Tag Archives: heritage

“Sir Nikolai” – Russian Joke

Sir Nikolai

(The attachment contains the joke spoken in Russian, an additional translation, as well as some commentary by both the informant and collector.)

Transcript of audio file (condensed and edited):

Informant: This  one is what my grandpa always used to tell me. [Joke in Russian]. It means, “A man named Nikolai sitting at home doesn’t go outside much. Girls are gonna come over to your place and you’re gonna fart and they’re going to leave.” It’s a crude joke but it’s a lot funnier in Russian just because of the word play there. It’s just a little rhyme that my grandpa used to say to get my mom mad.

The informant heard this joke when he was around 10-years-old from his paternal grandfather who had learned the joke during his time serving the Russian army back in the ’40s. As the informant begins to explain in the recording, the “joke’s a lot funnier in Russian because of the word play.” While the translation may convey the “crudeness” that the informant’s mother may have found upsetting (i.e. the reference to flatulence as well as the possible sexual impotence of the main character), the translation preserves neither the pun nor the rhyme, which in this case is also the former. The word for “to come over” in Russian roughly transliterates to “preidut,” and “to fart” to ” perdut.” If one listens to the audio file again keeping both the cadence and the words in mind, the rhyme is more apparent than in the first listen.

When I asked the informant if he ever began performing the joke himself, he replied that he’s only ever done it with his grandpa when his mother was around. Even when he didn’t quite understand the exact word play when he was younger, he found the rhyme entertaining because he knew it was inappropriate based on his mother’s reaction and because of the pleasure his grandfather got from seeing him recite it. In a later part of the conversation with the informant, after having shared a few other jokes from his grandfather, the informant expressed deep veneration and affection for his grandfather who had always been present in his life. He then revealed that just that morning he had received a call from his father (the informant’s grandfather’s son) that the grandfather had to go back to the hospital because of a kidney failure. He went on to share that in more recent conversations with his grandpa, he began noticing that the man who was once so energetic and whose voice seemed booming had diminished into frailty from his illness. Along with being an incredible touching encounter with the informant, the experience also illustrated the continuing role of folklore in interpersonal relations. In this particular relationship, the informant is a first-generation Russian American. “It’s hard being Russian-American because I’m not fully American but also not Russian. My grandpa is my farthest tie to Russian culture.” And by “farthest tie” the informant intended that his grandpa goes the farthest back into the history of the culture; in other words, the grandpa is the informant’s closest tie to the deeper roots of his heritage, which he identifies through the folklore his grandpa shared with him. But of course, in addition to the association with ethnic identity, this particular piece of lore connects the informant on a personal, affectionate level with an influential figure in his childhood. If we are to follow the belief that humor reveals what lies below the surface of mundane vernacular, it would seem that in this particular performance of the folk speech, the informant, in the midst of his current grief over his grandfather, was letting surface the pleasant memories that he shared with him.