Archives for January 2013


The translator Howard Goldblatt has a very nice piece in the latest issue of Asymptote, about his decades-long relationship with the Taiwanese writer Huang Chunming:

I finally met Chunming not long after I began teaching at San Francisco State University. Huang, a free spirit like his father (who had come to the US without knowing English and opened a Chinese restaurant somewhere in the Midwest), was traveling around the States in a beat-up, uninsured car he would later abandon when it crapped out on him. We had corresponded briefly, through the good offices of Nancy Ing, so he simply showed up at my flat one day, and that was the beginning of our friendship. I don’t know what we talked about, other than his stories, several of which I had read and was interested in translating; I’m sure he regaled me with his storytelling talent. He would pepper his Mandarin, which I understood, with Taiwanese, which I didn’t, and yet I would always know what he was saying. That talent has stayed with him over the years, and he has become, in my view, the archetype of a speaker of the hybrid language—a mixture of the two languages, with a smattering of English or Japanese—that is contemporary Taiwan’s lingua franca.

It’s quite a story, and makes me miss Taipei terribly; how I’d love to pop into the Astoria (founded by Russian emigres in 1949) for a pastry and coffee!
The rest of the issue looks well worth investigating, too; there’s another piece on translation in which “An author interviews his translator.” Thanks, Bathrobe!


Yuka Igarashi has a nice piece at Granta on a topic close to my heart; the whole thing is worth reading, but I’ll quote the peroration:

There is a danger to copy-editing. You start to read in a different way. You start to see the sentence as machinery. You focus on the gears and levers that connect words to one another; you hunt for the wayward semicolon, the unintentionally ambiguous phrase, the clunky repeated word. You even hope they appear, so you can kill them. You see them when they’re not even there, because you relish slashing your pen across the paper. It gets a little twisted.
As with any kind of technical knowledge or specialization, it is possible to take copy-editing too far, to be ruled by it, to not quite be able to shut it off when it ought to be shut off.
Ultimately, though, I don’t actually think it diminishes the pleasures of reading. The idea of a pure reading experience is a myth, anyway, because purity is a myth. I’m not willing to believe that attending to details or reading very carefully is ever a bad thing. A sentence is, in fact, a machine, an intricate and delicately balanced equation; good copy-editing – good editing more generally – is a way to help a writer get the equation so exactly right that it starts to not seem like one at all. Many times a day, I’ll be hunched over a paragraph, wondering whether a particular pronoun has the correct antecedent, whether one independent clause should be dependent, and suddenly I’ll be caught off guard by a stunning turn of phrase or find myself jolted by a perfectly articulated insight. The power that writing can have, at these times, far outstrips the power it would have were I merely a so-called casual reader. I might be a freak, and ruined for life, but I’m resigned to – no, happy with – this fate.


Allan Metcalf has a nice appreciation of Eric P. Hamp and of his field, historical linguistics, in Lingua Franca:

Indo-European linguists like Hamp compare the modern languages with one another to reconstruct the common ancestor spoken some thousands of years ago, long before any language was recorded. That means observing patterns of relationships among hundreds of current languages. To do this properly means studying those hundreds of languages. Hamp has done this, not only with written languages but also with personal fieldwork throughout Europe and parts of Asia to learn lesser-known languages and dialects.

He quotes some nice bits from Hamp’s articles in the latest issue of Comments on Etymology, e.g. “Welsh illustrates with its normal set of numeral terms how a sophisticated and notably artistic and musical culture can evolve a set of terms at the same time traditionally systematic yet so complex that it would tire out and lose any of their neighbors if they ever took the trouble to learn to read their genuinely gorgeous poetry.” Hamp is 92 and still going strong, and reading things like this makes me wish I’d stuck it out in what was once my field as well.


I’ve been reading Pogorelsky‘s delightful Двойник [The Double, 1828], a series of novellas in open imitation of Hoffmann but none the worse for that; the second concerns a young Russian count who goes to Leipzig to study and falls in love with the beautiful “daughter” of a strange Neapolitan mathematician who turns out (spoiler alert!) to be his clockwork creation; the narrator objects to his eponymous double, who has told him the story, that such things are impossible, and among the examples adduced by the double to counter his doubt is a certain famous talking doll: “Кукла эта, названная Андроидою Алберта Великого, по свидетельству тогдашних писателей, так была умна, что Алберт советовался с нею во всех важных случаях; но, к сожалению, один из его учеников, которому надоела неумолкаемая болтливость этой куклы, однажды в сердцах разбил ее на части.” [This doll, called the Android of Albertus Magnus, according to the testimony of writers of the time was so intelligent that Albert consulted with it on all important occasions; unfortunately, one of his students, tired of its incessant chattering, in his anger smashed it to bits.]
I was quite struck to see the Russian equivalent of “android” used that early, and indeed it is the first use in Russian literature (the next is in an 1836 story by Veltman—”Вот скитаются андроиды на паркетных берегах Стикса” [Androids are wandering there on the parquet banks of the Styx]—and in Bryusov‘s 1908 The Fiery Angel it is again used, several times, of Albertus’s creation). Of course I wanted to know how far back it went in English, so I went to the OED, where I found (in an unrevised entry from 1884) the first citation “1728 E. Chambers Cycl. (at cited word), Albertus Magnus, is recorded as having made an Androides.” I thought perhaps I could antedate that using Google Books, and I did quite well if I do say so myself, taking it back to 1657 in an English translation (The History of Magick: By Way of Apology, for All the Wise Men who Have Unjustly Been Reputed Magicians, from the Creation, to the Present Age) of Gabriel Naudé‘s Apologie pour tous les grands personages faussement soupçonnez de magie (1625, 1653, 1669, 1712). Google Books has the 1653 edition, where we find on p. 539 “Apres quoy si l’on veut insister avec Aristote que le bruit commun ne peut estre totalement faux, & que par consequent tant d’Autheurs n’auroient parlé de cette Androide d’Albert s’il n’en avoit esté quelque chose,” which J. Davies, the translator, rendered “To re-inforce which Argument, if any shall with Aristotle insist, that common report cannot be absolutely false, and consequently, that so many Authors would not have spoken of the Androides of Albertus, if something had not been in the wind.” (I’ll put the embedded image below the cut for those who can see it.)
So is that the first printed occurrence in English? We’ll have to wait and see what else turns up as Google keeps digitizing the world’s libraries. But a more interesting question is, where does the word ultimately come from? Who decided to put Greek ἀνδρ- ‘man’ together with the suffix -οειδής ‘having the form or likeness of,’ and in what language did they do it? There are various sites saying things like “the term ‘android’ was probably invented by Albertus Magnus,” but I suspect they’re just extrapolating from the fact that it seems to have been first used to describe his creation. Does anybody have any information that would shed light on this?

[Read more…]


Gasan Guseinov (in Azeri, Həsən Hüseynov) is a Baku-born classical philologist who teaches at Moscow State University and writes not only about ancient literature but about contemporary culture and politics (he has, for example, an article about “the anthropology of the Russian internet”). I had never heard of him until the Russian Dinosaur (whose new book I am enjoying greatly and will be reviewing soon) sent me a link to this piece for the Russian version of Radio France Internationale, which made me laugh harder than anything has in a while. I imagine you all know that Gerard Depardieu has gotten a Russian passport in his quest to avoid French taxation; Guseinov has nothing to say about the financial, political, or ethical aspects of the situation, but he has much to say about how the name should be naturalized in Russian: депардьё [depard’yo]? депардье [depard’e]? And how will this new Russian word be used? If you press the white triangle in the red circle above the text, you can hear him read the piece, which is well worth it. And I’ve already added his blog to my Google Reader.
For those of you who don’t know Russian, here‘s a squib about what happened when they tried to teach Watson the Urban Dictionary. (In the end, they had to wipe it from its memory.)


Last year, over at Stan Carey’s Sentence first, I jovially commented, in response to one of those “Let’s try to preserve the English language” people, “Congratulations, I think you’ve filled out your Peever’s Bingo card completely!” Now Stan has taken that idea and run with it, producing an actual Bingo card with entries running from “literally” to “comma splices.” As he says:

I’ve avoided common misspellings and variant pronunciations, but you could easily compile cards based on those, too – or a set of completely different usage peeves.* As for this table, Scott [Huler] notes ironically that which ones are important is an “obvious question, with the obvious answer: the ones I personally think are important”.

The card can be used for drinking games, but (obviously) at one’s own risk.


Last year I posted about the International Translation Center/Cardinal Points annual Compass Award contest, which was dedicated to Marina Tsvetaeva; this year the award (webpage) is dedicated to the work of Maria Petrovykh:

Petrovykh was a poet of exquisite precision and subtlety – a friend of Osip Mandelstam, serving as an inspiration for his famed “Masteritsa vinovatykh vzorov,” and of Anna Akhmatova, who called her “Naznach’ mne svidan’e na etom svete” a “lyric masterpiece.” Yet, unlike her fellow masters, she hasn’t attained universal recognition. In part, this is due to her own humility; she published only one collection in her lifetime, and devoted most of her professional life to editing and translating the work of others. We feel it is high time for Petrovykh’s own verse to benefit from the attention of translators as gifted and inspired as she herself was.

I discovered Petrovykh a few years ago and was impressed enough to create that Wikipedia article; I’m very pleased she’s getting this recognition, and I thank Irina Mashinski (a wonderful poet herself) for letting me know about it.


I mentioned Benjamin Schmidt’s Prochronisms site here, but now that I’ve been following it a while I thought I’d give it its own post. Here‘s a Wondermark appreciation, with links (thanks, Sven!), and here‘s the Prochronisms FAQ (“I tend to call a word an anachronism if it’s extraordinarily unlikely that a person would have used it at the time, even if it’s not completely impossible”—makes sense to me). He has gone into detail about anachronisms in movies about Lincoln, and he’s currently working on Downton Abbey (which my wife and I are hopelessly addicted to). If you’re interested in the language of historical dramas, you’ll want to bookmark it.


For many years I’ve known, enjoyed, and occasionally used the expression “This is Liberty Hall, you can spit on the mat and call the cat a bastard!” For almost as many years I’ve vaguely wondered where I got it, and it finally occurred to me to ask Professor Google, so now I know, thanks to this web page:

John Grimes often welcomed his guests with the phrase “Come In. This is Liberty Hall; you can spit on the mat and call the cat a bastard!”. There seems to be some interest in the origin of this quote.
One of the earliest variations of this quote seems to comes from the Oliver Goldsmith play “She Stoops to Conquer” written in 1773. The quote goes “Mr. Marlow—Mr. Hastings—gentlemen—pray be under no constraint in this house. This is Liberty-hall, gentlemen. You may do just as you please here.” (
A. Bertram Chandler used the phrase and it is used in nearly all the John Grimes books. It is first used in “The Road to the Rim” published in If magazine in 1967.

Since I was a loyal reader of If in those years, I think I can say with confidence that that is my source. And I’m glad to know about the prehistory in Goldsmith.


Anatoly sometimes introduces his posts with “(вряд ли кому-то будет интересно)” [unlikely to be of interest to anyone], and I could say the same of this post, but sometimes when I’ve figured out some obscure linguistic fact, I can’t resist putting it out there, and who knows, maybe someone else will get something out of it. So: I’ve been reading Narezhny’s Два Ивана, или Страсть к тяжбам [The two Ivans, or A passion for lawsuits] (see this post on Narezhny), and I got to a passage where Khariton, who is involved in the tangle of retaliations and lawsuits with the titular Ivans, is drunkenly exchanging Bible quotes with his pal Дьячок Фома [D’yachok Foma], the sacristan. At first they are bellowing «Блажен муж, иже не идет на совет нечестивых!», which is a slight variation of the opening of Psalm 1, “Блажен муж, иже не иде на совет нечестивых” (or in the old spelling “Блаженъ мужъ, иже не иде на совѣтъ нечестивыхъ”), in the King James Version “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.” A bit later the household is frightened by a loud «Векую смятошася язьщы, вскую поучашася, тщетным?», and this is the point at which I had to call for help. Fortunately, the internet was at hand!
The first problem, which unnecessarily increased the difficulty of solving the puzzle, is a typo that apparently crept into the text at some point; the first word should be Вскую [vskuyu], just like the fourth, so my time spent trying to figure out how the first person singular of вековать [vekovat’] ‘to spend one’s time/life’ fit in was time wasted. But what was vskuyu? It turns out it’s a Church Slavic word for ‘why,’ and the line is a variant of the beginning of Psalm 2, “Вскую шаташася языцы, и людие поучишася тщетным?”—in the King James Version, “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?” But why does vskuyu mean ‘why’? Vasmer tells me the answer:

вску́ю “почему”, церк. (также у Салтыкова-Шадрина), др.-русск., ст.-слав. въскѫѭ – то же, из *vъz- (см.воз-) и kǫjǫ – вин. п. ж. р. от кой, ст.-слав. кыи.

In other words, въз [vъz] is an OCS preposition meaning ‘(in exchange) for,’ and the last part of the word is the accusative of кыи (later кой) ‘which.’ So it’s basically the same formation as modern зачем [zachem] ‘why,’ with за [za] ‘for.’ Isn’t that neat?
I also like very much the proverb I found in Dahl: По бороде блажен муж, а по уму вскую шаташася: ‘By his beard he’s “Blessed is the man,” but by his mind he’s “Why do the heathen rage.”‘