Archives for February 2010


Daniel Kalder in the Guardian has a good interview with Robert Chandler, who has translated Andrei Platonov’s novel The Foundation Pit [Russian Kotlovan] twice because “No other work of literature means so much to me” and “Platonov is hard to translate: in the early 1990s we were working in the dark.”

You’ve argued that Russians will eventually come to recognise Platonov as their greatest prose writer. Given that he’s up against titans such as Gogol, Tolstoy and Chekhov this is quite a claim.
Well, it probably sounds less startling to Russians than it does to English and Americans. I’ve met a huge number of Russian writers and critics who look on Platonov as their greatest prose writer of the last century. In my personal judgment, it was confirmed for me during the last stages of my work on Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, an anthology of short stories I compiled for Penguin Classics. I worked on this for several years, did most of the translations myself and revised them many times. I read through the proofs with enjoyment — I was still happy with the choices I had made — but there were only two writers whom I was still able to read with real wonder: Pushkin and Platonov. Even at this late stage I was still able to find new and surprising perceptions in Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades and Platonov’s The Return. This didn’t happen with any other writers.

Chandler is much more modest and sensible about translation than that guy Venuti, but then again, he’s just a translator, not a Grand Poobah of Translation Theory. And I really have to read The Foundation Pit sooner rather than later. [Update: I’m now reading it, and it’s as great as they say.] (Via Lizok.)

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Kim Fischer, a PR person at Temple University, has a puff piece on Lawrence Venuti, a translator and translation theorist and (not coincidentally) a Temple English professor, which irritates me with its breathless treatment of him as the Hot New Thing in translation:

A leading theorist in his field, Venuti is at the forefront of what might be called a translation renaissance. … The most prevalent translation strategy has been to adhere to the current standard dialect of the translating language, which is the most familiar and least noticeable to the reader. This kind of translation, according to Venuti, effaces the translator’s presence and erases cultural distinctions.
“Translation rewrites a foreign text in terms that are intelligible and interesting to readers in the receiving culture. Doing so is akin to committing an act of ethnocentric violence by uprooting the text from the language and culture that gave it life. Translating into current, standard English at once conceals that violence and homogenizes foreign cultures,” he said.

You know what? There are a million different ways to translate, and you can perfectly well do a good job at it in your own preferred way without giving in to the temptation to paint everyone who does it differently as a retrograde perpetrator of ethnocentric violence and eraser of cultural distinctions.
But never mind; a sidebar quotes Venuti’s translation of one of the poems from Edward Hopper, a collection by Catalan poet Ernest Farrés (and it also irritates me that both Fischer and Venuti keep calling Catalan a “minor language”), and I liked it well enough I don’t care about his excuses for translating it the way he likes or his blackguarding of people who do it differently.
[N.b.: the title of my post comes from the line “she looked real swell, sure enough”; you can read the rest of the translation at the first link.]

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John Emerson sent me a link to a NY Times article by Ellen Barry about the complex relationships among the peoples of Dagestan, one of the most ethnically diverse places on earth. Barry starts out with Magomedkhan M. Magomedkhanov, an ethnographer from Dagestan (sadly, the M. stands not for Magomedkhanovich but for Magomedovich):

He grew up among the Archi, a 1,200-member ethnic group that speaks a language of unknown origin and, for at least seven centuries, was connected to the outside world only by rugged mountain paths. This is fairly typical of Dagestan, a collection of 14 major and several dozen minor ethnic groups that formed in tide pools and cul-de-sacs off one of humankind’s great migration streams.
All this has proven exceptionally fertile ground for ethnic humor. Dagestanis can tell ethnic jokes for hours, returning to beloved themes like the muscle-bound denseness of the Avars, the naked commercialism of the Dargins, the bookish pusillanimity of the Lezgins, the slyness of Lakhs and so on. And that’s not counting jokes about especially dumb villages.
One example: An Avar is carrying a wounded Dargin off the battlefield. The Dargin entreats his friend to leave him behind, lest they both be killed, and asks the one favor of shooting him so he does not suffer. The Avar, finally convinced, pulls out his firearm but finds he has no ammunition. The Dargin roots in his pockets and pulls out a bullet. “I’ll sell it to you,” he says.

I’m sure the “beloved themes” represent stereotypes as superficial and unhelpful as all such, but I’m grateful to have even superficial stereotypes to go with what to me have always been mere names (Avar, Dargin, etc.). And the jokes are pretty funny. There’s some interesting historical material, too, but I’m not sure I trust the Times for that kind of thing.


From Richard Hamblyn’s LRB review of To Sea and Back: The Heroic Life of the Atlantic Salmon, by Richard Shelton:

‘Smolt’, ‘grilse’: as Richard Shelton observes, salmon are spoken of in a ‘stained-glass language’ of their own, their life stages marked by an ichthyological lexicon unchanged since Chaucer’s time. Born in a ‘redd’, a shallow, gravel-covered depression dug by the female in the days before spawning, newly hatched salmon begin life as ‘alevins’, tiny, buoyant creatures with their yolk sacs still attached. Once the yolk has been absorbed, the fast-growing fish, now known as ‘fry’, are able to feed for themselves, turning instinctively to face the current in order to graze on drifting insect larvae. Some months later, the juvenile salmon, now known as ‘parr’, move downstream to deeper water, where their markings grow darker and their shapes more distinctively salmonoid. By the following spring, most parr have begun the first of the transformations that will enable them to cross the hydrological boundary from the river to the sea: once their kidneys have been primed to reverse their usual function of taking in salts and excreting dilute river water, their skin colour brightens to reflective silver through a microscopic coating of guanine crystals, and their body shapes fill out in anticipation of the long voyage ahead. It is then that the ‘smolts’, as the fish are now known, are ready to head downriver to the sea.[…]
As soon as it smells fresh water again, an adult salmon will stop feeding, devoting itself solely to the rigours of the voyage, its body beginning its final transformation, as its immune system shuts down to conserve energy, its skin starts to lose its silvery sheen, and (in the case of the male) a rush of hormones prompts the lower jaw to change shape, curving into an aggressive-looking underbite known as a ‘kype’, a jutting scimitar used for fending off other males in the spawning grounds upstream. […]
Shelton coolly describes the lingering death of a spawned-out male, now known as a ‘kelt’ – the last of its names […]

I wonder if any other creature has quite so many names for its various stages, and if any other languages have a similar collection of salmon words. (Thanks, Kattullus!)


My wife and I have been watching a bit of the Olympics, and I noticed one of the Russian figure skaters was named Yuko Kavaguti. Today there’s a NY Times article by Jere Longman about the Russians’ loss of dominance in pairs skating (for the first time since 1960, a Russian pair didn’t get the gold medal), in the course of which Longman writes: “It has now reached the point that the top Russian women’s pairs skater, Kavaguti, is a native of Japan. She modified her family name of Kawaguchi after gaining Russian citizenship.”
No. She did not “modify her family name” any more than she would modify it by calling herself Kawaguchi in an English-speaking country. Her surname is 川口 (which uses nice simple characters and means ‘river mouth’); that name is rendered Kawaguchi in English and Кавагути in Russian, and the latter is transliterated into the Latin alphabet as “Kavaguti.” But it’s the Russian representation of 川口. I don’t expect an English-speaking reporter to know that, so I’m not faulting Longman, but I wanted to clarify it.


I’m reading a lousy Iraqi novel called Papa Sartre (a 2009 translation of the 2001 original); it’s only 178 pages long but feels like War and Peace, and I’m skimming more and more as I zip through its repetitive and heavy-handed mockery of schemers, ne’er-do-wells, and fake philosophers. Why do I keep reading, you ask? Because I’m fascinated with Baghdad, as I am with all ancient cities, and it’s rare to read fiction set there. Alas, although there are descriptions of Baghdad streets and neighborhoods, it’s impossible for me to add them to my mental map of the city because I’m unable to locate them on an actual map: where is al-Saadun Park, where is the Sadriya neighborhood? And why are there no decent maps of Baghdad? It’s the only great city I know of for which maps are (as far as I can determine) unavailable. Even my beloved Map Room at the NYPL came up nearly empty; I copied a 1951 Arabic map that is nearly useless even if you can read the Arabic, and have collected various tiny maps in newspapers and magazines over the years, but on the whole I might as well be reading about an imaginary city. (You’d think the publisher could have included at least a sketch map showing where the various settings of the novel are.)
Excuse me, I’m venting. What I came here to say is that I eventually ran across one of those nuggets that keep me reading, a reference to “the Orosdi Back department store.” That was such a, well, Levantine-sounding name that I had to investigate it; my preliminary guess was that “Back” was a mangled version of the common Ottoman honorific Beg. But no, it’s an Austrian Jewish surname; you can read about it here (scroll down to “A GREAT DEPARTMENT STORE”):

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The Telegraph has a good obituary for Bruce Mitchell, whose Guide to Old English I own and consult with pleasure. I had no idea he was Australian, that one of his students was Terry Jones (of Monty Python), or that he’d had such a hard row to hoe early on:

Family circumstances prevented him from taking up the offer of a free place at Melbourne University, and after leaving school aged 15 he began work as a student teacher. At the same time he enrolled as a part-time student at the university, where he took a general Arts degree. Memories of the hard slog of holding down a full-time job while studying for a degree, he confessed, meant that he had little sympathy with Oxford students who failed to write their essays.

And I completely agree with him about anachronistic punctuation:

One of Mitchell’s particular concerns was the way in which modern translations add punctuation to Old English texts in ways that distort their meaning. In a seminal article, The Dangers of Disguise: Old English Texts in Modern Punctuation (1980), he drew attention to the way in which punctuation (the semicolon was a particular bugbear) – developed after the advent of printing – tended to destroy the ebb and flow of Old English poetry and prose, denying the reader insights into texts whose syntactical structure developed out of a tradition of oral storytelling.

Thanks for the link, Paul!


Today wood s lot features Bertolt Brecht’s “An die Nachgeborenen” (1939), which along with Auden’s “September 1, 1939” (“I sit in one of the dives/ On Fifty-second Street/ Uncertain and afraid…”) is one of the great poetic distillations of the mood just before World War II broke out. Unfortunately, the version given there is a bad translation that unforgivably omits the first section (“Wirklich, ich lebe in finsteren Zeiten!” [‘Truly, I live in dark times!’]) and goes so far as to renumber the remaining sections to cover up the fact; its English is dubious (“we, who wished to lay for the foundations for peace and friendliness…”) and it misunderstands the German (the translator has “without me those that ruled could not sleep so easily” for Brecht’s “Aber die Herrschenden/ Saßen ohne mich sicherer,” which says exactly the opposite). So I thought I’d link to Scott Horton’s considerably superior version, “To Those Who Follow in Our Wake,” which is preceded (admirably) by the original German and followed (helpfully) by a discussion that places it in its context.


A very bad “poem” has apparently been making the rounds for decades now, attributed to Jorge Luis Borges. I learn this via Anatoly, who discovered an article (in Spanish, which Anatoly is studying) by Ivan Almeida, laying out the entire ridiculous story. It starts with a guy named Don Herold, who in 1953 published a short piece in Reader’s Digest called “If I Had My Life to Live Over”—typical Reader’s Digest material, mildly quirky and touching (“I’d dare to make more mistakes next time. I’d relax, I would limber up. I would be sillier than I have been this trip…”). At some point, inevitably, somebody decided it would be even more effective chopped up into lines of varying length and presented as a “poem,” and it was occasionally attributed to an octogenarian woman from Kentucky called Nadine Stair. Then it got attributed to Borges and translated into Spanish as “Instantes,” which became the presumptive original; the English version was sometimes called by the Spanish name, for extra exoticism points.
Almeida does excellent work with the tangled tale, and I like his conclusion, which I’ll translate (original below):

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I was scanning wood s lot (one of the reliable pleasures of the LH morning) when I was stopped in my tracks by a brief excerpt from a longish poem, “Nine,” by Anne Tardos (home page, Wikipedia). It turns out she was born in France and lived in Budapest, Vienna, and Paris before moving to the United States, which explains the multilingual aspect of her work (“Zinguer je je zinguer je, mich dich Villa nicht“) but not its irresistible variety and exuberance. The excerpt impelled me to click through to the poem, and I found myself reading the entire thing with growing pleasure. Like all writing worth a damn, it’s about love, death, and language, embedded in an unpredictable framework that turns out to be just what was needed. The first line sensibly announces the framework: “Nine words per line and nine lines per stanza.” The next nonsensically revels in the arbitrariness of it: “Pink fluffy underwater kangaroo fuzzy free manic rabbity thing.” And the third ties together sense and nonsense: “Sense and nonsense similarly writer’s block clogged and unblocked.” That excerpt fairly represents the whole poem, in the manner we have learned to call “fractal” (“The fractal pattern of which we are a part”); if you find it frustrating but intriguing, I suggest you take a look at the whole thing. You may find yourself, as I did, reading it all the way to the end, laughing with delight more than once. It’s nice to be reminded that good poetry can be fun.
Here, more or less at random, is a pair of lines that struck me enough to want to copy them:

Miles Davis says play what you don’t know.
Everything we seek is guided by what is sought.

And here’s another, in a mysterious language:

Yentsia bakoondy eeleck, ta-dee-doo-dah, bentsey la cozy fen-fen.
Bit baloon timi zin zah, timi zin zah, zimbudah.

Sense or nonsense? If you know, please speak up.