In wartime: Asterisks and “figs in the pocket”
Alexandra Berlina on asterisks, figs in the pocket and other forms of protest, as well as the difficult question of how to translate signals and anti-war symbolism.
Like most of my colleagues, I wrote the piece I originally intended to contribute to the translation special before the start of the war. Then came February 24, and such amusements suddenly seemed unforgivably frivolous. It is rare for a human brain to be able to maintain a state of shock for months at a time, though. Mine at least – after those first weeks of “How can this be true”, “Why is Putin still alive?”, “How can this be true?”, “What can I do?” and especially “How can this be true?” – soon went back to producing questions that had to do with translation.
When talking to German friends about the attitudes of the people I know in Russia, for instance, I nearly always found myself wondering how best to translate the expression figa v karmane, literally “fig in the trouser pocket”. The figa (fig sign) is made by tucking the thumb between the index and middle fingers; many who make it are unaware of any reference to the vulva. In the Russian-speaking world, the gesture is considered less objectionable than the middle finger. Thus “the bird in the trouser pocket” comes closer to the expression’s actual meaning – but even that does not capture all that the term conveys. “Clenching your fist in your pocket” might seem like a good option at first, but that doesn’t quite fit either. A fig in the pocket is not about an acute impulse of impotent rage, it is more of a basic attitude. Say you despise the regime, for example, but do not want to risk life and liberty – or, in “vegetarian” years, your career. You can still send a signal to “your” people and yourself that clearly states: you do not agree.
In Russia, you have to be very brave indeed to engage in open protest against the war. People have been arrested just for wearing a yellow t-shirt with a pair of jeans or posting a dove sticker on their Facebook profile. But there are little gestures – figs in the pocket – that one can normally get away with. For instance, when a book like All Quiet on the Western Front just happens to feature prominently on a publishing house’s website during the first weeks of the war. The state is usually not interested in that kind of thing, but it tells like-minded individuals that the people at the publishing house are not pro-Putin. But is this really an expression of protest or solidarity, or merely a form of self-deception? As the rapper Oxxxymiron put it in one of his tracks, figa v karmane uzhe stala sushenym inzhirom : The fig in the pocket has already become dried fruit .
Political memes used to be another kind of fig in the pocket for many people in Russia –
but the process of authoritarian consolidation (Gleichschaltung) is now far enough advanced that you could easily land in jail for posting a war-related meme. Even one made up only of asterisks.
The wonderful thing about memes, of course, is the way they concentrate and disseminate meanings. Thus the meme slogan khui voine/хуй войне (literally “dick to (the) war”, so “fuck war” or “fuck the war”) became so well known that people recognise it even when they see only “*** *****”. So too does the prosecutor’s office.
On 12 March 2022, an activist from Ivanova was arrested for carrying such a sign.
(For those who dislike mat, the slogan can also be read as net voine , “No to war”.)
So, does the interpretation of eight asterisks constitute a translation from Russian?