Nabokov on Translation, 1941.

I enjoyed Charlie Smith’s “On Translating the chinari” (the чинари, stress on the final syllable, were a group of nonconformist writers whose best-known members were Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky) for its own sake, but what drove me to post was his link to Vladimir Nabokov’s “The Art of Translation” (New Republic, August 4, 1941), which includes the following amusing demolition of incompetence and stupidity:

The howlers included in the first category [“obvious errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge”] may be in their turn divided into two classes. Insufficient acquaintance with the foreign language involved may transform a commonplace expression into some remarkable statement that the real author never intended to make. “Bien être general” becomes the manly assertion that “it is good to be a general”; to which gallant general a French translator of “Hamlet” has been known to pass the caviar. Likewise, in a German edition of Chekhov, a certain teacher, as soon as he enters the classroom, is made to become engrossed in “his newspaper,” which prompted a pompous reviewer to comment on the sad condition of public instruction in pre-Soviet Russia. But the real Chekhov was simply referring to the classroom “journal” which a teacher would open to check lessons, marks and absentees. And inversely, innocent words in an English novel such as “first night” and “public house” have become in a Russian translation “nuptial night” and “a brothel.” These simple examples suffice. They are ridiculous and jarring, but they contain no pernicious purpose; and more often than not the garbled sentence still makes some sense in the original context.

The other class of blunders in the first category includes a more sophisticated kind of mistake, one which is caused by an attack of linguistic Daltonism suddenly blinding the translator. Whether attracted by the far-fetched when the obvious was at hand (What does an Eskimo prefer to eat—ice cream or tallow? Ice cream), or whether unconsciously basing his rendering on some false meaning which repeated readings have imprinted on his mind, he manages to distort in an unexpected and sometimes quite brilliant way the most honest word or the tamest metaphor. I knew a very conscientious poet who in wrestling with the translation of a much tortured text rendered “is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” in such a manner as to convey an impression of pale moonlight. He did this by taking for granted that “sickle” referred to the form of the new moon. And a national sense of humor, set into motion by the likeness between the Russian words meaning “arc” and “onion,” led a German professor to translate “a bend of the shore” (in a Pushkin fairy tale) by “the Onion Sea.”

The second, and much more serious, sin of leaving out tricky passages is still excusable when the translator is baffled by them himself; but how contemptible is the smug person who, although quite understanding the sense, fears it might stump a dunce or debauch a dauphin! Instead of blissfully nestling in the arms of the great writer, he keeps worrying about the little reader playing in a corner with something dangerous or unclean. Perhaps the most charming example of Victorian modesty that has ever come my way was in an early English translation of “Anna Karenina.” Vronsky had asked Anna what was the matter with her. “I am beremenna” (the translator’s italics), replied Anna, making the foreign reader wonder what strange and awful Oriental disease that was; all because the translator thought that “I am pregnant” might shock some pure soul, and that a good idea would be to leave the Russian just as it stood.

The “Pushkin fairy tale” is Ruslan and Lyudmila, which begins У лукоморья дуб зеленый ‘By a cove a green oak,’ where лукоморья ‘cove’ includes the root of лука ‘bend (in road or river),’ Nabokov’s “arc,” which could be mistaken for лук ‘onion(s).’ I have to say that I no longer enjoy Nabokov’s mandarin, de-haut-en-bas style as I did when I was a pompous would-be-mandarin youth; it now seems to me an attempt to bully the reader into submission with a sneering assumption of omniscience, something that came natural to the scion of a fabulously rich aristocratic family. He knew a lot, but he didn’t know as much as he thought he did, and other people weren’t as stupid as he thought they were. Pull down thy vanity, as another great writer once said.

Comments

  1. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Close to home, that one, as I am tidying up an article that includes a translation of a paper published in French in 1940, and in the hope of avoiding the sort of howlers that Nabokov discusses I sent it today to a French colleague for comments. It was published at the worst possible moment — Zacharias Dische was an Austrian Jew who had found temporary refuge in a laboratory in Marseilles, before later picking up the reins of his research in the USA. His paper describes some of the most important observations ever made in the history of biochemistry, but publishing them in wartime in a journal that hardly anyone read and which has disappeared without trace was not a good idea, though probably he had no choice.

    His daughter (Irene Dische) is a successful novelist (The Empress of Weehawken), and I was hoping to ask her for her comments, but all efforts to get in touch with her have failed. No email address is to be found anywhere, and when I asked for help from her publisher I received no reply.

  2. There is a popular Mongolian anecdote about Soviet movie “Khozhdenie po mukam” (“The Ordeal”) based on Alexei Tolstoy’s Civil War trilogy.

    The movie title was botched in Mongolian translation, I’ve heard several versions – “Walking over the flour” (confusing ‘muki’/”ordeal” with “muka”/”flour”) and even “Chasing after flies” (rather unbelievably confusing “muki” with “mukhi”/flies)

  3. a journal that hardly anyone read and which has disappeared without trace

    Wow! What was the journal?

  4. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Le Bulletin de la Société de Chimie Biochimique: During the War, this was published in two parallel editions with the same name, one in occupied Paris, which continued and is now Biochimie (though now entirely in English), the other in Marseilles, in the “Free Zone” (Vichy France). Hardly anyone knows that the latter existed at all. However, the Editor-in-Chief of Biochimie and the Secretary of the Société Française de Biochimie et de Biologie Moléculaire searched through their archives and managed to find a copy of the paper to photocopy for me.

  5. PlasticPaddy says:

    @acb
    In a search for “charles dische fort lee, new jersey”, an address is given in a link for the site clustrmaps.com. Have you tried him?

  6. No email address is to be found anywhere, and when I asked for help from her publisher I received no reply.

    Have you tried her agent? That’s often the best bet, and hers turns up right away in the Google results.

  7. To be fair, “What does an Eskimo prefer to eat—ice cream or tallow? Ice cream” is a bit more complicated. Akutaq, aka “Alaskan ice cream”, is often made with tallow.

  8. Just ran across this in Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker review of The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard, by John Birdsall:

    Birdsall has a good story to tell, and tells it well, but he is one of those authors who would amuse others more if he amused himself a little less. He loves the sound of his own crabby and condescending judgments, and the proportion of sneering to seeing is sometimes high.

    For ye have the snooty with you always…

  9. There is a copy at Indiana University Auxiliary Library Facility (of all places).

    http://52.44.206.75/holding/388772/36

    The publishing year for volume 23 is stated as 1941 for some reason.

  10. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Useful suggestions, all. Thanks. I am already acting on them.

  11. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    I have a Norwegian copy of The Ionian Mission in which Stephen’s reluctance to change his linen – his shirts and other underwear – as often as he might becomes reluctance to change his bedsheets.

    Less funny but possibly odder is the transformation of the brothers Cuvier into a married couple – I suppose you can’t check everything, but that would be quite easy to check. Mental contamination from the Curies, maybe.
    (That might be The Surgeon’s Mate, actually. Never mind.)

  12. J.W. Brewer says:

    What ever happened to the good old English custom of translating the excessively-explicit bits of foreign texts into Latin? Anna could have said as translated “I am _gravida_” and those of sufficient sophistication to take the news in stride would have understood.

  13. PlasticPaddy says:

    In this case I nominate “I am embarasada”.

  14. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Gertrude Bussey translated Julien Jean Offray de la Mettrie’s L’Homme Machine into English in 1913, but she didn’t leave the dirty bits in French; she just omitted them (or left them as ellipses, I don’t remember). Mettrie was very interested in human sexuality, but that wasn’t the sort of thing you could talk about in polite society in 1913.

    (I had a comment on SFReader’s post, but it evaporated while I was writing it, and I don’t have the energy to reconstruct it now. Later, perhaps.)

  15. Similar custom exists in Russian scientific circles.

    For example:

    “The relatively unsettled nature of both ethnonymy and anthroponymy of the Danubian Slavs already at a fairly late time is evident from the example of the personal name of the Moravian prince Pribina, which we reconstruct and etymologize as the nickname * prijĕbina, since it is known for certain about Pribina that he is filius ex alia conjuge [131 ], cf. here is Slovenian. prijebiš “illegitimate son” (Pletersnik).”

    O. N. Trubachev “LANGUAGE AND ETHNOGENESIS OF THE SLAVS. ANCIENT SLAVS ACCORDING TO ETHYMOLOGY AND ONOMASTIC DATA (end)” (Questions of linguistics. – M., 1982. – No. 5. – pp. 3-17)

    or recent Alexei Kassian’s article titled

    “Old Russian pošibati ‘futuere’: further evidence for bestiality in Old Rus’/Др.-рус. пошибати ‘futuere’: еще одно указание на зоофилические практики в Древней Руси” [Russian Linguistics 2019] by Alexei Kassian

  16. David Marjanović says:

    rather unbelievably confusing “muki” with “mukhi”/flies

    Mongolian phonology.

  17. Neil Gupta says:

    This is a log shot, but is муха related to the Hindi word for fly मक्खी (makkhi)?

    Also does anyone recommend any reliable Hindi etymological dictionaries online?

    Thank you

  18. Nothing as serious as the ones mentioned, but the title of the 1978 movie “An Unmarried Woman”, which was about a woman whose husband left her, was translated into Japanese as 結婚しない女 kekkon shinai onna, roughly “A woman who doesn’t / won’t get married”.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    Allegedly, Dr No was first translated into Japanese as “We don’t want a doctor”, i.e. Dr? No!

    is муха related to the Hindi word for fly मक्खी (makkhi)?

    That could work if the a is from an earlier o somehow.

  20. Hindi word is from Sanskrit मक्षिका makṣikā (“fly, bee”)

    Very close to Latin Musca which is from the same Indo-European root as the Russian word.

    Likely related.

  21. Sorry for the tangent, but I would say that 結婚しない女 is a very reasonable translation for a movie where the theme is the feminist message of the growth of the character, who discovers that her most important relationship is the one she has with herself.

  22. It might be a reasonable title but it’s not a reasonable translation.

  23. To add to the corpus of translation metaphors, an Israeli writer said that reading a book in translation is like looking at the back side of a rug.

  24. In one or two places the Nabokov passage sounds a bit like translationese itself. Would any native speaker have been likely to write “Instead of blissfully nestling in the arms of the great writer, he keeps worrying about the little reader playing in a corner with something dangerous or unclean”? There’s something indefinably off about that sentence, especially the first part.

  25. What do you do when you are forced by forces of Lenin and Hitler to become a writer in a language which you learned at an early age (as L2), but lived most of your life in countries where it’s not spoken?

    Colloquial style is certainly out of the question – you will never be able to compete with Americans in knowledge of American colloquial English.

    So Nabokov did what he could in such circumstances – he started writing in the most sophisticated and pretentious style designed to make readers (native English speakers!) to feel inadequate and uneducated.

    Good job, Vladimir.

  26. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Have you tried her agent? That’s often the best bet, and hers turns up right away in the Google results.

    I struck gold with this one! I had a nice letter from Irene Dische (as well as another from her agent in Austria) almost immediately. Thanks Bischia.

  27. Re “fly”: the Latin and Russian words are indeed related, going back to PIE *m(e/o)uk-seH2, with metathesis to -sk- in Latin. The Sanscrit is not related, there’s no path from a PIE *u or u-diphthong to Sanscrit [a].

  28. David Marjanović says:

    It might be a reasonable title but it’s not a reasonable translation.

    It may not be intended as a translation at all. German titles of American movies are generally not translations.

    (…though pretty often they aren’t reasonable titles either.)

  29. PlasticPaddy says:

    @hans

    In his discussion of the loan to PU
    PU *mekši ‘bee’
    ← Pre-II *mékš- > PII *mákš- > OI mákṣ- ‘bee, fly’, (der.) mákṣikā, also makṣā-; PII *makšī- > YAv maxšī- ‘fly’

    Sampsa Holopainen (doctoral dissertation) gives a very detailed discussion of the PII lemma. Here is the PDF.
    https://www.google.com/url?q=https://helda.helsinki.fi/bitstream/handle/10138/307582/INDO-IRA.pdf%3Fsequence%3D1%26isAllowed%3Dy&sa=U&ved=2ahUKEwif1pv25rPsAhWgUBUIHcowAngQFjAIegQIBRAB&usg=AOvVaw06Zhvh0HUxlAEHnpb4vSiC

  30. Thanks, I‘ll have a look

  31. I struck gold with this one!

    Few of the world’s problems cannot be solved with a topical application of LH™.

  32. I struck gold with this one!

    Hurray!

  33. @David Marjanović: I suspect that the Japanese was merely a poor translation of the movie title, for two reasons. Firstly, it fits with the pattern of what one expect from a poor translation. Secondly, it’s not really an apt title for that particular movie (which I just watched for the first time last weekend, as it happens).

  34. Thanks for the VN link. Always enjoyable to read again what he had to say re translation. But, crikey, what a singularly bad photo of him. Did that run with the original TNR article?

  35. No idea! You’d have to have access to a library with files of old magazines they haven’t thrown out.

  36. Thanks, Brett. I wanted to point out something similar.

    The problem is that an “unmarried woman” in Japanese is normally 未婚の女性 (a not-yet-married woman). The “unmarried” in this case is deliberate in the English; it’s the “un-” you find in “undo this button”, “unblock this pipe”, “unbreak my heart”, or “unhand me, you villain”. I’m sure it flummoxed the Japanese translators and the best they could come up with was “a woman who won’t / doesn’t want to get married”.

    According to Japanese Wikipedia, 結婚しない女 became a bit of a buzzword in Japan at the time. But the reason for this, as I see it, is that the movie was about a perfectly attractive woman being cast aside by her husband and having to find her own way — showing that a woman has her own worth without a husband, a message of affirmation for many Japanese women at the time — plus the fact that the title suggested that women didn’t have to marry at all.

    The consequences of this change in attitudes are becoming obvious over 40 years later as many women in Japan find it better not to get married, leading to the kind of demographic crisis that older politicians dread — Japanese women aren’t having enough babies.

  37. Isn’t Japan extremely overpopulated?

    I think it was a common view widely shared by the Japanese and foreigners alike since, I don’t know, Tokugawa period?

    Demographic crisis nicely solves this problem.

  38. Did translating movie titles use to be a thing? Like David Marjanović, I’m used to movies either getting a local title or keeping the original English, and to me the idea of translating a movie title seems odd. Especially when it’s a pun like the double meaning of “unmarried”.

  39. In Germany, translating a movie title is not unusual; it used to be that or a local title. (The frequent inanity of the local titles is what DM referred to.) Except for cases when the title is a name (place name like “Casablanca” or personal name like “Marnie”), leaving the title unchanged in the original language was rare and seems to have become more frequent only in the last couple of decades, especially for blockbusters.

  40. The steady encroachment of English into daily speech in the German speaking world is also making translation less necessary, or even silly. I am old enough to remember when “Krieg der Sterne” came out, but no German speaking 10 year old would refer to it as anything but “Star Wars” today.

  41. Russian film distributors decided that there is absolutely no way Russians will watch a movie titled “The Men Who Stare at Goats”, even George Clooney and Kevin Spacey can’t save it.

    So Russian cinemas showed it as “The Crazy Spetsnaz”.

  42. Going back to sheer stupidity in title translations, “Tower Heist” in Russian translation became “How To Steal A Skyscraper”.

    Unless David Copperfield starred in it (he didn’t), it’s difficult to understand how they would pull it off.

  43. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Isn’t Japan extremely overpopulated?

    That was certainly my impression when I took the train from Osaka to Tokyo: city all the way, apart, perhaps, from about 0.5km-worth of fields at one point. It’s essentially one urban area.

  44. Lars Mathiesen says:

    I think the worry in Japan is that the percentage of people past working age is already huge (compared to most other countries), and with life expectancy increasing that trend will not reverse. That severely constrains economic policy, and with ever smaller cohorts entering the job market the constraints will get even tighter.

    The age demographics will come to the West too, we’re well on the way, but the cultural factors that keep young people from having kids seem to be more pronounced in Japan. Last I read, Denmark was almost back at self-sufficiency after a long period of lower birth rate (2.3 kids per woman on average is the number that’s usually mentioned).

  45. January First-of-May says:

    Unless David Copperfield starred in it (he didn’t), it’s difficult to understand how they would pull it off.

    I don’t think even David Copperfield would’ve been capable of that much. They’d probably need Carmen Sandiego.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    Last I read, Denmark was almost back at self-sufficiency after a long period of lower birth rate (2.3 kids per woman on average is the number that’s usually mentioned).

    Amazing. It took the French decades of rampant socialism (lots of free childcare!) to get back up to 2.1 (the usual claim for the replacement rate), and IIRC they’re back down to 1.8 again or something. And meanwhile the Danes are multiplying… like in the 8th century?

  47. Trond Engen says:

    The Norwegian birthrate was said to be an outlier in Western Europe, at almost 2, but it’s made a sudden steep drop in recent years in spite of all sorts of childcare and parental leave.

  48. J.W. Brewer says:

    FWIW, this listing w/ 2018 stats claims that as of that date France had the highest TFR in the EU (at 1.9), with Denmark at 1.7. Lowest is Malta at 1.2; lowest “big countries” are Italy and Spain at 1.3. (For non-EU bits of “Europe,” the highest debatably-European countries are Georgia and Turkey, both at 2.1 per the same source. Kosovo, which is definitely in Europe but I guess debatably a country, is at 2.0.)

    A TRF at 1.8 or 1.9 does imply long-term population decline absent net positive immigration but at a slow and likely manageable rate. 1.2 or 1.3 have rather different implications about the magnitude and pace of future change. [EDITED TO ADD: Japan is most recently at 1.4 which is a modest bounce back from even lower levels earlier in the current century.]

    https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.TFRT.IN?locations=EU

  49. The birth rates in America and Canada have been a bit below the replacement rate for decades—essentially my entire life. However, the populations have continue to grow consistently, entirely due to immigration, since the English-speaking countries of North America are generally attractive places to move to.

    This has a lot of important consequences that are often overlooked in discussions of American demographics and economics. For example, semi-rhetorical questions like, “Are you doing better than your parents?” are often given highly inaccurate answers, because the purported answers are based on comparisons of American income distributions measurements made twenty-five or thirty years apart—neglecting the fact that the American population experiences a constant influx of immigrants, who are heavily weighted toward the bottom parts of the income distribution.

  50. J.W. Brewer says:

    To Brett’s point, it would be useful for many purposes if current U.S. conditions could be compared against a baseline of say 1970 that is not just the US stats for 1970 but a composite giving appropriate weight to the Mexican stats, South Korean stats, Soviet stats, etc etc in proportion to the parents of the current US population who had not yet immigrated to the US in 1970. Of course it gets trickier and trickier to implement the more you think about it because immigrants generally do not represent a balanced demographic cross-section of their country of origin and each country of origin is different in terms of which economic strata were disproportionately represented in emigrants to the U.S.

    There’s still the problem of whether people do or should find Kaldor-Hicks efficiency morally satisfying. If folks in my corner of the country are 10% worse off than their parents, telling them that there are different folks in different corners of the country who are 20% better off than their parents so on net the country is doing fine may not be an entirely satisfactory response.

  51. Trond Engen says:

    Me: The Norwegian birthrate was said to be an outlier in Western Europe, at almost 2, but it’s made a sudden steep drop in recent years in spite of all sorts of childcare and parental leave.

    I was about to close the tab when I noticed something interesting. The recent decline correlates with a closing of the age gap between mothers and fathers. After having been constant at 2.8 years (+/- 0.1 y) since 1970, it dropped to 2.3 since 2013 or so. That’s cultural change. I wonder if we may see the first truly equal generation on the job market. It would be interesting to compare trends.

  52. David Marjanović says:

    It will certainly be interesting if equality raises birth rates (all else being equal, which it never is). The usual explanation for the extra-low birth rate of Italy (and I guess that also applies to Spain) is that the women are emancipated, but the men are still machos, and never the twain shall meet.

  53. Lars Mathiesen says:

    It seems it was a few decades ago I read about it in detail; there was a resurgence in births in the 90s, but we’re back down to under 2 as J.W. Brewer notes. There are still more live births than deaths, corresponding to an aging population, maybe that was what was in the news more recently.

    (This is one reason why the pension age will inevitably rise in societies like Denmark — with births below replacement rate, and increased immigration a political dead duck until a generation or two of voters stop voting, it’s the only way to keep the workforce from shrinking while pensioners get more numerous).

    ADDED: I can’t quite see if it carries over directly, there are delays and time series involved, but if the trend (since 1880 or so) of life expectancy increasing by 0.25 years per birth year is not interrupted, total population numbers should be maintained with a significantly lower birth rate. Maybe not 75% of 2.1, but down there somewhere. But I guess ‘replacement rate’ is about the number of women of child-bearing age, the rest of us don’t count.

  54. Since 1993, Denmark was ruled either a guy named Rasmussen (three different ones) or by a woman.

    Don’t you get confused?

    – When was this law enacted?
    – During 2nd Cabinet of the 3rd Rasmussen.

  55. Nabokov was unfair to Balmont (who was still alive in 1941): a bad translator perhaps but definitely not a poet whose “own work invariably disclosed an almost pathological inability to write one single melodious line.” I’d concede that Balmont wrote too much and quickly devolved into self-parody and schlock. But strip his output down to 5-10% of the total and you’ll have a poet of roughly the same quality as Nabokov himself.

    In defense of the German professor, I didn’t like the lukomor’e line as a small child because it reminded me of onions. More specifically, of onion bulbs (which I disliked) but not leaves (which I liked). I already knew what lukomor’e meant but couldn’t shrug off the association.

  56. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Don’t you get confused — No, because the ‘big’ -sen names are so common that we call people by their first and middle names if available. To Danes, they were Poul Nyrup, Anders Fogh and Lars Lykke, and the cabinets are known as the Nyrup and Fogh ones (regeringen Nyrup, for instance). This started when there was only one Rasmussen to account for, so if the next ones had been Christensen and Clausen it would have been the same.

    It hasn’t really settled for Lars Lykke Rasmussen’s cabinet, I think partly because Lykke isn’t recognizably a place or occupation name, the most cromulent types of middle names, partly because the common noun lykke means happiness and talking about the happiness government is a) silly and b) not congruent with the general impression of the time. So regeringen Lykke Rasmussen is more common.

    (Cognate of luck, of course. An inherited word in Danish, German, and Dutch ((ge)luk) whence English got it).

  57. An inherited word in Danish, German, and Dutch

    lycka till

    Swedish
    Interjection
    lycka till

    good luck

    https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/lycka_till

  58. A fragment from Gunslinger by Stephen King:

    The gunslinger began to eat steadily, almost blandly, chopping the meat apart and forking it into his mouth, trying not to think of what might have been added to cut the beef.

    A Russian translation:

    Стрелок степенно, почти ласково принялся за еду. Он кромсал мясо, отправляя куски в рот, и старался не думать о том, что говядину удобнее резать, добавив к вилке кое-что еще.

    The translator does not seem to have ever come across what a drug, eg cocaine, can be cut with:

    Due to the fact that cocaine is almost exclusively used recreationally and has a large illicit market, the vast majority of it will contain impurities or be “cut” with other substances.

    https://americanaddictioncenters.org/cocaine-treatment/cut-with

  59. Lars Mathiesen says:

    @juha, Danish lykke does have many of the same meanings as in Swedish when used in collocations like held og lykke = ‘good luck’ or tillykke = ‘congratulations’. But as a stand-alone noun it unambiguously means ‘happiness,’ the ‘luck’ sense has been taken over by held. (The ‘lucky cabinet’ might be better than the ‘happiness cabinet,’ but that is not how it works).

    EDIT: (I didn’t mention Swedish because I though the West Germanic cognates were more relevant. I generally assume that people will assume that Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic share inherited words, I’m more likely to mention when that assumption fails).

  60. Nabokov was unfair to Balmont

    That goes without saying; he was unfair to everyone except his few chosen deities (Flaubert, Tolstoy, himself). And his pal Khodasevich, who he ludicrously claimed was the best poet of his day.

    But strip his output down to 5-10% of the total and you’ll have a poet of roughly the same quality as Nabokov himself.

    Now you’re being unfair to Balmont! Unless you mean Nabokov’s work in general; he wasn’t much of a poet.

  61. J.W. Brewer says:

    To one of Lars’ points re demographic trends: obviously a society with “below-replacement” fertility can still have an increasing population for a considerable time due to prior momentum. And the math as to when it will catch up with you (if you don’t have enough net immigration to give you the functional equivalent of replacement-level fertility) does depend on among other things projections about when various cohorts of your existing population will die. But there are already a bunch of countries, overwhelmingly European ones (plus Japan), with negative “natural increase” i.e. total deaths exceeding total births in the most recent year for which they have the stats. Negative natural increase is the point at which you get absolute population decline unless you have enough immigration to offset it. A lot of those more-deaths-than-births countries are the poorer ex-Communist ones, but on the “good” side of the former Iron Curtain Austria, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Portugal are already in negative territory and Denmark per this link is just barely above zero. Presumably someone out there has projections (with various assumptions including increased life expectancy built in) about how soon Denmark is likely to cross from positive to negative unless something contrary to the model’s assumptions happens. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_natural_increase

  62. The usual explanation for the extra-low birth rate of Italy (and I guess that also applies to Spain) is that the women are emancipated, but the men are still machos, and never the twain shall meet

    I would say that systemic issues are a bigger problem than individual machismo; it’s not as if women in other countries aren’t sick of picking up everyone’s socks, and it’s not as if most Italian men refuse to change diapers. But in Italy there are the same general expectations as in the rest of Western Europe about what parents should be able to provide before they start having children, whereas salaries are much lower, stable employment was already hard to come by long before 2009, and housing is expensive. School lets out on the early side and afternoon childcare is often available only if the nonni are nearby and willing. (And able, because if you can’t afford to have kids till you’re forty you may have to be looking after the nonni themselves before long.) And although the maternity leave situation isn’t bad compared to, say, the US, there are still plenty of employers who will find illegal ways to fire women who get pregnant.

  63. As always, the solution is to smash the patriarchy.

  64. I try to judge poets by their best work, and some of Nabokov’s poems are very good – primarily the stuff from The Gift. Khodasevich was one of the best poets among the émigrés, perhaps the best if you count out Tsvetaeva, so Nabokov’s claim was not that outlandish.

    Speaking of howlers, here’s an example from a Brazilian PhD dissertation on Soviet/Russian translations of Jorge Amado. There’s a character in Gabriela, cravo e canela, a rich landowner (“colonel”) who gets cuckolded and kills his wife and her lover. It was a beautiful day, not a good day for spilling blood, writes Amado, but the colonel was a man of honor and such considerations did not enter his head as it was aching from the horns (“cabeça dolorida de chifres”).

    The Soviet translator, however, interpreted chifre (horn) as if it were the French word chiffre (digit, figure, number, cipher) so in the Russian version the colonel’s head was aching from all the calculations it had been performing. Even in puritanical Soviet times, it was acceptable to refer to a cuckolded husband as a horn-wearer, especially if he was an exploiter of the working classes. In other words, it was not a case of censorship.

  65. I try to judge poets by their best work, and some of Nabokov’s poems are very good – primarily the stuff from The Gift.

    True, and it’s interesting that otherwise minor poets can produce much better poems in novels; Joyce is another example.

    Khodasevich was one of the best poets among the émigrés, perhaps the best if you count out Tsvetaeva, so Nabokov’s claim was not that outlandish.

    He was a very good poet, but that’s neither here nor there. The statement was indeed outlandish; he didn’t call him “one of our best émigré poets,” which would have been true and an honorable thing to say, but “the greatest poet of our time [Крупнейший поэт нашего времени].” From someone given to routine exaggeration, this would just have been silly, but coming from Nabokov, whose mandarin persona allowed him to dole out praise rarely and grudgingly, I find it obnoxious. If one of his students had said a similar thing, he would have sneered and squashed them like a bug.

  66. J.W. Brewer says:

    The demographic-projections subtheme in this thread is rather un-Nabakovian and unpoetic, but let me throw out own more wrinkle. Lars’ point that the impact of below-replacement fertility on actual population size will be delayed/mitigated by increasing life expectancy (with the extent of that delay/mitigation being a question of some rather complicated arithmetic) is only necessarily true if one assumes that mean maternal age at childbearing remains constant, and in many modern societies (such as in Europe) it hasn’t, but has shifted upward. An upward movement in mean maternal age would, if life expectancy were held constant, accelerate rather than decelerate the impact on absolute population size (assuming as before no net immigration) of below-replacement fertility (separate and apart from itself tending to contribute somewhat to lower fertility), so if both mean maternal age and life expectancy are increasing you need to do even more complex math to figure out which of those shifts has an impact outweighing the other’s impact.

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