Archives for August 2008


The June 19 LRB, on page 20, had a box entitled “Two Poems by Jean Sprackland.” The first, “The Source,” begins:

Want to learn the source,
the cool under the surface fire?
Watch the heron:
he snatches the silver voice
from the throat of the river
and swallows it live.

The second is called “In the Afternoon” and begins:

The devil likes the chicken coop.
He lies on a bed of straw
Watching the snow fall.
The hens fetch him eggs to suck,
But he’s not in the mood.
Cotton Mather is coming tonight,
Bringing a young witch.

You might want to do a quick mental compare-and-contrast before diving below the cut.

[Read more…]


Thanks to, I’ve learned one of those useless bits of information I love: André Citroën, founder of the eponymous auto company, was of Dutch origin, and, as the linked Wikipedia article says, “The Citroen family moved to Paris from Amsterdam in 1873 [five years before André’s birth]. Upon arrival, the diaeresis was added to the name, changing Citroen to Citroën (a grandfather had sold lemons, and had changed the consequent name Limoenman ‘lemon man’ to Citroen ‘lemon’).” I’m reminded of Saul Bellow’s Charlie Citrine and his friend and mentor Von Humboldt Fleisher (“Oh, Humboldt! He was no potato. He was a papaya a citron a passion fruit”), and of some novel I’ve otherwise forgotten in which a character named Death insisted the name was pronounced De-ATH. No, no, it’s not Si-TROON, it’s Si-tro-EN! Much more chic that way. [As explained by marie-lucie in the thread, French basically can’t deal with consecutive vowels of this type, so the diaeresis was needed to enable the French to pronounce the name, even if not the way it was pronounced by the Dutch.]


I don’t think I’ve seen languages interwoven in quite this way; if you know both French and English, it’s a very enjoyable read:

To answer the question I’m always asked [voyons réfléchissons] No I do not feel that there is a space between the two tongues that talk in me [oui peut-être un tout petit espace] On the contrary [plus ou moins si on veut] For me the one and the other seem to overlap [et même coucher ensemble] To want to merge [oui se mettre l’une dans l’autre] To want to come together [jouir ensemble] To want to embrace one another [tendrement] To want to mesh one into the other [n’être qu’une] Or if you prefer [ça m’est égal] They want to spoil and corrupt each other [autant que possible] I do not feel as some other bilingualists have affirmed that one tongue is vertical in me the other horizontal [pas du tout] If anything my tongues seem to be standing or lying always in the same direction [toujours penchées l’une vers l’autre] Sometimes vertically [de haut en bas] Other times horizontally [d’un côté à l’autre] Depending on their moods or their desires [elles sont très passionnées vous savez] Though these two tongues in me occasionally compete with one another in some vague region of my brain [normalement dans la partie supérieure de mon cerveau] More often they play with one another [des jeux très étranges] Especially when I am not looking [quand je dors] I believe that my two tongues love each other [cela ne m’étonnerait pas] And I have on occasion caught them having intercourse behind my back [je les ai vues une fois par hasard] but I cannot tell which is feminine and which is masculine [personnellement on s’en fout] Perhaps they are both androgynous [c’est très possible]

It’s by Raymond Federman, from his Loose Shoes: A Life Story of Sorts, where I also enjoyed Federman, his meditation on his name (“His wife … always tells him that Federman does not mean Penman, that it has nothing to do with la plume and his vocation as a writer, that the name simply came from what his ancestors were doing back in the old country. And what were Federman’s ancestors doing in the old country? his wife explains, plucking chicken feathers in the steppes of Russian or the Ghettos of Poland”). I don’t usually enjoy “experimental” writing, but this I like. (Via wood s lot.)


David Shulman in The New Republic discusses the sad state of awareness of Sanskrit literature: “The astonishing fact is that cultivated readers of [European] tongues may have never heard of Kalidasa, or of the no less important Bhavabhuti, Bharavi, Magha, and Sriharsha.”

Happily, help has now arrived. In the last decade, a new library of translations from Sanskrit has begun to appear. It is called the Clay Sanskrit [Library], named after the generous donor who has made it all possible, John P. Clay, who took a degree in Sanskrit from Oxford University many years ago. More than thirty volumes have already appeared in this extraordinary project, with another twenty or more in the pipeline. And so, for the first time in English, we have the beginnings of a representative canon of Sanskrit literary works, for the most part well translated and accessible to a wide public.
The Clay volumes are patterned after the justifiably celebrated Loeb Classical Library for Greek and Latin: small, elegant books, beautifully printed, sparsely annotated, and bilingual—the Sanskrit, transliterated into Roman characters in a system devised by the Clay editors, sits on the left page, facing the English translation on the right. This arrangement naturally delights students of Sanskrit, who may dispense, at least temporarily, with their dictionaries and grammar books; but you do not have to know Sanskrit to enjoy reading these volumes. Indeed, their raison d’être is to win for the Sanskrit classics an audience outside India, and certainly beyond the limited scholarly circles that have, for the last two centuries or so, studied these works, produced critical editions and philological commentaries, and sometimes also translated them into Western languages, almost invariably badly.

This is an excellent thing, and I wish these volumes had been around when I was sullenly studying Sanskrit 35 years ago. Thanks, Kári!


My pal Paul has sent me a link to an essay by Lucy Kellaway that struck me with its pure essence of language lunacy. It’s basically your standard purist rant, and is nicely summed up by its first sentence: “For the last few months I’ve been on a mission to rid the world of the phrase ‘going forward’.” You get the picture: I hate this newfangled phrase, I hear it all the time, I can’t make it stop but at least I can vent about it. So far, so tiresome. But the thing is, she knows better. She says so. But she rants anyway. As I wrote to Paul:
She knows on some level she’s being an idiot — “You could say
this orgy of pedantry was not only tedious, but also pointless.
Language changes” — but she continues “Yet protesting feels so good.
Not only does it allow one to wallow in the superiority of one’s
education, but some words are so downright annoying that to complain
brings relief.” Rarely have I seen the pathological nature of
language gripery displayed so openly. She quotes Swift, understands
that he was foolish to object so strongly to “mob,” but then says “By
contrast there is so much more to object to in ‘going forward’.” If
that’s not tongue-in-cheek, it shows a degree of blindness that makes
one despair for the human race.
I understand being annoyed by other people’s usage, and I’ve shared some of my own annoyances in the past (“may have” for “might have,” “disinterested” to mean “uninterested”). What I don’t understand is taking such annoyance seriously. How can you know that language changes, that Swift thought “mob” was ruining the language but he was wrong, and yet think that your own pet peeves are somehow different? On a gut level I dislike the new that use of “disinterested,” but intellectually I know that people will communicate just as well however they use it, just as they communicated perfectly well after they dropped the inflectional endings of Old English (a far more disruptive change than any of our modern peeves). Language changes, we get used to it, we go on as before. Why is this so hard to assimilate?
After her language rant she goes on to rant about what a heading calls “Misplaced passion”; she means by this “the new business insincerity: a phoney upping of the emotional ante,” but it applies equally well to overheated reactions to language change.


Courtesy of LH reader Trevor, here‘s a ditty by Flann O’Brien (remembered here and elsewhere) which will delight anyone who’s ever studied Old Irish; it begins:

My song is concernin’
Three sons of great learnin’
Binchy and Bergin and Best.
They worked out that riddle
Old Irish and Middle,
Binchy and Bergin and Best.
They studied far higher
Than ould Kuno Meyer
And fanned up the glimmer
Bequeathed by Zimmer,
Binchy and Bergin and Best.

My favorite couplet: “They rose in their nightshift/ To write for the Zeitschrift.”


These limericks take advantage of especially odd mismatches between spelling and pronunciation, usually involving family names like St. John “SIN-jǝn” and Menzies “MING-eez” (not the only pronunciation, but the one used here). A sample:

There was a young fellow named Cholmondeley,
Whose bride was so mellow and colmondeley
That the best man, Colquhoun,
An inane young bolqufoun,
Could only stand still and stare dolmondeley.

I should note that the one beginning “At the art of love…” cannot be deciphered until you reach the last line. Thanks, Trevor!


When we last saw our heroes in the “war” part of War and Peace, they were hightailing it east, away from the victorious French, in the autumn of 1805, hoping to meet up with the reinforcements coming from Russia before Napoleon could trap and destroy them as he had the hapless Austrians. As the Battle of Austerlitz approached, I decided I wanted to know more about the history, so I sent off for 1805: Austerlitz: Napoleon and the Destruction of the Third Coalition by Robert Goetz. He goes into more detail about the exact disposition of the various battalions and squadrons than I really need, but that’s OK—I take what I need and leave the rest, and he describes the changes in fortune and resultant switches in strategy very well, starting with the collapse of the Peace of Amiens and Napoleon’s lightning-fast conversion of the Army of the Ocean Coasts (intended for an invasion of England) into the Grande Armée, which crossed the Rhine and surrounded Mack at Ulm before he knew what was happening.

My main complaint is one that would seem trivial to the vast majority of readers: insufficient explanation of place names. As longtime LH readers know, I love alternate geographical names (see, for instance, here and here, and compare this annoyed post), and it doesn’t bother me that the author uses the old German names of the places his armies march through (mostly now replaced by Slavic ones), since those were the ones used at the time and in the vast majority of histories. It would be silly to talk about the Battle of Slavkov, and similarly it makes sense to use Pressburg for what’s now Bratislava (the capital of Slovakia) and Laibach for Ljubljana (the capital of Slovenia).

But the names should be matched with their modern equivalents somewhere, either in an appendix or in the index. In the first place, not everyone is aware of the fact that the names are now changed, and a reader might get frustrated trying to use a modern map to follow the action. And even those, like me, who are on top of the issue can be confused. At the start of Chapter 3, talking about the situation after Kutuzov had managed to join up with his reinforcements and Napoleon had halted his advance at the city of Brünn (now Brno), he says that the Austrian Army of Italy under Archduke Charles and the remnants of Archduke John’s Army of Tyrolia, both marching east, “converged at Marburg.” Poring over the map, I could see no Marburg, but I knew there was a German city of that name; when I looked it up, however, I discovered it was far in the northwest, in Hesse, and couldn’t possibly be the intended location. Fortunately, the Wikipedia entry mentioned a disambiguation page, and that pointed me to Maribor in Slovenia, whose German name is Marburg an der Drau (“on the Drava”). This made perfect geographical sense, and (muttering) I added it to the map. But the reader should not be forced to jump through hoops; the first time the town is mentioned, it should be “Marburg (now Maribor).”

Incidentally, the most famous feature of Brünn (Brno) in the nineteenth century was its old castle, used by the Habsburg emperors as a place to stash political prisoners like pesky Italian nationalists; it’s where Emperor Francis put the unfortunate General Mack until he decided Mack’s surrender at Ulm was the result of stupidity rather than treason. It was a byword for dread dungeons in Austria, much as the Bastille was in France. Its name? Spielberg (now Špilberk). I wonder if Steven knows?


Ever wonder who writes the subtitles and how it works? Guy La Roche is happy to tell you:

First of all, people process spoken information faster than written information. Subtitles follow the pace of spoken language. The amount of text used in subtitles therefore needs to be reduced so that the reading speed matches the speed of the dialogue. The faster a character speaks, the more the translator needs to reduce his text. Most of the time it is simply impossible to do a word for word translation. You, the people who watch tv and movies, simply cannot read fast enough….

Lots of interesting stuff, including a long disquisition on the surprising problems of translating porn (“In this case the story was about some bimbo trying to make it through college…. to my great horror, she mentioned a 15th century Spanish book. And she gave the title in Spanish. … I was so upset that I made it a point of honour to find that book. And I did. After several hours trawling the internet I found exactly ONE webpage that mentioned the book and its Spanish title. That one subtitle alone, invoice value seventy eurocents, cost me hours of work and precious time”). Thanks for the link go to frequent commenter Kári Tulinius.


Reading Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy can be trying, although it’s very well written and illuminating, simply because Tolstoy was such a jerk. A common phenomenon, of course, but still, it’s a relief when I run across something that makes me feel closer to him, like this passage (on p. 323) about Tolstoy’s sudden decision to learn Greek:

He sent for a theological student from Moscow to teach him the rudiments of the language. From the first day, the forty-two-year-old pupil threw himself into Greek grammar with a passion, pored over dictionaries, drew up vocabularies, tackled the great authors. In spite of his headaches, he learned quickly. In a few weeks he had outdistanced his teacher. He sight-translated Xenophon, reveled in Homer, discovered Plato and said the originals were like “spring-water that sets the teeth on edge, full of sunlight and impurities and dust-motes that make it seem even more pure and fresh,” while translations of the same texts were as tasteless as “boiled, distilled water.” Sometimes he dreamed in Greek at night. He imagined himself living in Athens; as he tramped through the snow of Yasnaya Polyana, sinking in up to his calves, his head was filled with sun, marble and geometry. Watching him changing overnight into a Greek, his wife was torn between admiration and alarm. “There is clearly nothing in the world that interests him more or gives him greater pleasure than to learn a new Greek word or puzzle out some expression he has not met before,” she complained. “I have questioned several people, some of whom have taken their degree at the university. To hear them talk, Lyovochka has made unbelievable progress in Greek.” He himself felt rejuvenated by this diet of ancient wisdom. “Now I firmly believe,” he said to Fet, “that I shall write no more gossipy twaddle of the War and Peace type.”

And in reading the gossipy twaddle itself, I’ve come across another puzzle (like the покой-ер-п one discussed here), which I hope my Russian-speaking readers may be able to solve. In Book One, Part III, Chapter 3, cranky old Prince Bolkonsky, noticing that his timid daughter Marya is looking terrified of his mood as usual, says: “— Др… или дура!…” Which is to say: “— Dr… or fool!…” I’m wondering what that first “Dr” might be; it looks like he’s starting to say something and then substituting “fool,” and my guess is дрянь [dryan’] ‘trash; good-for-nothing person,’ but I’d be curious to know how Russian readers interpret it. (Ann Dunnigan simply translates “Fool!”)