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. 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!

Inventing Mandaic.

C.G. Häberl has an extraordinarily interesting post at his blog Philologastry (which I am glad to learn about) on how Mandaic as a subject of study (as opposed to a mere tool for spoken communication) has been, and is still being, constructed. He starts out with the Slovak philologist Rudolf Macuch and his Handbook of Classical and Modern Mandaic:

Philologists are basically people who do things with words, and the primary thing that Macuch attempts to do with his Handbook is to document his personal discovery of both Classical and Modern Mandaic. In a very real sense, neither existed prior to 1965 (please bear with me on this) and he wants us to know that he was present at their making. In fact, he outlines the case that he has played a pivotal role in this making. […]

From his perspective, neither his Mandaean informants nor his scholarly colleagues were truly aware of the significance of this language, until Macuch arrived in Ahvaz to begin the laborious process of construing a discovery from these scattered finds, and thereby bring its significance to the attention of humanity (or at least that portion of humanity that reads Mandaic grammars). In order to do so, he assumes an authoritative position, that of the ultimate arbiter of linguistic norms, which requires him to subvert the authority of his informants repeatedly throughout the pages of his grammar […]

The attentive reader may well ask, what is the “correct” pronunciation of Mandaic, if not that which is used by the people who actually speak it? If I, as an American, do not employ the Queen’s English, is my language incorrect or does it actually reflect some important aspect of my own identity and its history? Obviously the latter, but equally Macuch is not incorrect, either. What he means, clearly, is that the priests are not pronouncing Mandaic correctly according to the scholarly representations of Mandaic that emerged with Nöldeke’s 1875 grammar. This representation is an entirely new scholarly enterprise, separate from but to some extent informed by Mandaic as it is understood and employed by the community, and (increasingly, as we shall see) informing this other Mandaic as well. […]

Classical languages, as opposed to texts, are those that have been elaborated by scholars over the course of generations, and standardized through the production of dictionaries and grammars, so that they can eventually be learned and employed by non-native speakers, even after they are no longer natively spoken. This is, for example, the case for classical languages like Classical Greek, Classical Latin, and Classical Hebrew, but there is no evidence that this process of elaboration had ever occurred in Mandaic, at least not before 1875. Instead, as Nöldeke notes in his grammar, at all times and in all places, native speakers of Mandaic wrote their language exactly as they spoke it (resulting in the wide spectrum of linguistic variation he noticed). It was not until the missionaries arrived that any non-native speaker attempted to learn Mandaic, let alone write it according to any such standard. The first surviving attempt, the Leiden Glossarium, faithfully reflects the language as it was spoken at the time, rather than a self-conscious literary standard, very likely because such a thing simply did not exist at the time. Thus, in a very real sense, the history of “Classical Mandaic” begins in 1875, even if it had to wait another 90 years for scholars to come up with a name for it. This explains Macuch’s repeated insistence that the ultimate authority over “Classical Mandaic” resides among western scholars such as himself, and not among the Mandaeans, whom he relegates largely to a passive role in its construction. Classical Mandaic, as it is currently constituted, is an entirely novel enterprise, and Mandaeans who contrast their own spoken language and their own understanding of their own texts against this enterprise should do so only with their eyes wide open.

I like his tone, which combines a devotion to the subject with an amused awareness of the impossibility of people ever agreeing about it, and the whole post is well worth your time (particularly the final section on pseudo-historical spellings). Many thanks to Joe in Australia, who posted it to MetaFilter.

That Two-Fisted-Man-Tobacco, Prince Albert.

Mark Liberman at the Log investigates the phrase “up/out the wazoo” and its eggcorn up/out to wazoo; that’s an interesting phenomenon, but what I want to make sure gets the widest possible attention is the splendiferous 1919 tobacco ad he turned up (via OCR error) in his search. It begins “Say, you’ll have a streak of smokeluck that’ll put pep-in-your-smokemotor, all right, if you’ll ring-in with a jimmy pipe or cigarette papers and nail some Prince Albert for packing!” It goes on for three more equally peppy paragraphs; Upton Sinclair was so upset he quoted the whole thing and called it “poisonous filth” in his book The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism. Follow the link and admire this summit of advertising genius in its full glory, headed by a squinty, smirking, balding fellow smoking what I can only presume is a jimmy pipe.

How the World’s Languages Name the Rainbow.

Claire Bowern writes in The Conversation about her research into color terms:

My colleague Hannah Haynie and I were interested in how color terms might change over time, and in particular, in how color terms might change as a system. That is, do the words change independently, or does change in one word trigger a change in others? In our research, recently published in the journal PNAS, we used a computer modeling technique more common in biology than linguistics to investigate typical patterns and rates of color term change. Contrary to previous assumptions, what we found suggests that color words aren’t unique in how they evolve in language. […]

That there’s something unique about the stability of color concepts is an assumption we wanted to investigate. We were also interested in patterns of color naming and where color terms come from. And we wanted to look at the rates of change – that is, if color terms are added, do speakers tend to add lots of them? Or are the additions more independent, with color terms added one at a time? […]

In order to answer these questions, we used techniques originally developed in biology. Phylogenetic methods use computers to study the remote past. In brief, we use probability theory, combined with a family tree of languages, to make a model of what the history of the color words might have been. […]

Our results supported some of the previous findings, but questioned others. In general, our findings backed up Berlin and Kay’s ideas about the sequential adding of terms, in the order they proposed. For the most part, our color data showed that Australian languages also show the patterns of color term naming that have been proposed elsewhere in the world; if there are three named colors, they will be black, white and red (not, for example, black, white and purple). But we show that it is most likely that Australian languages have lost color terms, as well as gained them. This contradicts 40 years of assumptions of how color terms change – and makes color words look a lot more like other words.

I freely admit I don’t understand the method works (“we estimate likely reconstructions, evaluate that model for how well it fits our hypotheses, tweak the model parameters a bit to produce a different set of results, score that model, and so on”), and I’m curious what my readers think of the method and the results.

The 17 Funniest Hungarian Expressions.

Yes, that’s a dumb title, but I’m a sucker for these things (as long as they’re true to the facts of the language, which this appears to be as far as I can tell). Colm FitzGerald created the listicle; my favorite:

3. Hungarians don’t ask little children “Why are you crying?”, they ask “Why are you giving drinks to the mice?” (Miért itatod az egereket?)

War and Peace on the Installment Plan.

Brian E. Denton takes an interesting approach to a famously long novel:

My project is a year-long, chapter by chapter, daily devotional reading of and meditation on Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I read the novel for the first time seven years ago. I loved it. I wanted to read it again. The only problem was, and I’m sure my fellow bibliophiles can relate, I also wanted to read other books. I’m just promiscuous like that. So the question presented itself: how was I to keep reading War and Peace, a notoriously long novel, and still keep up with my other reading interests? While looking at Constance Garnett’s Modern Library edition I noted that the book is divided into fifteen parts and two epilogues (yeah, you read that right). Each part, in turn, is divided into chapters. Small chapters. I counted those small chapters and there turned out to be 361 of them. And that’s when I decided that I’d spend each year of the rest of my life cycling through War and Peace at the rate of one chapter per day. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the past six years. It’s a curious, fun, and reflective way to read the book. It also makes it much easier. The longest chapter is only eleven pages and the average chapter length is just shy of four pages. I know this because last year I started a spreadsheet to compare the different translations. Anyway, this year I decided that I want to share this method of reading the novel with other people. To that end I’ll be publishing the devotional, complete with a synopsis and daily meditation based on each chapter starting 1 January 2017, on Medium.

At the end the interviewer, Lucie Taylor, asks “What will you do when you run ut of translations to read?” His answer: “Read them again.” Good man!