OKH AMERIKA.

I’m about halfway through Любимов [Lyubimov] by Andrei Sinyavsky writing as Abram Tertz in 1963, translated by Manya Harari as The Makepeace Experiment; it’s a very funny book that strikes me as to some extent a combination of Platonov’s Chevengur (with Lyubimov as the autonomous city leaping into the future of communist fulfillment, menaced by approaching forces from the surrounding Soviet Union; I wrote about Platonov’s novel here and here) and Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (with Leonid Ivanovich Tikhomirov, called Makepeace by Harari, in the role of the wish-fulfilling magician)—neither of those novels would be published for some years after 1963, but Sinyavsky very likely read them in samizdat or at least knew a fair amount about them. At any rate, I just hit the bit where a Soviet agent sneaks into town in the guise of an American reporter and interrogates the great leader Tikhomirov in a hilarious mix of German and bad Russian (original after the cut):

“I have the honor to be introducing myself, Herr Tikhomirov,” he pronounced, scandalously mangling the wonderful Russian language. “Ich bin Harry Jackson, nicknamed ‘The Old Gangster,’ a correspondent of the bourgeois newspaper Perdit Intrigan vrot okh Amerika. My transoceanic masters vants to have from you a leetle interfew.”

(For some reason, Harari omits the nickname: “‘Allow me to introduce myself, Herr Makepeace,’ he godlessly mispronounced our beautiful language.’ Ich bin Harry Jackson, correspondent of the bourgeois paper Perdit Intriguer Och Aus America.'”) The name of the paper starts off with a good (if vulgar) mini-sentence in Russian, “Пердит интриган в рот” [Perdít intrigán v rot], ‘The/an intriguer farts into the/a mouth’; it continues with the mock-German “ох Америка.” Compare the “French” title of the essay sent to the Revue de Paris by Venichka, the hero of Venedikt Erofeev’s great Moskva-Petushki: “Шик и блеск иммер елегант” [Shik i blesk immer elegant], ‘Chic and brilliance immer elegant,’ which also ends with a bit of German. German is historically the great Other to Russians, who have encountered it in contexts ranging from philosophy to war; in the old days, немец [némets] ‘German’ was used for any foreigner, and clearly any foreign language can be transmuted into German for comedic purposes.

Имею честь познакамливаться, хер Тихомиров,- произнес он, безбожно коверкая чудесный русский язык.- Их бин Гарри Джексон, по кличке “Старый Гангстер”, корреспондент буржуазной газеты “Пердит интриган врот ох Америка”. Моя заокеанский хозяев хошет иметь от вас маленький интер-фью.

Comments

  1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t немец (and its Slavic brethren) derive from a word for ‘mute’, that is, those who don’t speak our language? Of course, your point about their being The Other stands, it’s just that the name worked in the other direction.

  2. Trond Engen says:

    Isn’t it rather that communication with foreigners in Russia traditionally took place in German, that even non-German foreigners had to be fluent in it, and whenever they lacked a word, the German would make do? That would be simular to how brokeb Norwegian used to be mimicked a couple of generations ago: the perceived intonation and phonology of the supposed language interspersed with Swedish words and phrases, and I’m fairly sure the oorrason was that foreaugners acquired Norwegian aftee Swedish. Norwegian Circus aestetics still seems to require half-Swedish announcements.
    As for the translation, the “secret” agent still comes through as stupid for believing that mock-foreign is the real thing.

  3. Trond Engen says:

    Damn. As for the novel, I meant.

  4. didn’t немец (and its Slavic brethren) derive from a word for ‘mute’, that is, those who don’t speak our language?
    Yes, they’re from Slavic němъ ‘mute.’
    the “secret” agent still comes through as stupid for believing that mock-foreign is the real thing.
    Or he knew exactly how a provincial minityrant would expect a foreigner to sound. (Incidentally, he soon forgets to bother trying to sound foreign and tries to buy the secret of Tikhomirov’s powers in perfectly good Russian; Tikhomirov doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, he’s just upset that the intruder cares about money and thinks he does too.)

  5. Trond Engen says:

    Writing from my mobile. Does anybody know how to turn off the input randomiser? I can’t seem to find the right key.

  6. How do you rate Harari’s translation? It’s an incredibly difficult text, with all the puns and cultural references.

  7. they’re from Slavic němъ ‘mute.’
    It’s just a theory advocated by Vasmer, erroneously in my view. It completely disregards the obvious etymology of ‘не мы’ – ne my – not us, not one of us. Your observation that German is historically the great Other to Russians points in that direction. Vasmer’s insistence that nemets is from nemost’ (muteness) or nemoch (disability) is like saying that slav/slavyanin is from ‘sloven’ or that Latvian krievi (Russians) is because all Russians are crooked – krivye.
    But we had a long discussion on ‘nemtsy’ some time ago, when I was left in the minority of one.

  8. But we had a long discussion on ‘nemtsy’ some time ago, when I was left in the minority of one.
    Yeah, I’m sorry, but “the obvious etymology of ‘не мы’ – ne my” is obvious only to the layman. To a linguist, it’s nothing but folk etymology. Words are not created that way.

  9. How do you rate Harari’s translation?
    I don’t own it and have checked the Google Books version only for specific things like the quotes above, so I have no idea. (I must say, I’m mildly curious about Manya Harari, but I can find no information about him/her other than the names of the translations.)

  10. It completely disregards the obvious etymology of ‘не мы’ – ne my – not us, not one of us.
    Silly, I’m afraid. Vasmer’s etymology is utterly uncontroversial. Even if ‘не мы’ worked in Russian (which is doesn’t) it does nothing to explain the Czech němčina, the Slovenian némščina, the Polish niemiecki, etc. Do you seriously imagine these words are derived from Russian for “not we”?

  11. Isn’t Latvian krievi (and Finnish venäläinen, or even Ukrainian moskali) just a (very usual) way of naming the whole by its part (e.g. a nation by a tribe or a region)?
    The German as the quentessential “other” for the Russian is an interesting concept, but more likely, the authors of the 1960s-1970s, and their characters, picked elements of German either on frontlines of WWII, or more likely playing the voinushka “little war” game as kids.
    (my link goes to the more relevant of the several rio Wang discussions about military phrasebooks and childrens’ war games). The enemy language of voinushka remained a phrasebook German for a long time after WWII, complete with obligatory “Гитлер капут” 🙂

  12. But that doesn’t explain why German would be used for a (pseudo-)American spy and a French composition.

  13. The “obvious” etymology doesn’t work even in Russian, for Нѣмцы used to be written with a yat and не мы never did, indicating that the vowels were once distinct.

  14. But that doesn’t explain why German would be used for a (pseudo-)American spy and a French composition.
    It probably doesn’t especially because there “smart” pseudo-German words aren’t from the war lexicon. But “generic otherness” doesn’t cut it either. For example, Petrushka the Fake Foreigner speckles his speech with French words for the same effect
    Коленкор, сатин, радамэ!
    Мы по-русски не понимэ!

    (more fun nuances in this blog:
    Порядочные люди иностранных языков не знают)
    My best hypothesis is that German just sounds more “learned” to a Russian listener (remember Blok juxtaposing “острый галльский смысл и сумрачный германский гений”?). A different fraudster, Trofim Lysenko, used to slap not one but two German suffixes on top of a Russian one to make his speech sound “scientific”, as in the verb яровизировать.

  15. Another possible explanation is that ‘Ich bin’ gives the character ‘enemy colours’. And at that time and before German was at least as widely taught language at grade school level as English. Sometimes with dubious quality. I knew a school where a demobilised soldier taught ‘trud’ (labour – household skills) and doubled up as the teacher of German.
    Even more likely is that it is used for macaronic effect. The 1966 Franco-British comedy La Grande Vadrouille was a big hit in Russia too (“Большая прогулка”). Louis de Funès, caught by a German, shouts ‘Ich bin malade’. In the Russian version it’s ‘Ich bin больной’ which has since become an idiom for an absurd excuse. In this clip in French it’s at 3.10 min.

  16. немцы
    ну вот, совсем заклевала немчура, I surrender.

  17. Sash: La Grande Vadrouille
    What a great movie! I’d never heard of it before.

  18. don’t know what happened to it in Anglophonia, but in France it was the biggest hit until Titanic. I’ll ask my French friends if the phrase is used idiomatically.

  19. In the quoted passage there is another semi-opaque pun:
    хер Тихомиров – Herr Tikhomirov. Kher is spelt in a non-standard way, it is usually spelt герр (gherr). But the word ‘kher’ is the old alphabetical name of the letter Х (modern kha), which also means ‘prick’ and is a more or less acceptable euphemism for the (used to be) unprintable ‘cock’ – “хуй”. (Editor of the influential magazine Kommersant-Vlast was sacked the other day for publishing a facsimile of an electoral bulletin over which a rude demand that Putin should resign was scribbled – containing that word.)
    The use of kher instead of gherr, I suspect, is used to emphasize that Perdít intrigán v rot is just the thinly veiled paraphrase of another well-known unprintable invective roughly meaning ‘forced fellatio’.
    How to capture that implied meaning, I am at a complete loss.

  20. Yes, I had meant to mention that connotation of хер; thanks for bringing it up.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    is like saying that slav/slavyanin is from ‘sloven’

    Some wonder if it’s connected to Днепр Словитель. The same people are said to derive Germani from some aquatic vocabulary, too, but unfortunately I don’t know any details about that.

    The “obvious” etymology doesn’t work even in Russian, for Нѣмцы used to be written with a yat and не мы never did, indicating that the vowels were once distinct.

    Confirmed by Standard Croatian Njemačka “Germany” and ne “no(t)”.

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