Archives for September 2007


The Pushkin Club is a London institution that gives “lectures, recitals, recitations, covering all aspects of Russian culture… The list of visiting poets is impressive: Andrei Voznesensky, Yevgeny Rein – the mentor of Joseph Brodsky, Irina Ratushinskaya, Dmitry Prigov, Olga Sedakova, Tatiana Voltskaya, the young Azeri poet Negar, to name just a few – all with English translations read by readers in the bilingual tradition of the Pushkin Club.” It’s been around since 1953 (history), and the BBC did a nice half-hour program (or programme, if you prefer) with interviews and some readings in both languages. If I get to London, I’ll definitely drop by. (Thanks, Paul!)


Via frequent commenter (and recent visitor) Kattullus, this BBC News article: “Should it be Burma or Myanmar?” They point out (as I always find myself doing) that Myanmar is the name imposed by the junta and Burma is preferred by democracy activists like Aung San Suu Kyi, and say:

It’s general practice at the BBC to refer to the country as Burma, and the BBC News website says this is because most of its audience is familiar with that name rather than Myanmar. The same goes for Rangoon, people in general are more familiar with this name than Yangon.

Which is eminently sensible, and my practice as well; I will never understand why so many people are so eager to fall in line with the “official” nomenclature. Anyway, there’s some interesting background on the two names, with this quote from “anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman, who has written extensively about Burmese politics”: “There’s a formal term which is Myanmar and the informal, everyday term which is Burma. Myanmar is the literary form, which is ceremonial and official and reeks of government.”
Also, I got word from Grant Barrett that A Way With Words is back. Congratulations, Martha and Grant!


I’m in a mad deadline rush, but I wanted to point you towards a fascinating post at Far Outliers quoting English on the Bonin (Ogasawara) Islands, by Daniel Long:

It is a little known linguistic fact that among a group of Western Pacific islands English is maintained as a community language of the indigenous population. These are the Bonin Islands. Today, these islands (also called Ogasawara Islands) are part of Japan and their population, Japanese citizens, but the English language has survived there, as both a tool of communication and a marker of their unique identity…
In the 170-year linguistic history of the Bonin Islands, the dominant language has shifted from English (from 1830) to Japanese (1876), back to English (1946), and back again to Japanese (1968).

Also, MMcM has made another of his much-awaited posts (warding off any complaints about the two-month delay with “Some of the spare time allocated for posting here got used last month for gazpacho and shark over at LH”). This one is Kookoo, the name of a Persian “thick filled omelet, cut into squares, along the lines of Italian frittata or Spanish (not Mexican) tortilla“; much of the post is devoted to an analysis of the history of words for ‘spinach’ in MMcM’s patented style, with extensive quotations from works in various languages and lots of tasty etymology. And as usual after exposure to the Polyglot Vegetarian, I’m hungry, and I’m wishing there was a Persian restaurant in town.


I was looking over wood s lot to give myself the strength to dive into another day’s furious editing, as deadline approaches, when I was caught by a fragment of what purported to be a translation of Tsvetaeva. It looked like this:

I decline to exist in the crazy house
of the inhuman.
I decline to go on living
in the marketplace of wolves.

I won’t howl,
among the sharks of the field.
I won’t swim beneath
the waves of squirming backs.
I have no need of holes for hearing
or seeing eyes.
To your crazed world there’s
only one answer: No!

(The full translation is here.) It pissed me off. That’s not what Tsvetaeva sounds like. She’s not my favorite poet, but she has a unique combination of simplicity (here, short lines with hammerlike beats), complexity (Pasternak-like playing with sounds, odd lexical choices, and unexpected rhymes), and a rage and passion all her own. You couldn’t mistake a Tsvetaeva poem for anything else.

This translation, though, has no individuality, no rhythm, only as much force as is inherent in the matter (wolves, howling, refusal). Tsvetaeva has been turned into Miss Random Poetry Seminar Poet. Furthermore, a quick investigation revealed that the translators have taken two different poems and jammed them together. And the word choices are sometimes bizarre: why render Бедлам [Bedlam] as “crazy house” when English has Bedlam? And why “grabbed” for взяли [vzyali], the basic Russian word for ‘took’? (I note also that they didn’t notice, or bother to render, the distinction between imperfective брали [brali] in the first line, representing the ongoing process of taking, and the perfective взяли ‘they took’ in the rest.) But what really got me was “now’s the time to give the billet back to God.” The billet? The Russian word билет [bilet] means either ‘ticket’ or ‘identity/membership card’ (‘Party card’ is партийный билет); you have to pick one or the other here, but billet is ridiculous.

I’ve put the Russian texts below the cut, as well as a quick-and-dirty translation of the first stanza of each just to give an idea of the rhythm (the first poem rhymes AABB, the second ABAB, but I didn’t try to match that). I know “Hispania” is cheating—the Russian is just the normal word for Spain—but I needed to fill out the line, I didn’t want to use “in its own blood” like those other translators, and I figure Hispania works OK with Chekhia (there’s an odd gap in English where that word should be, so let’s get it into circulation).

I wish I had the time to do more, but I really have to do some work now!

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Avva (Russian link) just learned the wonderful word druthers, usually heard (as he heard it) in the phrase “If I had my druthers…”; it’s a contraction of “would rather,” as explained in this entry, and the OED has the following:
U.S. dialectal alteration of (I, you, etc.) would rather. Hence ‘druther(s), ‘ruther(s), a choice, preference.
1876 [see DERN a.]. 1895 Dialect Notes I. 388 Bein’s I caint have my druthers an’ set still, I cal’late I’d better pearten up an’ go ‘long. 1896 ‘MARK TWAIN’ Tom Sawyer, Detective ix. 74 ‘Any way you druther have it, that is the way I druther have it. He—— .’ ‘There ain’t any druthers about it, Huck Finn; nobody said anything about druthers.’ 1941 W. A. PERCY Lanterns on Levee (1948) xxii. 292 ‘Your ruthers is my ruthers’ (what you would rather is what I would rather). Certainly the most amiable and appeasing phrase in any language, the language used being not English but deep Southern.
As I say in the Avva thread: I can’t find what they’re trying to point the reader to with that “see DERN a.” Dern is an archaic adjective meaning ‘secret; dark; dreary,’ and there are no citaions later than 1856 (“The awful, twilight dern and dun”).


I’m reading Yuri (Georges) Annenkov‘s wonderful (and tragic) Dnevnik moikh vstrech [Diary of my meetings], in which he describes in unforgettable detail his acquaintance with Blok, Gorky, and many others, and I’ve just gotten to a section where he visits Gorky in Sorrento in 1924 and the latter says of the “Fascist blackshirts”: Единственное исключение в человеческой породе: этих я не могу “полюбить черненькими” [‘The only exception among the human race: these people I can’t “love (when they’re) black/dark”‘]. Googling tells me it’s a reference to a Russian saying “Полюбите нас черненькими, а беленькими нас всякий полюбит” [‘Love us (when we’re) black/dark—anybody can love us white/light’], which is a compact way of expressing a useful sentiment, and I don’t think it has an equivalent in English.
But who said the saying? Various online sources attribute it to Dostoevsky and Gogol, specifically Dead Souls (e.g., Russian Wikiquote), and more specifically the unfinished second part of the novel (e.g., here: «Полюбите нас чёрненькими, а беленькими нас всякий полюбит», — говорит один из героев Гоголя во втором томе поэмы «Мёртвые души»). But I’ve searched the online text, and it ain’t there. I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s one of those sayings that sound like they should be from a famous author, so people attach them to the usual suspects (in English, Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde are popular for this purpose). But I’d love it if someone knows anything concrete. [My commenters came through again: it is indeed from Gogol.]


Mark Liberman at Language Log discovers a usage new to him and me:

In the September 6 issue of Nature, a verb caught me up short (Phileppe Claeys and Steven Goderis, “Solar System: Lethal billiards“):

A huge collision in the asteroid belt 160 million years ago sent fragments bagatelling around the inner Solar System. One piece might have caused the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The only use I ever see for bagatelle is “a mere bagatelle”, with the occasional reference to Beethoven’s bagatelles. […] So I looked it up.
The OED gives the first sense of bagatelle as “A trifle, a thing of no value or importance”, and sense 1.b. as “A piece of verse or music in a light style”. But then comes

2. A game played on a table having a semi-circular end at which are nine holes. The balls used are struck from the opposite end of the board with a cue. The name is sometimes applied to a modified form of billiards known also as semi-billiards.

So apparently for some people, bagatelling is roughly the same as caroming.

Isn’t that interesting? To my fellow Americans, that is; I guess my Brit readers are familiar with the ‘game’ sense. Or are you?

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I was just trying to see what the OED had to say about white in the sense of ‘reactionary’ (Metternich having talked about “white radicals” in 1834) when I was struck by the subentry for whiter than white ‘extremely white’ (“In mod. use popularized as an advertising slogan for Persil soap-powder”). After a nod at Shakespeare’s 1592 Ven. & Ad. 398 “Teaching the sheets a whiter hew then white,” the first citation is the following:

a1924 N.E.D. s.v. White sb. 23, Exceeding or surpassing white, ‘whiter than white’.

So wait, you get to use it yourself in the first edition, then quote that use as a citation in the second? I know, I know, the quotation marks imply the phrase was in current use, but it still makes my head spin.


I have a lot of work to get through, so I’m just going to point you in the direction of a most interesting discussion over at Conrad’s philosophitorium of Heidegger’s (to my mind completely loony: “Koto, then, would be the appropriating occurrence of the lightening message of grace [das Ereignis der lichtenden Botschaft der Anmut]”) interpretation of Japanese kotoba (‘language; word’ in the world inhabited by normal people), with enlightening and informed commentary by the lively and learned Matt and the equally learned literary estheticist Gawain, and Gawain’s post in response, In which he is a Japanese scholar, with further analysis of the word and his excited discovery that “the semi-divine authoress of the Pillow Book, my Sei Shonagon, the truest love of my life (see my post on her here) wrote the word kotoba as — 詞.” It’s all good stuff, and I want to know more about the putative rivalry described by Gawain’s commenter Peony:

It is essential to keep in mind that the court was dominated by an intense rivalry between 2 cousin empresses…. It was one of the most lively rivalries in all Japanese literary history and the superstar authoresses of the day were divided along Party Lines: sei shonagon on one side and murasaki shikibu, akazoe emon and my personal love, izumi shikibu on the other…. So any insult to sei shonagon functioned as a disparaging of Empress Akiko.

Gawain says “we don’t know much about the supposed rivalry between SS and Murasaki Shikibu”; Peony responds “We actually know more than that, but…” But what? Tell me more!


I have always pronounced the preposition pace (‘with due deference to’ or ‘despite,’ from the ablative of Latin pax) in the traditional anglicized way, PAY-see, and assumed that was the universally accepted pronunciation. Now I discover, having seen the casual aside “Pace (that is to say, aloud, pa che)” in this Pepys Diary thread, that the Church Latin version, PAH-chay, is equally acceptable (the OED gives it second place for U.K. usage, first place for U.S.). So it’s time for another Languagehat straw poll: if you use this slightly obnoxious Latinism, how do you say it?
Below the cut are the OED citations; I particularly like the last one (and again I find it odd that the OED cites only the journal and not the delightfully disputatious author).

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