Archives for June 2017

Steam Instead of Soul.

I haven’t reported on my Russian reading in a while, which doesn’t mean it’s been uninteresting — I just haven’t had anything interesting to say about it. I read Ostrovsky’s Гроза [The Thunderstorm], which is just as great as they say (the 1933 film is surprisingly good despite the fact that it was heavily cut) and Turgenev’s Накануне [On the Eve] (not bad but not great — the Bulgarian hero is unconvincing) and Первая любовь [First Love] (just as great as they say). Now I’m on one of those books I wouldn’t have read except for my comprehensive reading program, Nikolai Pomyalovsky‘s Мещанское счастье [Bourgeois happiness — I don’t think it’s been translated]. Pomyalovsky is one of those “minor writers” nobody ever especially recommends (and the title is awful), but I’m enjoying it a great deal and already looking forward to the sequel, Молотов [Molotov — the protagonist of both is Egor Ivanych Molotov], and ruing the fact that the author died at 28 — I suspect he could have been one of the greats if he’d had a chance to mature.

But I’m not even halfway through, so I don’t want to comment on the story as a whole other than to say it has some very effective scenes; I just want to excerpt this self-contained section, which I found unexpected and striking (Russian after the cut):

Egor Ivanych walked onto the forest glade and on it saw two small graves. This caught his attention. “Who would be buried here?” he thought. “What a strange place — in a forest!” Looking around, he saw that he was completely surrounded by forest. After a moment’s thought, he climbed the highest tree and saw the road from there. He walked out onto the road and, hearing women’s voices, approached them. It turned out to be three peasant women; the oldest was nattering on about something. Molotov addressed himself to her.

“Auntie!” he called out.

The women looked around and made low bows, as simple peasant folk do when meeting someone dressed like a gentleman.

“What is it, sir?” she asked.

“Do you know whose graves those are, auntie?”

“What graves, sir?”

“Over there by the river, on the glade.”

“Ah!” cried the old woman. “There are graves, there are… That’s Miron’s little daughters… two of them died…”

“Why are they buried there?”

“The little girls? They died unbaptized.”

She raised her eyes to the heavens, sighed, said “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy,” and dropped her eyes. But suddenly her face became enlivened, and she began to talk:

“Of course, if an unbaptized child dies, it’s just like a piece of wood… You can dig anywhere, it’s all the same… There’s no spirit in it, it’s a kind of person who… it’s born without a spirit… it’s got steam inside… You don’t baptize one like that, it up and dies… God won’t allow it, no.”

“Where did you get the idea that an unbaptized child doesn’t have a spirit?”

“But how can a Christian child die without being baptized? Is that possible? It’s not possible… Sometimes one is born completely dead… this one doesn’t have a spirit… An unbaptized child isn’t born a holy child.”

She spread her hands and was silent. Molotov was amazed at her peasant woman’s sense.

“Goodbye, auntie, and thanks,” he said.

“Goodbye, sir.”

Molotov was even more amazed at her peasant woman’s sense later on, when he learned that this belief about unbaptized children was purely personal, that nobody in the village knew about it. He had run into a peasant woman poet, a peasant woman mystic. It might be that until that moment it had never occurred to her to try to explain to herself the fate, incomprehensible to her, of certain children, and then as soon as the question of the children entered her head, not wanting to remain long in perplexity, she at once, with the help of her inspiration, went past all contradictions and created an instant myth. And it’s very possible that this myth will be passed down to her children and grandchildren, will creep into other families, to neighbors and acquaintances, and in thirty or forty years will become a new local folk belief, and then you won’t be able to guess where it arose. It’s not only ancient times that stored up prejudices, they’re created even now.

Me, I’d rather have characters musing about things like that than the pressing social issues of the day.

Update (July 4). Sigh… Just as with Netochka Nezvanova, no sooner do I write an enthusiastic post than the book falls off a cliff. Molotov meets the neighbor girl Lenochka and they have a sort-of-romance, complete with heaving bosoms, flaming cheeks, and tears falling like hail; he overhears a conversation between the Obrosimovs, a family of landed nobility for whom he’s working, and decides they have contempt for him, which leads to just the sort of endless chewing-over of social issues that I was congratulating Pomyalovsky for resisting. It all ends in drawn-out and repetitious cliché. I’ll read the sequel, but no longer with high hopes.

[Read more…]

16 Translations of One Novel.

Saeed Kamali Dehghan reports for The Guardian on Iran’s unfortunate copyright situation:

Iranian authors who publish in their home country are offered some protection under national law, but the work of writers who publish outside Iran is completely unprotected. According to the Tehran Times, one Iranian translator has secured the copyright to produce a version in Farsi of Paula Hawkins’s 2017 novel, Into the Water. But at least five others are already working on competing translations.

Thanks to Iran’s love for literature, Tehran bookshops boast a diverse range of foreign titles, spanning everything from Marcel Proust to Haruki Murakami. Even works rarely seen in UK bookshops, such as Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, are abundant in Iran – and widely read. That said, censorship is rife: the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance vets all books before publication, and most are redacted – although under the current moderate administration, there is increasing leeway.

Translators in Iran enjoy a degree of popularity rarely seen in the west; their names are published on covers alongside the authors’, and some are famous cultural figures. […]

The popularity of foreign fiction and the difficulties of obtaining permission have exacerbated the problem of multiple translations of the same book popping up, with some translators exploiting the copyright vacuum – particularly so for bestsellers. Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed, for instance, has been translated into Persian by at least 16 different people. Recently, Arsalan Fasihi, who has translated Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, warned that the issue could trigger a “downfall of Persian literature” because it was affecting the quality of translations.

At least there seems to be some pressure to change things. (I might add that I shake my head sorrowfully at “works rarely seen in UK bookshops, such as Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education.”) Thanks, Trevor!


I just read Paul Pickering’s TLS review (from 2015 — yes, I’m way behind) of Juan Filloy’s 1937 novel Caterva, translated by Brendan Riley for the indispensable Dalkey Archive. The review makes both Filloy and his “grand modernist novel” sound fascinating, but what concerns me here is the title. Pickering says:

“Caterva” means “crowd”, but in this book, with its radical and criminal undertones, it is best translated as “mob”. […] Brendan Riley’s masterly translation enters into this bleakly comic spirit but everything is clear, precise and easy to read. This is a heroic achievement, as the title alone can be rendered in many different ways (Riley, who perhaps wisely left it as it is, coolly describes the multilingual and poly-rhetorical text, which contains everything from cipher to gravestone inscriptions, as “a challenge”).

What strikes me is that if it were called The Crowd or The Mob, it would immediately sink into the bog of “books with hard-to-remember titles that sound vaguely like a bunch of other books,” whereas Caterva can’t be mistaken for anything else and is quite memorable. Riley was wise indeed. I know there are other examples of books whose foreign titles are kept in English translation, but my tired brain isn’t coming up with them at the moment. (The word caterva, by the way, is straight from Latin; see Wiktionary.)

Crepax’s Reversed Lautverschiebung .

A fun post from goofy at bradshaw of the future:

Guido Crepax’s Valentina comics feature a subterranean race with a language that was heavily influenced by Germanic languages – he calls it “Lautverschiebung in reverse” as I noted in my previous post.

These stories have recently been published by Fantagraphics in beautiful English editions and I am reading them for the first time. Here are some of the words of the subterranean language, their meanings, and my guesses on where Crepax got them. Most of them are from Gothic.

A few that goofy couldn’t find in the dictionaries: LÉTNAN
‘land,’ MÁTNAN ‘man, men,’ QÉD ‘kneel,’ MÁKLA ‘great,’ GEQÚNDAN ‘dances,’ JGHNA ‘Virgo,’ and MÁUTIA ‘woman.’

‘Dreamtime’ and ‘The Dreaming’.

Like many people, I’ve long been fascinated by the concept of “dreamtime” (which I was probably introduced to by the notoriously unreliable Bruce Chatwin); I’ve also been uneasy about depending on vague thirdhand understanding of what I was aware must be an incredibly complicated cultural complex of ideas. If you’re like me, you will welcome as I did the chance to improve your understanding at least a bit by reading Christine Judith Nicholls’s series of three posts from 2014, ‘Dreamtime’ and ‘The Dreaming’ – an introduction. It begins with a good quote by Jeannie Herbert Nungarrayi, formerly a Warlpiri teacher at the Lajamanu School in the Tanami Desert of the Northern Territory:

To get an insight into us – [the Warlpiri people of the Tanami Desert] – it is necessary to understand something about our major religious belief, the Jukurrpa. The Jukurrpa is an all-embracing concept that provides rules for living, a moral code, as well as rules for interacting with the natural environment.

The philosophy behind it is holistic – the Jukurrpa provides for a total, integrated way of life. It is important to understand that, for Warlpiri and other Aboriginal people living in remote Aboriginal settlements, The Dreaming isn’t something that has been consigned to the past but is a lived daily reality. We, the Warlpiri people, believe in the Jukurrpa to this day.

Nicholls writes:

In this succinct statement Nungarrayi touched on the subtlety, complexity and all-encompassing, non-finite nature of the Jukurrpa.

The concept is mostly known in grossly inadequate English translation as “The Dreamtime” or “The Dreaming”. The Jukurrpa can be mapped onto micro-environments in specific tracts of land that Aboriginal people call “country”.

As a religion grounded in the land itself, it incorporates creation and other land-based narratives, social processes including kinship regulations, morality and ethics. This complex concept informs people’s economic, cognitive, affective and spiritual lives.

She later adds that “words from many different languages have been squished into a couple of sleep-related English words – words that come with significantly different connotations – or baggage – in comparison with the originals”:

As noted earlier, the Warlpiri people of the Tanami Desert describe their complex of religious beliefs as the Jukurrpa.

Further south-east, the Arrerntic peoples call the word-concept the Altyerrenge or Altyerr (in earlier orthography spelled Altjira and Alcheringa and in other ways, too).

The Kija people of the East Kimberley use the term Ngarrankarni (sometimes spelled Ngarrarngkarni); while the Ngarinyin people (previously spelled Ungarinjin, inter alia) people speak of the Ungud (or Wungud).

“Dreaming” is called Manguny in Martu Wangka, a Western Desert language spoken in the Pilbara region of Western Australia; and some North-East Arnhem Landers refer to the same core concept as Wongar – to name but a handful.

Part two asks the question “who dreamed up these terms?” (it started with Francis Gillen, an Arrernte speaker and keen ethnologist in the late 19th century); part three is “‘Dreamings’ and dreaming narratives: what’s the relationship?” There’s lots of food for thought, and the illustrations are gorgeous.

The Australian National Dictionary Online.

The main page of The Australian National Dictionary says:

In the tradition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the Australian National Dictionary Centre – a joint initiative of the Australian National University and Oxford University Press – published The Australian National Dictionary: A Dictionary of Australianisms on Historical Principles in 1988.

Oxford University Press has been publishing in Australia since 1908 and, in recognition of this milestone and as a symbol of gratitude to the Australian people, The Australian National Dictionary has been made available online, free.

What a splendid thing to do! I posted about essays by Bruce Moore, the main editor, here and here. And you can read a very personal review, “Up a wombat’s freckle,” by Dame Edna Everage’s alter ego Barry Humphries at the TLS:

This scholarly two-volume work contains a generous entry under the word “chunder”, a word unknown in my youth outside the Geelong and Ballarat Grammar Schools, until I relentlessly promulgated it in the comic strip of Barry McKenzie in Private Eye. There the eponymous hero regularly and compulsively regurgitated. This expressive, even onomatopoeic, term took off in trendy London circles and is now in universal, colloquial use. […]

Needless to say, there are innumerable expressions to describe thirst and drunkenness, but there are some I have noted that have eluded the lexicographer and not yet found their way into any dictionary. They illustrate Australian verbal ingenuity, and in stretching the expressive possibilities of the English language, they often possess a kind of sardonic poetry. A thirsty man might therefore say “I’m as dry as a Pommy’s bathmat”, which incorporates a reference to the well-known English aversion to bathing. I’ve also heard an inebriated man employ what must be the most offensive rhyming slang for intoxication when he declared, “Sorry mate, I’m a bit Schindlers”.

Both offensive and hilarious: Oz at its best!

Nahuatl in LA.

Peggy McInerny writes about a Nahuatl program for the Latin American Institute:

The language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl [pronounced na’ wat], is alive and well today in Los Angeles. Beginning and intermediate classes in modern Nahuatl are offered at UCLA, with an advanced class slated to launch next year.

A few miles due north at the Getty Museum, historians and art experts are collaborating with Italy’s Laurentian Library on a long-term project to create an online, annotated version of one of the greatest works ever written in Nahuatl: the Florentine Codex. A virtual encyclopedia of Nahua culture compiled by a dedicated Franciscan friar in the mid-16th century, the work has never been accessible to the general public — much less to descendants of the Aztecs living in Mexico.

Last fall, an entire scene of a U.S. television show was shot in Spanish and modern Nahuatl, marking the first time that the Aztec language had ever been heard on an American broadcast. This coming September, a charter school in Lynwood will offer Nahuatl classes to its middle school students, courtesy of a UCLA graduate student. And that’s not to mention a dedicated native speaker who has been teaching Nahuatl classes for 26 years in a local church in Santa Ana (see KPCC story).

Standing at the confluence of most of these linguistic streams is UCLA historian Kevin Terraciano, director of the Latin American Institute. A genial professor with a dry sense of humor, Terraciano was instrumental in making Nahuatl available at UCLA, beginning in fall 2015. It was Terraciano who translated English dialogue into Nahuatl for an American Crime episode during the show’s current season. (He later coached the actors, who had to learn their parts phonetically, at the actual shoot.)

There’s some interesting stuff there about the history of the language (“Nahuatl was still the majority-spoken language in the Valley of Mexico at the end of the colonial period […] Despite the fact that 90 percent of the population died over a 100-year period as a result of one epidemic after another, indigenous peoples were still the majority of the population of Mexico by the end of that period”). Thanks, Trevor!

Timur Baytukalov has created what looks like a useful site for language learners,; he says:

I created this website with phonetic transcription converters – They can convert text into IPA phonetic transcription. I already support seven languages (English, Russian, French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Italian). Russian and French converters have embedded audio recordings.

Some levels are for paid subscribers, but basic levels are free; it looks worth checking out.

Purging Western Words from Turkish.

Over at the Log, Victor Mair posted about the latest silly governmental attempt to control language, in this case Erdoğan’s campaign against foreign influences in Turkish; he quotes an article in The Economist:

Mr Erdogan started by ordering the word “arena”, which reminded him of ancient Roman depravity, removed from sports venues across the country. Turkey’s biggest teams complied overnight. Vodafone Arena, home of the Besiktas football club, woke up as “Vodafone Stadyumu”. Critics wondered what the Turkish language had gained by replacing one foreign-derived word with another. […]

Because so much abstract vocabulary had come from Arabic and Persian, this in effect created a new language. From one generation to the next, the country’s cultural history was cut off. Mr Erdogan seems to want to turn the clock back, complete with imperial nostalgia and resentment towards the West. In 2014 he proposed introducing mandatory high-school classes in Ottoman Turkish, which survives today only among linguists, historians and clerics. The plan was shelved after a popular backlash.

The offensive against Western loanwords will probably meet a similar fate. In an interview, the [Turkish Language Institute]’s head, Mustafa Kacalin, clarified that it would apply only to “bizarre” foreign words incomprehensible to most Turks. The limits became clear in Mr Erdogan’s own speech on May 23rd, in which he denounced loanwords by using a loanword. They were not, he said, “sik” (“chic”). Many Turks no doubt consider the whole thing a load of bosh—from the Turkish bos, “nonsense”.

As Thomas Shaw says in the comments, the quotation from The Economist misspells the Turkish: “it should be şık and boş. Also Erdoğan, of course […].” (In the following comments, Y thought for a moment he was at the Hattery, which was amusing.) We discussed Atatürk’s original Turkish language reform back in 2012.

Dauvit Horsbroch on the Scots Leid.

Dauvit Horsbroch, of the Scots Language Centre, has a video lecture (just under 20 minutes) on the Scots language (“leid” in Scots) that’s a fascinating experience for an English speaker; the more you listen the more you understand, and it’s a linguistically informed talk about language — what’s not to like?

Via MetaFilter, where Happy Dave (“I’m Scottish, speak Scottish English day-to-day, occasionally dot my sentences with Scots words and have academic connections to the Scots leid folks through my wife”) has the following informative comment, responding to someone else saying “I don’t know anything about this guy, but I knew people who spoke Scots and they didn’t sound much like that”:

Just a note on this – this fella is a Scots language (leid) specialist, so he’s speaking a pretty formalised form of Scots with deliberate substitution of words, including some that are pretty much archaic/extinct in everyday speech. There’s an attempt to document and make consistent some of the spellings etc and I believe this is the form of Scots the Scottish Parliament uses when producing documents in Scots.

However, a lot of people slide between broad Scots (and its sub-dialects like Doric) and Scottish English, sometimes in the space of sentence, all day every day. And there are not, so far as I know, any Scots speakers (even those who speak to to the exclusion of all else) who do not speak Scottish English. If you speak Scots, you also are capable of speaking Scottish English, although the reverse is not always true.

The people you knew may have have been speaking a different regional sub dialect of Scots, or a less formalised version with less archaisms, or Scottish English with a smattering of Scots words.