Archives for March 2009


In the TLS, Rachel Polonsky (author of a notoriously vicious review of Orlando Figes’s Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia—see this discussion) reviews a new translation of Eugene Onegin and Andrew Kahn‘s Pushkin’s Lyric Intelligence (I hate joint reviews, though I’m sure the authors being reviewed hate them much more—irrelevant comparisons are made, and aspects of each book tend to get neglected). Polonsky calls Stanley Mitchell’s Eugene Onegin “masterly,” but frankly it sounds as full of translationese as any other: “Tatiana saw with trepidation/ What thought it was or observation/ Had struck Onegin, what they meant,/ To which he’d given mute consent” doesn’t impress me. (I was going to complain about “A parody, when said and done,” but googling tells me that people do actually say “when said and done”—is this a U.K. thing?)
But the Kahn book sounds well worth reading:

Kahn has read systematically many hundreds of the titles in Pushkin’s own large library (in the same editions) in order to understand the nature of Pushkin’s engagement with current philosophical and aesthetic ideas. Of these titles, over 80 per cent are English and French works, in the original or in translation. Using B. G. Modzalevsky’s annotated catalogue of the library, which records the pages cut and the marginal notes and annotations made in them by Pushkin, Kahn seeks not to identify sources as past critics have done, but to trace the poet’s “thinking through lyric”. Kahn’s Pushkin is a poet of ideas, the intellectual heir of “a long eighteenth century”, but one who “suspends judgement”, using his deceptively simple and transparent poems as opportunities for the indirect dramatization of those ideas, and for “creating a lyric speaker who thinks aloud”. Allusive terms in the poems – “imagination”, “inspiration”, “fancy”, “will”, “strength” and “fame” – open up to the reader (the reader who is willing and able to read with Pushkin) the great conceptual framework that holds up their delicate lyric expressiveness.
Kahn has taken an exhilarating new direction in Pushkin studies. He draws fruitfully on the great mass of previous scholarship, discovering in the familiar lines of Pushkin’s light and exquisite lyric verse an unfamiliar world of weighty ideas. As his book advances, the exploration of these ideas dilates slowly and magnificently, taking in great reaches of history and philosophy, from the fate and image of Byron and Napoleon to the relationship of the body to the soul, as well as attending to (closely imbricated) matters of pressing daily concern to Pushkin, such as censorship, relations with the Tsar, literary celebrity, the gritty world of the growing book trade, professional enmities, and what Kahn aptly calls “the precarious consolation of friendship”.

I suspect that the “exhilarating new direction” is new primarily for English-language scholarship (the more I read Russian literary criticism, the more I realize how much it anticipates what I had read in English—Nabokov’s interpretation of Gogol, for instance, is based firmly on those of Bely and Annensky), but it’s just the kind of analysis I enjoy reading. At a list price of $110.00, however, it’s definitely something I’ll look for at my local library. Why must academic books be so expensive? (Thanks for the link, jamessal!)


One of the sections I was most anticipating in The Oxford History of English Lexicography (previous posts: 1, 2) was the discussion of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, one of the greatest and most controversial landmarks of American lexicography, and one that came along when I was old enough to be able to use and appreciate dictionaries. I was not disappointed.
The first surprise came right away. I had known the dictionary’s main editor, and the recipient of the brickbats, was Philip Babcock Gove; I hadn’t known that “the publishers originally sought to [appoint a “distinguished academic person”] for the Third Edition, but, although they received valuable help in planning for the new dictionary from prominent academic people, none was willing to assume the editorship, and in the end the publishers turned to an in-house editor, Philip Babcock Gove… Gove was appointed general editor in 1951; no one was appointed editor-in-chief until ten years later, the year of publication, when Gove was officially given that title. Webster’s Third is very much Gove’s dictionary… His was the major voice in determining what entries to include and what to omit; the style of definitions; the attention paid to pronunciation; the use of illustrative quotations, usage labels, and subject labels; and many other decisions which would provoke strong criticism in the years following publication.” Sidney I. Landau, the author of the chapter, describes the environment in which the book appeared, “just at the time when linguists and humanists in universities were most at odds”; Gove was clearly aware of the discoveries of linguistics (he listed basic principles such as that language changes constantly, change is normal, spoken language is the language, and correctness rests on usage), and his personality was such that he “hated to make exceptions, even when the failure to do so created the occasional absurdity, ambiguity, or obfuscation.” With that background, we proceed to the detailed discussion of what were perceived as problems:

[Read more…]


At the end of the latest entry at wood s lot, Mark says “if you track down a lot of poetry on the net Joseph Mosconi‘s Google Poetry Search Engine is very useful”; naturally I was intrigued, so I searched on “pigeon” and got (among many other things) the very silly but enjoyable “Ern Malley’s Cat: pigeon 500,” by Nick Whittock: “trying to keep my eyes open & dreaming of pigeons the same/ things keep happening in the cricket as in my dreams its/ just pigeon after pigeon/ after pigeon after pigeon/ after pigeon…” Mind you, I put in “incarnadine” and didn’t get Shakespeare, so it has a bias towards the current scene, but if that’s what you’re interested in, or if you just like seeing how words get played with by the poetic mind, give it a whirl.
Addendum. Here‘s a similar engine that searches a different mix of sites and may be more likely to have what you want (thanks, mollymooly!).


I’m not a big fan of writing manuals in general, having found them (when I’ve dipped into them) full of obvious tips mingled with personal quirks, but I’ve always heard William Zinsser’s On Writing Well mentioned with respect, and after reading Zinsser’s essay on how he came to write and revise it, I find myself wanting to read the book:

My model for On Writing Well was American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950, by the composer Alec Wilder.
Wilder’s book was one I had been waiting for all my life, the bible that every collector hopes someone will write in the field of his addiction. I was a collector of songs—the thousands of Broadway show tunes, Hollywood movie songs, and popular standards written in the 40-year golden age from Show Boat in 1926 to the rise of rock in the mid-1960s. As a part-time club pianist, I thought I knew them well—the oldest of old friends. Wilder showed me that I didn’t.
To write his book, Wilder examined the sheet music of 17,000 songs, selecting 300 in which he felt that the composer had pushed the form into new territory. Along with his text, he provided the pertinent bars of music to illustrate a passage that he found original or somehow touching. But what I loved most about Wilder’s book went beyond his erudition. It was his total commitment to his enthusiasms, as if he were saying: “These are just one man’s opinions—take ’em or leave ’em.” His pleasure was to praise. …
Thus I saw from Wilder’s American Popular Song that I might write a book about writing that would be just one man’s book. I would write from my own convictions—take ’em or leave ’em—and I would illustrate my points with passages by writers I admired. I would treat the English language spaciously, as a gift waiting for anyone to unwrap, not as a narrow universe of grammar and syntax. Above all, I would try to enjoy the trip and to convey that enjoyment to my readers.

And of course I’m interested in Wilder’s book as well. (Thanks for the link, Paul!)


To quote the MetaFilter post where I found it, “Nihongodict is an AJAXy online Japanese-English dictionary. The list of matches auto-updates as you type. You can enter (or paste in) romaji, Kanji or kana, and use character maps for hiragana and katakana. Results can be bookmarked. It’s huge fun to play with, and a nice front end to EDICT, a freely usable dictionary … with about 120,000 entries, largely maintained by one person (Jim Breen, Monash University).” The comment thread contains many other useful resources for Japanese as well as informed discussion of the “SKIP method,” notably by Matt of No-sword. I fear I’m never going to get around to relearning the Japanese I lost after the age of four, but I present this as a public service to those who can use it.


A couple more tidbits from Dan Chiasson’s Cavafy essay (see here):
1) I hadn’t known about this episode:

What we do know is that, in 1924, Cavafy’s homosexuality came to public light. It was a dispute about grammar—Greeks feel passionate about many things, but grammar would have to rank near the top of the list—that led Socrates Lagoudakis, a columnist for the local paper with inflammatory, somewhat comic opinions, to condemn Cavafy as “another Oscar Wilde.” (Cavafy had spelled the Greek for “New York” with a smooth breathing mark, contra Lagoudakis, who, whenever he mentioned New York, used a rough one. Things escalated from there.)

Now you see why it’s for the best that in the new orthography, Νέα Υόρκη is written without any breathing at all.
2) This really pissed me off:

It has often been said that Cavafy is an easy poet to translate. Joseph Brodsky found that Cavafy actually gained in translation. (Brodsky, who was translating his own poems into English, had a stake in believing this.) If translation is the undressing of a poem in one language in order to outfit it in another, Cavafy, by stripping his poems of so much Belle Époque excess, had done half of the translator’s work. Brodsky argued that translation was “almost the next logical step in the direction the poet was moving.” And, in one of the canonical statements on translation, W.H. Auden, who knew no Greek, found in Cavafy “a tone of voice, a personal speech” that defied every poet’s assumption that what essentially distinguished prose and poetry is “that prose can be translated into another tongue but poetry cannot.”

After some backing and filling, explaining that his Greek isn’t really as simple as the translations might make you think, Chiasson concludes that “Cavafy survives translation relatively unscathed.”
This is pernicious nonsense, and Chiasson (who I presume can read Cavafy in the original) should be ashamed of himself, as Auden should have been—how dare someone who “knew no Greek” make idiotic pronouncements about the success of translation from Greek? As for Brodsky, his translations of his own poetry are so bad they exempt him from taking part in the discussion; it is enough, after all, to be a great poet: it would be unfair to expect greatness in other fields as well.
The fact is that Cavafy is as hard to translate as any other great poet. You can read an affecting appreciation of this by Maurice Leiter here (“the curtain of my ignorance/ keeps me from truly knowing him”), and see the record of my struggle with one short poem here (and I wish hippugeek would start hanging around here again). No poem is easy for the translator who wants to do a good job, and anyone with half a brain should realize that the fact that a translated poem looks like it took no effort is as irrelevant as a great actor’s lack of sweating and grimacing. Ars est celare artem, and all that.


Geoffrey Hawthorn’s review essay “Things Keep Happening” in the LRB discusses various books about the history and practice of writing histories (the title comes from Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks: “A great many things keep happening, some good, some bad”) and has many good things in it, including this quote from John Burrow’s A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century:

The impulse to write history has nourished much effective narrative, and narrative – above all in Homer – was one of the sources of history as a genre. It would be a strange paradox if narrative and history turned out to be incompatible. But the example of Homer may teach us not to take the paradox too tragically. The Iliad has a climax, the fall of Troy, but it has many perspectives, and it would be a drastically impoverished reading of Homer’s epic that saw as its ‘point’ an explanation of Troy’s fall. The concept of a story is in essence a simple one, but that does not make all narrators either simple-minded or single-minded. Narrative can be capacious as well as directional.

But I’m here to pass on to my clever and polymathic readers a couple of questions that have imposed themselves on me as a result of reading Hawthorn:
1) He mentions an obscure late-16th-century historian named Reiner Reineck, also known (in the Latinizing style of the day) as Reineccius; in an effort to find out more about him I googled the latter form, and imagine my surprise when I got tens of thousands of hits, almost all for modern bearers of that surname: Gary Reineccius, Kelsea Reineccius, Stefanie Reineccius… It’s not by any means a common name (this site says it “had 156 occurences in the 2000 Census”), but I want to know how it’s pronounced by those who use it today—rye-NESH-us? rye-NEESH-us? Anybody know? (In German it would be rye-NECK-see-oos, I think.)
2) In a passage on Reineck’s better-known contemporary Jean Bodin (who “recommended torture, even in cases of the disabled and children, to try to confirm guilt of witchcraft” and “asserted that not even one witch could be erroneously condemned if the correct procedures were followed, suspicion being enough to torment the accused because rumours concerning witches were almost always true”), Hawthorn says: “But his exuberantly penetrating reflections on the ars historica were to stir all but the most fearful crabs. Like Patrizi’s dialectics and Reineck’s researches, they can in retrospect be seen to have contributed to the end of what they purported to extend.” I think of myself as a pretty decent reader, but I have not the faintest idea what he means by “stir all but the most fearful crabs”; can anybody elucidate?
Update (January 2010): An actual bearer of the Reineccius name writes to inform me that his family pronounces it rye-NECK-sus (three syllables), adding “that is a very German pronunciation, coming from a predominantly German person” (the family has been in the U.S. since 1868 but “has held on to our German roots since that time”).


Lively lexicographess Erin McKean (a long-time LH favorite) writes in the Boston Globe about “the changing language of crosswords”:

Last year, during the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, host and puzzlemaster Will Shortz held aloft a tiny object. It was barely visible from the back of the cavernous hotel ballroom, but the whole room of more than 700 contestants promptly burst into applause. What was it? A little needlecase, better known to puzzlers as an etui – one of the mainstays of the curious language of crosswordese.
The vocabulary of crosswords is like the dialect of an alternate and highly specific universe, populated by Ednas and Enids and Ians; where the food is Oreos and oleo and the drinks ales and tea. It embraces particular bits of French (ami, ete), Latin (esse, ave), Spanish (este, oro), and even a little Hindi (Sri). It wields an epee with elan; is on familiar terms with tsars and emirs; enjoys music, especially the oboe and altos, and likes to travel: Iran, Oslo, Reno, Etna. And it’s interested in science, exploring ions and the atom, as well as the erne and the orca….
Today, however, many of these classic puzzle words are fading slowly, yielding to newer, fresher entries. Elater (click beetle), istle (carpet fiber), and Omri (Ahab’s father, or the first name of the actor Omri Katz, and no, I hadn’t heard of him either) are giving way to slang (phat, mondo, bling), trademarks (Lycra, Freon), and modern pop-culture figures (J. Lo, A-Rod).

My wife and I regularly do the NY Times Sunday puzzle, so we’re aware of this trend; while I regret the loss of the old standbys, change is a good thing and keeps us on our toes. And if you’ve never seen an etui (I hadn’t), here‘s a nice picture. (Thanks, Trevor!)


I’ve just gotten to Dan Chiasson’s Cavafy review essay, “Man with a Past,” in the March 23 New Yorker, and as a huge Cavafy fan I was reading along happily until I got to this: “By 1902, his mother, his three brothers, his grandfather, and two of his closest friends had died. Perhaps in response to all that loss, he turned away from the somnambulism of his early work. (Yeats, distancing himself from his own early work, got it right: ‘In dreams begin responsibilities.’)” And then I was unhappy.

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” is one of the most famous American short stories, and it’s by Delmore Schwartz. I presume he modeled the title on Yeats, who preceded his collection Responsibilities with the epigraph “In dreams begins responsibility,” with the source given as “Old play.” Very similar, yes, and it’s easy to confuse them, but back in the glory days of the New Yorker they would not have allowed the mistake to get into print.

But James Longenbach, in his Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats, and Modernism (Oxford UP, 1988), says the quote “is in fact from Nietzsche.” Anybody know any more about that?


Orhan Pamuk was recently given an honorary doctorate by the University of Rouen; his acceptance speech is devoted to Flaubert, whom he (like many modernist authors) idolized as a young man: “And he addresses to his mother the sentences I whispered to myself before I had turned thirty, just like Flaubert, sentences in which I tried to believe: ‘I care nothing for the world, for the future, for what people will say, for any kind of establishment, or even for literary renown, which in the past I used to lie awake so many nights dreaming about.’ And after conveying to her these arrogant words, Flaubert adds one final line whose simplicity belies his self-confidence and earnestness: ‘That is what I am like; such is my character.'” Pamuk discusses the reasons for this idolization (and the variant form it took in Turkey, where it “in many respects resembled traditional feelings of devotion and resignation toward late great Sufi masters and cloistered dervish sheikhs”) and ends by analyzing “two basic tendencies among those who wanted to be Flaubert,” a “distinction, which points out two fundamental characteristics of the art of the novel”:

The first variety of Flaubert enthusiast admires the author’s characteristic venom and voice. I refer to Flaubert’s angry, mocking, and intelligent voice rising against the ordinary, against average bourgeois life, superficiality, and stupidity. In October 1850, at the end of the letter he writes to his mother, we immediately recognize this tone: Flaubert explains with ridicule that his soon-to-be wed friend will fast become a perfect bourgeois gentleman. Ernest will from now on be the defender of the established order, the family, and private ownership; he will most certainly declare war against the socialist thinking of his youth!… We all regard eminent authors’ derision of human foolishness and mediocrity as appealing; we read their books and novels in some respects to hear these voices and live among them. However, should this voice of ridicule become a novel’s sole strength, wit and cynicism can in no time become an arrogant voice representing a look from above belittling middle class life, the uneducated, different cultures, people whose customs vary from our own and are deemed inadequate. In particular, the process of European modernism’s settling outside of the West must be understood in tandem with this ethical problem.
On the other hand, despite all of Flaubert’s anger and derision, he was not an arrogant writer. And he had discovered a language that allowed him, through the frame of the novel, to analyse up-close his protagonists and those who were different than him. After reading in the letter to his mother how he grew angry at his childhood friend’s marriage and entry into mundane bourgeois life, we are reminded of the essential strength of the novelist Flaubert through the affection with which he described the same childhood friends in A Sentimental Education and the deep compassion with which he approached their “tomfoolery” and mental confusion. Here was a writer who could identify so thoroughly with his protagonists that he could feel in his own heart the misery and predicament of a struggling, married woman, Madame Bovary, and convey that dilemma to readers in a clear idiom.

He says “I have always wanted to identify with this author, who on one hand felt boundless anger and resentment toward humanity, and on the other hand, nurtured a profound compassion for the same and understood men and women better than others.” You can read the speech in English here and in French here. (Via MetaFilter.)