Archives for September 2017

Getting the Knife.

Wyatt Mason’s NYRB review of a number of translations of Pierre Michon (an author with whom I was unfamiliar) is an interesting read (as is pretty much everything Mason writes); Michon doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but I love the anecdote that introduces the review. Mason begins: “When I was twenty and studying French literature in Paris, I signed up for an independent project in translation. My adviser’s only stipulation was that I translate something that hadn’t made its way into English.” He asks around and is told repeatedly that Pierre Michon is “one of our greatest living writers”:

In 1989, this was very much a minority opinion. Michon’s complete works amounted to three slender books, as I discovered in a bookstore near my school. The earliest, Vies minuscules (1984), ran to two hundred pages; Vie de Joseph Roulin (1988) was fifty-nine pages; and a third, L’empereur d’Occident (1989), was forty-nine pages. And while it would speak well of me to claim that I devoted the remainder of the afternoon to reading all three until the store closed, wringing my hands as I weighed the merits of each while hesitating over which to choose, I spent all of thirty seconds deliberating. The slimmest, the pages of which were printed in uncut signatures—to read them, I would need a knife—was unapproachable. The longest, which wasn’t long, seemed by comparison huge. So I chose the middle one, because it was short, and because I didn’t have a knife.

I got the knife thirteen years later. I was sitting with Michon and his wife in a restaurant down the street from their townhouse in Nantes. Across the intervening years, I’d translated four of Michon’s books into English and found them a small US publisher. [He met with the author each time.] These meetings had always been productive. Michon, who speaks little English, was generous with his time and clear in his responses, able to illuminate the many thorny passages in his work that his translator couldn’t unpack and dictionaries didn’t help decipher.

The 2003 meetings in Nantes were different. Michon was curt, dismissive. In the past, my incomprehension was met with patience, instruction; now my perplexities displeased him. […] And yet despite that morning’s agon, Michon proposed lunch out. In a booth, across from his wife, he sat between me and the wall. Confit de canard was ordered and served, accompanied by large serrated knives. I attempted conversation; conversation did not form. Plates were cleared. Michon held on to his knife. As he turned toward me in the booth for the first time, a tap of the tip of the knife he’d retained, now pointed at me, punctuated each word he spoke.

“So,” he began, “you’re an acceptable translator. Actually, no. You’re fine. But Vies minuscules is an exceptional text. It needs an exceptional translator. Understand?”

Michon’s face was gray, grim. I made a few sounds that attempted to communicate that I didn’t understand; that we had worked together for years; that I wasn’t clear what had changed; that I’d done the same work I’d done in the past and arrived with, I thought, the same kinds of questions but—

“But you haven’t even deciphered the text,” Michon said, loudly, pounding the table now with the fist that held the knife. The voices of the lunchtime crowd dimmed as the restaurant registered the disturbance. “You haven’t even deciphered it.”

With a terminal clack, Michon released the knife to the table.

“Let me out!” Michon shouted, pushing past me. “Let me out!”

Ouch! Many thanks to Trevor Joyce for the link.


I’m reading Veltman’s Воспитанница Сара [The ward Sara], about which I will have much to say when I’ve read further, but I’ve hit a passage whose final word puzzles me, and I thought I’d canvass the assembled multitudes — those, at any rate, familiar with 19th-century Russian. He’s describing a scene outside a Moscow theater on a cold night in the late 1840s or early 1850s (“before the invention of crinoline”); the coachmen and servants are trying to keep warm while the masters are inside:

Около экипажей тѣ же nляски въ одиночку, то же хлопанье руковицами; а ужь если можно оставить лошадей и на надежныя руки своей братьи, или незябкихъ мальчишекъ-форейторовъ, такъ компанія идетъ куда-нибудь по сосѣдству, гдѣ и чай горячій, и горячіе наnитки, и всякая провизія и пріятное преnровожденіе времени, и даже машина.

Around the carriages the same solitary dances, the same beating of mittens; but those who were able to leave their horses in the reliable hands of their own kind, or of young postillions who weren’t so sensitive to the cold, went somewhere nearby, where there were hot tea and other hot beverages, and all sorts of provisions and pleasant ways to pass the time, and even a mashina.

(The italics are Veltman’s.) That word машина, literally ‘machine,’ can mean a great many things in the 19th century (Dahl mentions, among other possibilities, flints, cigar guillotines, billiard stands, locomotives, and “anything huge or cumbersome”), and I have no idea what it might mean here. I asked Sashura, and he suggested it might be a mechanical music machine, like a carillon or an orchestrion (he provided this charming YouTube clip as an illustration). Any other ideas?

Update. It turns out (unsurprisingly) that Sashura’s guess was correct; he asked the question on Facebook and got a number of answers along those lines. For example, here’s Natalia Sokolovskaya quoting a specialist from Pushkin House:

Здесь – какой-то музыкальный аппарат. Ср. у того же Вельтмана: “Заняв номер в пять рублей в сутки, он вышел в общую залу обедать и слушать, как машина музыку играет” (“Приключения, почерпнутые из моря житейского. Саломея”, 1848).

Here it means some sort of musical apparatus. Compare this, in Veltman’s 1848 novel Salomea: “Having rented a room for five rubles a day, he went into the common room to dine and listen to the mashina playing music.”

Thanks, Sashura and all his FB readers!

Talking Gibberish.

Gaston Dorren asks a very good question in Aeon: Why is linguistics such a magnet for dilettantes and crackpots? He describes the various attempts to pin down mankind’s original language (“German was a popular candidate, but the 17th-century Swedish scholar Olof Rudbeck favoured his own mother tongue, for a reason that was nothing if not creative: Sweden, he argued, was Atlantis, and thus the cradle of human civilisation”), citing LH’s own founding father, the Flemish author Johannes Goropius Becanus:

He claimed that the Dutch language, and the Flemish dialect of Antwerp in particular, was the direct descendant of the original language and the source of all others. His evidence was of an etymological nature. The name Adam, for instance, was derived from haat-dam (‘hate dam, dam against hate’), while Diets or Dutch was synonymous with d’oudste (‘th’oldest’). In the Low Countries, Goropius would enjoy some support for centuries to come; abroad, his name literally became a byword for fanciful etymologising: the eminent German scholar Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz called the activity ‘goropising’. Even today, the hypothesis of Dutch as the oldest language is kept alive by at least one linguist and one poet, both of whom seem to be embarrassingly serious about it.

He then talks about William Jones’s famous 1784 lecture in which he proposed the Indo-European language family, and continues:

Given the extensive body of historical knowledge they’ve collected since, especially about Europe and Asia, one would expect that claims of Goropian and Rudbeckian absurdity would be a thing of the past. They aren’t, however. To this day, dissidents seriously assert that mainstream linguistics has it spectacularly wrong. Science is not above errors, of course, some of them collective and persistent – think phrenology, think behaviourism – and linguistics is no exception.

He proceeds to Lemuria, the Sun-language theory, Saharan (“a close relative of Basque”), climate theory, and Marrism; he concludes:

The tricky thing about history is that so much has happened; about languages, that there are so many of them. […] The fantasists and dilettantes trawl through source after source in the hope of pulling aboard what seem to be relations and other connections. But in fact, the more documents they sift through, the more likely they are to find chance similarities and connections and draw spurious conclusions. And if established scholars disagree with them, they will typically respond in a petulant manner, rather than take their criticism seriously. […]

If you enjoy crackpottery, click the link; you’ll have a good time. (Thanks, Bathrobe!)

Khalatov’s Hat.

Occasionally I feel guilty about neglecting what is, after all, part of this blog’s name, but now I have an occasion to remedy that failing. I’m reading Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (a very generous gift from an LH reader); it’s over a thousand pages long, because it combines several strands of narration into one book, and one of those strands is a collective biography of some of the people who wound up living in what has become known as the House on the Embankment since Yuri Trifonov’s novel of that name (published in 1976). One of those people was Artemy Khalatov (Russian Wikipedia article), described thus on pp. 383-4:

One of Koltsov’s closest collaborators and head of the Association of State Book and Magazine Publishers (OGIZ), moved into a large, six-room apartment on the seventh floor of Entryway 12 (four floors below Rozengolts). […] Khalatov (thirty-five at the time of the move) was famous among the Bolsheviks for his long curly hair, full beard, and Astrakhan hat, which he rarely took off. Before being put in charge of nationalizing and centralizing the publishing industry, he supervised rationing in War Communism Moscow, chaired the Commission for the Improvement of Scholars’ Living Conditions, founded the State Puppet Theater, and, as head of People’s Nutrition (“Down with kitchen slavery! Long live communal food consumption!”), inspired Yuri Olesha’s Envy.

(I wrote about Envy here.) And then, on pp. 457-8, Slezkine quotes this passage from the memoirs of Ivan Gronsky, editor of Izvestia (and another resident of the House), about a Politburo meeting on August 5, 1931:

On the agenda was the work of OGIZ. The presenter was Khalatov. He entered the room and stood, not where he was supposed to, but at the other end of the table, closer to Stalin. Just as Khalatov was about to begin, Stalin suddenly asked:

“Why are you wearing a hat?”

Khalatov looked lost.

“But you know I always wear this hat.”

“It shows a lack of respect for the Politburo! Take off your hat!”

“But, Iosif Vissarionovich, why?”

I had never seen Stalin in such a state. Usually he was polite and spoke softly, but now he was absolutely furious. Khalatov still did not remove his ill-fated hat. Stalin jumped up and ran out of the room. We all began to reason with Khalatov in semi-facetious terms: “Artem, don’t be silly. . .” Khalatov relented, and began his report. Stalin came back, sat down, and raised his hand. Molotov, as usual, said: “Comrade Stalin has the floor.”

The General Secretary’s brief intervention can be summarized as follows: “The political situation in the country has changed, but we have not drawn the appropriate conclusions. It seems to me that OGIZ should be split up. I propose taking five publishing houses out of OGIZ.”

The proposal was accepted. Khalatov left the meeting as a nobody.

Wearing hats indoors can be dangerous! And note that in 1931 it was still possible to think you could get away with arguing with Iosif Vissarionovich. (If you’re curious, here’s an image of Khalatov in his hat.) But he did not in fact leave the meeting as a nobody; Slezkine concludes the passage by saying “He continued to live in the House of Government and to wear his hat.”


The AHD defines terroir as “1. The aggregate characteristics of the environment in which a food or wine is produced, including regional and local climate, soil, and topography. 2. The flavor imparted to a food or wine by such characteristics” (it’s from Vulgar Latin *terratōrium, alteration of Latin territōrium, territory); it’s pretty much a foodie term, but a useful one, and I’ve been familiar with it for many years. I was thus interested to learn from William Doyle’s TLS review of Thomas Parker’s Tasting French Terroir: The History of an Idea that “the regional variety of wine and food produced in France was clearly recognized as long ago as the sixteenth century, and positively celebrated in the earthy writings of Rabelais” (I pause to note the appositeness in this context of “earthy”); Olivier de Serres‘s “instantly popular” Le Théâtre de l’agriculture (1600) used the term frequently. But “in the seventeenth century it ceased to be anything to celebrate”:

Dictionaries of the time began to define the term as an undesirable taint, something disagreeable to good taste and polite society. In a kingdom whose values were increasingly dictated by metropolitan and courtly high society, the idea of terroir signified all that was uncouth and provincial. The best food and wine should have no hint of strong regional character, any more than the best people sounded or behaved like provincials.

The term was revived by Rousseau and was looked at askance by the rationalizing, centralizing Revolution; “What everybody agreed on was the superiority of French terroir to anywhere else.”

The review ends with a question as to whether the concept is in fact distinctively French: “Was the term terroir (which has no precise English equivalent) uniquely French, or could some similar notion be found in the culture of other European countries?” I’m sure the answer is “yes and no,” just as with hygge and sisu and all the other supposedly untranslatable terms.


My loving and tolerant wife abetted my addiction by taking me to Grey Matter/Troubadour Books (note that their Fall Sale will be Sept. 28-Oct. 1, and everything in the store will be 35% off — I encourage everyone in the area to take advantage of it); I was thrilled to learn from their website that “Grey Matter is now the proud owner of the remains of that legendary fishing destination of the wise, Gotham Book Mart” (where I spent a substantial amount of time and money in the 1980s), and when I got there I headed straight for the tables devoted to material from Gotham. One of the items I grabbed (for a dollar!) was the Dec. 1936 issue of Contemporary Poetry and Prose, a short-lived periodical edited by Roger Roughton (who apparently committed suicide in 1941, and has left little trace online); it promised poems by St.-J. Perse and Paul Eluard, among others, and a short story by Isaac Babel. Imagine my surprise when I turned to the appropriate page and found “With Our Father Makhno/ An Episode of the Russian Civil War/ by ISAAC BABEL/ (Translated from the Russian by George Reavey)”… followed by a page and a half of blank space. Since among the Announcements (which are an enjoyable read in themselves: “The Notes on Contributors have already been discontinued for some time, as they were usually made up at the last moment and did not contain much information anyway”) was the severe “It is hoped that there will not again be the long list of mistakes which appears in this last year’s numbers,” I thought perhaps it was the mother of all typos, but when I got home Google Books found this editorial in the next issue, which cleared it all up:

                CENSORED !

On page 143 of CONTEMPORARY POETRY AND PROSE NO. 8 (Dec. 1936), there appeared, as announced, the heading of a short story, WITH OUR FATHER MAKHNO, by Isaac Babel, the famous soviet author. But alas, beneath the title and the translator’s name was an alarming, or ridiculous, blank. Two explanations, both somewhat unjust to the editor, were generally offered: one was simply that the text of the story was left out by mistake; the other was that it was just a 1920ish joke. Now there have been one or two rather odd mistakes in past numbers, due perhaps to the blue-eyed view of the paper taken by the stolid, peasant-like printers, but even they could not accept two blank pages without comment. As for the joke theory, Dadaism has never shown its anti-clockwise face in other numbers.

No, the text of Babel’s story had been quite consciously removed, not by order of the Lord Chamberlain or the editor, but by the printers. For perhaps many people do not know that most of the censorship in this country is carried out by the solicitors whom all large printers must keep; and this must be so, as long as the censorship laws are as violent, ignorant, unjust and immoral as they are now. Censorship is not a matter of commonsense; no layman can decide what is likely to meet with disfavour. In this case, after having previously ‘passed’ the story, the lawyer decided, when the whole edition was on the press and nearly due out, that WITH OUR FATHER MAKHNO was ‘doubtful’ and must be removed. There was no time to alter the cover announcement, the contents page or the index, and there was no suitable substitute piece of that length on hand. So the only thing to do was to leave the blank there, and hope that readers would recognise the innocence of the editor and the iniquity of the censorship laws — which very few did!

It goes on to give another example of infuriating censorship, and says “It is very doubtful whether moral censorship is defensible at all: although aimed against pornography, it seems to have had little success there, and otherwise the application of the law has been memorable chiefly for its abuse.” To which one can only heartily agree. It’s hard to remember in these loosey-goosey times what things were like for writers and publishers in the bad old days.


I don’t want to neglect to write about the recent death of John Ashbery (NY Times obit). I’ve posted his poems here a number of times (2009, 2005, 2004); here’s a recent (May 5, 2016) one from the LRB (which is temporarily making their entire archive of Ashbery poems available without a subscription):


It’s beautiful, and all that:
the corner student with the carpet tunnel
or you just don’t know
where to get one
which is all that matters.
I didn’t know but what
during our recent homecoming special
very good plastic muffins were featured,
(the cement trees yesterday),

and that probably wouldn’t be a surprise.
Turn the window off.
The stars, what happens next?
Replacement issues, timid leftovers
burning in reality.

Bear with me, bears.
The radar committee (woman in bathrobe, man
in bad mood) backed down. The chosen honorees arose
or are you going up? I don’t sit with smaller operations.

The ant farm, tossed on frozen seas –
didn’t they have an old pin-up of yours?
The hairnet (stay away) protects my great big head.
In your smart capacity summon the ambassador.
And the infection? It grew.
In 1951 I really, really am, little chum.
Sorry about the vegetables. Stones’ll be pretty with that.

What do you want, John? Informally, a
new body, and an assistant.
I’ll bet the place is swarming with printers.
I wrote them yesterday. Really reached out,
plugnutty. Like the noiseless farts of antiquity
squeamishness is best, yet still.

I laughed at “very good plastic muffins” and “Bear with me, bears,” and I plan to quote “In 1951 I really, really am, little chum” to my grandsons (that was the year I was born). And “plugnutty” appears to be old slang, short for “nutty from being plugged (hit with fists)”; compare these Google Books quotes: “manned by no plug-nutty, cauliflower-eared gangsters and gunmen” (1933), “he is failing in mental calibre, and boxing circles have designated the condition of the boxer by the term ‘plug-nutty’ and other similar names” (1938).

The Parlance of Pilots.

Mark Vanhoenacker is a pilot with British Airways, and writes engagingly about the language of the air:

The day I first flew in the cockpit of an airliner, I fell in love with the sights, of course, but also the sounds. […] I fell in love with what I saw from the airplane that day. But I was equally struck by the clipped, technical majesty of the words I heard through the expensive-looking noise-cancelling headset the pilots had handed to me. The pilots spoke of ‘localisers’ and ‘glideslopes’ and ‘veerefs plus five’ (VREF, I now know, is a baseline landing speed). On the radio they talked, in terms I could barely understand, to a series of laconic folks who identified themselves as ‘Maastricht Control’ and ‘London Centre’ and the all-powerful-sounding ‘Heathrow Director’. And the plane itself spoke out loud as we neared the ground, announcing our heights and then, all of a sudden, asking us in a brisk, clear voice, to ‘DECIDE.’ […]

A prominent feature of Aeroese is its deep nautical roots. Think port and starboard, forward and aft; deck; log; captain and first officer; bulkhead, hold and galley; rudder and tiller; wake; knot; even waves, as in mountain waves, an atmospheric disturbance that can produce turbulence. And of course the word aeronautical itself. […]

So what does Aeroese actually sound like on the radio? You can listen to certain air-traffic frequencies online – although most exchanges contain terms and certainly nuances that wouldn’t be apparent to non-Aeroese speakers. ‘Descend flight level 100, then reduce minimum clean.’ ‘Establish localiser two-seven-right, when established descend glide.’ And: ‘Check 63 north 40 west 1830 flight level 340 estimate 64 north 50 west 19 hundred CLAVY next.’ These examples from recent flights of mine I wouldn’t have been able to begin to make sense of as a teenager, even one who loved airplanes and read all he could about them.

Lots of good stuff there. Thanks, Jack!

Unrelated, but I support this Open Letter to the Linguistic Society of America about “the widespread problem of sexual harassment and the failure of existing responses from the academic units where our members study and work.” (More links and discussion at the Log.) I saw that at Yale forty years ago and it’s depressing that things haven’t gotten much better since.

Update. The LSA Executive Committee responds; they seem to be taking it seriously.

Nick Nicholas Is Back!

Back in the world of blogs, I mean (the only online world of personal expression that really means much to me). I first wrote about him and his wonderful blogs back in 2009, and at that time I said “this sucker’s going on the sidebar”; it’s been on the sidebar ever since, despite a lamentable absence of updates, and I’m thrilled I’ll be able to follow him on his new WordPress versions. See his announcement here (where he explains how he resumed writing online at Quora and became disillusioned with that venue), and by all means add his blogs to your preferred RSS feed. Callooh! Callay! I chortle in my joy.

Addendum. He posted this on Facebook: Why hasn’t Australia developed more diverse regional accents?

Rout and Conversazione.

A passage of linguistic interest from Ford Madox Ford’s Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (he is describing the late Victorian period when he was growing up):

Across the front of another confectioner’s near here is painted the inscription, “Routs catered for.” What was a rout? I suppose it was some sort of party, but what did you do when you got there? I remember reading a description by Albert Smith of a conversazione at somebody’s private house, and a conversazione in those days was the most modern form of entertainment. Apparently it consisted in taking a lady’s arm and wandering round among showcases.

There’s a description of a conversazione in one of Trollope’s early novels, and we talked about routs here (I think I would now be more tolerant of translating раут as “rout”). Another passage:

The word “exquisite” has gone almost as completely out of our vocabulary as the words “pot luck.” And for the same reason. We are no longer expected to take pot luck, because our hostess, by means of the telephone, can always get from round the corner some sort of ready-made confection that has only to be stood for ten minutes in a bain-marie to form a course of an indifferent dinner.

It’s interesting that he felt “pot luck” would no longer be understood by young Englishmen circa 1910; I’m pretty sure it’s been in continuous use in America, though it’s now mashed together as “potluck.”