I’m reading Гадкие лебеди (The Ugly Swans), by the Strugatskys (who have not let me down yet—every novel is different, but all are funny, moving, and above all adult), and I’ve come to a scene in which the protagonist, a writer named Viktor, is giving a somewhat rambling talk to a group of schoolkids who turn out to be a more demanding and difficult audience than he had expected, complaining about his unpleasant characters and what they take to be his dark worldview. He finally bursts out with a rant about how cruel they are; he tells them that their desire to build a new world on the bones of the old is hackneyed and doomed, and ends by exclaiming “Ирония и жалость, ребята! Ирония и жалость!” [Irony and pity, kids! Irony and pity!].

I was struck by the phrase and turned to all-knowing Google, which did not disappoint me. It’s from a Russian translation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “Спускаясь по лестнице, я слышал, как Билл напевал: «Ирония и Жалость. Когда ты узнаешь… О, дай им Иронию и дай им Жалость. О, дай нам Иронию. Когда ты узнаешь… Немного Иронии. Немножечко Жалости…»” [“As I went downstairs I heard Bill singing, ‘Irony and Pity. When you’re feeling. . . Oh, Give them Irony and Give them Pity. Oh, give them Irony. When they’re feeling . . . Just a little irony. Just a little pity”]. (I note in passing that the Russian translator, who rendered “When you’re feeling” as “Когда ты узнаешь” [‘When you find out’], clearly did not realize Hemingway was omitting an unprintable rhyme: “When you’re feeling [shitty].”)

But that’s not the half of it. Hemingway was mocking Gilbert Seldes, who wrote in his Dial review of The Great Gatsby (after saying that Fitzgerald was “leaving even farther behind all the men of his own generation and most of his elders,” which Hem certainly would have resented): “Fitzgerald racing over the country, jotting down whatever was current in college circles, is not nearly as significant as Fitzgerald regarding a tiny section of life and reporting it with irony and pity and a consuming passion.” And the Francophile Seldes got the phrase from Anatole France, for whom the two concepts were touchstones: “L’Ironie et la Pitié sont deux bonnes conseillères: l’une, en souriant, nous rend la vie aimable; l’autre, qui pleure, nous la rend sacrée.” (“Le Jardin d’Epicure,” Revue Universitaire 1 (1906):179.) “Il était sage, celui qui a dit: ‘Donnons aux hommes pour témoins et pour juges l’Ironie et la Pitié’.” (Spoken by the character Paul Vence in France’s novel Le Lys rouge (1894), ch. IX.) Also taking it from France, I presume, was the Russian critic Georgy Adamovich, who wrote in a review of Teffi: “Но ирония и жалость – родные сестры” [But irony and pity are sisters].

But France in turn got it from Ernest Renan: “La grande ironie, mêlée de pitié, qu’inspire au penseur ce que la pauvre humanité, amoureuse de ses bourreaux, appelle la gloire…” (Histoire du peuple d’Israël (1889), Vol. III, Book VI, ch. VII); “L’impression des choses humaines n’est complète que si on fait une place à l’ironie à côté des larmes, à la pitié à côté de la colère, au sourire à côté du respect” (Preface to Drames philosophiques, 1888). If Renan got it from some earlier source, Google isn’t saying. But see Love and theft.

Update. Anatoly discusses the Russian translator’s lapse (if lapse it was, rather than deliberate misdirection), and he and his commenters come up with possible Russian equivalents omitting unprintable rhymes. (It gives me pleasure that my Russian has become good enough to supply all the missing words.)


  1. Wonderful. I used to teach The Sun Also Rises to my freshmen, and I wish I’d known this history.

  2. Glad you liked it! Google really is a revolutionary tool for this kind of philological research.

  3. It was stunning to think that nobody on Runet has come across the true meaning of Hemingway’s ellipses … so I turned to different flavors of Google searches … and sure enough, quickly found a blog explaining the translator’s oversight. But the discovery is credited to Languagehat! 🙂 🙂 Nice diggin’!
    Glad that you continue to enjoy the Strugatskys, LH! And doubly glad that you posted it today, as just last night I was revisiting another sci fi series of once-near-cult following in Russia, but amazingly, virtually unknown in the US. And I thought, it would be so good if Languagehat had any page about sci-fi open for commenting 🙂 Voila!
    The author is America’s very own Henry Kuttner, and the series about the Hogbens even has a Russian wikipedia entry, but nothing in English. Back when I first started to wonder how the English original may have been like, I was just as stunned to discover that it was absent from the local libraries. I finally found the tales in a library of a big university, and wasn’t that impressed by them. But Evdokimova’s Russian translations had a distinct flavor of Monday-begins-on-Saturday folktales, and remain wildly popular. The cycle has been written by Kuttner (or perhaps his wife) in the 1940s, and the Russian translation must have come out in the early 1960s. Gotta wonder what kind of inter-influences may have existed between this series and the early Strugatskys.

  4. How do you pronounce Seldes? Sehl-DEEZ? Sehl-tss? Zehl-ts?

  5. Great tracking, thanks!
    I’m not entirely convinced that it is a lapse or a mistake, because Hem himself leaves a rhyming clue: Пел он на мотив: “В церкви звонят для меня, для тебя…” [He was singing to the tune of “the church bells ring out for you and me…” Which is from “The Bells of St.Mary’s”:
    And so, my beloved
    When red leaves are falling
    The love bells shall ring out
    Ring out for you and me
    Strugatskys are more likely to be quoting from the iconic ‘black’ two-volume edition of Hemingway (1959), which I have and treasure above most of my other books. For Russian shestidesyatniki (the men of 1960s) it was like a Bible. Fiesta opens the second volume.
    The translation was done by a very thorough person Vera Maksimovna Toper ( Вера Максимовна Топер), who was both an English and French expert and would have recognised the reference, especially because by the 50s the song would have been associated with the 1945 film “The Bells of St.Mary’s” with Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby. The Drifters and Monty Python have a version. The translation was edited by another very thorough man Ivan Kashkin who mentions that the 1930s Russian translation contained some errors.
    What I’d like to find out is whose performance of the song Hemignway had in mind when he was writing the novel in the 20s? The song was written in 1917.

  6. Rodger C says:

    The original has him singing to the tune of “The Bells Are Ringing for Me and My Gal,” a quite different song. I’ve never been able to make the words fit that tune.

  7. Seldes is SEL-deez.
    I’m not entirely convinced that it is a lapse or a mistake, because Hem himself leaves a rhyming clue
    That’s more misdirection than a rhyming clue; it’s impossible to sing the words to the tune of “The Bells Are Ringing for Me and My Gal” (which, as Rodger C points out, is the correct song, not “The Bells of St.Mary’s”). In any case, regardless of clues, how do you explain the completely incorrect translation if it’s not a lapse or a mistake?

  8. oh no, indeed it’s a different song! thanks. Written in the same year and with a 1940s film to it as well!
    I really don’t know how to explain it except that they may have consciously reinterpreted the paragraph. Then, it was a mistake.

  9. I’m delighted you’re enjoying the Ugly Swans, Hat! Here is a largely irrelevant Harold Bloom quote about Hemingway and Russian literature which I found and enjoyed last week: ‘It is hardly invidious to say that Hadji Murad is the story that Hemingway always wished to write but could not accomplish’.

  10. One of Asimov’s many editors at Doubleday was Timothy Seldes. In the middle of an argument about something or other, Asimov heatedly asked him, “How does it feel to be the only Seldes without a scrap of talent?”. This was in reference to his father Gilbert (see above), his uncle George the investigative reporter, and his sister Marian the actress. He died in 2015; the WaPo obit gives the pronunciation of his name as “SELL-dess”, though I had always assumed “SELL-deez” as well.

  11. Wikipedia gives “SELL-deez,” and I’m pretty sure I found that pronunciation in a book from the 1930s devoted to how people said their own names, but I haven’t seen the book in a decade or so and can’t seem to lay my hands on it at the moment. Of course, the son might have pronounced the name differently from his father.

  12. This moves me to ask if anybody knows how to pronounce the name of the American photographer, Stephen Shames. The Yiddish < Hebrew origin of the name is plain, but how does he Anglicize it? Two different Russian sites use Шеймс and Шамес respectively.

Speak Your Mind