Archives for February 2018

Dukhobor Russian.

Ben Dalton writes for the Jordan Russian Center about a colloquium discussion on the Canadian Dukhobors; I thought this passage was interesting enough to post:

After the Russian Revolution and again after World War II, some Canadian Dukhobors returned to the Soviet Union, where they faced repression. Those that remained in Canada retained a distinct culture, even speaking Russian into the 1950s and 60s. [David] McDonald [of the University of Wisconsin-Madison] recalled growing up around Dukhobors and, as a high school senior, speaking Russian with Dukhobor women as they sold bread at a local fair. However, any words that post-dated the Dukhobor migrations at the turn of the century would use an English loan word-for example, “car” rather than the Russian “mashina.” Active Russian use disappeared only in the 1970s, McDonald said.

McDonald also mentioned that, in their private correspondence, Dukhobors emulated official Russian state discourse, a “chancellery” language, even years after their move to Canada.

It’s Hard to Finish.

This interview with Efe Balıkçıoğlu of Imprint Press, dedicated to “bringing lesser-known but brilliant Turkish authors of all forms and eras into English,” is a couple of years old, and unfortunately the publisher appears to have gone under since then (there’s a note at the end saying “Imprint became part of Koç University Press in 2015,” but the only trace of it online is this interview as far as I can tell), but there’s a lot of interesting material, including this (presumably unrealized) project:

Our next title is a Kitab-ül Hiyel (The book of ingenious devices) by İhsan Oktay Anar, a post-modern novel about Ottoman bureaucracy and innovation in mechanics. The author wrote the text in 16th-century Ottoman, which is very funny. The language itself is very well-researched, but we had to find many people to translate it. […] His novels are intellectualised, but at the same time he’s smart enough to find ways within the language where a good Turkish reader who doesn’t have any knowledge of Arabic and Persian words could understand it. So it’s a pseudo-16th century Ottoman.

An equivalent book in Russian might be Elena Kolyadina’s 2009 Tsvetochny krest [Flower cross] set in 1674, written in a pastiche of the language of the period. But this is the bit I liked most (and which Trevor quoted when he sent me the link):

Is there any particular writer or poet who you’d love to translate?

Yes, there was this poet called Mustafa Irgat. […] He idolised the poet Ece Ayhan, who was a sort of anarchist, never had a home, lived in other people’s houses, made a couple of them commit suicide, had a bad influence, basically was a kind of a leech. And Mustafa Irgat, all of his life, became a disciple to this guy, and never had a house, lived in hotel rooms. He never finished a poem all of his life. There were poems that he edited so much that they turned into very different poems, work that he would start in 1972 or ’73 and then work on until his death in 1994 or 1995. And there were still poems unfinished. He has around thirty poems and thousands of notes. Before he died of cancer, they forced him to publish whatever he had, and these thirty poems that he had been editing for over twenty something years were published. For five years Güntan looked over all the leftovers of Mustafa Irgat, pieces written on pieces of scrap paper, or on napkins, and then he did a second book of poetry.

There are whole poems written in these notes?

Yes. And the name of the book is It’s hard to finish, which was a note that Mustafa Irgat took for himself in one of the poems. Hard to finish. I want to translate that guy.

Thanks, Trevor!

Language Orders.

I don’t know if anyone else took advantage of the free download of Language of the Snakes: Prakrit, Sanskrit, and the Language Order of Premodern India by Andrew Ollett, which I mentioned here, but I did, and I’ve gotten to a section that reminds me so much of the passage from Denis Feeney’s Beyond Greek beginning “There has never been such a thing as an impermeable culture…” that I posted here that I had to share it as well:


One important starting point for my investigation is Mikhail Bakhtin’s observation that “[a] unitary language is not something which is given (dan) but is always in essence posited (zadan).” We might think that we have answered the question “What is Prakrit?” with a series of descriptions: what are its grammatical features, what texts are written in it, who wrote those texts, and so on. For a language as little studied as Prakrit, much of this descriptive work remains to be done. But Bakhtin’s comment suggests that this is only the beginning. To ask “What is Prakrit?” is not just to ask what it is like, but to ask how, by whom, and for what purposes Prakrit was “posited” as a language over the course of its history.

Throughout this book I address these questions through the concept of a language order. This concept foregrounds the fact that languages interact with each other in such a way that it is impossible to characterize a language without reference to the other languages that fall within its cultural-historical horizons. It is, of course, possible to characterize a language in that way as a formal system, through the contrasts it articulates and its procedures of derivation. This was Ferdinand de Saussure’s goal in delimiting “internal linguistics” from the study of all language-external phenomena. Saussure’s success in defining the object of linguistics as a formal system, however, has meant that comparatively little attention has been paid to the ways in which languages are posited in relation to each other. The term “language order” refers to the way that languages are ordered within a culture, to the recurrent patterns and schemas and tropes by which they are defined and represented, the names under which they are known, and the values with which they are associated. A language order provides the linguistic parameters for all manners of cultural practices, from scratching one’s name on the wall of a cave to composing a text on poetics.

Important stuff to keep in mind, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the book. Incidentally, the title comes from Mirza Khan’s description of Prakrit (in Tuḥfat al-hind [Gift of India], 1676):

This language is mostly employed in the praise of kings, ministers, and chiefs, and belongs to the world, that is to say, the world that is below the ground; they call it Pātāl-bānī, and also Nāg-bānī, that is, the language of the lowest of the low, and of reptiles of mean origin, who live underground. This language is a mixture of Sahãskirt, mentioned above, and Bhākhā, to be mentioned next.

[o madḥ-i mulūk o wuzarāʿ o akābir beshtar badīn zabān goyand. o ān zabān-i ʿālam ast, yaʿni ʿālam-i ki zīr zamīn ast. o ān-rā pātāl-bānī goyand… o nāg-bānī nīz nāmand… yaʿnī zabān-i ahl-i asfal us-sāfilīn o mārān ki zamīnīyān o suflīyānand. o ān murakkab ast az sahãskirt, ki sābiq maẕkūr shud, o bhākhā, ki baʿd az īn maẕkūr shawad.]

The Script of the Naxi.

Dr Duncan Poupard of the Chinese University of Hong Kong has a post at the Asian and African Studies blog of the British Library on “some of the most extraordinary, mysterious and visually interesting manuscripts we hold in the Chinese section of the Library”:

The British Library holds a modest but important collection of religious texts from a lesser-known people: the Naxi of the Himalayan foothills in southwest China. Among China’s officially-recognised ethnic minorities, the Naxi are a relatively small group, especially when compared to their more populous neighbours to the north, the Tibetans. But the Naxi are nevertheless significant, not least for the unique way in which they record their religious literature: the dongba script.

This script can probably be dated to at least as early as the Mongol period (1253 -1382). The Naxi ritual texts, hand-written in books and read from left to right, form the basis for what we know about the culture and beliefs of the Naxi people. The dongba script is often touted as the world’s last living pictographic script, although this classification is problematic as they are not really in active use, and are not strictly pictographic either.

There are a number of images along with a considerable amount of information; I was particularly struck by this passage about “a manuscript titled Ssee zhul: El-miq Rherq Zhail (Increasing longevity: calling upon the power of great dongba El-miq), recited at a ceremony held after a funeral to prolong the life of the surviving members of the family”:

This first section is an opening benediction, an incantation that is supposed to bring about good fortune for the ceremony to come, but also contains much of the cosmological wisdom of the Naxi people. These ten characters, when read out during a performance of this text (for all such ritual texts are to be orally performed, not read silently), will become 40 spoken Naxi words. How can this be so? Simply because the relationship between what is written and what is said follows no clearly defined rules. The characters are often called in to use more than once, and much of what is said is not actually written. Despite this, every dongba would be able to recite this section without any problems.

The post ends with this fairly depressing passage:

Anthony Jackson has suggested that a dictionary (as yet undiscovered) was compiled from this translation work, which would have been used to translate more of the texts without going through a Naxi intermediary. This was probably wishful thinking; to this day, Naxi dongba are required to give a reading of a book before it can be translated. This is because the texts are fluid: there is so much that is not written, there are graphs that are written and not read, and there are incantations that are recorded in a phonetic system separate to the picture-based graphs.

Translation of the Naxi texts is a practice that has all but died out in the modern era, as the remaining dongba grow fewer in number and their traditions become less relevant to modern life in Lijiang. This makes the library’s collection all the more invaluable, for there will come a time when such translations will be all but impossible to carry out.

We discussed the Naxi and their script almost exactly fifteen years ago, and by “we” I mean me and one commenter, taz. Those were lonesome days at the Hattery. (Amazingly, all the links still work.) Thanks, Trevor!

Beyond Greek.

I was intrigued enough by a reference to Denis Feeney’s Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature to investigate it; while it’s not as pricey as I expected, it’s still more than I want to pay for a book. Fortunately, there’s a detailed review by Jackie Elliott in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, and I was able to have the start of the book sent to my Kindle. Here’s a passage from Feeney that sets out the problem at the heart of the book, one I had never thought about:

Looking at the Mediterranean world in 250, no observer would conclude that an empire needed to have a widely disseminated vernacular literature, or that a state of non-Greeks should have intimate reciprocal links with Greece through a systematically interconnected historiography and mythology, or that another linguistic group should commission literary works to be translated from Greek into their own vernacular. It had never happened before or anywhere else in the Mediterranean that one culture should set out to take over the prototypical literary forms of Hellas in order to create its vernacular equivalent, and for a parallel of any substance we have to wait until the Late Middle Ages, when the Latin forms became in their turn one of the new interactive catalysts for the emerging European vernacular literatures. We are used to thinking of Greek and Latin as the “classical” literatures, with later traditions as the “vernacular” literatures, but from the standpoint of the Western tradition, at least, Latin is the first “vernacular” literature.

So why is there a Latin literature? In case you suspect he’s being simple-minded about it, here are a couple of later passages:

Everything about this project is problematic, starting with the definition of all the terms I have been using so far, “literature” and “translation,” “historiography” and “mythology.” Justifying the use of a term such as “literature” in an ancient context is a notoriously unstraightforward thing to do. These terms are still occasionally treated as self-evident categories, reified concepts that apply across time and space, but they are not givens in nature; instead, in the Roman middle Republic all of them are interactive frames in which Romans, Greeks of different heritages, and many other peoples, encountered and reshaped each other in unprecedented ways. […]

Assimilation is constitutive of Roman identity, marked by their selfconscious advertizing of how they took over their characteristic short sword from the Spaniards (Plb. 6. 23. 6), their distinctive toga from the Etruscans (Liv. 1.8. 3), and their very name as citizens, Quirites, from the Sabines (Liv. 1. 13.5). According to Cornell, in a—justly—commonly quoted aphorism: “an independent or autonomous Latin culture never had a chance to emerge.”

In fact, it is becoming more and more evident that there is no such thing as an independent or autonomous culture at any time or place. As Bayart puts it in his important study, “There is no culture that is not created, and . . . this creation is usually recent. Moreover, the formation of a culture or a tradition necessarily involves dialogue, and occurs in interaction with its regional and international environment.”

In Chapter 1, on translation, he has a section “The Strangeness of Translation” that points out that our modern expectation that we can read all sorts of other literatures in our own language is “a comparatively recent state of affairs” and quotes an Indian scholar, Harish Trivedi, as saying “There is no translation in India […] until very recently, nothing was ever translated directly between Urdu, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, and so on”; Feeney adds:

There has never been such a thing as an impermeable culture, but a group is able to represent itself as being its own knowledge-world to one degree or another, and this is particularly the case with forms of textually encoded knowledge. As Jack Goody has demonstrated, literacy’s codification of systems of knowledge and belief within a culture can in itself encourage the apprehension that there is a defined boundary between this knowledge system and the ones codified by other groups. From this perspective, it is not, on reflection, obvious that even a bilingual group will need to set up a dialogue with outside traditions of knowledge and power by importing vernacular versions of texts that matter to those outside traditions.

And there’s more in Elliott’s review, for example:

Chapter 6, ‘A literature in the Latin language’, reviews what marks c. 3-2 Rome as a recognizably literary society, at least from the limited, modern vantage-point that is perhaps all that allows the term “literary” momentary definition and coherence: Rome had “libraries, endowed professorships, a common educational track with a “core” and “periphery” of accomplishments (experience of which was indispensable for anyone with any pretensions to status), copying houses, transmission of authoritative texts together with the scholarship that accompanied them, and empire-wide circulation of texts in a great variety of genres” (p. 154). It is thus Rome’s definitive co-option of a pre-established canon recognized also by others, one that in time acquired the full surrounding social and critical apparatus with which we are familiar, that in Feeney’s view defines what is distinctive about Rome as a literary society in its day. Chapter 7, ‘The impact and reach of the new literature’, complements this by further emphasizing the longevity but especially the mobility of the physical texts produced. These attributes allowed the texts to transcend time and space, as conditioned by initial production and reception. More importantly, they promoted an awareness of that transcendence on the part of author and audience, an awareness that again helps constitute the category of the “literary” (p. 195, citing Lowrie 2009). Inferring growing audiences at Rome and beyond, Feeney argues that the new literature also functioned as a means of systematizing and integrating the expanding forms of knowledge coming ever further within range.

Lots of food for thought!

The Political Power of Translation.

Bathrobe sent me this piece by Chenxin Jiang, saying “This is a slight article but it’s wonderful to see someone moved to translation by the chance to contribute something to the world”:

It goes without saying that literary translation, too, is a deeply political act, one that makes particular texts accessible to particular readers by transporting them across linguistic boundaries. Translators often advocate for the authors and books they translate, but we don’t always think of translation as a form of political advocacy per se. Nor should we, necessarily: it’s true that giving sustained attention to an intricate or challenging narrative makes a political statement about what we value, but we don’t read or translate good books only or even chiefly because of the political import of that gesture—we read them because they’re so good, we simply can’t help it.

That said, some books particularly foreground the political dimension of the translator’s task because of their immediate political relevance—and once I thought about it, I realized that I’ve often been drawn to them in the past. The very first book I translated was a memoir of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a deeply traumatic episode that’s glossed over in Chinese schools and barely addressed in Hong Kong, where I grew up. Ji Xianlin’s The Cowshed was, by all accounts, the most widely read memoir of the Cultural Revolution in China itself; I thought it should also be made available to readers of English. But that, of course, would only happen if someone translated it.

And that, of course, is what translation does: it makes the perspective of an Italian doctor on Lampedusa—a story in which much of the dialogue is itself translated from Arabic and Sicilian—accessible to a reader in Newcastle or New Mexico.

A noble goal, and it’s impressive that she translates from Italian, German, and Chinese. Thanks, Bathrobe!

Reading the Unreadable.

Sarah Laskow writes for Atlas Obscura about a woman with an unusual specialty:

On any given day, from her home on the Isle of Man, Linda Watson might be reading a handwritten letter from one Confederate soldier to another, or a list of convicts transported to Australia. Or perhaps she is reading a will, a brief from a long-forgotten legal case, an original Jane Austen manuscript. Whatever is in them, these documents made their way to her because they have one thing in common: They’re close to impossible to read. […]

For hundreds of years, history was handwritten. The problem is not only that our ancestors’ handwriting was sometimes very bad, but also that they used abbreviations, old conventions, and styles of lettering that have fallen out of use. Understanding them takes both patience and skill. “I see the job as a cross between a crossword puzzle and a jigsaw puzzle,” says Watson. […]

Some of the documents Watson transcribes are written by a trained hand; others are scrawled by people with limited literacy, with handwriting she compares to “a spider walking across the page.” Older scripts—court hand, for instance, which was used by lawyers and clerks beginning in the medieval period (and eventually became stylized into illegibility)—have long, narrow strokes and letters jammed together to save space, making it a challenge to find where one word ends and another begins. Some styles of writing lean heavily on space-saving abbreviations: An extra flourish on a letter “p” can turn it into a “per” or “par,” a “pro” or “pre,” depending on the exact position of the extra line. Other documents rely on phonetic spelling and are impossible to understand without reading aloud. Sometimes a manuscript is damaged, or ink has bled through from one side to the other. In these cases, the clearest portions can act as a decoder for the rest: An indistinct word might have the same shape as a legible one—a clue to puzzle out what was written all those years ago.

Since she first started specializing in old documents, Watson has expanded beyond things written in English. She now has a stable of collaborators who can tackle manuscripts in Latin, German, Spanish, and more. She can only remember two instances that left her and her colleagues stumped. One was a Tibetan manuscript, and she couldn’t find anyone who knew the alphabet. The other was in such bad shape that she had to admit defeat.

i have to say, I’m surprised she couldn’t find anyone who knew Tibetan; she must not have looked very hard. Thanks, David!

A New Source for Shakespeare.

Michael Blanding reports for the New York Times on an exciting discovery for Shakespeareans:

For years scholars have debated what inspired William Shakespeare’s writings. Now, with the help of software typically used by professors to nab cheating students, two writers have discovered an unpublished manuscript they believe the Bard of Avon consulted to write “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” “Richard III,” “Henry V” and seven other plays. […]

The findings were made by Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter, who describe them in a book to be published next week by the academic press D. S. Brewer and the British Library. The authors are not suggesting that Shakespeare plagiarized but rather that he read and was inspired by a manuscript titled “A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels,” written in the late 1500s by George North, a minor figure in the court of Queen Elizabeth, who served as an ambassador to Sweden. […]

In the dedication to his manuscript, for example, North urges those who might see themselves as ugly to strive to be inwardly beautiful, to defy nature. He uses a succession of words to make the argument, including “proportion,” “glass,” “feature,” “fair,” “deformed,” “world,” “shadow” and “nature.” In the opening soliloquy of Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent …”) the hunchbacked tyrant uses the same words in virtually the same order to come to the opposite conclusion: that since he is outwardly ugly, he will act the villain he appears to be.

“People don’t realize how rare these words actually are,” Mr. McCarthy said. “And he keeps hitting word after word. It’s like a lottery ticket. It’s easy to get one number out of six, but not to get every number.” […]

Those techniques may only be the “icing on the cake,” said Mr. Witmore, who briefly examined an advance copy. “At its core, this remains a literary argument, not a statistical one.” The book contends that Shakespeare not only uses the same words as North, but often uses them in scenes about similar themes, and even the same historical characters. In another passage, North uses six terms for dogs, from the noble mastiff to the lowly cur and “trundle-tail,” to argue that just as dogs exist in a natural hierarchy, so do humans. Shakespeare uses essentially the same list of dogs to make similar points in “King Lear” and “Macbeth.”

Seems convincing, and I look forward to many more such discoveries — not necessarily about Shakespeare but about literary history in general — as the techniques become more widely used. (Of course, they will also be badly used, and there will be ridiculous claims made by incompetents that get tail-wagging press coverage, but what else is new?) Thanks, Trevor!


Three readers have sent me three different links about the discovery of a new language, so I’d better post about it! I’ll lead with the most scholarly source, the Lund University website’s “Unknown language discovered in Southeast Asia“:

A previously unknown language has been found in the Malay Peninsula by linguists from Lund University in Sweden. The language has been given the name Jedek. […]

“Jedek is not a language spoken by an unknown tribe in the jungle, as you would perhaps imagine, but in a village previously studied by anthropologists. As linguists, we had a different set of questions and found something that the anthropologists missed”, says Niclas Burenhult, Associate Professor of General Linguistics at Lund University, who collected the first linguistic material from Jedek speakers.

The language is an Aslian variety within the Austroasiatic language family and is spoken by 280 people who are settled hunter-gatherers in northern Peninsular Malaysia.

The researchers discovered the language during a language documentation project, Tongues of the Semang, in which they visited several villages to collect language data from different groups who speak Aslian languages.

The discovery of Jedek was made while they were studying the Jahai language in the same area.

“We realised that a large part of the village spoke a different language. They used words, phonemes and grammatical structures that are not used in Jahai. Some of these words suggested a link with other Aslian languages spoken far away in other parts of the Malay Peninsula”, says Joanne Yager.

There’s a brief video clip if you want to hear a few sentences in the language. The other links are from NPR and IBT, both basically reprinting the press release; there’s a link to the article in Linguistic Typology, but it is, alas, behind a paywall. Thanks, Trevor, Kobi, and Christopher!

Fidus amor.

Thea Thorsen’s OUPBlog post Want to know the Latin for “true love”? is mainly about Ovid, but this paragraph contains what I’m pretty sure is a false assertion:

Fidus amor. That’s “true love” in Latin. Historically, such love is often claimed to have emerged with the troubadours of twelfth century Provence. The troubadours used the Occitan term fin amor for this kind of love rather than the more famous amour courtois, “courtly love”, which is a modern concoction. However, “Fin amor”, is “derived from Latin fidus, ‘faithful’. Originally, fin amor was admirable and refined because it was faithful, by definition.” So the term, fin amor, comes from Latin, as do many in the romance languages.

The “derived” link goes to a book by Bernard O’Donoghue, but he’s primarily a poet, though apparently he’s been “emeritus fellow and tutor in Old English and Medieval English, Linguistics and the History of the English Language, Modern Irish Literature, Yeats and Joyce at Wadham College, Oxford.” I don’t see how fin could come from fidus, which gives rather fis/fit in Old French, but if anyone knows of any grounds for this assertion, by all means speak up!