The power of translating cultural experience through Wikipedia

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Aleksander Murshteyn and his father

It’s not always easy to relate to your parents. Aleksander Murshteyn understands this all too well. Murshteyn, 29, and his father, 79, are 50 years apart, but they are separated by far more than just these 50 years–sometimes, they can’t even converse in the same language.
Murshteyn and his parents immigrated to the United States in 1994, when he was 11 years old. Previously, they lived in Yekaterinburg, Russia, where his father worked as a chemist and his mother taught at a high school. After moving to the United States, Murshteyn quickly became fluent in English and adapted to living in American society, but it was harder for his parents to do the same. “This happens to every single immigrant in the history of America,” said Murshteyn. “They feel shut out because they cannot communicate.”
When Murshteyn was in college, he discovered Wikipedia, which quickly became more than just a free encyclopedic resource for him. With articles in both English and Russian, Wikipedia became a way for Murshteyn to overcome the language barrier and better connect with his parents. “As I grow within the society and I can communicate on a level that is far beyond anything they can do, I use Wikipedia to be able to communicate back with them and to translate for them,” he said.
For instance, one day Murshteyn heard an inspirational quote from Thomas Aquinas that he wanted to share with his parents. However, they had both never heard of Thomas Aquinas, although they suggested that perhaps he meant Фома Аквинский. “It seemed implausible to me that they would not know who Thomas Aquinas was,” said Murshteyn, “and Фома just sounded like the wrong person.” So Murshteyn looked up the article on English Wikipedia, scrolled down to click on the Russian link in the Languages section of the left-hand toolbar, and found that Thomas Aquinas was indeed the same as Фома Аквинский. He and his parents were then able to have a long discussion about the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. “Without Wikipedia, the conversation that one might wish to have is impossible to continue because the concepts have not been translated,” said Murshteyn. “Wikipedia is unique, it allows me to switch concepts from one language to another. Thomas Aquinas isn’t something that you look up in a dictionary easily.”
Murshteyn has found Wikipedia to be an especially useful resource for him to learn about scientific concepts, which has helped him feel more connected to his father. “My dad was a scientist, and I never became one,” he said. “This always dismayed him.” When they first came to the United States, his parents purchased a Russian physics textbook, hoping Murshteyn would read it and develop an understanding and a passion for physics. “But because I never even looked at it so much–I hadn’t looked at it until a few years ago–they never took me seriously, my dad in particular, never took me seriously when I discussed physics or any [scientific] topics.”
In recent years, Murshteyn has developed more of an interest in science, especially in physics. After he graduated from university with a degree in social thought and political economy, he started working in commercial real estate, where he brokers deals for renewable energy projects. It was this involvement with renewable energy that first prompted Murshteyn to want to learn more about physics. As he learned more, he naturally wanted to discuss these topics with his father, and he feels that many of these conversations could not have happened without the aid of Wikipedia as translator. “I feel cut off because [my parents] learned it in Russian, the concepts are called different things and I can’t relate to them,” he said. “I was able to discuss with my dad only because I was able to look up these concepts in English that I’ve barely heard of in Russian.”
“I showed him that I actually understand a few things better than he thought I did. I think my father has learned that my interests are broader than he believes,” said Murshteyn, “and this makes him happy, and it makes me happy because he’s happy.”
While his parents still won’t use Wikipedia themselves, Murshteyn feels they now understand and appreciate the value of it, and he has even convinced them to donate. “My mother never really looked at Wikipedia as a resource that was serious. When I first showed her an article, she saw that it didn’t have any references, and she thought that was weak,” said Murshteyn. “With time, I showed her that references started appearing. Her views on the encyclopedia have changed. Now, they’ll ask me intermittently to understand something, and my mom will say, ‘Well, maybe that’s something that would be in Wikipedia,’ and sort of gives me a hint to check and see if it’s there.”
For Murshteyn and his family, Wikipedia is more than the sum of its millions of articles, it’s a cultural communications tool. “[Wikipedia] allows me to connect with people I value dearly and to have conversations at times when there is no opportunity to relate and connect to each other,” he said. “It’s relating the knowledge one culture has to another in order for them to be able to converse in one language, and feel that they’re talking in one language, not two.”
Elaine Mao, Communications Intern

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