Archives for May 2004


I’ve run into a couple of difficulties arising from my reading lately, and I thought I’d share them, since they affect more than the words in question.

1) This is what I think of as the “echelon” problem, because of a long and unfortunate tradition among translators from Russian of rendering the word eshelon ‘special train’ as “echelon,” simply because that English word corresponds in form and etymology to the Russian one. They overlook the slight problem that the English word has no meaning even remotely corresponding to the Russian; it means ‘a steplike troop formation; a level or grade in an organization or field of activity,’ and nothing else—except to specialists in Soviet literature, who have absorbed this peculiar bit of translationese to the point that I have had a hard time convincing them that it exists nowhere else and that the “translation” should be retired forthwith. A similar problem came up yesterday in reading a Boris Akunin story called Strast’ i dolg [Passion and duty], set in an alternate Russia which has revived tsardom, along with its Table of Ranks and all the rest of the imperial paraphernalia. The sentence in question reads: Pogibel’ deistvitel’nogo tainogo sovetnika prishla nazavtra, na raute u angliiskogo poslannika sera Endryu Vuda: ‘The ruin of the Active Privy Counselor came the next day, at a raut at the residence of the English ambassador Sir Andrew Wood.’ The dictionary translation of the word raut is “rout.” Now, this is a different case from eshelon because there actually is an English word rout meaning ‘a fashionable gathering or assembly, a large evening party or reception,’ but the word has been obsolete for over a century and it’s unlikely anyone but a devotee of Victorian literature would be familiar with it. (Side note: I learn from the OED that there are in fact ten different routs, ranging from ‘a company, assemblage, band, or troop of persons’ to ‘the act of searching, or of turning out something,’ including the hapax ‘some kind of horse’: 1697 Vanbrugh Æsop i. iv. ii, Your Worship has six Coach-Horses,.. besides Pads, Routs, and Dog-Horses.) To render the word “rout” would be unconscionable—I would say “at a reception”—but I’ll bet there are plenty of lazy translators who would do it.

2) I was reading a NY Times story yesterday called “Siberian Dam Generates Political Wrangle Over Power” when it occurred to me, not for the first time, to look up the Russian for ‘dam.’ The dictionary translation is plotina, but I can never remember it because I rarely see it in Russian texts. The story concerned the Sayano-Shushenskaya dam; I did a Russian search on the name and discovered the feminine gender is caused not by plotina but by GES, the Russian acronym for ‘hydroelectric station.’ That’s why I can’t remember plotina; what we call the Hoover Dam, the Russians would call the Hoover GES. GES does not mean ‘dam,’ but it is used where we use ‘dam’ in the usual contemporary context of large concrete structures for generating power. There must be other examples of this phenomenon—different terms used in similar contexts—but I can’t think of any right at the moment. Anyway, it’s an interesting test of a translator’s skill; if you don’t know the language well, you’ll wind up using a dictionary definition rather than the situationally appropriate word.


I made the mistake of dropping by the Donnell Branch of the NYPL on my lunch hour, where I found five Russian books I couldn’t resist in the sale bin. (The Donnell has the biggest foreign-language collection in the city, and they’ve been selling off chunks of it for years, presumably to make room for new books; I regret the depletion of the collection, but I’ve gotten a lot of good books for almost no money.) I got Arkadii Averchenko‘s Salat iz bulavok (Pin salad, a collection of short stories from the ’20s: sample in translation here), Mark Aldanov‘s Portrety (Portraits) (a collection of historico-biographical essays from the ’20s and ’30s), Kornei Chukovsky‘s book on the Russian language Zhivoi kak zhizn’ (Alive as life), Andrei Voznesensky‘s Antimiry (Antiworlds), and the journalist Feliks Medvedev’s 1992 collection of interviews with famous Russians (including Iosif Brodskii, Sasha Sokolov, Nina Berberova, and Andrei Sinyavskii) Posle Rossii (After Russia). All of this for a grand total of $1.60.


I have to confess a longstanding prejudice against Gregory Rabassa, who’s won just about every award he could win and is probably the translator whose name is most familiar to the general reader. I was reading Cortázar’s Rayuela (Hopscotch) and using Rabassa’s translation to help me through the hard parts, and I began realizing Rabassa had misunderstood idioms, mistranslated words, even left out entire chunks of text. Of course no translator can escape the occasional lapse, and if he had been some unknown I would have been more inclined to forgive and forget, but this was the great Rabassa, and I was mightily disillusioned. Well, it turns out that was his first translation, and he hadn’t even read the novel when he started translating it, so I guess I should let it go; at any rate, I look forward to reading his forthcoming book If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, discussed in an interview with Andrew Bast published in the NY Times Book Review.

“My thesis in the book is that translation is impossible,” Mr. Rabassa said. “People expect reproduction, but you can’t turn a baby chick into a duckling. The best you can do is get close to it.”

He certainly seems to have had a good life:

[Read more…]


I am informed by wood s lot that today would have been Joseph Brodsky’s 64th birthday. (How could he not have made it to 56? Unbelievable.) There you will find many excellent links; I am simply going to reproduce his own self-translation “Elegy.”

About a year has passed. I’ve returned to the place of battle,
to its birds that have learned their unfolding of wings from a subtle
lift of a surprised eyebrow, or perhaps from a razor blade
—wings, now the shade of early twilight, now of stale bad blood.
Now the place is abuzz with trading in your ankles’ remnants, bronzes
of sunburnt breastplates, dying laughter, bruises,
rumors of fresh reserves, memories of high treason,
laundered banners with imprints of the many who since have risen.
All’s overgrown with people. A ruin’s a rather stubborn
architectural style. And the heart’s distinction from a pitch-black cavern
isn’t that great; not great enough to fear
that we may collide again like blind eggs somewhere.
At sunrise, when nobody stares at one’s face, I often
set out on foot to a monument cast in molten
lengthy bad dreams. And it says on the plinth “Commander
in chief.” But it reads “in grief,” or “in brief,” or “in going under.”

[Read more…]


I’m used to seeing words used oddly or wrongly; almost always, I can figure out what the writer meant to say, but in this brief New Yorker review of The Lucky Ones, by Rachel Cusk, I am at a loss:

The women in these five linked vignettes are all connected to a journalist named Serena Porter, either personally or as readers of the weekly column she writes about her family life. While they struggle to understand their painful and awkward responses to lovers and children, she spins the raw material of motherhood and marriage into witty and topical dispatches. Of course, much of what Serena writes is factitious, both in its details (she freely appropriates an acquaintance’s experience as her own) and in the breezy complacency that it projects; Cusk seems to suggest that our true thoughts about love and family defy articulation. Such is her gift for capturing women’s psychology and their sense of their place in the world that the novel achieves what Serena’s column cannot: a fresh and compassionate portrait of a generation’s feelings about motherhood.

(Emphasis added.) I don’t think factitious can mean ‘artificial’ in the context of that sentence, but I have no idea what it might be intended to mean. Suggestions?

[Read more…]


The most comprehensive interspecies dictionary available in paperback!

Over 5,000 references, 80,000 translations and hundreds of new expressions! Contains usage notes to avoid being bitten, and slang signals on a wide variety of subjects. Contains examples to show how sounds are used… Edges treated with bitter apple to deter chewing.

The sample page contains entries such as:
eee ee ee [iii:’ii:i] v. to go away; eee ee ee eep! get out of the hammock now, it’s my turn.
eee eee ee [iii:’iii:ii] to explore; eee eee ee e ee eek, Let me out so I can explore behind the filing cabinet!
And there are carefully researched etymologies, for example for a word meaning ‘That’s my pea!’:

From high classic Rattus [1.75 million BCE]: eeeee, mine; + ee-e, small round; + ee-ee; give me, 2nd person singular, imperative mood of ee-e-e, to give, v.t.

Clearly a major advance in lexicography! (Via Language Log.)


The redoubtable Michael Everson has created a page called “Gach uile rud faoi Ogham ar an Líon/Every Ogham thing on the Web” that includes General links, Scholarly links, Standardization links, Font links, Pagan links, Commercial links, and Other links. Enjoy the cornucopia!
(Via wood s lot.)


I have learned from a Mark Liberman post at Language Log that there is a noun reveal meaning (according to the AHD)

The part of the side of a window or door opening that is between the outer surface of a wall and the window or door frame. b. The whole side of such an opening; the jamb. 2. The framework of a motor vehicle window.

or, in the (perhaps clearer) words of the OED,

A side of an opening or recess which is at right angles to the face of the work; esp. the vertical side of a doorway or window-opening between the door- or window-frame and the arris [‘the sharp edge formed by the angular contact of two plane or curved surfaces’].

That’s interesting enough, but what’s amazing is that it has nothing to do with the verb reveal (which is related to veil); it’s from a totally different (and obsolete) verb revale ‘to lower, bring down,’ which is related to vale and valley. As Mark says, Live and learn.


Anyone who enjoyed my earlier post on the way Japanese conjugates verbs made from borrowed words, based on one at No-Sword, will want to read his new entry “More unusual Japanese verbs.” One of his tidbits:

gomakasu — means “misrepresent (in a deceptive way)”, and again, has ateji that mean “mis-bewitch-style” + s + u. The origin story is great, though:
gomadouran (“sesame seed bags [or cases]” — not ateji here, these characters reflect etymology) were a kind of, uh, sesame seed candy, hollow on the inside. (Hence “bag” or “case”, I suppose.) They quickly became known by the more direct name gomakashi (“sesame seed candy”).
This word then came to have a figurative meaning: something which has an appetising exterior, but nothing inside; and then, the abstract idea of misrepresenting something in this way. gomakasu the verb was a back-formation, because gomakashi sounds the nominalised form of such a verb.
Once this verb had been born, ateji were used to write it — maybe because of a desire to pun, maybe because the first person to write it down wasn’t aware of the etymology.
So, to summarise: we have inaccurate S-J ateji used to write a verb which is a back-formation from a legitimate S-J word.
Best half-S-J verb ever.

He explains ateji thus:

[Read more…]


You know, I thought I had this Iraq thing pretty much figured out, after reading The Shi’is of Iraq, most of Charles Tripp’s A History of Iraq, and innumerable newspaper and magazine stories. Sunni Kurds in the north (riven by internal dissension), Sunni Arabs in the center, Shi’i Arabs in the south (long oppressed, some “swamp Arabs” in reed huts dating from Sumerian times), Baghdad a mixture of everything, Jews formerly an ancient and important element of the population but expelled after the foundation of Israel. Oh, and some Turkomans up north. Then I got to page 151 of Tripp and found this description of the megalomaniac dictator du jour (the jour being the late ’50s and early ’60s), General ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim (aka Kassem): “Qasim… came from a modest background and from a family which was more representative of the diversity of Iraq’s varied population than that of most of his brother officers (his father was a Sunni Arab from Baghdad, but his mother was a Faili (Shi’i) Kurd).”
Faili? I searched my Islamic reference works in vain; Google, as so often, saved the day, and I am here to report that “The area around Kirkuk and south to Khanaqin is the preserve of the Faili Kurds, who, unlike the majority of Kurds, are Shias.” They have had a rough time of it (deported in the early ’70s and again, much more brutally and extensively, in 1980), and needless to say they have their own website. From the latter we learn, concerning the origin of the name:

[Read more…]