Archives for June 2010


My wife and I were doing an acrostic puzzle in which one of the clues was “penny farthing” and the answer they wanted was “bicycle.” I had never heard the term, so I looked it up, and it has a wonderful explanation. OED:

A bicycle with a large front wheel and a small rear one, current from the early 1870s to the mid 1890s; an ordinary. Now hist.
[…]1910 Lotinga’s Weekly 7 May 64 The old type of machine, known as the ‘Penny-Farthing’ owing to the size of the wheels.

The Wikipedia article has a picture showing the two coins together, as well as one of the contraption itself.


The Fondation Carla Bruni-Sarkozy has an online interview (French) with translator André Markowicz:

Born in Prague in 1960, André Markowicz spent the first four years of his life in Moscow. Brought up in France in a family of Russian intellectuals, he began translating under the guidance of the linguist Efim Etkind. Chekhov offered Markowicz an initial opportunity to translate prose, but it was with his translation of the complete works of Dostoyevsky for Actes Sud in the early 1990s that he first rose to prominence.

The interviewer’s introduction says: “By the time he finished the mammoth undertaking in 2002 he had proved something: what people had been reading by Dostoyevsky wasn’t Dostoyevsky. It wasn’t his style, there was nothing of his collision of linguistic registers, which had been smoothed out to obtain a language far too literary for an author whose strokes of the pen were like axe blows.” This illustrates a major difference between French tradition, which expects translations to read like French literature, and the Anglo-American tradition, which welcomes variety of style, including the kind of “low” register that is resisted in France. Some excerpts:

When you read the original text alongside the first translations (which came out almost immediately), you realize that you’re not looking at the same author. Dostoyevsky writes obsessively, there is a very striking use of repetition. The early translations took out those repetitions. On the other hand, he also makes up sentences which are not proper written Russian. That’s quite normal; in Russian, nobody tells you how to write properly. But the translators would construct sentences in proper written French. All the same, the ideas were still there. The issues which Dostoyevsky addresses are so crucial: responsibility, the relationship between God and the world, humanist values in modern society, good and evil, the nature of obsession. These are questions of philosophy, not style. So you can read a very bad translation of Dostoyevsky and still be gripped by reading him. The fact that Dostoyevsky’s works had already been translated meant that I was in the fortunate position of a writer putting forward his own vision of that output. I was lucky to be able to work on the style, using the ear that I had for the text in my native language. Now, in Dostoyevsky, as in any writer, style is sense. My translation was not so much a new reading as a way of clarifying a number of points, after a century of reading Dostoyevsky…
[. . .]
I was one of the first translators to become the focus of very personal discussion. What the readers of my generation were arguing about was not so much my translation, in the end, as the ones they’d grown up with. Was my own reading right? At any rate, I can certainly account for it. But the way I translate, not respecting the canonical norms for French literature because the author is Russian, well, that of course upsets those readers who only see foreign literature through the lens of French literature. But it seems to me that we should be able to go beyond this difficulty. For me this is extremely important. It is in this respect that translation is a political act. It is not simply a question of turning what is foreign into French, but of understanding that it should not be the same as we are. Translation should be a process of reception, not of assimilation.

There’s much more of interest, including an illuminating discussion of Shakespeare towards the end. And I like his modesty: “People quoted me as saying that I was restoring the true face of Dostoyevsky. I never claimed to be doing so much. The earlier translations were clearly inaccurate in terms of style, but they did give a certain face to Dostoyevsky. Mine gave him a different one.” Next up, Pushkin: “‘I’ve taken thirty years to translate Eugene Onegin,’ he says. ‘It’s my whole life’.”


Kyoto Journal is “a non-profit volunteer-based quarterly magazine established in 1986” that “offers interviews, essays, translations, humor, fiction, poetry and reviews.” Their current issue, #74, “(latest we have ever been in getting a new one out!) is a long-awaited special, on the Silk Roads, guest-edited by Leanne Ogasawara, with guest designer Kevin Foley providing some spectacular layouts and typography.” Leanne’s blog, tang dynasty times (“all the peonies of Chang’an”), “was the catalyst for this special themed issue of KJ. In posts that read as dispatches from outposts on a journey of exploration deep into the history of relations between East and West, she reflects on aspects of what a truly global culture might encompass, presenting Tang multiculturalism and Silk Road cosmopolitanism (and much, much more) as reference points for our present times.” Check out the KJ material available online (and, of course, Leanne’s excellent blog), and if you’re sufficiently impressed, you might seek out a physical copy (¥1,500, US/Can$15, Aus$20, €10). I’m getting mine free, because I contributed a review of Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road (see this LH post from last year, as well as the previous posts linked therein).

Update (Sept. 2018). #74 is, of course, no longer the current issue, and I have changed the link accordingly; there do not seem to be excerpts available online.


Some years ago I posted about Nicaraguan sign language; now a story in Discover magazine discusses “a new study led by Jennie Pyers from Wellesley College”:

By studying children who learned NSL at various stages of its development, Pyers has shown that the vocabulary they pick up affects the way they think. Specifically, those who learned NSL before it developed specific gestures for left and right perform more poorly on a spatial awareness test than children who grew up knowing how to sign those terms.[…]
Pyers explains, “The first-cohort signers find these tasks challenging because they do not have the language to encode the relevant aspects of the environment that would help them solve the spatial problem.” She added, “[They] did not have a consistent linguistic means to encode ‘left of’.”
This is a fascinating result, especially since the first group of adults were older and had been signing for a longer time. It’s clear evidence that our spatial reasoning skills depend, to an extent, on consistent spatial language. If we lack the right words, our mental abilities are limited in a way that extra life experience can’t fully compensate for.

It’s not the dreaded Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but it’s interesting stuff. Check it out. (Thanks, Aidan!)


I keep forgetting to mention this, but it’s not too late to join The Quarterly Conversation and Open Letters Monthly in their summer-long reading of The Tale of Genji. I’d do it myself, but my schedule is already full.


“Gabby” Street was an old-time catcher, manager, coach, and broadcaster who died the year I was born. I always assumed his nickname came from his talkativeness, but no, it came from his racist behavior. In his own words:

“We used to call the colored boys ‘Gabby’ down in Alabama, and when I wanted a new baseball thrown into the game I used to call, ‘Hey Gabby, where’s the baseball?’ . . . If you see a black boy and you want him, and you don’t know his name, you yell, ‘Hey, Gabby.’ It works in St. Louis, too, and if you don’t believe it, try it. To me all black boys have been ‘Gabby,’ and I got my nickname from the use of that word and not, as is commonly believed, because I am a chatterbox.”

I got this telling bit of information from the best book of social history I’ve read in some time, Martha Ackmann’s Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone: The First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League. Ackmann is a journalist and scholar who is on the faculty of the Gender Studies Department at Mount Holyoke College, teaching courses in women’s public writing, biography and Emily Dickinson; her previous book was The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight. She’s also a lifelong baseball fan (she says in her acknowledgments that she’s “attended Boston Red Sox games for three decades”), and it shows; the book is suffused with the same love of the game that was the animating force in the life of its subject, Marcenia “Tomboy” (later “Toni”) Stone. But if it were just a well-written biography of a forgotten baseball pioneer, Curveball would be a specialized item for connoisseurs of women’s history and/or the Negro League. As it is, I recommend it to anyone interested in America’s difficult journey from the open, vicious racism of American before World War II to the subdued and hopefully fading racism of today, and the almost incredible courage and determination it took for a young woman obsessed with baseball but with the bad luck to be born in 1921 to fight not only the racism of society at large but the sexism of the sport she loved. Ackmann has a real gift for inserting background material seamlessly into her story, describing the (long vanished) Rondo neighborhood of Stone’s native St. Paul and the Fillmore district of San Francisco where she lived after she left home, explaining the workings of Negro League baseball in clear and affecting terms, and providing concise and illuminating footnotes on just about everything you might want added information on. She has miniessays on the effect of the war on the employment possibilities for blacks and women, the jazz scene of 1940s San Francisco, and much else. And the book is written in such a lively style that I would have devoured it more quickly if I hadn’t had to keep putting it down to get over the bitterness of reading about what she, and so many other people who just wanted to play a game and live their lives, had to deal with. I’m just glad Stone was able to enjoy some belated recognition before she died in 1996, and I’m very much looking forward to Ackmann’s next book, on Emily Dickinson.

[Read more…]


The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe is online in full:

The only resource of its kind, this encyclopedia provides the most complete picture of the history and culture of Jews in Eastern Europe from the beginnings of their settlement in the region to the present. This Web site makes accurate, reliable, scholarly information about East European Jewish life accessible to everyone.

The first thing I looked up was “Kiev,” and I found not only a full article, with history, photos, and bibliography, but a map showing the location of not only the synagogues but the Jewish Theater, the Jewish Market, the Jewish Bathhouse, the Jewish Gate (from the 11th century), the Zionists Club, the houses where Ilya Ehrenburg, Sholem Aleichem, and other well-known Jews lived, the Continental Hotel (where Mandelstam, Ehrenburg, and Babel lived at various times)… well, you get the idea. It’s a treasurehouse, and I look forward to exploring it at length. Via Dumneazu (“Ethnomusicological Eating East of Everywhere”).


There is a condition (terrifying to the bibliophiles among us) called alexia, “an acquired type of sensory aphasia where damage to the brain causes a patient to lose the ability to read. It is also called word blindness, text blindness or visual aphasia.” Oliver Sacks, always a stimulating writer, describes it in the latest New Yorker in “A Man of Letters” (June 28, 2010, pp. 22-28; not online, but here‘s a summary). Unfortunately, having blown my circuits by finishing the book I was editing, watching (and shouting myself hoarse over) the terminally exciting U.S. win over Algeria at the World Cup, and then subjecting myself to the longest tennis match in history (suspended for the night after almost ten hours, with the score 59-59 in the fifth and final set), I am not in condition to provide a thoughtful analysis; I will just quote a poignant line from the subject of the article, the novelist Howard Engel—”My life had been built on reading everything in sight”—and urge you to find a copy of the magazine. Oh, and here‘s an NPR story on the subject (with a link to an audio file), and here‘s “Johnson”‘s take on it. Fascinating stuff.


Claire Bowern of Anggarrgoon (and a frequent LH commenter when she isn’t as busy as she apparently is these days) has joined Quentin Atkinson and Russell Gray in creating the North American English Dialect Survey:

We are doing research on different accents in American English. We know that Americans and Canadians have a great deal in common in the way they speak, but there are also differences. In order to study the ways that North American accents differ, we have put together a survey of common words, and we’d like you to participate!

As Mark Liberman says at the Log post where I learned about it, “All you need is an internet-connected computer with a microphone and a web browser that can run Flash. […] This is a great idea, and I certainly encourage participation.” As do I.


Movie subtitles have been a perennial topic of discussion here at LH (e.g., 1, 2, 3), and Nate Barksdale provides another interesting link with his essay Subtleties. He starts off with a discussion of yellow subtitles (which I’m all in favor of, even if they’re occasionally obtrusive) and works his way via a history lesson (“They worked their way into the silent cinema as printed cards explaining or commenting on what was happening in the filmed sequences”) to the inevitable “moment[s] in which the subtle subtitle machinery has gone wrong”:

The film in question is usually from India; Bollywood movies (and their regional equivalents) present a unique subtitling situation. First of all, the target idiom is generally a variety of Indian English, which of course makes sense given the speech of both translator and average viewer, meaning that even perfect execution will often look odd to American eyes.
Secondly, Indian movies are generally quite long, and I’ve noticed that the quality of the subtitles generally plummets by the time you enter the third hour of the film: grammar goes slack, dialogue becomes terse, there are long awkward stretches where you hear voices but see no words. I figure the screen translation economics work out such that somewhere around the one hundred twentieth minute, anyone still watching is sufficiently committed to the film that there’s no additional return on investment for perfecting the subtitles that remain. I imagine a video editing suite somewhere in the suburbs of Mumbai or Chennai, where the key moment arrives and the lead translator hands off the balance of the film to some sub-subtitler and heads outside for a well-deserved masala dosa.

He says that “the greatest amount of South Asian subtitle strangeness” occurs in the songs, and presents a couple of wondrous examples: “On the tip of the noses love enjoys even the beauty of crows!” and “Thoughts of various spinaches make me yearn.” The latter is from from Mullum Malarum (Tamil, 1978), and I have to say, it tempts me to see the movie.