Gazdanov’s Languages.

I find it hard to believe I’ve never mentioned Gaito Gazdanov on this blog, but the site search tells me it is so. I’m pretty sure I’d never heard of him before I wandered into the late lamented Donnell Library (see this post), shortly after my arrival in NYC in 1981, and stood, mouth agape, in the midst of its magnificent foreign language collection; for some reason — probably the strikingly odd name of the author (Ossetian, as it turned out) — I plucked Вечер у Клэр (An Evening with Claire) off the shelf, read the first sentence (“Клэр была больна; я просиживал у нее целые вечера и, уходя, всякий раз неизменно опаздывал к последнему поезду метрополитена и шел потом пешком с улицы Raynouard на площадь St. Michel, возле которой я жил”), and checked it out, intrigued by the Parisian place names plunked into the Russian text. Despite the fact that my Russian was very rusty and the sentences were often long, I read the whole thing, enchanted by his style and gripped by the flashbacks to the Russian Civil War. Ever since, he’s been high on my list of writers I want to delve into now that my Russian is up to the task, and one of the works I’m most looking forward to is his later novel Призрак Александра Вольфа, now translated by Bryan Karetnyk as The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. My appetite is even more whetted by Sophie Pinkham’s review in the LRB; I’ll quote here several paragraphs about Gazdanov’s knowledge and use of various languages:

Gazdanov’s preoccupation with doubles isn’t hard to understand. In Paris, he lived two lives: one in the Parisian demi-monde, the other in the Russian émigré world of art and ideas. And he knew something about having two identities before he emigrated; he never learned Ossetian, though his parents spoke it, and he needed an interpreter to speak to his grandmother. Exile made language fraught for everyone, but especially for writers, who had to choose between the mother tongue, part of a world that more and more seemed to have been lost, and the language of the host country, which offered the hope of a wide readership, financial success and a lasting legacy. Nabokov went for the second, and became one of the few younger émigrés to achieve real fame. Others became successful writers with French names: Elsa Triolet, born Ella Kagan; and Henri Troyat, born Lev Tarasov. Troyat adopted the pseudonym at the suggestion of his editor, and went on to become the first Russian to be elected to the Académie Française. But many more writers were unwilling, or unable, to abandon their original language, or play down their Russian identity.

Gazdanov’s French was impeccable, but he felt unable to write fiction in anything other than his native language. His novels are distinctly bilingual even so: his magnum opus, Night Roads, contains passages of French street slang that he translated only at the insistence of his editor. His novels are often set in Paris, with characters speaking French to each other, sometimes without translation and without an accent, and yet they’re written (mostly) in Russian.

In The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, the narrator speaks perfect French; Wolf’s English prose is so fluent that he can be mistaken for a native writer. Yelena, too, appears to be fluent in both French and English. She is married to an American, and introduces herself by her last name, Armstrong. At first she and the narrator speak French; he can’t place her accent until she tells him she’s Russian, having spotted the Russian newspaper in his pocket. They switch to Russian, and he remarks on a stylistic error she makes (Gazdanov was sometimes criticised for such mistakes). Voznesensky, Wolf’s old friend, speaks French but not a word of English, and longs in vain to read Wolf’s book about the world they fled together. Voznesensky tried to write his memoirs in order to remember his great love, Marina, who was stolen by Wolf, but he found that he had no gift for writing. Now his last hopes lie with Wolf; but Wolf writes in English, because the money’s better, and he hasn’t written about Marina, because he didn’t love her like Voznesensky did. Still, Voznesensky says: ‘Perhaps we’ll be remembered if he mentions us in his writing; in fifty years’ time, pupils in English will read about us, and so everything that has happened won’t have been in vain … everything will live on.’

If you’re intrigued, you might want to read Justin Doherty’s guest post at Russian Dinosaur about translating Night Roads. It’s a blessing that so much Russian literature is becoming available in English; Jodi Daynard’s translation of An Evening with Claire was published by Ardis in 1988 and is apparently being reissued by Overlook Press next month.

Update. While I was linking to Russian Dinosaur, I should certainly have remembered this post from last October, which not only reviews the recent translation of The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, with the kind of sentence-by-sentence detail I love, but appends a “Selected bibliography of Gazdanov’s major works in translation” from which we learn that the novel was previously translated by Nicholas Wreden in 1950. I thank the Dinosaur for reminding me to remedy the omission!

Comments

  1. Hat, thank you so much for this post – I completely missed this LRB review (regretting I let my subscription slide, but the piles of unread journals were reaching Everest-like levels). I’m delighted to see a book which I love finally getting some press attention. Bryan Karetnyk is of course the second English translator of this book, Nicholas Wreden (about whose not-Alexander-Wolf-unlike career I have just delivered a conference paper) being the first (in 1950). I’m going to be slightly precious here and append a link to my own blog post reviewing Karetnyk’s version: here

  2. I was a little disappointed that Pinkham’s review of the translation, as opposed to the book, was confined to the comment ‘Bryan Karetnyk’s translation is readable and sometimes elegant, but small inaccuracies, in a highly philosophical text, where precision is essential, make the underlying ideas sound more vague than they should’. Having once been ticked off by a Karetnyk admirer for making a vague criticism of his translation, I feel that this kind of criticism is rather unfair – what small inaccuracies? How do they interfere? Such oblique criticism is hardly on the scale of Anna Aslanyan’s mildy infamous hatchet job on Roger Cockrell’s White Guard in Feb 1 2013 issue of the TLS, when she pulled out a couple of examples of what she claimed were mistranslations and questioned the value of the entire text, but I still wish Pinkham had found a way to give an example. I’ve recently compared snatches of the 1950 translation by Wreden (a native Russian speaker) and Karetnyk (who learned Russian at college), and I think the latter is more accurate. For example, Wreden translate the Russian word рощица as a ‘thicket’ (which to me just means overgrown vegetation), whereas Karetnyk calls it (I cite from memory) something like ‘a small grove’, which to me seems much more correct in the context (trees blocking a traveller’s view). What do Hat regulars think?

  3. I’m going to be slightly precious here and append a link to my own blog post reviewing Karetnyk’s version

    Don’t be silly — my post was sadly incomplete without that link, and I thank you for reminding me of it! I’ve added an update to the post to make sure it gets noticed.

    I feel that this kind of criticism is rather unfair – what small inaccuracies? How do they interfere?

    I entirely agree, and I had the same questions. I enjoyed the extended riff on the language issue, obviously, but as a review of this particular translation it was deeply unsatisfactory. I also agree that a translation of рощица that brings out the diminutive quality is better.

    And thank you for commenting on this lonely post!

  4. I think that thicket means precisely a small group of (small) trees, shrubs, or bushes. Various dictionaries seem to bear me out: ‘a dense growth of shrubs, underwood, and small trees; a place where low trees or bushes grow thickly together; a brake’ (OED1), ‘a dense growth of shrubs or underbrush; a copse’ (AHD5), ‘a group of bushes or small trees that grow close together’ (m-w.com). An overgrown meadow, for example, is not a thicket as I would use the term. Etymologically, it is of course < thick, and is one of those odd OE words for which there is no ME evidence: it vanishes from ca. 1000 to Tyndale’s Bible of 1530.

  5. JC, would you happen to have handy a list of such ME-skipping words?

  6. David Marjanović says:

    I think that thicket means

    In any case you’re describing the meaning of (literary) German Dickicht.

  7. David M.: Thanks.

    Y: Alas, no.

  8. Trust not the site search! You have mentioned Gazdanov — in one of your own comments, which the site search does not search but Google does.

  9. In addition to thicket, I have found four candidates for words found in OE but not extant in ME: the borrowing ordeal, which may be a reborrowing from Latin in early modern times or a learned adoption of the OE word, and the native words fang and tart.

    In OE, fang meant ‘a capture’, from the lost verb fangen (cf. German fangen, Dutch vangen, etc.), also in the narrowed sense of ‘prey’ or ‘plunder’ (cf. German Fang). Except in Scots, this sense was lost in the mid-14C. The first OED quotation for the modern sense ‘canine tooth’ is not till 1555, but OE had fengtoð ‘fang-tooth’ (cf. German Fangzahn) in this sense; whether these are connected, or the derivation was remade in early modern times, I don’t know. In As You Like It (1616), Shakespeare refers to “The Icie phange / And churlish chiding of the winters winde”; the OED considers this the last use of old fang, but it could also be a metaphorical application of the new, as in the phrase teeth of the wind, first recorded in ME. (Both tooth and Zahn descend from proto-Germanic *tanþs; the /n/ was lost in English by the Nasal Spirant Law, and in High German (as earlier in Norse) the change was /nþ/ > /nd/ > /nn/ > /n/.)

    Tart has a somewhat similar story. In OE it was applied to pain or punishment, and meant ‘severe’. Around 1500, it reappears in the modern sense of ‘sharp, pungent, sour’ applied to tastes and words, and also to weapons, though this usage is later lost. We also find something like the old sense for a brief period around 1600 (see below for OED quotations), but it’s again unclear whether these might be metaphorical applications of the new sense. In between, there is a single use by Chaucer: “To boille the chiknes with the Marybones / And poudre marchaunt tart and galyngale [a spice related to ginger]“, but here tart may be the unrelated noun.

    1577 M. Hanmer tr. Bp. Eusebius in Aunc. Eccl. Hist. v. xvi. 89 Themison … tasted not of the tarte conyzance of confession, before the tyrant.

    1579 S. Gosson To Gentlewomen in Schoole of Abuse f. 44v, My Schoole is tarte, but my counsell is plesant.

    1602 W. Fulbecke Mu<Pandectes xi. 81 And Iustinian his Law is tarte; Si quis … auserit, capitali pœna feriatur.

    1616 Shakespeare King Lear iv. ii. 55 Another way The Newes is not so tart.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    German Fang also means “capture”.

    in High German (as earlier in Norse) the change was /nþ/ > /nd/ > /nn/ > /n/.

    Let me confuse matters. :-) In my dialect the plural is optionally /t͡sɛnt/ with /t/. But then, there’s a mysterious /t/ in Hüfte “hip” that was claimed, in the popular book about Viennese I once read, to be an obsolete plural marker (?!?) that is missing from the Viennese diminutive /ˈhɪfɐl/ which, the book said, designates a cut of beef.

  11. The comparison to Fang was meant to apply to the whole sentence. And for “four candidates” read “three candidates”, obviously. I had thought that ordain belonged to this class, but it is in fact new in ME with no OE predecessor. In French, it is a learned borrowing, but the spelling ordonner is influenced by donner.

  12. Trond Engen says:

    It’s hoft(e) f. in Scandinavian too. Bjorvand & Lindeman don’t explain it. I’m too lazy now too delve deeper into it.

  13. There are also some interesting OE-skipping words. We can be sure that the paradigm *feortan, feart, furton, (ġe-)forten ‘fart’ existed in Old English, but its only documented trace that we actually have is the noun feorting. Even more interesting is Wycliffe’s in ę̄ne ‘in lamb’ (of a pregnant ewe), demonstrating that an exact cognate of agnus somehow made it into Late Middle English. The noun is not attested anywhere else in Germanic, though the verb yean is derived from it. But even the verb is restricted to North Sea Germanic (English, Frisian, Dutch dialects).

  14. Thanks, John. So your four ME-skippers include ordeal?

    I’d like to think that fengtoð is ultimately related to fantods, but probably not.

    Aside: I would never have guessed that galangal goes back to ME. I had no idea it was known in the West before Thai restaurants.

  15. Stefan Holm says:

    yean … is restricted to North Sea Germanic

    The verb öna is recorded on tape in the mid 20th c. from Västergötland, Sweden. The meaning is ‘bring forth’, not just of ewes but of cows as well. From Scania it’s attested in the figurative meaning ‘stand still, be unwilling to move’. The present participle önande, “yeaning”, is in dialects attested as ‘genital parts of a ewe’.

    From Västergötland is also known dialectal öfsadrop, ‘eaves dropping’, but only literally – water dripping from the lower end of the roof, the ‘öfs’ (fem.). East Scandinavian ‘ö’ corresponds regularly to English ‘ea’ from PGmc ‘au’.

  16. Thanks, Stefan, I wasn’t aware of öna.

  17. Stefan Holm says:

    You could hardly have been aware, Piotr. The dialectal material from Västergötland was collected from 1943 and some 25 years onwards by enthusiast Sixten Bengtsson, http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=8086276, who with a team criss-crossed the district in a small bus designed for recording and interviewed old people. It is today stored on 300 wire (sic!) recordings and 650 vinyl records at the Institute for Language and Folklore at Uppsala university. Few scholars (if any) have examined his material but Bengtsson himself published several popular folkloristic books about Västergötland and in those dialectal words turn up here and there.

  18. Trond Engen says:

    No. hoft(e) is of MHG origin.

    The No. verb øna “hesitate, be senseless, fool around, be foolish” is now obscure, but it’s known from dialects all over the country. So are the related nouns øn/øna “hesitation, senselessness, something or someone foolish, etc.”. But I can’t find anything of ewes for Piotr.

  19. An incredible chap, and a great story! I hope the materials get published one day. Anyway, I’m delighted to hear that the verb survived in Scandinavia.

    It has a funny cognate in Polish dialects, bagnić się (= Kashubian bagnic sã), used only of sheep. It comes from *ob-agniti sę, wrongly segmented as *o-bagniti sę, presumably because the prefix blocked the development of the regular palatal glide before word-initial *a as in the noun jagnię ‘lamb’, and speakers were no longer able to realise that jagnię and obagnić się were related. The latter looks as if it were derived from bagno marsh, bog.

  20. Trond Engen says:

    I wonder if I may have found another cognate of agnus. Norsk Ordbok 2014 lists a local plant name (from the region north of Trondheim) jønøy “tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)”, of obscure etymology. If we parse it as jøn-øy, then the second element, in this famously apocopating dialect, might be either øyda “destruction, waste” or øgja “vomit”. Since the tansy is poisonous and known as a pest to grazing animals, both make sense if the first element is **jøn “lamb”. Not sure about the initial j, though.

  21. Stefan Holm says:

    To be fair, öna is actually an entry in Elof Hellquist’s ‘Svensk Etymologisk Ordbok’ (Swedish Etymological Dictionary) from 1922. http://runeberg.org/svetym/1324.html

    He refers to it as belonging to Götaland, the ‘Geat’ part of Sweden, and on the isle of Gotland as åina. He mentions ean in English dialects as from Anglo-Saxon *eanian but also remarks that yean must come from *ge-eanian.

    As Old Slavic lamb cognates he (refering to Pedersen) mentions jagne and agne ‘with partly opaque shift of form’. Is b+j a problem in Polish? Lambs having to be born in bogs doesn’t sound nice. :-)

  22. Trond Engen says:

    Norwegian øna can’t be from *aunijan- “make lamb” with that initial monophtong. That would seem to mean two different verbs, and that the “hesitate” meaning has a different origin than the ” give birth to a lamb” meaning.

  23. Is b+j a problem in Polish?

    No, but the Slavic j-prothesis was restricted to word-initial *a-, *e-, *ě-, *ę- (unless analogy introduced it later in other positions), so it did not operate in the prefixed (perfective) verb. The bare (imperfective) form *agniti (sę) > jagniti (sę) is found in many Slavic languages, but must have been lost early in Polish and Kashubian.

  24. The noun is not attested anywhere else in Germanic, though the verb yean is derived from it.

    All you L2 speakers, be aware that the average L1 English speaker does not know the verb “to yean”, it is obsolete or dialectal at this point. The usual verb for ovine partiurition is “to lamb”.

  25. All you L2 speakers, be aware that the average L1 English speaker does not know the verb “to yean”, it is obsolete or dialectal at this point.

    I can’t speak for others, but I’m well aware of that. Still, rare, dated and dialectals words are valuable evidence for historical linguists, whatever their currency in mainstream English. We were discussing historical attestation, not modern usage. By the way, Polish bagnić się is likewise rare, restricted to some dialects, and totally unknown to the vast majority of Polish speakers.

    On a more general point, I hope you wouldn’t go and tell Bob Dixon that his work with the last living speakers of Dyirbal was a waste of time, since Dyirbal was already doomed, is extinct now, and the average Australian speaks only English anyway ;).

  26. My memory didn’t serve me too well; Wycliffe actually has wiþ ene (= wiþ lambre, wiþ lomb), not in, and though the noun is not otherwise attested, Old English does exhibit another indirect trace of it, the adjective ġe-ēan ‘giving birth to lambs’, parallel to ġe-ċealf (of cows) and ġe-fearh (of pigs): Ic habbe … geeane eowa and gecelfe cu mid me.

  27. Stefan Holm says:

    Same here, Aidan, I’m fully aware that we’re talking history. ‘To lamb’ for sure is ‘att lamma’ in modern Swedish. But even this verb is ‘endangered’ since extremely few people have any direct contact with sheep in urbanized Sweden. They just read or hear about them in the media when attacked by wolves.

    Unfortunately we can’t say much about the ‘lamb’ word since it seems to be unique to Germanic. The only suggestion I’ve seen is that it could be related to Greek élaphos, ‘deer’, ‘hind’, reconstructed as *eln-bhos.

  28. David Marjanović says:

    But even this verb is ‘endangered’ since extremely few people have any direct contact with sheep in urbanized Sweden.

    Same of course over here – I’ve read kalben often enough, but I don’t even know if there’s a comparable verb for sheep.

    And at least half of the time kalben refers to glaciers these days (releasing icebergs), not to cattle.

  29. In Polish, the currently used verb for ‘to bear lambs’ is kocić się (most people accociate it folk-linguistically with cats, but there’s probably no real etymological connection). A sheep-breeder would describe an expectant sheep as kotna. These, as well as the corresponding words used of sows (prosić się, prośna), cows [and glaciers] (cielić się, cielna), mares (źrebić się, źrebna), and bitches (szczenić się, szczenna are relatively well-known even to townsfolk (I may be a little too optimistic; I’ve met people who couldn’t tell a birch from a pine-tree). But ask again in fifty years — they’ll probably go the way of yean.

  30. Stefan Holm says:

    I don’t even know if there’s a comparable verb for sheep.

    There seems to be, at least if they don’t succeed: http://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/verlammen

    For unprefixed lammen Duden gives ’ein Lamm werfen’. But don’t ask me if that literally means to ’throw’ a lamb or rather to give birth to one.

  31. Stefan Holm says:

    Sorry, now I saw under the entry ’werfen’: 4. (von Säugetieren) Junge zur Welt bringen. So we have Eng. ’(to) lamb’, Ger. ’lammen’, Swe. ’lamma’ and Pol. kocić się.

  32. I’m well aware of that. Still, rare, dated and dialectals words are valuable evidence for historical linguists, whatever their currency in mainstream English. [...] On a more general point, I hope you wouldn’t go and tell Bob Dixon that his work with the last living speakers of Dyirbal was a waste of time

    That seems an unnecessarily uncharitable reading of what seems to me a perfectly innocent comment; I’m pretty sure it just occurred to Aidan that non-native speakers might not realize that yean was not a verb in most people’s vocabulary and thought it might be helpful to mention it.

  33. The OED1 (1921) gives several 19C poetic and quasi-poetic uses of yean, some figurative and some literal:

    1847 R. W. Emerson Poems 69 Trendrant time behoves to hurry / All to yean and all to bury.

    1862 R. C. Trench Visit to Tusculum in Poems 15 Watching the white goats [...] their young / Tending, new yeaned.

    1871 R. Ellis tr. Catullus Poems lxiv. 154 What grim lioness yeaned thee, aneath what rock’s desolation?

    1879 S. H. Butcher & A. Lang tr. Homer Odyssey 51 The ewes yean thrice within the full circle of a year.

    (Emerson’s word trendrant is apparently a hapax legomenon: there is not only no OED entry for it, but Google doesn’t find it outside this context, save as an obvious ad hoc compound of trend and rant.)

    The definition adds “also said of goats and occas”, but before I could look up the hitherto mysterious animal name occa, I saw that it read “also said of goats and occas. other beasts”, i.e “occasionally”.

    He thought he saw a Banker’s Clerk
    Descending from a Bus;
    He looked again, and saw it was
    A Hippopotamus.
    “If this should come to dine,” said he,
    “There won’t be much for us!”
    —Lewis Carroll

  34. Emerson’s word trendrant is apparently a hapax legomenon

    A typo, rather; the actual line is “Trenchant time behoves to hurry.”

  35. That seems an unnecessarily uncharitable reading of what seems to me a perfectly innocent comment…

    My apologies if I sounded testy — I didn’t mean to.

  36. David Marjanović says:

    For unprefixed lammen Duden gives ’ein Lamm werfen’. But don’t ask me if that literally means to ’throw’ a lamb or rather to give birth to one.

    The latter; compare “litter”.

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