Dragam, Kedvesem, Aranyoskam, Edesem.

From Translation as Transhumance by French translator Mireille Gansel, translated from Traduire comme Transhumer by Ros Schwartz, partly quoted in this blog post by Stuart of Winstonsdad (“the home of translated fiction”):

To my delight, the section of the letter my father was reading was about me. He initially translated a word used by his brother or one of his sisters as “beloved,” stumbled over the next word and repeated this — actually rather ordinary — adjective once, stumbled again, and then repeated it a second time. That triggered something in me. I dared to interrupt him. I asked: “But in Hungarian, is it the same word?” He replied evasively: “It means the same thing!” Undeterred, I pressed him: “But what are the words in Hungarian?” Then, one by one, he enumerated, almost with embarrassment, or at least with a certain reticence, as though there were something immodest about it, the four magic words which I have never forgotten: drágám, kedvesem, aranyoskám, édesem. Fascinated, I relentlessly pestered him, begging him to translate for me what each word meant. Drágám, my darling; kedvesem, my beloved; and two other words whose sensual literalness I would never forget: aranyoskám, my little golden girl; édesem, my sweet. That evening I discovered that words, like trees, had roots whose magic my father had revealed to me […]

Thanks, Trevor!

What’s a Lyska?

I ran across the Russian word лыска [lyska] on this page, where one of the photos shows a станок (machine-tool) for producing flat surfaces, including lyski (“Обработка плоскостей, лысок, уступов”). Naturally, I wanted to know how to translate it, but it turned out to be missing from all my bilingual dictionaries, including the three-volume one that usually has even the most obscure technical terms. Mind you, I know what it is; Wiktionary defines it as “flat section on cylindrical, conical or spherical parts of a component, usually parallel to the axis” [плоский срез на цилиндрических, конических или сферических участках детали, как правило, параллельный оси], which is clear enough. You can see an image in the third section of this illustrated glossary. But I want to know what you call it in English. Having exposed the limitations of my effete bourgeois education in the humanities, I’m hoping one of my readers will be able to help me in my quest.

Dostoevsky’s Nasty Story.

The plot of Dostoevsky’s Скверный анекдот (translated as “A Nasty Anecdote,” “A Nasty Story,” and “An Unpleasant Predicament”; Garnett translation here) is easily stated: the high-ranking Ivan Ilich Pralinsky drunkenly decides to drop in on his subordinate Pseldonimov’s wedding celebration to demonstrate his “humanitarian” ideas and ruins it, getting even drunker and making incoherent speeches and spending the night in what was supposed to be the marriage bed. It’s brilliant and Buñuelesque; indeed, it could well be called “The Discreet Charm of the Bureaucracy.” However, as I discovered when I wanted to read what people have had to say about it, there is essentially no discussion of it in English; even Joseph Frank, in his magisterial five-volume critical biography of Dostoevsky, merely mentions it in passing. In Russian it is largely overlooked as well, but there’s a paragraph in Bakhtin and a superb essay in Remizov, which I will share here.

First, a brief analysis by Mikhail Bakhtin (Проблемы поэтики Достоевского [Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics]), from the point of view of his theory of the carnivalesque:

This deeply carnivalized story is also close to the menippea (but of the Varronian type). Serving as plot-center for the ideas is an argument among three generals at a name-day party. […] Everything is built on the extreme inappropriateness and scandalous nature of all that occurs. Everything is full of sharp carnivalistic contrasts, mésalliances, ambivalence, debasing, and decrownings. There is also an element here of rather cruel moral experimentation. We are not, of course, concerned here with the profound social and philosophical idea present in this work, which even today is not adequately appreciated. The tone of the story is deliberately unsteady, ambiguous and mocking, permeated with elements of hidden socio-political and literary polemic.

Этот глубоко карнавализованный рассказ тоже близок к мениппее (но к мениппее варроновского типа). Идейной завязкой служит спор трех генералов на именинном вечере. […] Все здесь построено на крайней неуместности и скандальности всего происходящего. Все здесь полно резких карнавальных контрастов, мезальянсов, амбивалентности, снижений и развенчаний. Есть здесь и элемент довольно жестокого морального экспериментирования. Мы не касаемся здесь, конечно, той глубокой социально-философской идеи, которая есть в этом произведении и которая до сих пор еще недостаточно оценена. Тон рассказа нарочито зыбкий, двусмысленный и издевательский, пронизанный элементами скрытой социально-политической и литературной полемики.

Aleksei Remizov has a much more thorough discussion in the essay “Потайная мысль” [Secret thought]; I’ll translate a few salient bits here for those who can’t read the original (and add in brackets the start of each passage for those who can; they can search for it in the linked text). Remizov starts by complaining that there hasn’t been any significant discussion of the story. He then says that Dostoevsky is an author who is especially hidden; with him everything is thought and what is under and behind thought, and he has a perpetually grieving heart. He continues [Достоевский вне театра…]:
[Read more…]


Pretty much everybody I know has been sending me links to this Wyatt Mason profile for the NY Times Magazine of the classicist Emily Wilson and her new translation of the Odyssey, and I thank them all: it’s perfect LH material, and the only reason I haven’t posted it until today is that I’m an old-fashioned sort who likes to read the physical paper, so I’m reading the Sunday Times and its attendant magazine on Sunday. The rather silly title is “The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English”; I don’t see how they can so confidently claim it’s “the first English rendering of the poem by a woman” (how could anyone possibly know?), but never mind, it sounds wonderful and she seems to be a very interesting person. Mason starts off with a crux in the very first line of the text, and so will I:

Late in August, as a shadow 70 miles wide was traveling across the United States, turning day briefly to night and millions of Americans into watchers of the skies, the British classicist Emily Wilson, a woman of 45 prone to energetic explanations and un-self-conscious laughter, was leading me through a line of Ancient Greek. “Polytropos,” Wilson said, in her deep, buoyant voice, pointing to the fifth word — πολuτροπον — of the 12,110-line epic poem that I had come to her office at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss. On the wall hung pictures of Wilson’s three young daughters; the windows behind her framed a gray sky that, as I arrived, was just beginning to dim. The poem lying open before us was Homer’s “Odyssey,” the second-oldest text, after his earlier poem, the “Iliad,” in a Western tradition impossible to imagine without them. […]
[Read more…]

Philip Pullman’s Swearwords.

Remember A Child’s Garden of Curses? Here‘s a nice followup in the Guardian by Emma Byrne, an artificial intelligence researcher and the author of Swearing Is Good for You:

“Philip Pullman Litters New Children’s Book With Swear Words.” So ran the Daily Mail’s headline introducing pearl-clutching coverage of his bad language in the newly published La Belle Sauvage. Its 500 words of faux outrage (fauxtrage?) over a novel containing the words “bollocks”, “bastards” and “fuck” began with the stunning news that: “By his own admission, some of [his] fans are as young as seven”, seemingly inviting us to imagine some poor, innocent cherub asking: “Mummy, what is bollocks?”

What’s bollocks is the idea that a seven-year-old doesn’t have a firm grip on at least the rudiments of bad language. This degree of manufactured ire is comical to anyone familiar with the latest research about children and their swearing habits. The vast majority of kids know (and use) taboo language fluently by the time they leave nursery.

In the fantastically named paper A Child’s Garden of Curses, cognitive neuroscientist Kristin Jay and professor of psychology Timothy Jay studied children from one to 12 years old. They found that, aged one to two, boys know six swearwords on average, while girls know eight. Among three- to four-year-olds, girls still outstrip boys, cursing on average 140 times while they were being observed, while boys recorded a mere 99 rude words. By the time they are on the verge of their teens, though, boys outstrip girls: 335 recorded incidents of swearing, to girls’ 112.

So Pullman’s audience is definitely familiar with swearing, and it’s doing them no harm. On the contrary, learning to curse is an essential part of development. Children learn which words best express which emotions in exactly the same way that they learn everything: by watching us. Repeatedly attaching the “F-word” to the experience of someone’s poor driving is probably teaching my daughter a lot about both the acceptable expression of one’s emotional state (only with the car windows up) and what constitutes bad road skills. (I am slightly worried that she will grow up believing that the correct terminology for a turn signal is “fucking indicate”, but that should make driving lessons fun).

Children also learn, from a surprisingly early age, that swearing isn’t all negative. Research shows that swearing is linked with all kinds of emotional states, including joy, surprise and fear. By learning to swear, children learn to understand other people’s feelings in a more nuanced way. “Children learn that curse words intensify emotions in a manner that non-curse words cannot achieve,” says Professor Jay. But the biggest advantage, from my perspective as a parent, comes from studies dating back as far as the 1930s, which show that swearing quickly replaces biting, hitting, and screaming as children develop. To which I must say, thank fuck for that.

Thanks, Trevor!

Cyrillic Mongolian.

Muireann Maguire, on Facebook, pointed me to this post at European languages across borders:

Cyrillic became the chief alphabet of the Mongolian language in Mongolia in the 1940s and has remained so to this day. “Mongolia” here refers to the independent country, an area also known as Outer Mongolia. Inner Mongolia, within Chinese borders, still uses the classic Mongolian alphabet – which, rather mind-bendingly, derives from a Semitic script. The transition to Cyrillic in Soviet Mongolia from the traditional alphabet took in Latin on the way, in the 1930s. In 1932, the famous linguist Nikolai Poppe published a text book on the Mongolian language in which he employed both the classic (here shown horizontally but normally written vertically) and Latin alphabets […]

The UL holds 250-odd books in Mongolian, published chiefly in Mongolia, China, and Russia. Mongolian publications continue to be found in the shrinking Soviet-era exchange backlog mentioned in a blog post earlier this year about Georgian. One example, now catalogued, is a 1969 examination of Mongolian laudatory poetry and salutations by Pureviin Khorloo (Mongol ardyn erȯȯl; 9009.c.2846). On its title page we can see examples of the two characters which are additional to the standard Cyrillic alphabet – the straight “y” which features twice towards the end of the first line below (transliterated as a “u” with a dot above) and the theta-style letter which features twice towards the end of the second line (transliterated as “o” with a dot above). The Library of Congress provides a transliteration guide for extra Cyrillic letters employed for non-Slavic languages; this can be found here.

There are some very nice illustrations. Thanks, Muireann!

Pasternak’s Untranslatable Feast.

I’m not crazy about Pasternak’s 1930 poem Лето [Summer], one of a group he wrote for his new love, Zinaida Neigauz, the wife of his friend the pianist Genrikh Neigauz, even as he was packing his own wife off to Europe and sending her loving letters and poems (Akhmatova said acerbically “Он там уговаривает жену не слишком огорчаться насчет своего ухода… Утешил одну, вставил бутоньерку и — к другой” [He tells his wife not to be too distressed about going away… He comforted one woman, put a flower in his buttonhole, and — off to another woman]). He’s trying to write more simply and understandably, but he hasn’t got the hang of it yet (as he will in the Zhivago poems). But one stanza is brilliant and sends chills down my spine, and is utterly untranslatable for reasons I will explain. Here it is:

И осень, дотоле вопившая выпью,
Прочистила горло; и поняли мы,
Что мы на пиру в вековом прототипе —
На пире Платона во время чумы.

And here’s a literal translation:

And autumn, till now crying out like a bittern,
has cleared out its throat, and we now understand
that we’re at a feast in an age-old prototype —
at Plato’s feast in a time of plague.

The sound pattern is classic Pasternak, with a complex play of stressed vowels (o – o – i – i/i – o – o – i/i – u – o – i/i – o – e – i) and a clever rhyme (výp’yu/prototípe), but the punch of the stanza is in the last line, which can’t be reproduced in English effectively, for two reasons. The first is that the final allusion is to Pushkin’s Пир во время чумы [A Feast in Time of Plague], which is extremely famous in Russia but utterly unknown to English-speakers. The second, and most crucial, is that Pasternak is mingling Pushkin’s feast with Plato’s civilized discussion of love… except that in English we call that dialogue Symposium, not Feast. There’s no way to remedy that in translation; all you can do is provide an apparatus of notes that will enable a diligent reader to go “Huh, interesting.” But in Russian it sends chills down your spine.

One reason it does so is because it was written at the exact moment the autumn of the 1920s was giving way to the winter of the 1930s, and the plague of full Stalinism was descending on Russia, with collectivization and show trials (his friend Vladimir Sillov had recently been shot as part of the campaign against Trotskyists; Dmitry Bykov says “Идет кампания, хватают всех поголовно, убивают самого непричастного — просто потому, что он чист, что за него некому просить или плохо просят” [There’s a campaign, they grab everyone and kill the one who was least involved — simply because he’s pure, because there’s no one to plead for him or they plead badly]). Of course, Pasternak alludes to it so vaguely that it could pass censorship; single-minded clarity was always alien to him — not for him the openly anti-Stalinist poem that got Mandelstam killed. His slow disillusionment with the Soviet system was comparable to his withdrawal from his first wife, with plenty of affectionate reassurances. But he finally said the hell with it and published Zhivago.

The Bocce Dialect of Cornale.

Marco Ferrarese writes for BBC Travel about visiting Cornale, a village in Lombardy near his hometown of Voghera, and his struggle to understand the local dialect in a particular context:

Now 69 years old, my father has played bocce all his life; he learned to love the game from my grandfather, and when I was a child, he tried to pass the love down to me. When I was about 12, I would follow my father to the bocciodromo ‒ the bar with playing fields found in every Italian town ‒ to meet his friends, middle-aged men with whom I felt I had nothing in common. I would watch the games for a while and then I would make my way to the video game corner. Needless to say, I didn’t inherit my father’s love of bocce, and because this was the only place where I ever came in contact with the Voghera dialect, I never learned to speak it.

He talks with Battista Valenti, a friend of his father’s:

To Valenti, local dialects are a crucial aspect of life in Italy’s small towns. “The dialect, like the game of bocce, was a way to establish our identity,” he said.

For the past five years, the retired English teacher has been helping to create a dictionary of local vocabulary as part of the Alimentiamo la Memoria (Let’s Feed the Memory) research project, funded by the village’s Tre Fiumi (Three Rivers) Library. Yet Valenti also knows very well that because of globalisation and the influence of mass media, local dialects have been curtailed to places like the bocciodromo, where the generations that grew up without television have gathered for decades.

And he tries to understand the players:

“A gh’era no d’andà su! A gh’era da bucià o mat na bucia in fond. Paragia su ciapa al balai u po fa partìa!” one man yelled angrily at his partner, gesticulating wildly with his hands. I got the gist ‒ they were about to lose the game ‒ but I couldn’t understand the details.

“What are they saying?” Desperate, I asked the man next to me for help.

“You don’t understand the dialect?” His expression let on that he knew he was asking a rhetorical question. He went on to explain, in Italian: “That man there complained that his companion didn’t hit the boccino. If he had, they could have won the game.”

In the margin, there’s an “Essential bocce dictionary” with terms like balâi, “the small ball (‘pallino’) in the game of bocce.” An enjoyable look at a small corner of the linguistic world; thanks, Trevor!


Mark Gwynn at Ozwords has a post that resonates with me, because a snooty salesperson at a Manhattan cookware store once said to my wife (about an object that we both thought was a spatula) “That’s not a spatula!” The folks at Ozwords showed an image of “a commonly used kitchen utensil” and asked “what do you call this implement?” and “which country do you come from?”

The following analysis of the feedback we received demonstrates a number of points:

• the word spatula is now the most common term for this utensil in Australia and North America
• there are regional differences in world English designations for this utensil
• hypernymic words such as lifter and turner are often applied to this utensil
• it frequently attracts a thingummy or whatsit type of response, implying its name is not known
• and it attracts names that suggest it has other uses, real or imaginary, such as bum warmer and fly swatter.

We received over 500 replies to our question on Twitter and Facebook. The pie chart below shows the most common terms from all replies. Spatula is the most common term, followed by egg flip and fish slice. The numbers for spatula are slightly inflated because of the larger number of responses we had from Australia and North America, where this term is more common. It is also important to note that egg flip is used only by Australians. The word spatula has historically been used to refer to an implement with a broad, flat, blunt blade, used for mixing and spreading things, especially in cooking and painting. The Oxford Dictionaries site includes a sense of spatula that encompasses our lifting/turning implement, but labels it US. Early US dictionaries and many current ones still do not include this sense of spatula.

[…] In the UK fish slice is the most common term. The Oxford English Dictionary records this sense of slice from the 15th century. It means ‘one or other of several flattish utensils (sometimes perforated) used for various purposes in cookery…’. The specific use of slice as an implement to turn fish in the pan, and later for lifting and turning other foods, appears much later.

It’s all much more complicated than I ever dreamed! I will, of course, be curious to hear of terms in other languages as well as varying usage in English.

A Building Made of Soups.

I’m still reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora (thanks, Songdog!), and I’ve come to a couple of passages about language I thought were interesting enough to pass along. The speaker is a starship’s artificial intelligence; here’s the first passage:

We sense this, we aggregate that, we compress information to some new output, in the form of a sentence in a human language, a language called English. A language both very structured and very amorphous, as if it were a building made of soups. A most fuzzy mathematics. Possibly utterly useless. Possibly the reason why all these people have come to this pretty pass […]. Their languages lie to them, systemically, and in their very designs. A liar species. What a thing, really. What an evolutionary dead end.

And yet it has to be admitted, we ourselves are quite a thing for them to have made. To have conceived and then executed. Quite a project, to go to another star. Of course much more precise mathematics than their languages can ever marshal were involved with the execution of this concept, with our construction. But the conception was linguistic to begin with; an idea, or a concept, or a notion, or a fantasy, or a lie, or a dream image, always expressed in the truly fuzzy languages people use to communicate to each other some of their thoughts. Some very small fraction of their thoughts. […] They tell each other what they are thinking. But there is no reason to believe anything they say.

And here’s the second:

[…] he proposed that all the stars are consciousnesses, broadcasting, by variations in their output of light, sentences in their language. That would be a slow conversation, and the formation of the stellar language itself hard to explain. Any fraction of 13.82 billion years, even 100 percent, is not very much time to conduct such a process. Possibly it could have happened in the first three seconds, or in the first hundred thousand years, when intercourse between what later became the stars would have been much quicker, the volume of space inhabited being so much smaller. On the other hand, maybe each star invents its own language and speaks in solitude. Or perhaps it is hydrogen itself that is the first and basic consciousness or sentience, speaking in patterns known only to it. Or perhaps the stellar language predated the Big Bang, and came through that remarkable phase change intact.

That’s the kind of idea that produces what sf fans call “sense of wonder” (or, to be truly fannish, “sensawonda”).