Dracula in Translation.

Alison Kroulek provides six facts about Dracula around the world that you might not have heard before; my favorites:

Dracula’s origins are lost in translation.
“[T]he mistranslation of a 15th-century poem dramatically changed the poet’s intent and poet’s intent and let to a misleading interpretation of Bram’s intentions. In describing the cruel actions of Vlad Dracula III against Saxon traders in Transylvania, Michael Beheim . . . wrote that Vlad washed his hands in the blood of his enemies. A portion of the poem was translated incorrectly, telling of Vlad dipping his bread into a bowl and drinking the blood of his dead enemies, thus labeling him as a vampire.”

An Icelandic translation of Dracula from 1901 is actually a different story.
The original Icelandic translation of Dracula is actually a different novel, with a different title and an altered plot. The Icelandic version is called Makt Myrkranna, or Powers of Darkness. Makt Myrkranna condenses the second part of the book, which takes place after the Count arrives in England. According to Dracula expert Hans Corneel de Roos, the result is a novel “more exciting and elegant than Dracula itself.” Translator Valdimar Ásmundsson also made the original novel’s sexual undertones more explicit.

Other fun facts: the first language Dracula was translated into was Hungarian, and most Romanians had no idea what Stoker’s novel was about until after the fall of communism. Thanks, Trevor!

Smith’s Loseff.

Gerald (G. S.) Smith, now that he’s retired as Professor of Russian at Oxford, is devoting himself to continuing his project of translating the late Lev Loseff (Лев Лосев; I quoted one of his poems here and wrote about his biography of Joseph Brodsky here and here). He’s putting them up at the Lev Loseff blog, each translation followed by the original Russian and sometimes notes to explain allusions, and I urge you to investigate them if you love good poetry of the formal/tradtional sort. At the moment the top entry is “D’you hear me… / Ты слышишь ли…,” so the first thing that greeted me was this quatrain:

D’you hear me, the shutters are open, hey you, rise and shine,
unwashed and uncombed, as you are, just get yourself out,
to where some enamel’s been chipped from the rim of the sky,
and daybreak holds forth with its whistling and steaming spout.

If you like that, you’ll probably want to spend some time there. I learned about it via this post by Anatoly Vorobei, in which he quotes and rightly praises “Documentary,” Smith’s version of Loseff’s “Документальное”; the one thing I don’t like is his translation of these lines:

Там русский царь в вагоне чахнет,
играет в секу и в буру.

Stuck in his airless railway carriage,
the Tsar plays snap and more besides.

“Stuck in his airless railway carriage” doesn’t convey the sense of чахнет, which means ‘withers away, goes into a decline, becomes exhausted or weak’ (a pretty important sense in the context of WWI); more importantly, “snap and more besides” is just awful. The Russian means ‘plays seka and burá,’ two simple-minded card games — in the former (also called сика or три листа ‘three leaves/sheets’ and traditionally played by coachmen), each player is dealt three cards and the winner is the one with the highest point total according to an agreed-on system of values (the maximum is 33); in the latter (also called тридцать одно ‘31′ and apparently associated with criminals), the winner is whoever gets 31 points when the deck is fully dealt. I guess “snap,” though even more simple-minded, is a reasonable substitute, but “and more besides”? Come on, that’s just lazy, and it throws this reader right out of the poem for a moment.

But that’s only a minor quibble; the translations are lively and provide a great deal of pleasure, and I’m even learning new words (like кемарить ‘to doze, snooze’). A great way to start the day!

On Sounding Natural.

Victor Mair’s latest Log post is about Mandarin Chinese, but its implications are far more general. He begins:

When I began studying Mandarin over half a century ago, I very quickly developed a pet phrase […]: lǎoshí shuō 老實說 / 老实说 (“to tell the truth; honestly”), After I married one of the best Mandarin teachers on earth (Chang Li-ching) several years later, she corrected me when I said my favorite phrase. She told me that I made it sound like lǎoshī shuō 老師說 / 老师说 (“teacher says”).

Now, I know my tones very well, and can tell the difference between first and second tone. I’m also able to produce them clearly and distinctly. So it wasn’t a problem with my being incapable of distinguishing tonally in my speech between lǎoshí shuō and lǎoshī shuō. Something else was wrong with the way I said “lǎoshí shuō” (“honestly speaking”) that made it sound like “lǎoshī shuō” (“teacher says”).

He goes into great deal about what that “something” was, and gives similar examples from spoken Nepali. As I said in a comment there, it applies to much more than just Chinese:

I’ve never heard a convincing example of spoken Ancient Greek on those videos that purport to provide one, because the people speaking are working so hard to make sure the consonants, vowels, and pitches are correct that they don’t sound like they’re speaking a real language. I’ve even heard this complaint about actors speaking Klingon; it may not be “real,” but if it’s to be believable as a spoken language it has to sound like one, not like a careful combination of painfully learned sounds.


Back in 2005 we discussed the verb “sublate” and its origin in German aufheben (as used by Hegel); I am now here to report, courtesy of Victor Mair at the Log, that the Japanese loanword aufuhēben アウフヘーベン is under consideration for buzzword of the year, as reported by Tomoko Otake in The Japan Times:

Aufheben, a concept by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, also made the cut. The word, which has several contradictory meanings such as “lift up,” “suspend” and “cancel,” was until recently not in the lexicon of most Japanese, but it took the spotlight after Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike used the German word in reference to various plans to repair Tokyo’s venerable Tsukiji fish market. After leaving many reporters and much of the public confused, she said: “It means to stop once and go one level up next.”

Bathrobe comments:

I didn’t even have to look this one up. I heard “aufheben” from a professor of conservative Japanese linguistics in Japan when I was an undergraduate there almost half a century ago. It’s philosophical and intellectual but seems to get a certain amount of use, at least among intellectuals in Japan.

Another commenter, Zeppelin, writes:

I’ve read that Nietzsche, too, is very popular in Japan. Which I find a bit disconcerting, because he’s basically untranslatable. I can’t imagine you’d get much out of his aphorisms if you lose the dense, culturally-specific wordplay and the ability to distinguish the more serious ones from those that mainly exist for the sake of a good pun. Do Japanese philosophers typically study German?

Which seems very odd to me. Is Zeppelin not aware that Nietzsche is (or has been) very popular pretty much everywhere, including the US? For someone who’s allegedly untranslatable, he sure gets around.

A Thousand Miles of Moonlight.

Bathrobe sent me his CJVlang post “A thousand miles of moonlight” explicating the Tang poet Li He’s “On the Frontier”; here’s part of it:

The term 塞 sài refers to the northern frontier beyond which the nomadic peoples lived. For the Chinese this was a military frontier. Tang-dynasty poets including Lu Lun, Li Yi, Wang Changling, and most famously Li Bai, had written poems entitled 塞下曲 sài-xià qǔ ‘Beyond the Border Tunes’, mainly dealing with military deeds and the harshness of military life.

But there are no heroics in Li He’s poem, which is an atmospheric piece filled with gloom and menace. It opens with a reference to the horns blown by the hu (胡 hú), a traditional name for peoples to the north of China which Graham translates as ‘Tartar’. While this is anachronistic — ‘Tartar’ came later in English — it conveys a similar mixture of disdain and fear.

The Chinese historical imagination of the northern frontier was dominated by the Xiongnu or Hunnu, who established an empire covering a huge territory centring on modern Mongolia from the 3rd century BC to the late 1st century AD. During this time they posed a continuing if fluctuating threat to China. The Great Wall (referred to in the poem) formed the boundary between China and the Xiongnu.

Under relations with the Xiongnu the Chinese often sent princesses to marry Xiongnu leaders in an appeasement policy known as heqin (marriage alliance). In an episode that has been celebrated ever since, Emperor Yuan of the Western Han dynasty gave five court ladies (not princesses) to the Chinese-backed Xiongnu leader, Huhanye Chanyu, at a time when the power of the Xiongnu was already waning. One of these women was called Wang Zhaojun, who married Huanyehe, to whom she bore at least two sons and a daughter. After his death, she married his successor (under levirate marriage) and bore him two daughters.

By the time of Li He, these 800-year old events had been considerably embellished and romanticised. Wang Zhaojun (who is now regarded as one of the Four Beauties of ancient China) was depicted as a court lady chosen to be presented to Huhanye Chanyu to satisfy his demand for “a princess”. Although stunningly beautiful, she was chosen on the basis of an unflattering portrait painted by a corrupt court painter to whom she refused to pay a bribe. When the Emperor saw her in the flesh he was mortified but had no choice but to go ahead with his decision. In this version, Wang Zhaojun was homesick for China and eventually committed suicide when ordered to remain with the Xiongnu and marry her own son (as her husband’s successor) after her husband’s death. (In later centuries this story was further embellished so that Wang Zhaojun committed suicide en route to the land of the Xiongnu.)

It’s got much more, including A. C. Graham’s translation, the original poem in characters and pinyin with morpheme-by-morpheme and literal translations of each line, and a nice photo of the supposed Tomb of Wang Zhaojun near Hohhot (one of my favorite exotic place names). Check it out!


Once again I am rewarded for my stubbornness in pursuing my chronological crawl through Russian literature. The other day I finished Tolstoy’s Казаки [The Cossacks], and in my post about it I complained about its length and repetitiveness and concluded “at this point in their careers, I would have to say that Dostoevsky is way ahead of him.” That story was published in January 1863, and the next item on the agenda, published in February, was his Поликушка [Polikushka]; when I finished it, I marveled (as I might have done in 1863) that Tolstoy had suddenly caught up. It contains at least twice the plot in a third the length; whereas The Cossacks feels like a puffed-up short story, Polikushka feels like a full-length novel compressed into fifty pages. More importantly, it is brilliantly told, with the author’s mature manner on full display; it gives the same feeling of “this is real life, not just a story” that is so common a reaction to War and Peace. How did he do it?
[Read more…]

The Tongs.

A hilarious series of tweets by Nili‏ @sharknoises; since it’s short, I’ll just copy the whole thing, conveniently compiled by Alon, who sent it to me:

My entire life is a lie

I was just eating dinner with my parents and my mom asks in Farsi for me to pass her the remote control. I was like “…What?”

Mom: points to tongs [in Farsi] give me the remote control.
Me: ……You mean the tongs?
Mom: yeah, please pass it over.

After I pass it over I’m like “why did you call the tongs the [Persian word for remote control]?” & she just very nonchalantly blows my mind

Mom: [word] is just a filler word, you know. I couldn’t remember the word for tongs, so I said [word].
Me: ………….What. No. What?

For 28 years of my life, the word in Farsi that I thought meant remote control was actually just the Farsi equivalent of “thingamabob.” WTF. I just sat there, with my mouth hanging open, for a solid minute. My mom was like “wait… You thought that was the actual word for remote?”

Yes, mother!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I did think that!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I learned Farsi from you and dad!! You guys call it that word!!!!!!!!!

Me: well what’s the actual word for remote control then?
Mom: um…. I don’t know? Says in English with a Persian accent “con-trol”?

And my mom is just like “why is this such a big deal?” Like she didn’t just shake the foundation of my entire world!!!! “Why is this such a big deal??” I learned Farsi from you guys!! How much of my knowledge of Farsi is just fake words that y’all made up?????

Me: so if I was at someone’s house and I ask where the [word] is, they’d just look at me like WTF are you talking about?
Mom: [laughs at me]

Me: what else can I not trust??? What else is fake???? Are y’all even my real parents????
Mom: [keeps laughing at me]
My life is a lie!!!!! I just will never know where the next blow will come from!!! Which of the words that I know are going to be the next fake one!! From now on I shall only communicate using interpretive dance

Thanks, Alon!


I was reading a review in the TLS when I came across the assertion that “In 1869 — an annus mirabilis for sexology, the ‘scientific’ study of sex — the German-born Hungarian nationalist Karl-Maria Kertbeny (born Benkert) coined the term ‘homosexual.’” I had two questions about this: what’s the deal with “Kertbeny (born Benkert),” and did he really coin that word in that year? I am, of course, deeply skeptical of coinage claims, but that one seems to be well founded, though off by a year: German Wikipedia shows an image of a letter of May 8, 1868, in which you can see the words “Homosexual” and “Heterosexual” one after the other. As for the name, he was born Karl-Maria Benkert in Vienna, but the family moved to Budapest when he was a child, and in 1847, “he legally changed his name from Benkert to Karl-Maria Kertbeny (or Károly Mária Kertbeny), a Hungarian name with aristocratic associations.” This raised more questions. Is Kertbeny two syllables or three? I presume it’s based on kert ‘garden,’ but how is it formed? (My first guess was that kert was borrowed from Germanic, since it is reminiscent of garden, but apparently it’s homemade, having “the same root as the verb kerül.”) And what are those aristocratic associations? Any information is welcome, and wild guesses will be enjoyed as always.

Resistance to Changes in Grammar Is Futile!

Nicola Davis writes in the Guardian about “Detecting evolutionary forces in language change,” by Mitchell G. Newberry, Christopher A. Ahern, Robin Clark & Joshua B. Plotkin (Nature 551: 223–226):

The authors of the study say that the work adds to our understanding of how language changes over centuries.

“Whether it is by random chance or selection, one of the things that is true about English – and indeed other languages – is that the language changes,” said Joshua Plotkin, co-author of the research from the University of Pennsylvania. “The grammarians might [win the battle] for a decade, but certainly over a century they are going to be on the losing side.”

Writing in the journal Nature, Plotkin and colleagues describe how they tracked different types of grammatical changes across the ages.

Among them, the team looked at changes in American English across more than one hundred thousand texts from 1810 onwards, focusing on the use of “ed” in the past tense of verbs compared with irregular forms – for example, “spilled” versus “spilt”.

The hunt threw up 36 verbs which had at least two different forms of past tense, including quit/quitted and leaped/leapt. However for the majority, including spilled v spilt, the team said that which form was waxing or waning was not clearly down to selection – meaning it is probably down to chance over which word individuals heard and copied.

“Chance can play an important role even in language evolution – as we know it does in biological evolution,” said Plotkin, adding that the impact of random chance on language had not been fully appreciated before. […]

The study also explores the use of negation in sentences, such as “I say not”, across English texts dating from the 12th to the 16th centuries, revealing that the placement of the negative word has changed more than once due to selection, possibly because of a desire for emphasis.

“There a was period of time where double negation … was the way to negate things, just as it is in French today,” said Plotkin.

Dave Wilton at Wordorigins.org complains:

They have artificially selected verbs that have both a regular and irregular past tense forms in modern English and examined those. In those, they found no overarching selective force over the last eight centuries. They’ve artificially picked out anomalous verbs and found there was no explanation for the anomaly. To really determine what is going on, you have to look at all the verbs (or a representative sample). If they had done that, I think the results would have said that, yes, there is a powerful selective force toward regularization. What they’ve done is cherry pick the odd ones and confirm that they’re odd.

I’ll be interested in the thoughts of my commenters, but of course I agree with the general point summarized by the title I swiped from Davis. Thanks, Trevor and Eric!

Tolstoy’s Cossacks.

I just finished Tolstoy’s Казаки [The Cossacks]; as with Dostoevsky’s Скверный анекдот [A Nasty Story] (see this post), the plot is easy to summarize: the spoiled, self-absorbed young aristocrat Dmitry Olenin goes to the Caucasus as an officer and falls in love with the Cossack girl Maryana, who has been promised to the Cossack Lukashka, and it doesn’t go well for him. It starts beautifully (“Все затихло в Москве. Редко, редко где слышится визг колес по зимней улице” [Everything has quieted down in Moscow. Only rarely, very rarely can the squeal of wheels be heard somewhere on the winter street]) and ends powerfully. The problem is what comes in between.

Back in May, I complained bitterly about Tolstoy’s Семейное счастие [Family Happiness], and one of my complaints was that it was too long. The Cossacks is a much better work (Edward Vasiolek called it “the masterpiece of Tolstoy’s pre–Voina i mir [War and Peace] period,” which is at least plausible), but it too is too damn long at 150 pages. Tolstoy gets his hero out of Moscow at the end of the first chapter (fleeing boredom and his mounting debts), but once he gets to the Caucasus and the stanitsa where he will live among the Cossacks, he has nothing to do but envy and try to share their lifestyle (boozing, hunting, and killing Chechens) and admire their strong, shapely women (often wearing only a long shirt through which you can glimpse their shapely forms). Oh, and think long adolescent thoughts about love and happiness and how true happiness is only possible through self-sacrifice. All of this is repeated over and over, chapter after chapter: boozing and/or hunting with old Yeroshka, watching village life and the strong, shapely Maryana through his window, and thinking long adolescent thoughts. After about thirty chapters I would have been delighted to have the Chechens come through and massacre him. As I say, eventually Tolstoy pulls it together and comes to a satisfying conclusion, but it amazes me that in just a few years he will have learned how to tell a story so efficiently that even the 1,200 pages of War and Peace won’t feel too long. (Well, except for that Second Appendix.) But at this point in their careers, I would have to say that Dostoevsky is way ahead of him.