Vasili Eroshenko.

Herewith another in my occasional series of posts about remarkable people whose lives involved languages in a significant way; I’ll present some excerpts from his Wikipedia article, passed on to me by Dmitry Pruss, who knew I’d be interested in an “English poet of Russian descent who primarily wrote in Japanese”:

Vasili Yakovlevich Eroshenko (Russian: Василий Яковлевич Ерошенко) (12 January 1890 – 23 December 1952) was an anarchist writer, esperantist, linguist, and teacher. At the age of four, he contracted measles and as a result, became blind. From 1907 to 1914 he worked as a violinist for the Moscow orchestra for the blind. Around this time he studied Esperanto, as well as English. He travelled to Britain in 1912 and studied in a school for the blind. […] Later he went back to Moscow via Paris and resumed his work in the orchestra. There he began studying the Japanese language. In April 1914 Eroshenko, due to contacts with the Japanese Esperantists, left for Japan. He studied massage in a school center for the blind in Tokyo, after learning their reputation in the practice. There he promoted Esperanto among the blind students. His first novels, in Japanese, were published there. After two years he went to Siam and tried to establish a school for the blind. […] During the summer of 1919, he went back to Japan through Shanghai. With a good grasp on the Japanese language, Eroshenko wrote numerous children stories in that language and became famous among the Japanese literary community. […] From 1921 to 1923, Eroshenko went to China and lived in Harbin for more or less three months, then stayed in Beijing, China, where he taught Esperanto. From October 1921 to February 1922 he worked for the Institute of Languages in Shanghai. He was in contact with the Chinese writer Lu Xun, who translated a play and a collection of fairytales by Eroshenko in Chinese. Eroshenko features in Lu’s short story ‘The Comedy of the Ducks’. […] In 1924 he participated in the 16th Esperanto Congress in Paris and the congress of blind Esperantists in Vienna. From 1924 to 1927 he worked as a translator in the communist university for the working people in the east. He translated works of Marx, Engels and Lenin into Japanese. In 1929-1930 he traveled to Chukotka and established a school for blind children. […] From 1930 to 1932 he worked in a school for blind brush-makers in Nizhni Novgorod as a teacher in mathematics, Braille and the Russian language. A year later he went back to Moscow to work as proof reader in a printing house. […] In 1946-1948 he worked as an English language instructor in a school for the blind children in Moscow. […] In 1952 he went back to Obukhivka, his birthplace, and worked on his last book. He died on 23 December and was buried in a country cemetery.

I’ve left out a number of adventures; what I want to know (as I said to Dmitry) is, how the hell did he survive Stalin’s purges? There were so many reasons to have him killed, from Esperantism to anarchism to all that foreign travel… You can read more about him in Transnational Japan as History: Empire, Migration, and Social Movements; here’s p. 174. Thanks, Dmitry!

Thoraxes like Cuirasses.

James Parker reviews David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament for the Atlantic:

In the beginning was … well, what? A clap of the divine hands and a poetic shock wave? Or an itchy node of nothingness inconceivably scratching itself into somethingness? In the beginning was the Word, says the Gospel according to John—a lovely statement of the case, as it’s always seemed to me. A pre-temporal syllable swelling to utterance in the mouth of the universe, spoken once and heard forever: God’s power chord, if you like. For David Bentley Hart, however, whose mind-bending translation of the New Testament was published in October, the Word—as a word—does not suffice: He finds it to be “a curiously bland and impenetrable designation” for the heady concept expressed in the original Greek of the Gospels as Logos. The Chinese word Tao might get at it, Hart tells us, but English has nothing with quite the metaphysical flavor of Logos, the particular sense of a formative moral energy diffusing itself, without diminution, through space and time. So he throws up his hands and leaves it where it is: “In the origin there was the Logos …” […]

So what has he done to the New Testament, this bristling one-man band of a Christian literatus? The surprising aim, Hart tells us in his introduction, was to be as bare-bones and—where appropriate—unsqueamishly prosaic as he can. The New Testament, after all, is not a store of ancient wonders like the Hebrew Bible. It’s a grab bag of reportage, rumor, folk memory, and on-the-hoof mysticism produced by regular people, everyday babblers and clunkers, under the pressure of a supremely irregular event—namely, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So that, says Hart, is what it should sound like. “Again and again,” he insists, “I have elected to produce an almost pitilessly literal translation; many of my departures from received practices are simply my efforts to make the original text as visible as possible through the palimpsest of its translation … Where an author has written bad Greek … I have written bad English.” Herein lies the fascination of this thing: its deliberate, one might say defiant, rawness and lowbrow-ness, as produced by a decidedly overcooked highbrow. […]

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Heterogenia Linguistico.

Heterogenia Linguistico was described to me as follows:

It’s manga, but there aren’t any giant robots or high school girls or exploitative crap. It’s a story about a linguist in training (actually more like a Japanese university equivalent to a graduate student worker) who’s tasked with exploring the part of the world where nonhuman sentient creatures like werewolves and giant octopus live in order to document their languages.

I’m not a manga person myself, but if one likes both manga and languages/linguistics, this looks like it would be worth investigating. It’s created by Soruto Seno, and it has the following alternate names:

Heterogenia Linguistics ; Heterogeneous Linguistics ; Heterogenia Linguistico ~Ishuzoku Gengogaku Nyuumon~ ; ヘテロゲニア リンギスティコ ~異種族言語学入門~

I don’t know what the “~” signifies; I presume the last one is Chinese, and if anyone can parse it for me I’ll be grateful.

The Story of The Untranslated.

Almost a year ago I posted about one of the best blogs in existence, The Untranslated; I await new posts with embarrassing enthusiasm and devour them instantly. Well, Andrei is now celebrating his five-year blogiversary with an origin story, and it’s mesmerizing:

The story began 12 years before the appearance of the blog when I was studying for my Master’s in literature. During my first year, there arrived an oversees guest lecturer in literature and philosophy — the Stanford professor Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. At the time, at my university knowing English well was cool. Being able to read an English-language book or a book translated into English without a dictionary was extraordinary. We always adored professors with rich English vocabulary and the most native-sounding pronunciation. Those were the signs of great mastery achieved through perseverance and determination by people who spent most of their lives behind the Iron Curtain. So, there was this professor speaking fluent English who was going to talk about literature not originally written in English, which he must have read in translation. I still remember the moment when he distributed photocopies of Garcia Lorca’s poems with the English translation facing the Spanish original. And then something incredible happened: he told us to follow the translation while he was reading out the poems in Spanish. I was astounded. I had never experienced anything like that before. I didn’t understand most of the Spanish words, but I could feel the tremendous difference, I could hear how incomparably better the poems sounded in Spanish. I realised that some day I would like to be able to do just that: to read the works of my favourite writers and poets in the original, and in as many languages as I could learn. I was further bowled over when Gumbrecht casually said during a different lecture that when he read Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose in Italian, he had the impression that its style strongly resembled that of a medieval chronicle. As it turned out, besides English and his native German, Gumbrecht was proficient in Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, and could also read some additional languages. Knowing English well wasn’t cool anymore. I wanted badly to get at least reading proficiency of the major European languages. Of course, there were considerable differences in my background and Gumbrecht’s. He was born in West Germany in a middle-class family and had the opportunities to study in France, Spain and Italy. I was born in the Soviet Union in a family with modest income and at that time I had not even been outside the borders of the former USSR, which had collapsed a decade before. It wouldn’t be until my first year as a PhD student in Comparative Literature when I would travel to England for the first time. Notwithstanding these setbacks, I set out on my journey.

By the time of Gumbrecht’s visit I had studied French as my second language, but it was at such a low level that reading original literature was still out of the question. I developed my own system of drastically increasing my vocabulary that proved to be tedious but effective. I started with a short story by Maupassant, just several pages, which I read with a dictionary by my side, copying into a notebook all the words which I didn’t know and writing next to each of the words the Russian translation. There were lots of such words. Then, when I had that glossary at my disposal I would read the same story exactly ten times, so that during the final read I didn’t have to rely on the list anymore. After that, I moved on to another story, which was a bit longer. I proceeded in this fashion until I was able to read a complete novel in French, and, strangely enough, I cannot remember what it was. Slowly but surely, my reading abilities in French were improving, but there was still so much to achieve.

And it goes on from there. I identify with a great deal, including love for the original World Literature Today and German being a tough nut to crack, and I envy him his determination to expand his net and to expend so much time and effort on his posts. But he’s a little discouraged because he has so few readers, and he occasionally thinks of the blog as “a time-consuming and energy-sapping plaything.” So go over there, read the rest of the story (including his personal top ten great untranslated novels) and give him some love, and tell everyone you know about his superb and irreplaceable blog!

Meet Daisy Rockwell.

Trisha Gupta interviews translator Daisy Rockwell for Scroll; there’s some rote stuff (how did you get into it? what about the unequal power differential between English and other languages? do you focus on accuracy or English readability?), but also some interesting details:

What do you do about dialect, or idiomatic phrases? Do you try to produce an equivalent in English? This can be a difficult thing to do… I remember in Falling Walls, you have Chetan calling his Bhai Sahib, Ramanand, the Old Codger. The nickname is remarked upon at some length, but we do not learn the original term in Hindi.

Some aspects of dialect and idiom just cannot be translated, and if they were kept in the original language in the translation, it would not be a translation anymore. There is a school of translation in India which feels that smoothing these elements out is doing violence to the original text and that translating it into English at all is doing violence really, because of the hegemony discussed above. However, if one has committed to rendering a text in English, one must bite the bullet and figure out how to get it done. If a nickname or something is particularly hilarious, I might keep it in Hindi. It’s really a case-by-case basis for me. In the case you are talking about, the nickname was baṛhaū, which is a) not that funny by contemporary Hindi standards, and b) difficult and unattractive to render in the Roman script, thus I chose to come up with something a bit old fashioned in English.

Now the big problem for a translator from Hindi and Urdu into English is that one is bound to have many readers who not only know at least a passing amount of said languages, but may actually be fully fluent in them, and literate too. Why are they reading the English? Often it’s just their habit to read in English, but they are also the most critical readers of translations, and complain of translators “over-translating”, having a preference for being able to “feel the Hindi” through the English. I have seen many reviewers say such things about translations from Hindi and Urdu (not of my books, but of others), and I must say, if they are so eager to “feel the Hindi”, they really ought to take the trouble to purchase the Hindi original, since they don’t need an English translation. [..]

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A Raffi Update.

Back in June I posted about Keith Gessen’s attempt to teach his son Raffi Russian: “I liked the feeling, when I carried him through the neighborhood or pushed him in his stroller, of having our own private language.” Now Francois Grosjean (whom I posted about here) has a brief interview with Gessen in which we learn how things are going:

Do you see yourself polishing your Russian up in order to enrich Raffi’s own Russian?

My Russian is already improving in that I have to speak in it all the time to Raffi. And as he starts asking more sophisticated questions about the world, I have to try to produce more sophisticated answers. Or at least sensible ones. […]

Another important factor is input, a lot of input, as well as a diversified input. How will you make sure that Raffi gets it in the years to come?

I read to him in Russian a lot, and will continue to do so. Despite a somewhat exalted reputation, Russian literature for little kids is not as rich as American literature for that age group. But there are some wonderful things, especially the poems of Korney Chukovsky, which Raffi really loves, and there are also translations.

Speaking of translations, we’ve recently discovered a rich treasure trove of Russian-language versions of Western cartoons. On YouTube, you can get “Peppa Pig” in Russian, “Ninja Turtles” in Russian, and even the awful “Paw Patrol” series in Russian. There are also some excellent Soviet-era cartoons on YouTube, but on the whole, they’re a little too slow-moving for someone who’s been exposed to the speed of American cartoons. […]

What other strategies were you thinking of to make Russian an important part of Raffi’s life and anchoring the language in his mind?

The closest thing to a Russian-only environment within driving distance of us is my father’s house in Massachusetts, and I hope to continue getting Raffi (and now his younger brother, Ilya) there as much as possible.

I must say, even in the past couple of months (approximately since Raffi turned three), he has been finding his Russian to be a source of pride. “Mama,” he now tells his monolingual mother, “I speak Russian and English.” It’s not strictly true that he speaks Russian. His passive vocabulary is large but his active vocabulary is currently about ten words. But the other day we had a Russian-speaking friend over and Raffi started showing off by giving the Russian names for various objects. So he clearly has, at least for the moment, an aspiration to learn Russian better. That seems to me a good start.

Thanks, JC!

Difficult Books.

Sam Leith’s recent essay for the Guardian starts off looking like just another thumb-sucker mulling over the usual idiotic gripes about the Booker:

“The fascination of what’s difficult,” wrote WB Yeats, “has dried the sap out of my veins … ” In the press coverage of this year’s Man Booker prize winner, Anna Burns’s Milkman, we’ve read a good many commentators presenting with sapless veins – but a dismaying lack of any sense that what’s difficult might be fascinating.

“Odd”, “impenetrable”, “hard work”, “challenging” and “brain-kneading” have been some of the epithets chosen. They have not been meant, I think, as compliments. The chair of the judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, perhaps unhelpfully, humblebragged that: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy, so by my standards this is not too hard.” But he added that Milkman is “challenging […] the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging. It is definitely worth it because the view is terrific when you get to the top.”

That’s at least a useful starting point. Appiah defends the idea – which, nearly a century after modernism really kicked off, probably shouldn’t need defending – that ease of consumption isn’t the main criterion by which literary value should be assessed.

No, it shouldn’t, so why are you bothering? But then (after pointing out that “Books can be ‘difficult’ in all sorts of different ways”) he gets into more interesting territory:
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How Do You Chew a Taste?

A couple of years ago — but just now in my belated reading of the NYRB — Lydia Davis wrote about the pleasures of translating (paywalled, I’m afraid). She begins as follows:

This past June, on a trip to France, I was taken by French friends for a wine-tasting in the small Burgundian town of Beaune, south of Dijon. During the wine-tasting, we were at one point instructed to mâchez le vin—I can’t remember now whether this was while we still held the wine in our mouths, or after we had swallowed or spat it out. Now, when this word was spoken, I became instantly alert, my translator-antennae going up: using the verb mâcher, “chew,” for something that you can’t actually chew was a problem I had spent several hours on during my translating of Madame Bovary. The word occurs in a passage near the beginning of the novel, when Charles Bovary, at least, is still happy in his marriage, and Emma is not yet obviously restless or unhappy. This passage very well illustrates Flaubert’s antiromanticism:

Et alors, sur la grande route qui étendait sans en finir son long ruban de poussière, par les chemins creux où les arbres se courbaient en berceaux, dans les sentiers dont les blés lui montaient jusqu’aux genoux, avec le soleil sur ses épaules et l’air du matin à ses narines, le coeur plein des félicités de la nuit, l’esprit tranquille, la chair contente, il s’en allait ruminant son bonheur, comme ceux qui mâchent encore, après dîner, le goût des truffes qu’ils digèrent.

This was how I translated it:

And then, on the road stretching out before him in an endless ribbon of dust, along sunken lanes over which the trees bent like an arbor, in paths where the wheat rose as high as his knees, with the sun on his shoulders and the morning air in his nostrils, his heart full of the joys of the night, his spirit at peace, his flesh content, he would ride along ruminating on his happiness, like a man continuing to chew, after dinner, the taste of the truffles he is digesting.

I like to reproduce the word order, and the order of ideas, of the original whenever possible.

So far so good, but she goes on to say that mâcher was a problem: “But how do you chew a taste?”

What I did not do, during the wine-tasting in Beaune — a cause for some lost sleep once I returned — was ask the professional who was assisting us, on our tour, just how he translates mâcher into English, for English-speaking visitors. Later, I discovered that the equivalent in the wine-tasting would is indeed “chew” — but would it have ever occurred to me to look to a wine buyers’ guide for help with my Flaubert translation?

To which I respond: why the hell not? I’m not sure if she’s saying she deliberately doesn’t consult specialist sources when she’s translating or it just slips her mind, but of someone who has said she doesn’t read the book she’s going to translate, she just starts from page one, I can believe anything.


Superlinguo, “a blog about language and linguistics by Lauren Gawne,” is obvious LH material; recently it’s featured Linguistics Jobs: Interview with a Freelance Editor, Writer and Trainer (“After 30 years in the finance sector, Howard Walwyn has returned to his love of language”) and Contexts of Use of a Rotated Palms Gesture among Syuba (Kagate) Speakers in Nepal:

A popular expression in Nepal is a fatalistically resigned ke garne? ‘what to do?’ The government office is closed, ke garne? The bus is running late, ke garne? When people say this, they also bring their palms up and rotate them inwards, with their thumb and index finger extended and the other fingers bunched in.

(There’s a gif illustrating it.) I look forward to investigating further; thanks, Bathrobe!

Autumnal Creases.

Mikhail Yeryomin (not the goalkeeper) is a very interesting poet; as the History of Russian Literature (see this post) says, “Eremin quickly settled into a writing pattern that has remained unchanged for decades: eight-line poems, almost always untitled, collected in volumes published every few years and entitled Poems […] Eremin collects obscure words with the zeal of a paleontologist assembling animal bones from disparate sites; the imagery of the poems is often biological, chemical, and especially botanical.” There’s a selection of his poems in the excellent anthology In The Grip of Strange Thoughts: Russian Poetry in a New Era (which seems to have given rise to a whole series of single-author collections), translated by the editor, J. Kates, and for one of them I found a different translation, by David MacFadyen (in World Literature Today 72.1 [Winter, 1998]), so I thought I’d provide the original (from 1957) and both translations so you can see just how divergent translations can be (there are only a half-dozen words in common, including “autumnal” and “creases”):

Боковитые зерна премудрости,
Изначальную форму пространства,
Всероссийскую святость и смутность
И болот журавлиную пряность
Отыскивать в осенней рукописи,
Где следы оставила слякоть,
Где листы, словно листья луковицы,
Слезы прячут в складках.

Perspicuity’s angular seedpods,
A primordial form of dimension,
All of Russia, its miscreants, credence,
And the cranes’ heady scent from the marshes:
To find this in autumnal manuscripts,
Where the slime deposited traces,
Where the pages, as cupolas’ onion-leaves,
Hide their teardrops in creases.
–tr. D. MacFadyen

Polyhedral kernels of wisdom,
Primordial form of space.
All-Russian holiness, hodgepodge
And the herony tang of swampland
To be searched out in autumnal writing,
Where the slush has left its traces,
Where leaves, like the skirts of an onion
Conceal tears in their creases.
–tr. J. Kates

The first word, the adjective боковитый, is so rare it gets less than 40 Google hits at the moment, and some of those hits use it as a proper noun; it’s clearly derived from the noun бок ‘side,’ but I have no idea if it has any specialized meaning or if it’s used ad hoc each time — at any rate, MacFadyen makes it “angular” and Kates “polyhedral.” And the translators are working from slightly different texts of the poem: in the penultimate line, one has платья, hence ‘skirts,’ and the other листья ‘leaves’ (the version I used above). Fun stuff, if you like analyzing translations (as I do: see this post from the first few months of LH, whose comment thread, alas, was peeled away at some point by Blogger).