A Tsvetaeva Question.

In my reading of Tsvetaeva, I’ve gotten to the first poem she wrote to Pasternak after rapturously devouring his 1922 masterpiece My Sister, Life (see this LH post, in which the word ржи [rzhi], the oblique form of рожь [rozh’] ‘rye,’ also features), and I’ve run into a simultaneous crisis of semantics and textual criticism. It’s a magnificent poem, the best she’d written in a long time (Pasternak was obviously good for her); the first two stanzas are:

Неподражаемо лжет жизнь:
Сверх ожидания, сверх лжи…
Но по дрожанию всех жил
Можешь узнать: жизнь!

Словно во ржи лежишь: звон, синь…
(Что ж, что во лжи лежишь!) — жар, вал…
Бормот — сквозь жимолость — ста жил…
Радуйся же! — Звал!

Inimitably life tells lies:
Beyond expectation, beyond the lie…
But by the trembling of all your veins
You can recognize it: life!

As though you’re lying in rye: ringing, blue…
(So what if you’re lying in a lie!) — heat, berm…
The murmur — through honeysuckle — of a hundred veins…
Rejoice! — He called!

I have ста жил “of a hundred veins,” but when I googled тишизн, the genitive plural of a nonce word тишизна ‘quietness’ (which occurs in the last stanza of this poem, in one other Tsvetaeva poem, and apparently nowhere else in Russian literature — the normal word is тишина), I wound up in Alyssa W. Dinega’s A Russian Psyche: The Poetic Mind of Marina Tsvetaeva, where on p. 97 we find it given as “sta zhal” and translated as “of a hundred bee stings.” What was going on? A Google Books search on “Бормот — сквозь жимолость — ста” (the start of the line) reveals that about half the books have жил ‘of veins’ and half жал ‘of stings.’ This is troubling.

Now, I’m reasonably sure жил is the correct reading, because it better fits the rhyme scheme of the poem and makes more sense to me, but I’d like not to have to depend on my own judgment. Is there a critical edition of Tsvetaeva’s poems that can be trusted for such things?

Sounds and Meanings Revisited.

David Shariatmadari has another interesting linguistics-related piece in the Guardian that begins:

Scientists have just published a startling analysis of commonly used words in 4298 languages (62% of all those spoken). They wanted to find out if there were associations between particular sounds and meanings that couldn’t be put down to the fact that the languages were related, are used close to one another, or to chance.

As it turned out, they detected strong correlations between sounds and meanings that were independent of genetic relationship, borrowing or coincidence. For example, words for “small” often contained high front vowels (roughly, “ee” as in “peak” or “see”); words for “round” and “red” were linked to “r” sounds; words for “star” to “z” and words for “full” to bilabial consonants (“p” and “b”). Associations were found for body parts: “tongue” was correlated with “l” and “nose” with “n”. Remember, these similarities were found in languages as distant from one another as English and Tagalog, Yoruba and Mandarin.

Why does this matter? One of the first things a student of linguistics learns is that the relationship between the signifier (the sound of a word) and the signified (the concept it represents) is arbitrary. We use the word “tree” to signify a plant with a trunk and leaves, but there’s nothing particularly tree-like about the combination “t-r-e-e”. If a law was passed saying we had to call it “frave” instead, that word would gradually become normal, just like “ki” is for Japanese speakers and “umthi” for Xhosa. […]

Damian Blasi and his colleagues focussed on 30 fundamental concepts – none of which represent loud or distinctive noises, often fertile ground for onomatopoeia. These came from the famous “Swadesh list” of 100 basic words, and included “bite”, “drink”, “ear”, “leaf”, “we”, “tooth”, “skin”, “one” and “stone”. Incredibly, as well as positive links, they uncovered sets of sounds these words seem to “avoid” – ones that appear much less often than you would expect if it were down to chance. “Water” (strangely enough for English speakers) seems to avoid the “t” sound. Words for “tooth” avoid “b” and “m”. The “a” “h” and “r” sounds are found less commonly in words for “breasts”.

The study builds on earlier research which hinted at non-arbitrary relationships between sound and meaning. For example, people have been able to successfully pair up words that have opposite meanings in languages they don’t know. One study showed that English speakers could make better-than-chance guesses at the concreteness of unfamiliar foreign words – that’s to say, whether a word might mean something like “car” versus something like “happiness”. Intimations, if you like, of a universal language of sound.

I don’t know how seriously to take any of this, but it’s certainly food for thought. Thanks, Trevor!

Dralyuk’s 1917.

It’s high time I spread the word about Boris Dralyuk’s brilliant compilation 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution. Fortunately, I don’t have to expend a lot of effort explaining to you how brilliant it is, because Caryl Emerson has done it for me in this TLS review (happily available even to nonsubscribers). I’ll just quote a few paragraphs to whet your appetite and send you to the TLS link for the rest (and to Wuthering Expectations for another rave):

Dralyuk must put these lyrical-ecstatic glimpses into some historical context, however. He does this deftly, in substantial introductions to his writers, who are grouped around evocative motifs (stolen wine, iron flowers, apocalypse). Each contributor receives a biography, a political orientation, an identifying literary group, and a long-term fate to contrast with the immediate vision. This breaks the two-and-a-half-year rule. And the ghastly end of so many of these writers – arrested, shot, suicided, hanged – eclipses the ecstasy of their revolutionary moment. Still, Dralyuk proscribes these later perspectives and persists in concentrating time on the cusp. His table of contents lists themes, contributors, lifespans, but not the titles of the entries, not even the language they are translated from (important for the Russian-Yiddish writers) – as if their collected texts constitute one mega-text from some transcendental realm. The poems are strung together into a multi-­authored entity called “The Revolution: A Poem Chronicle”. What consciousness, or energy, wrote it?

There are wonderful surprises. One is Alexander Kuprin’s “Sasha and Yasha” (1917), respectively a fighter pilot and a stuffed monkey, which appears to be a foundational text for the Socialist Realist cult of the missing leg that blossomed forth in the 1930s: the pilot or construction worker who loses a limb in line of duty but continues to fight or to build. Kuprin’s story is transcribed from testimony provided by the hero-pilot’s nine-year-old sister Nika. Equally invested in a child’s innocent perspective is “How He Died (A True Story)” (1917) by Alexander Serafimovich (1863–1949), born a Don Cossack, who knew Lenin’s elder brother at St Petersburg University and converted early to revolutionary violence. The story is a conventional martyrology of Tolstoyan simplicity. Ivan Naumenko, soldier and guard assigned to the Crimean imperial residence of Livadia, pining away for his family in the north of Russia, puts up with the abuse of his officers until one day, surprising himself, he punches one of them back. Naumenko turns himself in, fumbles with his belt as he strips naked (even his underclothes are recycled to the poorly stocked company storehouse), and his executioners tremble and turn away as they witness his preparations for the pit. One detail of the narration is striking: its portrait of the final Romanovs. It recalls Tolstoy’s screeds against the vices of the upper classes as well as Bolshevik poster art against the Old Regime (pot-bellied priests and cartoonish capitalists): “Inside the white palaces, awash with opulence, a drunken, dissolute life went on: the tsar drank, grand and not so grand dukes drank, barons, counts, priests, generals and officers drank – the whole pack of them crowding around him – and together they ate the Russian people out of house and home”. Serafimovich assigns the single most glorious peasant and Cossack vice to the reigning royal family, although the last two imperial households were overall of pious and abstemious habits. The reader now recalls the opening section of the anthology, “Stolen wine”, on the “wine riots” in major Russian cities that mingled alcohol and blood. From the town of Feodosia on the eastern coast of Crimea (October 1917) Marina Tsvetaeva writes of “Wine cellars raided – down every street, / every gutter – a flood, a precious flood . . . . Barracks and harbour drink, drink. / The World and its wine – ours!” And in her poem “Now” (November 1917), the fiercely anti-Bolshevik Zinaida Gippius laments from Petrograd: “The streets are slippery and vile – disgrace! . . . We all lie bound, bespattered, / on every street”.
[. . .]

Dralyuk has assembled a high-pressure book of crisis writings by authors caught strutting as actors on the world stage. His backstories and biographies permit the reader to relax in the interstices between texts, reassured that each witness had an entrance, an exit, and played many parts – even though this book is confined to showing only one of those parts in only one of each actor’s seven ages. Osip Mandelstam glimpsed the arc of these ages in May 1918, in the second of his two entries here: “Let’s praise, O brothers, liberty’s dim light, / the great and sombre year! . . . Let us praise power’s sombre burden, / a weight one can’t withstand. / Whoever has a heart, O time, must hear / your ship sink and descend”.

I’ve praised Dralyuk’s translations before, and that last snippet of Mandelstam will give you an idea; get the book for more, as well as what is surely the best available immersion into what Russia was thinking and feeling in that amazing period.

The Meaning of Marg bar.

A recent guest post at the Log by Reza Mirsajadi clears up a point that had eluded me even though I studied Persian fairly intensively for a while:

For much of my adult life, whenever I have had to defend the Iranian people to conservatives, they have fought back with the “Death to America” argument. This more or less amounts to “They [Iranians] want to kill us, they said so!” I am so fed up with these misconceptions, and the news media and translators need to take responsibility for their part in it.

As someone who does a lot of translating, I understand that there is an ethical component to the craft. People rely on your work to understand the Other. For this reason, cultural context is absolutely imperative. The “Death to ___” chant commonly heard in Iranian political protests for well over sixty years, is a mistranslation. Yes, the Farsi word “marg” can translate to “death,” but “marg bar ___” translates to “Down with ___” […]

Furthermore, the “down with ___” chant as it is used today is not about a violent overthrow or physically harming the people of a nation. The phrase became popular during the Persian Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911), when political activists would chant “zende ba ___” (“long live ___”) in support of a policy or leader, or “marg bar ___” in opposition. These two phrases became entrenched within Iranian political discourse, and during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, swarms of protestors took to the streets chanting “marg bar Shah” to express their dissatisfaction with Iran’s monarchy. “Marg bar ___” and “zende ba ___” have continued to live on as colloquial phrases incorporated into political chants, and they have been appropriated to express opposition to or support for any number of subjects.

While the phrase “marg bar” has not made its way into most Farsi or Farsi-English dictionaries, it is commonly understood in Iran as an idiom without violent intent.

That would have been nice to know forty years ago when I was watching Iranian crowds chant, but it’s never too late to learn.

The Best Anagram in English.

Mark Dominus describes his method of finding and ranking anagrams in this post:

This gave me the idea to score a pair of anagrams according to how many chunks one had to be cut into in order to rearrange it to make the other one. On this plan, the “cholecystoduodenostomy / duodenocholecystostomy” pair would score 3, just barely above the minimum possible score of 2. Something even a tiny bit more interesting, say “abler / blare” would score higher, in this case 4. Even if this strategy didn’t lead me directly to the most interesting anagrams, it would be a big step in the right direction, allowing me to eliminate the least interesting.

This rule would judge both “aal / ala” and “zolotink / zolotnik” as being uninteresting (scores 2 and 4 respectively), which is a good outcome. Note that some other boring-anagram problems can be seen as special cases of this one. For example, short anagrams never need to be cut into many parts: no four-letter anagrams can score higher than 4. The trivial anagramming of a word to itself always scores 1, and nontrivial anagrams always score more than this.

So what we need to do is: for each anagram pair, say acrididae (grasshoppers) and cidaridae (sea urchins), find the smallest number of chunks into which we can chop acrididae so that the chunks can be rearranged into cidaridae.

You can read further details at the link, as well as seeing other candidates; his pick for the single best anagram in English is cinematographer / megachiropteran: “It is 15 letters long, and the only letters that stay together are the E and the R. “Cinematographer” is as familiar as a 15-letter word can be, and “megachiropteran” means a giant bat. GIANT BAT! DEATH FROM ABOVE!!!”

Making Babel Sizzle.

Robert Minto has an appreciative review of Boris Dralyuk’s translation of Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press, 2016); I’m bringing it here because it includes one of those translation comparisons I enjoy so much:

Babel’s Odessa stories have never been presented as colorfully in English as they are here, in Boris Dralyuk’s translation. In his preface, Dralyuk notes that he, like Babel, grew up in Odessa. He claims to know the rhythms of its speech, and this seems borne out by the colloquial energy of his prose and the variety of distinct voices he draws out of Babel’s narrators. He made me realize how astonishing were Babel’s gifts for ventriloquism.

Here, for example, is a passage from one of the Odessa stories as it is translated in the standard English edition of The Complete Works of Isaac Babel:

Becoming an Odessan broker, I sprouted leaves and shoots. Weighed down with leaves and shoots, I felt unhappy. What was the reason? The reason was competition. Otherwise I would not have even wiped my nose on Justice. I never learned a trade. All there is in front of me is air, glittering like the sea beneath the sun, beautiful, empty air. The shoots need to be fed. I have seven of them, and my wife is the eighth shoot. I did not wipe my nose on Justice. No, Justice wiped its nose on me. What was the reason? The reason was competition.

There’s nothing wrong with this translation, but read (and listen) to the same lines, in Dralyuk’s version:

When I became a broker in Odessa, I grew leaves, sprouted shoots. Weighed down with these shoots, I felt miserable. Why? Competition is why. If it weren’t for competition, I wouldn’t even blow my nose on justice. There’s no craft, no skill in my hands. I have nothing but air in front of me. It shines like the sea on a sunny day, this beautiful, empty air. But the shoots want to eat. I’ve got seven of them, and my wife is the eighth. No, I didn’t blow my nose on justice. Justice blew its nose on me. Why? Competition is why.

Here, the lines sizzle with personality. It’s a matter of rhythm and the concision needed to achieve it. Dralyuk goes for a clipped, pacey style. In his preface he notes that Babel was born just a month and a half apart from Dashiell Hammett. By implication, we are to understand that he nudged his translations toward the style of hard-boiled detective fiction: “In general, I’ve tended toward concision, feeling it more important to communicate the tone — the sinewy, snappy punch — of the gangsters’ verbal exchanges than to reproduce them word for word.” While I have no Russian, and therefore cannot comment in light of the original, as a longtime fan of Babel in translation, I was excited by the change Dralyuk’s style wrought in familiar stories. They felt new.

Thanks for the link, Trevor!

E grādment.

A lucky dive into Google Books sent me back to the surface clutching a reference to a book I hadn’t known about but knew I had to read, A Poem Containing History: Textual Studies in The Cantos, edited by Lawrence S. Rainey. (Since the damn thing costs $85.00 and nobody’s selling a used copy for a pittance, I’m reading a library copy.) All the essays are interesting, but the one that grabbed my attention, and that I’m going to write about here, is Rainey’s own contribution, “‘All I Want You to Do Is to Follow the Orders’: History, Faith, and Fascism in the Early Cantos.” I don’t know why it says “the Early Cantos,” since the whole essay is about the Malatesta Cantos (8-11); one of the things I learned from it is how important that section was to Pound: “After completing the four Malatestas in April and May 1923, Pound suddenly understood the shape that he had been seeking for his long poem; he swiftly revised all the previous cantos, added five more, and completed the first sixteen cantos in their modern form, leading to the publication of A Draft of XVI. Cantos in January 1925.” The focus is on just two lines of text, the ones that appear near the end of Canto X and then are repeated at the start of Canto XI; in the current New Directions edition, they read:

E gradment li antichi cavaler romanj
        davano fed a quisti annutii

The web pages I’ve linked to have convenient hypertext annotations; for some reason the Canto X page has “grandment” and “annuntii,” which disturbs me, but I guess it’s just another variant in the tangled textual history I am about to summarize. Some might find the fifty-page chapter ridiculous overkill, but I love this kind of thing and read it avidly. (I should add here that the same site has links to facsimiles of the original magazine publications of the first twenty Cantos and of the gorgeous first book publication, A Draft of XVI. Cantos — I urge you to check out the beautiful illustrations and decorative capitals. What a wonderful world we live in, in bookish terms at least!)
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Patrick Findler in Siberia.

I imagine there are few LH readers who remember the posts from the early days in which I linked to the wonderful travel blog the mysterious pf kept during his wanderings in Russia (a blog, alas, which has long disappeared from human ken — I mourn it frequently). Well, pf has come out into the open as Patrick Findler, an academic editor specializing in the work of non-native English speakers, and he’s published a fine piece in Catapult drawing on the experiences he wrote about all those years ago (in fact, one section is based on the mugging recounted in this dramatic LH post from February 2004). In case anyone’s concerned about topic relevance, I’ll quote a couple of language-related bits:

Next, the wide man from the North Caucasus, with a thick moustache like a sausage who, sitting behind me, had explained over my shoulder to the other passengers about his home, where a language was spoken that he shared with only six thousand others.
[. . .]
There was a book of the Yukaghir language, which has only a few hundred speakers.

I hope he publishes much more; he has a fine style and knows how to keep the reader interested.

Sports Nicknames.

Ben Yagoda’s Lingua Franca post Why Don’t Athletes Have Good Nicknames Anymore? covers a subject dear to my heart (my answer to the titular question: because the good nicknames were given by the fans in the cheap seats back when sports were cheap entertainment, but now they’re big business and there are no cheap seats); it’s a funny piece and there are some good nicknames, but I’m really posting it for the final item:

And the best sports nickname of all time. In the 1950s, the Temple University Owls had a star forward named Bill Mlkvy. His brilliant handle? “The Owl Without a Vowel.”

So Pitted!

Brendan Leonard’s “The Unlikely Origins of Outdoor Slang” is not only a fun read, it’s based on actual evidence, which is refreshing in any piece on language in a popular periodical (in this case Outside). Leonard is up on recent discoveries, correctly pointing out in his opening paragraph that “dude” “started with, believe it or not, Yankee Doodle Dandy, then was adopted by cowboys and dude ranches, then surfers, and now everyone else” (see this 2013 LH post). He continues: “The adventure lexicon is full of words like that, whether they originated in the 1800s or in the minds of the Wu-Tang Clan. Here are 10 important ones.” They range from “gnarly,” known even to this indoors type, to “sandbag” (“the act of grading a rock climb easier than it actually is”), which was new to me. As was “pitted”:

A surfing term describing when a surfer gets barreled, or rides the hollow center of a breaking wave. Made virally famous (but not invented) by Micah Peasley, the surfer who was interviewed in 2002 on a morning news show in a clip that later went viral, forever dubbing Peasley the “So Pitted Guy.” As Peasley so eloquently put, “Oh, brah, it’s just like … dude, you get the best barrels ever, dude. It’s just like, you pull in and you just get spit right out ’em. You just drop in, smack the lip … waapah! Drop down … swoopah! And then after that you just drop in, ride the barrel and get pitted, so pitted, like that.”

Waapah! Swoopah! Thanks, Eric!