Irish Translation of Ibn Sīna Discovered.

Alison Flood reports in the Graun about an unexpected find:

A 15th-century vellum manuscript of the writing of the revered Persian physician Ibn Sīna, or Avicenna, has been found being used to bind a later book, revealing for the first time that his seminal Canon of Medicine was translated into Irish.

The manuscript had been trimmed, folded and stitched to the spine of a pocket-sized Latin manual about local administration, which was printed in London in the 1530s. It had been owned by the same family in Cornwall since the 16th century. When they decided to satisfy their curiosity about the unusual binding last year, they consulted University College Cork professor of modern Irish Pádraig Ó Macháin, who said he “knew pretty much straight away” that it was a significant find.

“It really was very, very exciting, one of those moments which makes life worthwhile,” said Ó Macháin.

Professor Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, an expert on medieval Irish medicine, identified the text as a fragment of Ibn Sīna’s Canon of Medicine, a previously unknown Irish translation. Ibn Sīna lived between 980 and 1037 and was one of the Islamic golden age’s most influential scholars.

“While there are references to Avicenna scattered through other medical texts in Irish, we now know, for the first time, that the Canon was translated into Irish. This fragment must have come from a seriously big manuscript,” said Ó Macháin. “The use of parchment cut from old manuscripts as a binding for later books is not unusual in European tradition, but this is the first time that a case has come to light of such a clear example of the practice in a Gaelic context.” […]

Ó Macháin said that medical scholarship in medieval Gaelic Ireland was on a par with that practised on the continent, with evidence of Irish scholars travelling to European medical schools and bringing their learning back to Ireland. “The reason [the fragment] was translated was that Irish was the language of learning in medieval Ireland, whereas Latin fulfilled that role everywhere else,” he said.

It would have been cut up, he said, following the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland, which put an end to the old Gaelic society. “Early universities in Ireland, supported by the Gaelic lordships, that all fell asunder as the Elizabethan conquest proceeded. Books like these were destroyed, and others were damaged and cut up, and it’s in that wider context you have to see whoever owned this book clearly came into possession of some such manuscript and thought nothing of trimming it and making a binding of it,” he said.

The book’s owners agreed that the binding should be removed, opened out and digitised. It can now be seen on the Irish Script on Screen website.

Not only discovered but put online — long live the internet!

Eight Russian Women Writers.

I’m a day late posting this (International Women’s Day was yesterday), but better late than never: Meduza highlights the work of “eight women who write literature in Russian but are poised to make major breakthroughs in English translation.” Even though I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about women writers, I had never heard of the first, Galina Rymbu (“Trained as a critic and political philosopher, Rymbu is also an editor and an active advocate for new literature. Thanks to translator Jonathan Brooks Platt, her work is on the rise in English as well as Russian”); needless to say, I was curious about her curious surname, and after some assiduous googling I figured out it was the equivalent of Romanian Rîmbu (I’m afraid I don’t know the etymology of that). The others are Alisa Ganieva, Anna Starobinets, Nariné Abgaryan, Linor Goralik, Maria Stepanova, Alexandra Petrova, and Guzel Yakhina; there are links to translations of their work at the Meduza site. I’m particularly excited about Stepanova’s Памяти памяти (In Memory of Memory, translated as Post-Memory by Sasha Dugdale and forthcoming from New Directions), having read about it at Lizok’s Bookshelf (“although sometimes the book feels almost addictively readable, it’s better to read in very small doses, to absorb, even try on, levels of meaning and significance”).

We Need Vodka.

This Facebook post by Lev Oborin made me laugh so much I had to preserve it for posterity:

— Петя, к нам сегодня придет учительница, и нам надо…
— Купить водку, — вдруг заканчивает Петя.

Петя имел в виду, что на прошлой неделе Яша изрисовал фломастером клавиши пианино и я предположил, что их можно оттереть водкой, но диалог выглядел как типичный пример из учебника русского языка для иностранцев.


“Petya, your teacher’s coming today, and we need to…”
“Buy vodka,” Petya interrupts.

Petya was remembering that last week Yasha drew all over the the piano keys with marker and I thought they could be cleaned with vodka, but the dialogue was like a typical example from a Russian language textbook for foreigners.

Alexander Snegirev imagines this dialogue in the comments:

а что это с нашим папой?
– а это он опять клавиши протирает…

“What’s daddy doing?” “He’s cleaning the piano keys again…”

Addendum: Anatoly quotes another excellent Facebook joke:

Главный редактор – журналисту:
— Пишите срочно статью.
— На каком языке?
— Иврите.
— Да это я понял, на каком языке писать-то?

Editor-in-chief to reporter:
“I need you to write a piece right away.”
“In what language?”
“Hebrew.” [Ivrite; sounds exactly like I vrite ‘And tell lies.’]
“Sure, I get that, but what language should I write it in?”

Anti-Semiotic Graffiti.

My local paper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette (published across the river in Northampton), has a lot of printing errors. A lot. I don’t mean just the normal kind, “it’s” for “its” and the occasional misspelled word, I mean total disasters, stories ending in the middle of a sentence, headlines like “Cleveland Browns sign give troubled RB Hunt” and “A racquet and some friends may be the key to a longer,” that sort of thing. My wife and I groan and pass them to each other for appalled inspection and wonder whether anyone actually reads the paper before it’s published. Well, apparently not; Brooke Hauser, the Gazette’s editor in chief, had a column yesterday in which she began by admitting that lots of people complain to her about this sort of thing:

Every once in a while, my neighbor, who is in his 80s and a faithful reader of this newspaper, walks over to my house and hand-delivers a fresh batch of typos clipped from our pages. The errors are circled, annotated, cut out and sorted. He is a wonderful neighbor who also has brought our family homemade pie, handmade wooden toys and a bird feeder. But the typos are not of his making — they are of the Gazette’s. And he just wants me to know about it. He’s not the only one.

A few weeks ago, I spotted a writer I admire at the grocery store and decided to introduce myself, with my 2-year-old daughter in tow. I recognized this writer from her author’s photo, and to my surprise, when I told her my name, she recognized me, too — as the editor of the Gazette. She reads the Gazette daily, she told me, as we chatted in the checkout line. She couldn’t start her day without it, she said.

After singing the paper’s praises, the writer, who shall remain anonymous, mentioned that she has noticed a decline in typos recently. And she has been keeping track. Somewhat sheepishly, she told me she keeps a file of Gazette typos and other copy errors. Her favorite one? A reference to “anti-Semiotic graffiti.”

I remember “anti-Semiotic graffiti”; my wife and I agreed it almost made the general sloppiness worth it. Then she goes on:
[Read more…]


The same editing job that led me to complain about the hominid/hominin confusion brings us another such: the prehistoric continent now known, to some at least, as Sahul. To quote the Wikipedia article:

Archaeological terminology for this region has changed repeatedly. Before the 1970s, the single Pleistocene landmass was called Australasia, derived from the Latin australis, meaning “southern”, although this word is most often used for a wider region that includes lands like New Zealand that are not on the same continental shelf. In the early 1970s, the term Greater Australia was introduced for the Pleistocene continent. Then at a 1975 conference and consequent publication, the name Sahul was extended from its previous use for just the Sahul Shelf to cover the continent.

In 1984 W. Filewood suggested the name Meganesia, meaning “great island” or “great island-group”, for both the Pleistocene continent and the present-day lands, and this name has been widely accepted by biologists. Others have used Meganesia with different meanings: travel writer Paul Theroux included New Zealand in his definition and others have used it for Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. Another biologist, Richard Dawkins, coined the name Australinea in 2004. Australia-New Guinea has also been used.

What a mess! I swear, scientists enjoy sowing confusion.

By the way, does anybody know anything about the etymology of Sahul? Wikipedia says merely “The name ‘Sahull’ or ‘Sahoel’ appeared on 17th century Dutch maps applied to a submerged sandbank between Australia and Timor,” and maybe that’s as much as can be known, but I can’t help but be curious.

Not Up to It.

Alongside the chronological reading of Russian literature I’ve been doing since 2012, I’ve indulged in various auxiliary projects; I’ve read the poetic output of Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Tsvetaeva, and now I’m working through the complete stories of Ivan Bunin, my main resource being this massive collection (supplemented by a couple of others for the longer works it doesn’t contain). Bunin is appallingly undervalued despite being the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for literature; he’s a master of the short story, as good as Chekhov, and should be as well known. But as I wrote here: “there’s nothing really to say about Bunin, especially for an academic. He didn’t join literary groups, he didn’t radically change style, he didn’t emigrate and then return and have a complicated relationship with the Bolsheviks like Gorky, he just wrote great short stories, decade after decade.” I’ve gotten up to 1911, and the most recent story I finished is Сверчок [Cricket], named after the peasant who narrates the story-within-the-story; his real name is Ilya Kapitonov, but he’s known to everyone by his nickname “Cricket.” His tale is about how his bullheaded son Maksim (also known as “Cricket”) froze to death one night after insisting on going out in a frigid frost; though he was feeble and twice his son’s age, he carried the dead body all the way to the train tracks, where he was eventually rescued by railway workers. This tale leaves his listeners silent and thoughtful; finally the cook says there’s one thing she doesn’t understand — “How is it you yourself didn’t freeze?” He says absentmindedly (рассеянно), “Не до того было, матушка.” This is almost impossible to translate, or rather there are too many possible ways to do it. The one published translation I’ve found in Google Books, in Russians: Then and Now: A Selection of Russian Writing from the Seventeenth Century to Our Own Day, edited by Avrahm Yarmolinsky (Macmillan, 1963), has “My mind was on other matters, mother.” Serge Kryzytski, in The Works of Ivan Bunin (Mouton, 1971), renders it “I had no time for that, mother.” Equally valid translations would be “I couldn’t be bothered,” “I was in no mood for that,” “I didn’t feel like it,” and “I had other things on my mind.” Perhaps the best translation would be the simplest, which also reflects the semantics of the Russian idiom: “I wasn’t up to it.” (I tried my hand at translating a brief Bunin story back in 2009; it attracted 182 comments!)

Congratulations to Lizok and Vodolazkin.

Lisa Hayden Espenschade’s latest post at her blog Lizok’s Bookshelf reports on Yevgeny Vodolazkin’s winning the 2019 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Literature Prize “for organically combining Russian traditions for spiritual and psychological prose with an outstanding knowledge and mind for language arts, as well as for his inspired writing style.” I haven’t read Vodolazkin yet, but thanks to Lisa’s raves for his writing he’s high on my list to investigate; she’s translated his The Aviator and Laurus (which won a Read Russia Prize in 2016), and her translation of Solovyov and Larionov has already been released in the UK and will be out in the US in May. It’s great to see a translator doing so much for contemporary literature! (And it’s via her blog that I mainly keep up with modern Russian literature.)


I’m editing an anthropological text on early forms of humanity and am thus having my nose rubbed in a change I had vaguely noticed in recent years but tried to ignore: nobody talks about hominids any more, it’s all “hominins,” a word I find ugly (because it’s new to me). Wikipedia:

By convention, the adjectival term “hominin” (or nominalized “hominins”) refers to the tribe Hominini, while the members of the Hominina subtribe (and thus all archaic human species) are referred to as “hominan” (“hominans”). This follows the proposal by Mann and Weiss (1996), which presents tribe Hominini as including both Pan and Homo, placed in separate subtribes. The genus Pan is referred to subtribe Panina, and genus Homo is included in the subtribe Hominina (see above). However, there is an alternative convention which uses “hominin” to exclude members of Panina, i.e. either just for Homo or for both human and australopithecine species. This alternative convention is referenced in e.g. Coyne (2009) and in Dunbar (2014). Potts (2010) in addition uses Hominini in a different sense, as excluding Pan, and uses “hominins” for this, while a separate tribe (rather than subtribe) for chimpanzees is introduced, under the name Panini. In this recent convention, contra Gray, the term hominin is applied to all species of genus Homo, as well as to species of the ancestral genera Australopithecus, Ardipithecus, and others that arose after the split from the line that led to chimpanzees (see cladogram below); that is, they distinguish fossil members on the human side of the split, as hominins, from those on the chimpanzee side, as not hominins.

This is all very confusing: the alternative conventions, the inconsistent italics (“subtribe Hominina” and “subtribe Panina” but “the Hominina subtribe” and “members of Panina“), the very name Panini — to me, these are panini). But the main question I have is, why the change in terminology? Obviously classifications are changing all the time with the discovery of new varieties of early humans and what used to be called “missing links,” but what was so bad about “hominid” that it had to be remade, causing such a mess?


Joel of Far Outliers is posting excerpts from The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), and the post he titles Bengal’s New Bourgeoisie contains an interesting example of a loan word confronting the Indian original:

I met a friend who had found such a position [a modern job, writing content or doing design] in an American firm at Sector Five. As she was showing me around her glass temple, she took me to a room full of rolled-up mats. They reminded me of the mats that some of the Muslim waiters used to spread out during prayer times at the Statesman canteen.

‘Are the mats for namaz?’ I asked.

‘No,’ she said, ‘they are for yoga.’

It was the first time I had heard anyone in Calcutta utter the word. She didn’t say joge, which is the Bengali term for the breathing exercises and body contortions that we had all been forced to practise as kids, exercises that were the realm of old geezers, much like consulting astrological charts, performing exorcisms or taking snuff. Joge to us was some grandpa forcing you to sit still for fifteen minutes and pretend to ‘meditate’. This avatar of grandpa’s joge as yuppie yoga was part of a prepackaged global lifestyle imported from America.

It’s as if Brazilian futebol (soccer/football) had developed into a significantly different game, which was then imported into the English-speaking world and called “foochiball” or the like. There must be other actual examples of this sort of thing, but I’m not coming up with them.

Language in a Time of Climate Change.

Rob Nixon’s Aeon piece has an obvious premise — glaciers are moving faster, so we shouldn’t use them as a symbol of slowness — and runs it into the ground, but I can’t resist posting it because of the first paragraph:

Language bends and buckles under pressure of climate change. Take the adjective ‘glacial.’ I recently came across an old draft of my PhD dissertation on which my advisor had scrawled the rebuke: ‘You’re proceeding at a glacial pace. You’re skating on thin ice.’ That was in 1988, the year that the climatologist James Hansen testified before the United States Senate that runaway greenhouse gases posed a planetary threat.

Just a decade earlier, my own advisor was reproaching me on similar grounds, though he never used that metaphor as far as I recall. At any rate, people are going to go on using the phrase “glacial pace” in its old sense; glaciers still move pretty darn slowly, and more importantly, language doesn’t work that way: metaphors don’t keep up with the news. (Thanks, jack!)