NUMER/NOMER.

I’m finally starting to read Zamyatin‘s famous novel Мы (We), which I bought almost forty years ago as a beginning Russian student and long-time science fiction fan (I’d already read it in English). This prescient book, from which Huxley and Orwell swiped shamelessly for their own dystopias, was written in 1920 but not allowed to appear in the USSR; after it was published in English in 1924 and excerpts were published in the emigré journal Volya Rossii in 1927, the author got into a great deal of trouble, and the book didn’t appear in its entirety in Russian until its 1952 publication in America (it was not published in the USSR until 1988).
Before plunging in, I wanted to read the chapter on Zamyatin in Yuri Annenkov’s brilliant and moving memoirs, Dnevnik moikh vstrech ['Diary of my meetings'], and I was pleased to see that Annenkov, when his good friend Zamyatin showed him a section of the work in progress, asked him about the very thing that puzzled me when I looked through it. He quotes a bit near the start that begins: “Мерными рядами, по четыре, восторженно отбивая такт, шли нумера…” (‘In measured rows, four by four, triumphantly beating time, walked the numbers [numera]…’), writes that he disliked the word numer used for ‘number’ rather than the usual nomer—it sounded vulgar and un-Russian to him—and asked: Почему – нумер, а не номер? (‘Why numer and not nomer?’). Zamyatin says it’s not a Russian word, adducing Latin numerus, Italian numero, French numéro, English number, and German Nummer, and asks “Where’s the O?” He then opens a dictionary and starts going through the A’s, saying “Let’s see where the Russian roots are”: “абажур, аббат, аберрация, абзац, абонемент, аборт, абракадабра, абрикос, абсолютизм, абсурд, авангард, аванпост, авансцена, авантюра, авария, август, августейший… Стоп! Я наткнулся: авось! Дальше: аврора, автобиография, автограф, автократия, автомат, автомобиль, автопортрет, автор, авторитет, агитатор, агент, агония, адепт, адвокат, адрес, академия, акварель, аккомпанемент, акробат, аксиома, акт, актер, актриса… Стоп! наткнулся на акулу!.. Дальше: аккуратность, акустика, акушерка, акцент, акция, алгебра, алебастр, алкоголь, аллегория, аллея… Стоп: алмаз… Дальше: алфавит, алхимия…”
All these words are obviously of non-Russian origin except the few where he says “Stop!” and names an exception: авось [avos'] ‘perhaps,’ акула [akula] ‘shark,’ and алмаз [almaz] ‘uncut diamond.’ The funny thing is that the last two are also borrowed, akula from Old Norse hákall and almaz from Turkic. I would have thought at least the latter would have worn its foreign origin clearly on its sleeve; it occurs to me, however, that Annenkov, reconstructing the conversation many years later, probably remembered the general idea but not the exact words Zamyatin stopped at.
Towards the end of the piece, after mentioning Zamyatin’s remark that his books were his children, Annenkov quotes Viktor Shklovsky (whom I mentioned here and here), from a 1959 article “On the use of private libraries”:

Надо накапливать книги, знакомясь с человеческим опытом, – пускай они лежат вокруг твоей мысли, становясь твоими – кольцо за кольцом, так, как растет дерево, пускай они подымаются со дна, как коралловые острова.
Если от книг становится тесно и некуда поставить кровать, то лучше заменить кровать раскладушкой.
[You have to store up books, becoming acquainted with human experience; let them lie around your thoughts, becoming yours—ring upon ring, as a tree grows, let them rise up from the depths like coral islands.
If it gets crowded with all the books and there's nowhere to put your bed, it's better to exchange it for a folding bed.]

Words to live by.

Comments

  1. Glad I’m not the only one who finds a lot of Zamyatin in the other dystopian writers of the 20th c. Orwell in particular is a sacred cow — the notion that he might have gotten most of what is important about 1984 from Z. is beyond the pale for many. I try not to make such assertions in mixed company anymore. ;-)
    BTW, I didn’t get around to commenting on your P/V War and Peace post before comments closed, but I did want to mention that I found Pevear quite kind in my interactions with him over email and was happy to see a translation of War and Peace that at least kept the French in with translations in the footnotes. Perhaps he is overreaching in his defense of this latest effort, but I like the guy. :-)

  2. James Wood weighs in on the pro-P&V side in the latest New Yorker.

  3. I found Pevear quite kind in my interactions with him over email and was happy to see a translation of War and Peace that at least kept the French in with translations in the footnotes.
    Oh, I’m sure he’s a nice guy (and I too am glad to have the French kept), and I haven’t even seen the translation, so I can’t form an opinion on it; I just dislike the hype of “this brilliant team supersedes all those crappy old translations!” It’s just another translation, folks.

  4. Years ago I had a monolingual Anglophone friend enthusiastically assure me that the P&V translation of Gogol (which he hadn’t read) far surpassed all earlier translations. Presumably the NYRB had given it a rave review. Those two (or their agent) must be very well-connected.

  5. Oh, I’m sure he’s a nice guy (and I too am glad to have the French kept), and I haven’t even seen the translation, so I can’t form an opinion on it; I just dislike the hype of “this brilliant team supersedes all those crappy old translations!” It’s just another translation, folks.
    Definitely understood.
    Actually, I think someone posted a rather…confident self-appraisal by Murakami or someone as well. It reminded me of Nabokov in his foreward to his translation of “A Hero of Our Time”, which runs something like, “This is the first translation of ‘A Hero of Our Time’ into English. There have been many paraphrases, but this is the first translation.”
    *sigh*

  6. I suppose you understand that opening the dictionary at, say, p would yield dramatically different results. Words starting with the phoneme a simply don’t correspond to normal Russian morphonetics, that’s why one gets so many borrowings at the beginning of a dictionary.

  7. Yes, of course, and Zamyatin knew that perfectly well; he was just making a point.

  8. “Если от книг становится тесно и некуда поставить кровать, то лучше заменить кровать раскладушкой.”
    This reminded me of a story I’ve heard about one Estonian biologist. It dates back to the Soviet era. This man lived in a single-room apartment that was practically filled with books. He had so many books that he was forced to keep them on the floor. This was also where he kept his winter potatoes: he had books and potatoes stacked in layers on his floor. The layer of books and potatoes on his floor was half a meter high, making it rather difficult to enter the room. Finding the books he was looking for proved difficult as well, so he always worked in the university library.

  9. Only half a meter? My wife’s former boyfriend’s aunt’s apartment (no, my wife saw this herself, this is not FOAFity) had stacks from 1.5 to 2 meters tall occupying the entire floor surface except for narrow walkways connecting the bed, the stove, the toilet, etc.

Speak Your Mind

*