Archives for August 2013


Matthew Wilkens has a fascinating LARB review of what sounds like a fascinating book: Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History, by Matthew L. Jockers. Wilkens starts by discussing a fashionable topic, the “biases of the canon.” I used to be impatient with it when I saw it primarily as a club with which people were attempting to knock great writers out of their well-deserved places of respect, but the more I read early Russian literature, the more I realize how arbitrary the canon is. There’s no good reason for the oblivion into which writers like Narezhny and Veltman have fallen; they would provide much fodder for scholarship and much enjoyment for the ordinary reader. It’s just the luck of the draw. But he takes it in a very interesting direction:

But changing the canon — or even a proliferation of canons, as literary studies has fractured into a collection of increasingly well-defined subfields — takes us only so far. Readers are finite creatures, capable of making their way through only a tiny fraction of the millions of books published over the centuries. The problem, at this sort of scale, has less to do with canonical selection bias than it does with our inevitable ignorance of nearly everything that has ever been written. […] So how can we know the outlines of literary history without reading an impossible number of books?

One answer would be “to change the way we work, to preserve large-scale claims by ending the singular identification of literary study with close reading.” The important word there is “singular”; he’s not saying we should give up on close reading but that we should supplement it with the kind of quantitative studies featured in the book under review. I won’t try to summarize his summary of the book’s strengths and weaknesses, but I agree with him that we’re going to be hearing a lot more about this approach, and I’m guessing it’s going to produce some exciting results. (Thanks, Paul!)


Natalie Schachar at Tablet has one of those oddball translation stories I love, Yiddish-Speaking Wizards and Dragons Invade the Shire in ‘Der Hobit’“:

For one of his first translation projects after his retirement, Barry Goldstein, a former computer programmer, found an empty table at his local Starbucks in Boston and settled in to work on the “Treebeard” chapter from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. But Goldstein soon realized that he needed something more sizable to occupy his time: 95,022 words later, he had translated the entire text of The Hobbit, the prequel to the Ring series, into Yiddish. […]
While Goldstein grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home—his father’s roots were in Lithuania, and his mother was born in Kaminets-Podolsk—he never took to the language as a child. In fact, he vividly remembers the time that he escaped through a window in order to cut class at the Jewish school where he learned Yiddish. Years later though, he started taking Yiddish classes and soon found himself as J.R.R. Tolkien’s foremost and only Yiddish-language translator.

Sales are in the low three figures, but you don’t translate into Yiddish to make the big bucks. Also, Schachar links to Yale UP’s New Yiddish Library Series, a worthy project I hadn’t been familiar with (or had forgotten). Thanks, Paul!


The Bibliothèque russe et slave links to scads of works both in the original and in French translation, and I have bookmarked it with alacrity. Many thanks to Erik McDonald, from whose XIX век post I got the link!
As lagniappe, a MetaFilter post with links to brief videos of the “Avez-vous déjà vu?” series. They’re silly and lots of fun, and you don’t need much French to enjoy them. To get you started: Avez-Vous Déjà Vu ..? – Des Moutons Qui Organisent un Pique-Nique.


Having read Vladimir Odoevsky‘s 1834 novella Княжна Мими [Princess Mimi], a monitory tale of the deleterious effects of high-society gossip, I want to quote a passage from the preface (Предисловие), which occurs over halfway through; Odoevsky says that it is extremely difficult to write novels in Russian for a thousand reasons, and “я упомяну о тысяче первой” [I will mention the thousand-and-first]:

This reason—forgive me!—pardon!verzeihen Sie!scusate!forgive me! [in English]—this reason is that our ladies do not speak Russian!

Hear me out, madam: I am neither student nor schoolboy nor publisher, neither A nor B; I belong to no literary school and do not even believe in the existence of Russian literature; I myself rarely speak Russian, and express myself in French almost without errors; I burr my r’s in the purest Parisian fashion; in short, I am a decent, respectable person—and I tell you that it is both shameful and shameless not to speak in Russian! I know that French is already falling out of use, but what evil spirit has put it into your head to replace it not by Russian but by that damned English, which forces you to rack your tongue, clench your teeth, and shove your lower jaw forward? And then farewell, pretty little mouth with rosy, fresh Slavic lips! We would do better without.

You know as well as I do that powerful passions are at work in society—passions that cause people to turn pale, red, or yellow, to sicken and even die; but in the higher strata of the social atmosphere these passions are expressed by a single phrase, a single word, a conventional word that like the alphabet can neither be translated nor invented. The novelist, whose conscience will not allow him to render an Aleutian conversation in the language of society, must know this fashionable alphabet to perfection, must try to seize these conventional words, because (I repeat) it is impossible to invent them: they are born in the heat of fashionable conversation, and the sense attached to them in that moment remains with them forever. But where will you seize such a word in a Russian drawing room? Here all Russian passions, thoughts, mockery, vexation, the smallest movement of the soul is expressed in ready-made words taken from the rich stock of French, which is so artfully used by French novelists and to which they owe (talent aside) the greater part of their success. How rarely are they forced to have recourse to those long descriptions, explanations, preparations, which are a torment to both writer and reader and which are so easily replaced by a few fashionable phrases understood by one and all! Those who know something of the way a novel is constructed will understand the advantages of this circumstance. Ask our poet [Pushkin], one of the few Russian writers who truly knows the Russian language, why he uses the [English] word vulgar in his verses? This word depicts half the character of a man, half his fate; but in order to express it in Russian, you would have to write two pages of explanations—not very comfortable for the writer or pleasant for the reader! There’s one example for you out of a thousand that could be found. And for that reason I beg my readers to take into account all these circumstances and not put the blame on me if my heroes’ conversation is too bookish for some and not grammatical enough for others.

(Russian below the cut.) He goes on in this vein for a while, ending by saying that if people continue to refuse to speak Russian despite his exhortations, “then I… I… from now on I won’t write a single story for them; let them read A, B, and C.”

I’m not quite sure what he means by “an Aleutian conversation”; I’m guessing it refers to any “uncivilized” or unworldly conversation. Radishchev, in his Путешествие из Петербурга в Москву [Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow] (see this post), says he will paint a picture of “this honest company” so that the reader will feel part of it “хотя бы ты на Алеутских островах бобров ловил” [even if you hunt beavers on the Aleutian Islands], and Vladimir Sollogub in his once-famous 1845 novelette Tarantas [The tarantass] says “смотрят на него как на дикаря Алеутских островов” [they look at him as at a wild man of the Aleutian Islands], so it clearly had currency in that context.

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OUPblog has a Very Short Introductions (VSI) series that “combines a small format with authoritative analysis,” and a recent entry is Challenges of the social life of language by John Edwards, a sociolinguist and editor of the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. He lists ten ideas that he thinks people should be more aware of, and most of them, while presenting no surprises to LH readers (“Languages and dialects are not the same thing,” “There are no ‘incorrect’ or ‘illogical’ dialects,” etc.), are well worth publicizing. I did find #3, “Everyone is (at least) bilingual,” strange; while it’s true that “there are no easy measures by which to differentiate bilingual (or multilingual) speakers from their monolingual counterparts,” the tagline summary is just silly. But one statement in #8 “Linguistic prescriptivism and purism arise from the belief that corrections, improvements, or protections are needed to safeguard languages” is not just wrong but dangerously wrong: “Yet every maker of a dictionary must be a prescriptivist.” Not so! Fortunately, the invaluable Kory Stamper, lexicographer sans peur et sans reproche, has a post called “A Compromise: How To Be A Reasonable Prescriptivist” that addresses this very issue:

Here is why we were all in a lather over those articles [by Joan Acocella; see here]: “descriptivist” is not a slur, and neither is “prescriptivist” a title of honor (or vice versa). They are merely terms that describe two approaches to analyzing language use. They are not linguistic matter and anti-matter, and when brought together, they will not destroy the universe in a cataclysm of bombast and “ain’t”s. Good descriptivism involves a measure of prescriptivism, and good prescriptivism involves a measure of descriptivism. What good is a dictionary that enters “irregardless” but neglects to tell you that it’s not accepted as standard English? And how good is a usage and style guide that merely parrots rules with no careful consideration for the historical record of edited prose, or whether this rule does indeed produce clearer, cleaner writing?

There, isn’t that sensible? As is, of course, the entire post; go read it. (I’ll warn you in advance, though, that the comment thread contains the usual contentious know-nothing remarks from the usual sort of pigheaded commenter, in this case going by the nom de guerre “calitri.”)


Via Anatoly, this hilarious bit from the memoirs of the mathematician Ralph Boas:

MR [i.e., Mathematical Reviews] sent me a paper by a Japanese author who kept referring to “stricken mass distributions”. I couldn’t figure out what those were, and finally wrote to the editor of the journal in which the paper had appeared. He sent me a copy of the referee’s report, which had been sent to the author; this said, in part, “The term ‘generalized mass distribution’ is no longer used. The word ‘generalized’ should be stricken.”

Which reminded a commenter of an anecdote from Littlewood’s A Mathematician’s Miscellany:

A minute I wrote (about 1917) for the Ballistic Office ended with the sentence ‘Thus σ should be made as small as possible’. This did not appear in the printed minute. But P. J. Grigg said, ‘what is that?’ A speck in a blank space at the end proved to be the tiniest σ I have ever seen (the printers must have scoured London for it).

(There are some other good misprint stories on the same page, if Google Books will let you see it.)


I’ve finished Alexander Veltman’s third novel, Svetoslavich: Vrazhii pitomets (Svetoslavich: The devil’s foster child, 1835)—you can get a lot read in a four-hour bus ride—and I found it both satisfying and indescribable. I mean, there’s a fairly straightforward plot line involving Vladimir‘s campaign to get Kiev back from his treacherous brother Yaropolk in the late tenth century, but it’s all intertwined with the tale of a princess who is raised as a prince and wants to find a worthy warrior to engage in combat rather than get married (Veltman uses male pronouns when referring to her in her chosen role, and female ones only when discussing her rejected biological gender) and the even more fantastic tale of Vladimir’s ungodly brother, the titular Svetoslavich, who is the tool of unholy forces who live in and around the Dnepr near Kiev and want to drive Christianity out of it and restore the Old Gods. There’s lots of mad galloping from one part of Russia to another and travel across to Scandinavia (the Swedes come into it) and down to Constantinople (Svetoslavich wants to retrieve his father’s skull, which has been made into a jeweled drinking cup, so the unholy forces will give him the woman he loves)…. well, you get the idea.
At any rate, I was struck by this sentence, which occurs at a grim point in the novel: Жизнь неласковая мачеха, слезы пьет, горем людским питается [Life is an ungentle stepmother; she drinks tears and feeds on human grief]. Not only is it a memorably pithy expression of the idea, but I couldn’t help but think that if it had been written by Dostoevsky rather than Veltman it would be one of those much-anthologized lines Russians like to quote. But literary history, like life, is ungentle; it feeds off unjustly forgotten talent.


I’m off to NYC for the weekend to see some old friends (haven’t been back since 2008), and I probably won’t post again until Monday unless the return bus trip Sunday leaves me less enervated than I expect, but I wanted to leave you with a sterling example of a typo that’s almost impossible to catch. Hirsh Sawhney’s TLS review (2 August 2013, p. 27) of Jean-Claude Izzo’s Garlic, Mint, and Sweet Basil: Essays on Marseilles, the Mediterranean, and Noir Fiction includes the sentence:

In such a fragmented region, he fears, Marseilles would become a border post, “a modern version of the Roman Empire’s lines – between the civilized world and the barbarian world, between Northern Europe and the countries of the South, as advocated in a World Bank report to the European elites”.

I immediately suspected the typo, but I had to go to Google Books and check the actual text to be sure; I’ll put the answer below the cut for those who want to ponder the problem. Since the sentence makes sense as is, I don’t blame the proofreaders at the TLS for missing it.
Addendum. I’ve shut down most open threads to minimize spam clearance upon my return, but don’t despair! Not only can you (needless to say) discuss anything in this thread, but John Cowan has set up a public mailing list,, as a supplement to this blog; see his last comment in this thread for information on joining. I will do so myself upon my return.

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Arika Okrent has a nice piece picking out “14 interesting facts about language in the U.S.” based on the Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey, from “1. Over 300 languages are spoken in the U.S.” to “14. There are over 1000 speakers of the Pacific island language Samoan in Alaska.” Fun stuff.
Also, don’t miss Geoff Pullum’s latest Lingua Franca post, “Counting the Languages of the World.” Needless to say, I agree with his condemnation of the ISO and Ethnologue for “capitulating to separatist politics” by listing three Slavic languages for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnian (BOS), Croatian (HRV), and Serbian (SRP). I understand there are political pressures involved, but that doesn’t make it right. If Serbs and Croats, or any other similarly contentious groups, decided they wanted the canine species divided up into (in this case) Canis serbicus and Canis croaticus, I doubt the biologists would agree. Pullum goes on to talk about the impossibility of scientifically determining the number of languages in the world and the existence of maximizers who would like to increase the number and minimizers who would like to trim it; he ends by saying “I think if I were asked how many languages there are in the world today I would want to be very vague: For the UK, 10 ± 4, and for the world, 7,000 ± 2,500.” A good read.
Update. See Geoff’s very interesting followup.


Via John Emerson’s Facebook stream, I found this striking sentence: “The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy is the patchwork-quilt, the Midway Plaisance, the national chain-gang of Europe; a state that is not a nation, but a collection of nations, some with national memories and aspirations and others without, some occupying distinct provinces almost purely their own, and others mixed with alien races, but each with a different language, and each mostly holding the others foreigners as much as if the link of a common government did not exist.” John quoted this from a Mark Twain collection, but Twain himself was quoting Forrest Morgan’s essay “Austria and the Hungarian Revolution” (Traveler’s Record 30:3 [June 1894], p. 8; you can see it here—the sentence is at the bottom of the right-hand column—if Google Books will let you). Naturally, I was struck by the term “Midway Plaisance” and looked it up on Wikipedia, which told me “The Midway Plaisance, also known locally as the Midway, is a park on the South Side of the city of Chicago, Illinois. It is one mile long by 220 yards wide and extends along 59th and 60th streets, joining Washington Park at its west end and Jackson Park at its east end. […] It served as a center of amusements during the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, lending the name ‘Midway’ to areas at county and state fairs where sideshows are located.” “Really?” (thought I), and decided to check with a more reliable source; sure enough, the OED (updated March 2002) confirmed it: “3. N. Amer. (At an exhibition, fair, etc.) a central avenue along which the chief exhibits or amusements are placed; any area of sideshows or amusements; (slang) a hall. Freq. with capital initial and with the. The use originated in the inclusion of the ‘Midway Plaisance’ of Chicago in the grounds of the exposition held there in 1893.” Wikipedia goes on to say “For the Exposition, the mile-long Midway Plaisance […] became a grand mix of fakes, hokum, and the genuinely educational and introduced the ‘hootchy-cootchy’ version of the belly dance in the ‘Street in Cairo’ amusement,” which explains, I suppose, the comparison to the Habsburg Empire.
The word plaisance is also interesting; the OED has (s.v. pleasance; updated June 2006) “5. orig. Sc. A pleasure ground; spec. (usu. in form pleasaunce) an enclosure or secluded part of a garden, esp. as attached to a large house, laid out with pleasant walks, trees, garden ornaments, etc. Also in extended use. Originally the name of a street or district in Edinburgh (and later other Scottish towns).” The OED says the U.S. pronunciation is /ˈplɛzns/ (PLEZZ-ns); is that how Chicagoans say it?