Archives for December 2014

Gessen on New Karenina Translations.

The latest NY Times Book Review features one of the best translation comparisons I’ve seen, Masha Gessen’s “Found in Translation.” She starts off analyzing in detail a scene in Anna Karenina in which Anna is watching her lover, Vronsky, watch her, and the ways in which four translations — by Constance Garnett, Pevear/Volokhonsky, Rosamund Bartlett, and Marian Schwartz — handle the word choices involved. Here’s a sample:

Surprisingly, all the translators ruled that the part of Anna’s anatomy that she believed repelled, repulsed, disgusted or offended Vronsky was her hand and not her arm, though the Russian word ruka can mean either. I happen to think Tolstoy is writing about the arm — one of those two full arms that were so beguilingly set off by the black gown Anna wore to the ball in Part 1, Chapter 22, when she and Vronsky fell in love. Now, in Part 7, Chapter 25, when Anna lifts her coffee cup, the full arm, the pinkie gesture and the noisy lips form a tragic triangle. On the subject of the lips, the two newer translations hew closer to the original Russian on the issue of the intentionality of the sound that Anna thinks annoys her lover: Tolstoy makes it clear that it is Anna making a sound with her lips, not her lips making an involuntary sound. Like the extended little finger, this is a habit that Vronsky may once have found charming — in fact, he may still, for, Anna’s jealousy and fears notwithstanding, he still loves her — but she thinks he no longer does.

Her native knowledge of Russian combines with her well-honed literary sensibilities to produce an essay which will give any reader interesting thoughts about the novel and about how translation works, not to mention useful tips about the four versions she compares. The whole thing is well worth your time. (Thanks, Eric!)

And a very happy new year to those of you who follow the Gregorian calendar; to anyone who is still using the pre-Petrine Russian Orthodox calendar, dated from the creation of the world in 5509 BC, I hope the year 7523 is going well for you!

Written Language Quiz.

From Can You Identify 11 Languages By Their Writing? They call it “Our hardest trivia yet!” but I found it ridiculously easy; I got 11 of 11, and there were only a couple about which I felt even a momentary doubt, enough to make me take a closer look before hitting the button. It seemed like they weren’t even trying to make it hard; on a couple they could have made me sweat a little if they’d chosen languages that use similar-looking systems instead of just random languages from around the globe. And some of the language samples themselves are weird in ways I won’t specify because I don’t want to give away answers, but you’ll see what I mean if you know any of the languages. Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch! But it’s fun anyway, all language quizzes are fun, so go ahead and give it a try (obviously if you haven’t spent a lot of time splashing around in foreign languages you may find it more challenging), and don’t go into the comment thread if you don’t want spoilers, because I expect people will be discussing the samples and their results.

Hacks Slash Word Length.

An amusing Guardian piece by Andy Bodle lauds the concision of headlinese but pans its extension into the body of newspaper stories:

And with all of this, by and large, I am quite at ease. Most of the time, the meaning of headlines is quite clear (to native English speakers, anyway). They generally achieve their aim of provoking interest without misrepresenting the facts too grievously. Moreover, they’re almost the last bastion of many vigorous Old English words. Where else these days, outside a Will Self novel, will you find ire, dub, jibe, rue and mar?

What’s a little more concerning is the way that some of these thinnernyms are now seeping into the articles themselves. Journalese is borrowing with increasing regularity from headlinese. […]

Thinnernym creep isn’t an unalloyed disaster. The word “rig”, for example, has become the standard term to refer to unfair collusion in elections and markets, and to my mind it’s more expressive than “manipulate”. And in some types of article, such as comment pieces and sketches, colloquial terms are preferable. However, it does have its problems. […]

It ends with the Thinnernymicon, “a guide, whose purpose is threefold: a) to remind journos of the proper English term; b) to remind editors of the shorter alternatives they can use in headlines; and c) to serve as a translation service.” Most are transatlantic, but some are UK-only, like “Dodgy = underhand, corrupt” and “Lag = convict, prisoner.” Thanks, Paul!


This is one of those words that always eludes me no matter how many times I look it up, and I’m hoping that writing about it will implant it more firmly in my brain. I’m reading Samuil A. Lurie’s Изломанный аршин [‘Broken cubit-ruler,’ an insulting nineteenth-century term for a merchant] (see this post) and enjoying it immensely; after brilliantly annotating a poem Pushkin wrote in the hope of flattering the aged Prince Yusupov into being proxy father at his upcoming wedding (it did the trick), Lurie says it’s a very pleasant work, and that if it were a Petersburg building “считалось бы эталоном т. н. фоновой застройки” — it would be considered an etalon of background architecture, the kind of building you cast an approving glance at as you walk past.

“Etalon, what the hell is an etalon,” I muttered internally as I reached for my dictionary to learn once again that it is a “standard (of weights and measures).” I figured it must come from French, and sure enough my Concise Oxford French Dictionary had étalon with the definition “standard (of weights and measures).” The etymology was given simply as “OF estel,” which wasn’t satisfying, so I turned to the OED, which surprised me by having an entry (from 1972) étalon | etalon, n., though with a very different definition: “A device used to produce interfering beams of light, consisting essentially of two plane parallel reflecting plates of fixed separation and (in some kinds) adjustable orientation.” Their etymology was “< French étalon (Fabry & Pérot 1902, in Ann. de Chimie et Physique XXV. 107), lit. ‘a standard (of weights, measures, etc.)’ < Old French estalon, estelon probably of Germanic origin: see stallion n.” I didn’t find the stallion origin particularly convincing, so I turned to the fifth edition of the AHD for something more up-to-date, and found it defined as “A type of interferometer in which incoming light is repeatedly refracted and reflected between two surfaces into multiple beams that are then focused together, causing self-interference of the light,” with this etymology:

French étalon, standard (of weight or a unit of measurement), reference point, etalon (in reference to the fixed widths between the two surfaces in the first such interferometers) < Old French estalon, standard, of Germanic origin; akin to Middle Dutch stael, model, sample.

So now you know as much about etalons as I do, and maybe the next time I run into эталон I’ll think “Ah yes, not a stallion but a standard.”

A Secret Message.

Studiolum at Poemas del río Wang posts about a very interesting phenomenon:

The album amicorum, friends’ album, or memoriae causa, collection for the purpose of good memory, was an inevitable item in the meagre luggage of the students wandering from university to university in Europe between the 15th and 19th centuries. Upon setting out, their family members and friends, and in the various cities, their professors, fellow students or distinguished patrons, wrote in them some warm words of erudite aphorisms. The several thousand albums which have survived give a good opportunity for reconstructing the network of the early modern intelligentsia and the usual routes of their university studies.

He mentions a publicly searchable database of such books from Hungary or with Hungarian content maintained by the research group Inscriptiones Alborum Amicorum at the University of Szeged, and reproduces images from the album of Paul Schirmer from Kronstadt/Brassó/Brașov, compiled between 1681 and 1685, drawing particular attention to “two short texts on the sides of the emblem, which cannot be read in any known language”:

We suspect it may be some kind of secret script. So again we turn to our seasoned readers. Are you able to tell what script and language were used to write these short lines, and what do they mean?

There are no responses yet there, so I thought I’d add what publicity LH provides and get more eyes on it in the hope that someone can provide an answer.

The Hedgehog and the Fox.

I’ve just started James Turner’s Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (thanks, bulbul!), and I’ve stumbled right out of the blocks. The very first words of the Prologue are: “In his Adages (1500) the great humanist Erasmus of Rottersdam quipped, ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.'” Now, in the effete intellectual circles to which I belong, that’s a very familiar quotation, but in my mind — and, I had thought, in the collective mind of those to whom it is familiar — it is associated with two names, those of Archilochus, who wrote the original line in Greek (πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα: ‘the fox knows many [things], but the hedgehog [knows] one big [thing]’), and Isaiah Berlin, who used it as the title of probably his most famous essay in 1953 and brought it into late-twentieth-century discourse. Berlin’s essay begins “There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing'”; he has a footnote quoting the Greek, but there is not a mention of Erasmus. I was, therefore, astonished that Turner would cite this as a “quip” of Erasmus; I turned to the attached footnote and found:

“Multa novit vulpes verum echinus unum magnum.” Erasmus was translating a fragment attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, but Erasmus’s version seems to have stuck. The proverb owes its modern fame to Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 essay The Hedgehog and the Fox.

I ask the Varied Reader: with whom do you associate the hedgehog/fox meme? Am I an outlier in considering “Erasmus’s version seems to have stuck” a blatant error?

Xmas Loot 2014.

I’m back from my sister-in-law’s, full of her excellent cannelloni; herewith for those interested the presents of LH relevance that I have received (there was also the traditional scotch and some good music):

The Extraordinary Decade: Literary Memoirs, by P. V Annenkov

Challenging the Bard: Dostoevsky and Pushkin, a Study of Literary Relationship, by Gary Rosenshield

Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul, by Charles King

Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, by James Turner

Encounter on the Great Plains: Scandinavian Settlers and the Dispossession of Dakota Indians, 1890-1930, by Karen V. Hansen

I’m looking forward to all of them; my hearty thanks to the generous givers! Not a gift, but it feels like one because it was free (the author is giving it away at his site), is Изломанный аршин: трактат с примечаниями by Samuil A. Lurie; Anatoly raved about it so convincingly I downloaded it forthwith and am looking forward to plunging in. It’s a work of literary history and criticism focusing on the unjustly despised (at the time) and since forgotten Nikolai Polevoy, a true man of the people, and the decade of the 1830s; it will make an excellent companion to the Annenkov book about the 1840s, which I’ve been wanting to read for years and which my wonderful wife got me. Season’s greetings to all!

The Bookshelf: Miscellany VIII.

For those who have truly waited until the last minute, or for those who give New Year’s presents, here are some books that escaped my attention when I made my last such post:

1) Sociolinguistics: A Very Short Introduction, by John Edwards. This won my heart right off the bat by having a dedication in Irish: “Do Dorren agus d’Oisín Ó Siochrú, beirt a bhfuil grá mór agus cion agam dóibh.” It is indeed short, a little over a hundred pages, with chapters on Coming to terms; Variation and change; Perceptions of language; Protecting language; Languages great and small; Loyalty, maintenance, shift, loss, and revival; Multilingualism; and Name, sex, and religion.

2) Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, by Ammon Shea. Stan Carey of Sentence first has an excellent review, saying “It is light yet scholarly, explaining disputes in a clear, informed and entertaining fashion and proceeding in each case to a sensible conclusion.” I’ve been greatly enjoying dipping into it.

3) I’ve just started The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst, which jamessal gave me a while back; he wrote me: “this book, unlike The Stranger’s Child, really picks up at the end, so there’s even more enjoyment than merely some of the best prose fiction written in some time,” and I loved The Stranger’s Child (see this post), so I have complete confidence in recommending it. Thanks, Jim!

4) Another book I’m in the middle of is A History of War in 100 Battles, by Richard Overy; any fan of military history will know Overy’s name, and this is even better than I expected (having been bowled over by his Russia’s War) — the introduction alone is worth the price of the book.

George Szirtes on Being Bilingual.

The Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes is an old favorite here at LH (1, 2, 3 — that last post, on Hungarian second-person pronouns, has 455 comments!), and his Guardian piece (from last May) on “what being bilingual means for my writing and identity” is worth a read. On his early experience with language:

When I was […] seven, in Budapest, I spoke only Hungarian. My vowels were pure; the mouth that produced the pure vowel shapes never closed gently into a diphthong. The letter “p” was formed further forward as was the letter “t”, maybe more the way the Irish pronounce it in Dublin. My early rzeka experience was set in Hungarian. I did, however, have a bilingual book of A A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh (known as Micimackó) in Hungarian, and Now We Are Six, both translated by the great 20th century humourist Frigyes Karinthy. My first memory of English was of the page that opened on the great capital letters, of AND, BUT, SO, which I then pronounced the Hungarian way as OHND, BUTTE and SHAW.

And on returning to Hungary:

The disadvantage of being (relatively) bilingual is that you are neither this nor that. You don’t fully belong. We spent nine months in Hungary in 1989 watching the state collapse around us and, under those circumstances, it became clear that I wasn’t truly Hungarian, but an observer – a visitor with privileges, who could be useful but not of the language or its poetry. In England, the rest of the time, a foreign-born poet is of the language until he isn’t; the point at which he hits the thick glass of English Words, where he will be deemed never quite to understand cricket or, say, John Betjeman, because these things are not in his DNA.

I can’t get enough of this kind of meditation on multilingualism. Thanks, Trevor!

On Translating Babel.

Boris Dralyuk talks about translating Babel’s Red Cavalry:

[…] The dialect also lends the text tremendous flavour. One rather profane example occurs in the story ‘The Italian Sun’, in which the narrator sneaks a look at a psychopathic Cossack’s letter to a woman who holds an important position in the Party. The Cossack asks to be sent to Italy, so that he can assassinate the king. The letter begins on the second page: ‘…lung’s shot through and I’m a little cracked or, as Sergei says, flew off my nut. You don’t just step off that nut, you fly. At any rate, jokes aside and tail out of the way… Let’s get down to business, my friend Victoria…’

What is this tail? Earlier translators have rendered the phrase (khvost nabok) as ‘tail to the side’, ‘tails sideways’, and ‘horsetail to one side’; this doesn’t clarify the situation. Babel makes use of a common Cossack saying, which also pops up in Sholokhov: ‘Jokes are jokes, but get the tail out of the way’. In other words, get the filly’s tail out of the way so we can get down to business. This may appear to be a small and distasteful detail, but it sets the tone. A bowdlerized Babel isn’t worth his salt.

Another example. In ‘The Life Story of Pavlichenko, Matvei Rodionych,’ the titular character, commander of the Cavalry Army’s Sixth Division, traces his rise from peasant herdsman to heroic general, employing colourful turns of phrase that subtly contribute to the narrative’s growing tension. In the second paragraph, Pavlichenko describes his idyllic but frustratingly idle youth: ‘And so I’m herding this cattle of mine, cows on every side. I’m shot through with milk, stink like a sliced udder, and I’ve got bull calves walking around me for propriety’s sake, mousy-grey bull calves.’ The key image here is ‘shot through’ (na vylet prokhvatilo); previous translators have rendered the phrase as ‘soaked in milk’, ‘steeped all through with milk’, and ‘doused in milk’, but this isn’t quite adequate. The suggestion of a bullet wound is very important, and it will become even more important in Pavlichenko’s comment to his bride Nastya: ‘My head’s not a rifle – it’s got no foresight, and no back-sight either. And you know my heart, Nastya – it’s all empty, it must be shot through with milk. It’s an awful thing, how I stink of milk….’ Pavlichenko’s metaphorical repertoire is strictly military, from the stripes on his shoulder-pads to the foresight in (or on) his head. The Cossack is a weapon, and he’s bound to go off. […]

I love that kind of pickiness.