Archives for January 2017

Pisemsky’s Thousand Souls.

I’m almost halfway through what is generally considered Alexei Pisemsky’s best novel, the 1858 Тысяча душ, translated by Ivy Litvinov as One Thousand Souls, and I can’t wait any longer to post about it — it’s so good I have to let the world know. I’ve praised Pisemsky’s Brak po strasti [Marriage for passion] (here) and Pitershchik [The Petersburger] (here), and this is better than either of them, at least so far. It shows off to the full his powerful sense of character and plot, and how they can be made to interact in a convincing manner.

The novel starts off with a newspaper notice reading “Увольняется штатный смотритель эн-ского уездного училища, коллежский асессор Годнев с мундиром и пенсионом, службе присвоенными. Определяется смотрителем эн-ского училища кандидат Калинович” [The superintendent of schools of the N. district, Collegiate Assessor Godnev, is retiring with the uniform and pension appropriate to his service. The new superintendent will be kandidat Kalinovich]. Thus are two of the main characters introduced; at first it seems Godnev will be the protagonist, but eventually we realize it’s actually young Yakov Kalinovich, who is proud and bitter because after being orphaned, he made his way through school and university by dint of endless work and ruthless self-denial, but after graduation could find no work for two years until he was finally assigned to this provincial backwater (better jobs required the kind of influential friends and protectors he lacked). He makes the rounds of the town notables, but they all turn up their noses at him except for the ever-friendly former superintendent, so he winds up spending most of his leisure time at the Godnevs’. There he and the teenage daughter, Nastenka, become close, both because they share an interest in literature and because they have both been rejected by local society (Nastenka’s first ball was a disaster, because her mother was dead and her father, though loving, had no idea how she should dress or act).

I won’t go into further detail about the story, because I don’t want to spoil it; I’ll just say the usual nineteenth-century “marriage plot” is even more powerfully developed than it is in Trollope (my previous go-to example of how it should be done), because everyone is well motivated and their interactions are thoroughly convincing. Trollope clearly liked women and they are generally the most positive characters in his novels, but the protagonists tend to be a trifle too goody-goody, giving their heart to some young man for life and waiting patiently for that man to get over whatever other romance he has foolishly gotten entangled in. (In one case, when the young man is irretrievably lost, the woman resigns herself to being an old maid and continues living pleasantly with her mother in a flower-girt country cottage.) Furthermore, with the Victorian Trollope, realism can only go so far — it is unthinkable that one of his heroines would, say, commit suicide or (worse) become a prostitute. With a Russian writer, all bets are off, so I read with the kind of trepidation that enhances enjoyment. It’s possible, of course, that it will fall apart as did Dostoyevsky’s Netochka Nezvanova (see this post); I’ll report back when I finish it. In the meantime, I can only express my delight that it’s actually been translated; Ivy Litvinov was English-born and lived in the Soviet Union (as the wife of Maxim Litvinov) — she wrote novels herself and did many translations of Russian literature — so the Englishing should be competently done, and I urge any interested parties to locate a copy (and some publisher should reprint it).

Oh, I should mention that the “souls” of the title are serfs (as in Gogol’s Dead Souls), and a thousand of them represented real wealth — at one point a character tells Kalinovich he should marry a woman with “one thousand souls” in much the same tone with which in Austin Powers Dr. Evil says “One… Hundred… BILLION DOLLARS!”


I occasionally take a whack at dumb, prejudiced, or ill-informed items relating to language, but it’s a side dish at LH. To the redditors at badlinguistics, it’s the whole menu, so if you have a hankering for mockery of things like “Italian is dying because people are using loanwords and not the subjunctive” or “A questionable map of urheimats” or “Pinyin sucks because it isn’t based off the spelling systems of English, the Germanic languages, and/or the Romance languages,” head on over and enjoy. I got a kick out of the last of the decrees in the right margin: “R5: Whosever invokes the name of 𝓒𝓗𝓞𝓜𝓢𝓚𝓨𝓓𝓞𝓩 must do so in appropriately typeset form.” (𝓒𝓗𝓞𝓜𝓢𝓚𝓨𝓓𝓞𝓩 reference.)


This is one of those “I’ve been annoyed by this all my life and it’s time to do something about it” posts. I hate the word loess ‘a windblown deposit of fine-grained, calcareous silt or clay,’ because I have no idea how to pronounce it. AHD gives (lō’əs, lĕs, lŭs), M-W \ˈles, ˈləs, ˈlō-əs, ˈlərs\; to take these in the latter order, \ˈles\ sounds like less, \ˈləs\ (i.e., “luss”) sounds dumb, \ˈlō-əs\ sounds like Lois, and \ˈlərs\ (i.e., “lurce”) sounds dumber. But I’m willing to bite the bullet and adopt one of these pronunciations if I’m convinced that it’s widespread enough, and especially if it’s the one used by those who deal professionally with the stuff. So: how do you say it, and do you know how loess people say it?

Shakespeare’s World.

Roberta Kwok reports in the New Yorker about a website where anyone can contribute transcriptions of bits of manuscripts from Shakespeare’s time:

The first-known records of many words are in Shakespeare’s plays, but it’s not always clear which he invented and which were already commonplace. The handwritten material of Shakespeare’s contemporaries is “more or less hidden,” according to Laura Wright, a historical linguist at the University of Cambridge and a Zooniverse volunteer. “Of course it looks like Shakespeare invented all this stuff, because his stuff is in print,” she said.

To tackle the problem, Zooniverse partnered with the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C., and with the Oxford English Dictionary. Volunteers for Shakespeare’s World can view images of documents from the Folger’s manuscript collection, including family correspondence, household recipe books, and letters by state officials, and transcribe as little or as much of a page as they want. […]

Already, the project has yielded linguistic discoveries. Volunteers have found recipes for “Taffytie” and “Taffity” tarts, which might be variations on “taffeta,” implying a delicate texture. Combined with an existing record of a similar usage in the O.E.D., the new examples suggest that this was an established genre of dessert, like lemon-meringue pie is today, according to Philip Durkin, the dictionary’s deputy chief editor. A volunteer came across a recipe for “portugall farts”; Durkin noted that the O.E.D. already contains the phrases “Fartes of Portingale” and “ferte of Portugall,” defined as “a ball of light pastry,” but “to have ‘portugall farts’ as well is good,” he said. One letter, from 1567, about a headstrong youth uses the term “white lie,” pre-dating the O.E.D.’s earliest record of the phrase by nearly two centuries.

Another great use of the internet!

On Being Translated Back to Myself.

Boris Fishman has a winning Author’s Note in the latest NY Times Book Review about his trip to Estonia, where he confronted a Russian translation of his novel A Replacement Life (which I will really have to read):

The embassy had scheduled a reading in Russian, so it commissioned a translation from a local trinitarian. Soon, it arrived — a third longer than my text. Was my translator using the occasion to insert thoughts of his own? Similarly, I’d wondered whether the Frenchman, whose “Replacement Life” outlasted mine by a hundred pages, had been so overcome by the overlaps in our narratives that he’d begun amplifying my story with his. No — like French, Russian simply takes longer. (“It’s not a good language for Twitter,” as my embassy handler, a half-Russian, half-Finnish Estonian, dryly noted.)

What linguistic particularity extends, cultural recognition reduces. As I read the translator’s version, I found myself cutting whole sentences. Responsibly, he had translated everything, but hardly every word was as necessary for an audience already familiar with, say, how and why the pre-revolutionary nobility fled to France. In Russian, I was finally the slayer of flab I could never quite allow to fall away in the original tongue of the novel (that is, the adopted one of my life). In Russian, I could leave the space between the lines to do half the work. Unlike English, half of Russian lived there, anyway.

Things that sounded improbable and sentimental in English — a son does not recognize the skeleton at the door as his father — became moving in Russian. The unbelievable things — an entrepreneur corners the market on the best grave sites at a local cemetery — are just another day in Minsk or the many Minsks-in-exile of south Brooklyn. Because my Russian translator was unfamiliar with certain American realities — AAA is car help, not a clothing size — I also corrected infelicities. Then, starting to see better ways to suit the intentions of the English, I just started retranslating. Maybe I wasn’t so hopeless as a writer in Russian.

He goes on to describe the reading itself and the conclusions he drew; it’s a lot of fun. Thanks, David!

Irinarkh Vvedensky, Intrusive Translator.

I happened on a passage in The Oxford Handbook of the Victorian Novel which I thought was interesting enough to post here. Julie Buckler, after describing how familiar Russian readers were with even minor British authors, since from Pushkin’s time on they were made available almost immediately in the “thick journals” that provided the intellectual fodder of the Russian intelligentsia, points out that “this relatively comprehensive coverage” was “mitigated by haphazard and freewheeling translation practices” — translations “were abridged in seemingly unsystematic or even perverse fashion,” often “rendered in haste in return for poor pay.” A “more responsible and even artistic concept of translation” only arrived with the modernist period. Then she writes:

The single most prolific Russian translator of Victorian prose fiction was Irinarkh Vvedensky (1813–55), who provided Russian readers with a steady stream of English novels in the 1840s to 1850s, more than 5,000 printed pages in total. Vvedensky began with The Vicar of Wakefield in 1845, and during the period 1847–52 translated Dombey and Son, The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, The Haunted Man, Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre, and Caroline Norton’s Stuart of Dunleath. Posthumous assessments of Vvedensky’s work fault him for making an extraordinary number of mistakes in translation and for the liberties he took with the original texts. Vvedensky himself considered this free approach to foreign texts a legitimate method for attuning himself to the author’s spirit, and firmly believed that a truly worthy ‘translation’ should not be strictly faithful. In an 1849 letter to Charles Dickens that appeared in his translation of Dombey and Son, Vvedensky wrote, ‘I understood you as an Englishman and at the same time, in my thoughts, I had you move to Russian soil, and made you express your ideas as you would if you lived under Russian skies.’ Vvedensky liked to insert his own commentary and additions throughout, in phrases and even entire sentences he rendered in a literary idiom similar to the foreign author’s own style. He was also fond of adding pithy Russian-style proverbs as folksy authorial interjections at the end of specific passages (‘It’s easy enough to solve someone else’s problems!’). Vvedensky represents a complex figure in the Russian literary landscape of the mid-19th century. He took liberties with the texts he translated that would not be tolerated today, but he also raised Russian consciousness about the degree to which prose translation could be a literary art rather than a mechanistic operation.

I doubt Dickens would have approved, especially since he didn’t get any royalties.

The Charts of Reper.

I’m reading Goncharov’s Фрегат “Паллада,” toggling back and forth between the Russian text and the translation, The Frigate Pallada, done by one Klaus Goetze, who says in the Preface “I was born in Berlin in Germany, and at the age of eighteen I didn’t know a word of Russian.” He studied with Baron von der Osten-Sacken at Berlin University and Maria Yulievna Azarova at Cambridge, and I regret to report they might have been embarrassed for their student if they read his work here. Of course we all make mistakes, and it’s quite a long book, and I’m indulgent about the occasional slip, but when they become too glaring and frequent I take notice, and if it becomes too much to bear I post. Mind you, this isn’t as bad as the work of Isidor Schneider (see here, here, and here), but I hope never to see such dreadful translation as that again. At any rate, I began putting exclamation marks in the margin on page 46, where one sentence refers to the English ship “Kemperdown” and the next to the “Excelenta.” This isn’t even a matter of knowing Russian: how could anyone think that those ridiculous collections of letters are the names of English ships? I’m no naval specialist, but even I could tell they had to be the Camperdown and the Excellent. On the next page, the name Мотыгин [Motygin] was repeatedly rendered “Motuitin”; that’s just a misreading (to which is added the silly use of “ui” for ы), but it’s evidence of a worrisome sloppiness.

I didn’t get seriously bent out of shape until Chapter 3, where I found on the second page the sentence “There is one thing, however, that the charts of Reper cannot show, that cannot be reduced to figures, a thing nobody can put on a map.” The charts of Reper?! The Russian is “Реперовы таблицы”; I suppose Goetze was led astray by the (inexplicable) capital letter, but this means (as the notes to the Russian edition say) “tables for navigational calculations”; репер [reper] is simply the French word repère ‘marker, indicator; landmark’ (familiar to me mainly from the phrase point de repère) in Cyrillic disguise. [Actually, it turns out this probably refers to “Raper’s Tables”; see DCA’s comment below.] But the straw that forced the camel to post came a couple of pages later, when the helmsman says they’ve passed the Tropic of Cancer (heading south) and Goncharov remarks that he was cold during the night. “How’s that?” [Как так?] asks the helmsman, and he responds “Так, взял да и озяб: видно, кто-нибудь из нас охладел, или я, или тропики. Я лежал легко одетый под самым люком, а ‘ночной зефир струил эфир’ прямо на меня.” [Nothing special, I just suddenly got chilly: evidently one of us cooled off, either me or the tropics. I was lying lightly dressed right under the hatch, and “the night’s zephyr poured ether” right onto me.] The bit about the night’s zephyr is an allusion to a Pushkin poem, and is quoted within the quoted line of dialogue; Goetze seriously impairs intelligibility by putting only that part in quotes, and leaving the rest as narrative rather than dialogue:

It came over me, and I shivered: clearly, someone got cold, either I or the tropic. I lay, lightly dressed, under the hatch, and the “zephyr of the night poured ether onto me.”

There are various problems there, including the omission of the opening “Так” and of “самым” in “под самым люком” as well as the inclusion of “onto me” in the Pushkin quote, but the killer is the rendition of “взял да и озяб” as “It came over me, and I shivered”; Goetze was clearly unfamiliar with the idiom “взять да (и),” used in reference to doing something suddenly: он взял да убежал ‘he up and ran.’ That one is worthy of Isidor Schneider himself.

Zhou Youguang, RIP.

Zhou Youguang, the inventor of the pinyin system of writing Chinese, has died at 111 — a remarkable age in any event, but especially so for someone born in his time and place. I hadn’t known about him, but he led quite a life; Margalit Fox has a fine obit at the NY Times:

[…] It is to Pinyin that we owe now-ubiquitous spellings like Beijing, which supplanted the earlier Peking; Chongqing, which replaced Chungking; Mao Zedong instead of Mao Tse-tung; and thousands of others. The system was adopted by the International Organization for Standardization in 1982 and by the United Nations in 1986.

Yet for all Mr. Zhou’s linguistic influence, his late-life political opposition — in 2015, the news agency Agence France-Presse called him “probably China’s oldest dissenter” — ensured that he remained relatively obscure in his own country.

“Within China, he remains largely uncelebrated,” The New York Times wrote in 2012. “As the state-run China Daily newspaper remarked in 2009, he should be a household name but is virtually unknown.”

It took Mr. Zhou and his colleagues three years to develop Pinyin, but the most striking thing about his involvement was that he was neither a linguist nor a lexicographer but an economist, recently returned to China from Wall Street. […]

And Victor Mair has a touching post at the Log:

Zhou xiansheng,

You were my dear friend for decades. I wish that you had gone on living forever. You will be sorely missed, but yours was a life well lived. […]


The ALIM project (Archivio della Latinità Italiana del Medioevo) intends to offer for free consultation, on the Internet, all texts written in Italy in Latin during the Middle Ages. Many thanks to Bruce Allen, who sent me the link; he said “I mean, how cool is that?” and I responded “Very cool! None more cool!”

The Language of Chess.

A useful roundup by Edwin Battistella at OUPblog:

Chess comes from the 6th century Sanskrit game chaturanga, which translates to “four arms.” The arms refer to the elephants, horses, chariots, and foot soldiers of the Indian army, which evolved into the modern bishops, knights, rooks, and pawns. The chaturanga pieces also included the king or rajah and the king’s counselor, which would later be reinvented as the queen. In chaturanga, the game ended when the rajah was removed from the board—when the king was killed.

Chaturanga was introduced to Persia around 600 AD and the rajah became the shah. Persian chatrang became Arabic shatranj and made its way to Morocco and Spain as shaterej. The word check, meaning an attack on the king, was adapted from the Persian shah. A player would say shah to announce an attack on the king. The expression checkmate came from the situation in which the king is attacked and has no defense: shāh māt means “the king is dead” and this connotation of regicide persists in the Russian name for chess: shakmati. [Sic: Should be shakhmaty.]

In Latin, the game was not named after the killing of the king, but after the attacks themselves—the checks. It was called ludis scaccorum (game of checks) or, when shortened [Sic: This is the Italian form], scacchi. The Latin word for check later gave us the Middle French eschec, which became échecs in the plural and chess in English.

There is much more on various chess terms from French and German; one thing I wish had been pointed out is that it is not just the chess sense of check that is from shah—the entire complex of English meanings comes from the chess term. See the Usage Note at the end of the AHD entry:

Through a complex development having to do with senses that evolved from the notion of checking the king, check came to mean something used to ensure accuracy or authenticity. One such means was a counterfoil, a part of a check, for example, retained by the issuer as documentation of a transaction. Check first meant “counterfoil” and then came to mean anything, such as a bill or bank draft, with a counterfoil—or eventually even without one.

Thanks, Trevor!