Archives for December 2016


I’m in the middle of Norman Rush’s novel Mating, which jamessal gave me a couple years ago, and am enjoying the unreliable narrator and her unreliable higher education (to which she desperately clings, tossing in the occasional “id est” or French word just to show she’s nobody’s fool). I got a particular chuckle from her talking about “the neighbor pharisee boys, who seemed to love to torment him and keep him from reading without interruption in the treehouses he constructed as reading pavilia.” Pavilia: the perfect striver’s mock-classical plural! But then I couldn’t remember the origin of pavilion, and when I looked it up realized it was pleasing enough to share. OED (updated September 2005):

Etymology: < Anglo-Norman pavillioun, pavilloun, paviloun, pavelion, pavelionne and Old French pavelon, pauvellon, Middle French pawillon, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French, French pavillon military tent (early 12th cent.; 1681 in heraldry), square ancillary building (1503; 1690 in sense ‘solitary, decorative building’), nautical flag or ensign (1541), bell of a wind instrument (1636 of a trumpet; compare pavillon n.), pavilion of the ear (1800 in pavillon d’oreille) < classical Latin pāpiliōn-, pāpiliō butterfly, moth (see papilio n.), in post-classical Latin also tent, pavilion (Vetus Latina, Vulgate; probably originally army slang), probably from the similarity of shape when the ends of the covering are turned over at the entrance of the tent (as suggested already by authors as early as Jerome and Isidore). Compare Old Occitan pavalho, pavalhon (c1150), pabalho, pabalhon (13th cent.; Occitan pabalhon), Catalan †papalló (13th cent.), pavelló (a1380), Spanish pabellón (1459 as pavellón, < Middle French), Italian padiglione (13th cent.); also Middle Dutch paviljoen (Dutch paviljoen).

It’s evidently a useful word, since it was borrowed widely — Russian, for example, has павильон (Vasmer says “впервые у Куракина” [first in Kurakin], but I don’t know which of the various Kurakins is meant). I wonder how far it’s spread? Looking down the list of articles at Wikipedia, I see that Indonesian has paviliun and Finnish paviljonki, but Icelandic stubbornly nativizes with skáli.

Eliot Weinberger on Chinese Poetry.

Perry Link has an excellent NYRB review of two books by Eliot Weinberger, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (with More Ways) and The Ghosts of Birds. The first presents a four-line poem by Wang Wei in Chinese characters, in a transliteration into modern Mandarin, in a character-by-character literal translation, and in thirty-four ways translators have tried to put it into English, French, Spanish, or German. (I note, with some indignation, the lack of a transliteration into Middle Chinese, the language in which the poem was composed; it’s as if Pangur Bán were presented only in Modern Irish, or Cædmon’s Hymn only in Modern English. You lose all the poetry.) The title of the poem is “Deer Fence” (or Deer Park, Deer Enclosure, Deer Forest Hermitage, etc.); here’s Weinberger’s literal translation:

Empty/mountain(s) [or] hill(s)/(negative)/to see/person [or] people
But/to hear/person [or] people/words or conversation/sound [or] to echo
To return/bright(ness) [or] shadow(s)/to enter/deep/forest
To return/to shine/green/moss/above

Link says:

Now the question becomes: How can one make another poem from the twenty bundles of meaning that the Chinese characters offer? Weinberger criticizes, astutely if sometimes unkindly, almost every translator he cites. […]

Broadly speaking, the problems for a translator, especially of poetry, and especially between languages as different as Chinese and English, are two: What do I think the poetic line says? And then, once I think I understand it, how can I put it into English? Differences in translations sometimes arise from the first problem; most, though, come from the second, where the impossibility of perfect answers spawns endless debate. The letter-versus-spirit dilemma is almost always at the center.

At the literalist extreme, there is a school of Western Sinology that aims to ferret out and dissect every conceivable detail about the language of an original. The dissection, though, normally does to the art of a poem approximately what the scalpel of an anatomy instructor does to the life of a frog. Peter A. Boodberg, a distinguished Sinologist at Berkeley fifty years ago, translates Wang Wei’s poem this way:


The empty mountain; to see no men,
Barely earminded of men talking—countertones
And antistrophic lights-and- shadows incoming deeper the deep-treed grove
Once more to glowlight the blue-green mosses—going up
(The empty mountain…)

Kudos for making fun of Boodberg (whom I made fun of back in 2008), and greater kudos for this discussion of Pound:

Weinberger is contemptuous of the Boodberg approach (“sounds like Gerard Manley Hopkins on LSD”) and is closer to, but not an extremist in, an approach that puts art at the center. He admires Ezra Pound’s versions of classical Chinese poems in Cathay, published in 1915. Pound learned some Chinese characters later in his life but in 1915 could base Cathay only on translations that others had done. His genius for language apparently got him close enough to the spirit of Chinese originals that he could correct mistakes in other translations “intuitively,” as Weinberger puts it. He stops short of calling Pound’s work “translation”; he endorses a phrase by T.S. Eliot, who leavened the question with gentle ambiguity when he said that Pound was “the inventor of Chinese poetry in our time.” Whether translations or inventions, though, Weinberger finds Pound’s renditions “some of the most beautiful poems in the English language.”

In the 1930s Pound became obsessed with the Book of Odes, China’s most ancient collection of poetry and song (and, some say, guide to government). Convinced that the existing English translations of the Odes were “appalling” and “intolerable,” and that there must be a great pearl inside the closed oyster if only he could get there, Pound, then over fifty years old, began to study Chinese characters. He could now “play the game of pretending to read Chinese,” as Weinberger puts it, and unleashed his fecund imagination upon “pictographic” characters in ways that serious Sinologists knew to be utterly groundless. Professors wrote articles exposing Pound’s errors in both interpretation of characters and translations of poems.

Weinberger’s implicit riposte, which I support, is: But do you do better? One can acknowledge a long list of Pound’s technical errors (Weinberger has some, too) and still point out that phrases like Boodberg’s “antistrophic lights-and-shadows” leave a reader much further from a Wang Wei poem than Pound does. Wai-lim Yip, a scholar of poetry who knows both English and Chinese well, notes that, despite the literal errors, in Pound “the ‘cuts and turns’ of the mind in the originals are largely preserved” and the “essential poems” are “luminous.” Could one say that of Boodberg? Options in the translation of poetry are complexly interconnected, and gaining something in one place almost inevitably means losing something in another. So here is a good rule of thumb: anyone who criticizes a given translation should be ready to offer an alternative that, all things considered, works better.

There’s a fine discussion of the problems presented to translators by Chinese “absences of subject, number, and tense” and praise of the essays in The Ghosts of Birds that makes me want the book, but I’ve quoted quite enough already. Thanks, Trevor!


I was browsing my Russian edition (Русские фамилии, Moscow: Progress, 1995) of Unbegaun’s Russian Surnames, looking at the section of Russian names of German origin, when I hit a passage that listed particularly opaque ones:
Багговут [Baggovút] (Baggehufwudt, ultimately of Swedish origin)
Дервиз [Dérviz] (von der Wiese)
Поганков [Pogánkov] (Pagenkampf)
Сиверсов [Síversov] (Sievers)
Фамендин [Faméndin] (von Mengden)
Фонвизин [Fonvízin] (von Wiesen)
Францбеков [Frantsbékov] (Fahrensbach)
Эверлаков [Everlákov] (Overlack)

Then, in the next paragraph, he showed how the family name Степун [Stepún] came from German Steppuhn, which itself was borrowed from Lithuanian Steponas, which came from Slavic Степан [Stepán], and I thought the round trip was interesting enough to post.

The Unlikely Tale of Lazer Lederhendler.

Ian McGillis has a Montreal Gazette piece on translator Lazer Lederhendler, who specializes in Quebec’s young French-language writers. His life is a story in itself:

Born and raised in Montreal, Lederhendler is the second son of parents who came to Canada in 1949, having met in a displaced-persons camp after the war. His father was from Warsaw and spent the war years as a refugee in the Soviet Union; his mother was from Lithuania. […]

At home, Lederhendler’s parents were careful to see that the life of the mind was nurtured, as he recalled in a St-Henri café last week.

“My mother and father were working people,” he said. “They’d had very little formal education, but because of certain cultural particularities, books were important.

“We were part of a circle of maybe 1,000 who would meet almost every weekend — for recitals, concerts, choir singing — at the Workers’ Circle, located where La Sala Rossa is now.”

In those divided days, French and those who spoke it were barely in the picture for Lederhendler. (“It’s an Ashkenazi name. It means leather merchant. Nothing too glamorous.”) […]

At McGill, starting in 1967, Lederhendler got involved in the political scene — radical theatre, strike support work, Vietnam War protests. Compelled by both the document’s anti-capitalist perspective and the challenges of rendering the joual in English, he translated the FLQ manifesto (“It seemed the natural thing to do”), and mounted a “weird” version of Hamlet with French-speaking actors.

By the way, does anybody have the same problem with that last sentence as I do? I started off reading “Compelled by both the document’s anti-capitalist perspective…” and immediately thought “What document?” and went back looking for a referent before discovering it was later in the sentence. Bad writing, or lazy reading?

At any rate, he fell in love with a French-speaking woman and that pushed him farther into the language, as it will, and he got into literary translation, winning awards and getting more work as a result. I found this conundrum interesting:

Every year, when the Giller’s long and short lists are announced, an elephant reappears in the room: If translations are to be eligible alongside books written in English, why are nominations still so much the exception, and a win still seemingly an extreme long shot? Lederhendler has some thoughts on the question.

“For the media who cover books, there’s a difficulty there,” he said. “Who gets the credit? How do you talk about it? If the words that you’re reading are the words of the translator, who are you really giving the award to?

I can see that being a stumbling block, but it shouldn’t be. Just value the experience of reading the book, and don’t worry about whether it’s filtered through translation. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Learning Circassian.

A couple of days ago we were learning Avar, today it’s Circassian. From a Window on Eurasia post, Can the Circassian Language and the People who Speak It Be Saved?:

But that has not stopped Circassian activists from searching for means of salvation, and two interesting developments surfaced this week. First of all, the Adygey language has now become a participant in the international language-learning program Book2 (

That program allows Circassians and others as well to study Circassian in any of the 49 other languages in this program, including English, Turkish, Arabic and Russian. (The Natpress portal provides links to these programs for those who would like to begin.) The Circassian program was developed in the North Caucasus and is directed at the diaspora population.

The link for English-speakers is here, and it still seems miraculous to me to be able to click on an audio button and hear words said by native speakers. Thanks, Paul! (He says “You could learn Circassian over the winter ;-)” — maybe I’ll give it a try, so I can read the Nart sagas.)

The Carmina of Optatianus.

I never heard of this guy, but J. Stephan Edwards makes him sound interesting and influential (and surprisingly ignored):

Sometime around the end of the first quarter of the fourth century C.E., a former resident of the imperial city of Rome then living in exile in Achaea began a written campaign for his recall to the capitol. The campaign coincided with the Vicennalia, or twentieth anniverary, of the reign of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, an event celebrated in July 325 in Nicomedia and again in the summer of 326 at Rome itself. The writing campaign took advantage of this event and consisted of a series of panegyric poems addressed to Constantine in commemoration of both the Vicennalia and Constantine’s earlier defeat of Licinius in 324. The series, included in what is now known collectively as the Carmina or Carmina Figurata, is of an unusual and innovative sort: the poems contain supplementary text ‘hidden’ within the main body of the individual poems and intended to be ‘discovered’ by the reader. These versus intexti poems were apparently intended to dazzle Constantine with their technical virtuosity and thereby inspire the hoped-for recall of their creator, Publilius Optatianus Porphyrius.[1] The campaign was ultimately successful, and the intriguing larger body of work created by Optatianus remains captivating even today, both for its simple visual appeal and for its display of remarkable technical skill.

Despite the dazzling technical virtuosity and captivating visual appeal of the poems, they remain at the fringes of scholarly interest. One philologist describes their purely literary content as lacking elegance and refinement, even as banal.[2] Their value as sources of historical data is also limited. These two factors may partially explain why only a handful of modern scholars have given attention to the works and their creator.[3] Yet it must be remembered that the poems were almost certainly not composed as works of elegant literature, but rather as displays of purely technical skill designed to impress through visual impact, not verbal eloquence. Optatianus’ masterful display of word ordering in the later Carmina has had significant influence on an entire genre of ‘literary’ output, especially its modern direct descendant, the acrostic puzzle.

It’s worth clicking through for the illustrations, which are quite striking. Thanks, Trevor!

Learning Avar.

The proprietor of the new blog Дунго кив вукIаниги (in English, despite the Cyrillic name — I have no idea what it means) has taken on the impressive self-imposed task of learning Avar, one of the major languages of Dagestan (“major” in this case involving well under a million speakers). I thought I was being daring when I studied Georgian, but that’s a piece of cake by comparison — there are textbooks, grammars, dictionaries, and published books available. For Avar there is almost none of that; as the introductory post explains:

Of the 3 languages featured on the album [Ay Lazzat: Songs and Melodies from Dagestan], it was Avar (the largest one with all of 730,000 speakers) that grabbed my attention, with its guttural pops and creaks that made it sound more like the speech of a fictional race of extraterrestrial warriors than anything human (the apostrophe-heavy transcriptions of the song titles – “Kh’uwativ sh’ai qu’at’azav”, “Ak’lu tle ebel” – only reinforced this Klingon-like impression), with a great, but unknown, literary and oral tradition, with its own pantheon of poets and writers, some of whose verses were set to music in those songs, lyrics only hinted at in descriptions about girls’ hearts shattering like pearls from a string and other such things.

So of course I had to learn it.

But I quickly ran into trouble – the difficulty, lack of decent (or any) learning material and the sheer impracticality of it all made me drop it as quickly as I’d picked it up.

After a few more abortive attempts I continued to feed my interest in Dagestan by reading and listening to music but otherwise dismissed the idea of ever learning it. Instead, I turned my attention to “easier” Georgian and, in an unexpected turn of events, ended up flying away to Georgia and living there for a few years.

It was about a year ago, as my Georgian adventure was nearing its end, that I made the acquaintance of an Avar and the germ of something-as-yet-unclear was planted. After a lazy, unpromising start, I finally picked up the grammar books (there is nothing that could even charitably be called a “textbook”) and a bilingual Russian-Avar edition of “Taras Bulba” and started learning again, so many years after that first wide-eyed encounter.

The second post describes the frustration of trying to work with a Soviet translation of “the famous Dagestani poet and author Rasul Gamzatov’s ‘My Dagestan,'” whose translator clearly did not know Avar and did not appear to take the task very seriously:

Delving further into the book, the Russian “translation” got ever looser – a more and more wildly elaborate riff on the spare, laconic Avar.

And then I stumbled on a 6-page-long passage that was completely ignored by the Russian translator.

And then followed long, elaborate pieces of Russian “translation” that simply did not exist in the Avar original (or perhaps got shuffled around and are buried in some other part of the book).

Ok, I’m a translator myself, and know very well that readability often comes at the expense of accuracy, and some sacrifices need to be made. But large parts of this translation were just pure invention, and large parts were not translated at all. And that’s in only 30-odd pages of 498.

This is great stuff, and I thank Andrew for alerting me to it!

How Different Were Cuneiform Scripts?

Susanne Paulus, Assistant Professor of Assyriology at the University of Chicago, answers the question “…the cuneiform scripts used in Assyria and Babylonia in the 1st millennium BC (Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian periods) were different. How different were these signs? Approximately what percentage of the signs were identical?” Just the sight of the images in the post brought back my (difficult but rewarding) study of Hittite several decades ago; I think I could write my name in cuneiform at one point, but I have no idea which script I chose (or whether I knew about these differences back then). I like the conclusion:

In the library of the famous Assyrian king Assurbanipal (7th century BC), tablets in Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian scripts were found together. Jeannette Fincke, who studied the paleography of these scribes, discovered that the famous scholars who wrote the tablets had mastered both scripts. But their knowledge was not limited to the first millennium sign forms; sign lists (figure 4) prove that they also studied the earliest sign forms written more than 2,500 years ago. This shows the impressive continuity of Mesopotamian culture!

Thanks, Paul!

Temples for the Literary Pilgrim.

Yesterday’s Sunday NY Times travel section was focused almost entirely on bookstores, which of course was a direct path to my heart. I hope nonsubscribers can access these articles, with their gorgeous photos:

Temples for the Literary Pilgrim (“From Mexico City to Hangzhou, bookstores that are destinations in and of themselves”): the only one I’ve been to is Shakespeare and Company, but I’d like to spend time in them all. Hangzhou’s Zhongshuge Bookstore is probably not my kind of place as far as books are concerned (even setting aside the fact that they’re in Chinese), but I’d love to just gawk for a while.

7 Writers on Their Favorite Bookstores (“Geraldine Brooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Pamela Paul and others in the literary world reveal their favorite bookstores”): I’m particularly fond of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s recommendation of San Librario in Bogotá, Colombia, which begins:

The place is small and irregular in shape. From the outside, it looks as if a door has been carelessly left open in a house with a brick facade and barred windows. Bookshelves cover the walls as you enter; in the center of the small room there’s a desk that I can’t describe, because books always hide it — hide its surface, of course, but also its front and sides, so that the bookseller seems to greet you from within a trench of printed pages.

Now, that‘s my kind of place! (Contrariwise, Pamela Paul plumps for Hatchards in London. Boring.) Incidentally, the print version has a bizarre set of typos in Geraldine Brooks’s piece on Fullers Bookshop in Hobart, Tasmania: “engrainedingrained,” “Sunday Mmass,” “Mount t Wellington,” “winterywintry,” “cafeé.” Most of them seem to have to do with conversion from non-US spelling, but I don’t know what “Mount t Wellington” (which occurs twice) is about.

Ann Patchett’s Guide for Bookstore Lovers: Worth it just for An Unlikely Story Bookstore & Café in Plainville, Mass. (“Jeff Kinney took part of the proceeds from his juggernaut series “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and built his hometown a four-story bookstore — the ultimate fulfillment of literary civic duty”).

A Bookworm’s Travel Plan, by Jennifer Moses: I was annoyed by her opening salvo of proud anti-Kindle Luddism (“I need the real thing: a solid slab that I can hold in my hands”), but she won me over with this:

And then I saw it: a small city, built entirely of the novels of Anthony Trollope, an author I’d never before taken up, though I distinctly remember my mother’s dear friend Jessica saying something like: “At a certain point past youth, if you don’t discover Trollope, there’s basically nothing to live for.” Trollope? You mean that bearded and bespectacled Victorian word-factory with his hemming and hawing and endlessly long sentences? I’d rather be stuck on an elevator. But there it was, beckoning me: “The Eustace Diamonds,” crumbling and stained. As if it were an abandoned dog, I couldn’t resist.

That’s the very novel my wife and I are now reading at night! And a good one it is, too. (We’re looking forward to plenty more Trollope; thank goodness for prolific authors.)

Two Ways to Be United.

Bathrobe sent me this Stack Exchange thread set off by the simple but excellent question about Russian: Why are United Nations and United Arab Emirates translated as Объединённые, but United States as Соединённые? The first answer is by Nikolay Ershov:

Соединённые is historical, used AFAIK only with the US and the UK (Соединённое Королевство, which loses overwhelmingly to Великобритания in frequency of usage. The English term “United Kingdom” dates back to 1707.) As a translation of “united”, it would sound “off” nowadays because the word in its current usage properly means “connected”, which isn’t quite the same thing.

The second is by Quassnoi:

Объединять and its derivatives were not used in Russian before about 1850.

Kostomarov did use it time to time in his works, however, he mostly used соединить wherever a modern Russian speaker would have used объединить:

Итак, вместо того чтобы идти соединенными силами на половцев, Владимиру приходилось идти войною на своих.

Рязанские и муромские князья уже прежде были с Андреем заодно, соединенные войною против болгар

So yes, объединять is just a more modern word.

My own response, before he found that thread, was “I’m pretty sure соединить implies a closer union, a melding into one thing, whereas объединить is more ‘joining forces,’ and thus more appropriate for the UN (which, unlike the US, is not a consolidated polity, just a group effort).” I’m curious what my readership has to say about it.

Bathrobe wanted the information for his own post Mongolian-Language Names for International Organisations as used in China; if the topic sounds at all interesting to you, I highly recommend it — it’s very thorough (and has lots of Russian).