’s some patterns to look for and rules to follow.” Brody read off the bulleted points on the screen. “First, Russian has no articles. No “a” or “the”.”
Leiming interrupted, “Don’t we always skip those in texts and social media anyway?”
“Not always,” Brody said. “Sometimes you need a “the”. Let’s go on.
“Russian only has three tenses, past, present and future.” All three paused a bit to consider what other tenses English had. No one, including Brody, could name them, so they all resigned to the fact that, yes, spoken English had more than three tenses.
Brody continued “When you’re translating something, remember that order is static. Sometimes a Russian will use an object where a subject should be and vice versa. To make it sound like English, the order has to be fixed. No words can be omitted and no extra words added. No words can be replaced. Like, a Russian may type ‘Out of sight, out of heart.’ You gotta know that what he probably means is ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ Last thing, grammar is also fixed. You can’t have a combination of Russian grammar and English grammar in an English sentence.”
Brody paused and saw both students listening intently. “Okay, so let’s do this exercise. When you see a tweet by a Russian that says a certain thing, how would you translate it into American English?”
On the screen were several phrases translated into English from Russian. When translated word for word by translation bots, they appeared nonsensical and definitely not American.
“Say a Russian says ‘Take yourself in your hands.’ What do you think that means in English?” Brody asked.
Leiming looked up from his rapid note-taking and twirled his pen in thought as if it were a helicopter blade. Brody glanced at his hand and smiled remembering Chris doing the same thing when he was trying to figure out a math problem.
Leiming gestured with his pen that he knew the answer. “‘Take yourself in your hand’,” he repeated. “Pull yourself together?”
“Right!” Brody said. “How about this one: ‘Thief has a burning hat.’”
Leiming started twirling again. “’Burning hat’ could mean something pressing on the mind…and it’s burning so it’s visible…something like ‘an uneasy conscience betrays itself’?
“You’re good!” Brody smiled. “Are you fluent in Mandarin?”
“Somewhat,” the student said. “I mean I can understand what is spoken to me but I have a hard time speaking it on my own.”
“Which is very common I hear for kids who grow up bilingual,” Brody said. “It’s really only speaking to peers that keeps you speaking fluently and most kids in America eventually get used to speaking English with each other.”
He pointed back at the screen. “But that’s neither here nor there,” he continued. “This job is about making Russian nationals sound American. There may be some work later with Mandarin speakers, but I’m not a part of that. At least not for now.”
“I think I may have been hired for the Mandarin work later,” the student offered. “But this is cool too. Nothing wrong with learning how to get them all to sound American.”
They exchanged smiles and got back to their screens, going over the list again and moving on to some common Russian expressions that don’t translate well in English and vice versa. Meanwhile, Alex, the Russian kid, listened intently to the lesson but did not speak or indicate in any way that he had taken in what was being said.
“It’s really about idiomatic speech,” Brody said. “The kind of things Americans say that make perfect sense to them but often get lost in translation for non-native speakers.”
“Yeah,” Leiming nodded. “One of my elementary school teachers once wrote on my report card that I needed to get more of a hold on American idioms. I remember my dad not knowing what the hell that meant and worrying over it.”
Brody chuckled. “I can only imagine. Americans take a lot of things for granted, that’s for damn sure.”
Alex, meanwhile, looked at Brody with skepticism, and finally spoke. “Why would Russians be saying such things on social media? Aren’t there certain things they say and those are the only ones we need to know?”
“Yeah, a list of talking points was all we had to worry about before,” Brody said. “Not now. The net has been spread wider. More channels, more bots. With more Americans now aware of the bots, it’s crucial that they sound as non-bot-like and non-Russian as possible. We’re no longer just sock puppets spouting assigned propaganda lines. We are Russian media seamlessly infiltrating American media. The operative word here is seamless.”
Brody scrolled through some screens and found one to which he called Alex’s attention. “Let’s have you work on the inverse of what Leiming is doing. I’ll give you a list of idiomatic phrases and you can tell us if they have Russian equivalents and what they would be if a translation bot were saying them.”
Brody transferred a document to Alex’s computer. Alex opened it up and scoffed. “’Piece of cake?’ ‘Once in a blue moon?’ ‘Zip your lip?’ ‘All over the map?’
“Still not getting why we have to know this. Russians spreading propaganda aren’t going to be using happy little ‘break a leg’s or ‘blow off steam’s or ‘hit me up’s.”
“Look, it’s not just Russians spreading propaganda. Like I said, the net is wider now. It’s everything. All chatter all over Russia. Our goal is to integrate it into all chatter all over America.” When Alex rolled his eyes yet again, Brody’s eyes went cold and he glared at him. “You’re not here to ask questions comrade. Get the shit done, now.”
“Sovok,” Alex whispered under his breath.
“I’m a dustpan, am I? An old Soviet giving in to authoritarianism?” Brody said. “I don’t know what they told you when you were hired, but we’re not playing at tusovka here. This project isn’t about infiltrating virtual teen parties on the internet. This is ponyatiya, a separate world, a separate code. Insist on being such a bespredelshchik, you will get your ass kicked, guaranteed.”
Alex squinted at Brody and reddened. It looked as if he was about to cry. He was in this position due to his own propensity to reject all rules. To be called someone who rejects lawlessness was apparently a blow to his ego. He sniffed away the burning in his eyes, inhaled deeply and started tapping on his keyboard.
They worked in silence for a while.
“This is a great start. Maybe time for a break?” Brody rose and pointed toward the coffee at the far end of the room.
“Sure,” Alex said as he rose and pushed his chair under his desk. “You coming?”
Leiming barely registered Alex’s voice. “Just a sec. I’m in the middle of something. You guys go on ahead.”
Alex’s mood had improved significantly since Brody had given him a firm talking to. Over coffee, he became even more friendly.
“Hey, so how many of the actual Russians do you get to meet here? Like this guy Yevgeny Gromov, the head of information transferal or something for the Kremlin, does he ever come around?”
“Yevgeny who? I haven’t met a Russian since I’ve been here. Not that I remember anyway.” Brody frowned, not sure if what he was saying was true given all the holes in his short-term memory. How did he even know the Russian words he had just spoken to Alex? Did he learn Russian as a Marine or more recently? Maybe the people who had rescued him were Russians? Maybe this place was somewhere in Russia? Impossible to know unless he asked, and he wasn’t about to ask.
Alex seemed satisfied with Brody’s answer and didn’t mention it again. They drank their coffee quickly and went back to work at their desks, where they kept their heads down for the remainder of the shift. Once their work ended, Brody closed up his laptop and rose to leave.
Alex stretched and looked out of their glass enclosed hub to the hallways around them. He caught a glimpse of a group of people walking rapidly and tapped Brody’s elbow. “That’s him right there,” he whispered.
“Who?” Brody was tired from the day’s work and ready to go home.
“Yevgeny Gromov!” Alex exclaimed, still whispering.
Brody looked to where Alex had gestured. A group of people were walking so rapidly that he didn’t see any of their faces, just arms and legs swinging down the hallway. Were they the same men he had seen in the office earlier? Hard to tell, but it was clear that most of them appeared to be men. Except for one: a petite woman with messy tangled hair, the color of corn silk, hunched over and being led by the elbow.