A few years ago I reported on my purchase of Dmitrii Bykov’s novel Orfografiya [Orthography], and exactly a year ago I promised to get around to reading it; now I’m over halfway through it and enjoying it immensely (I’d love to translate it if I had the time and a publisher had the interest). This self-contained snippet from the Second Act represents a basic divide in humanity. The protagonist, Yat, is remembering an amusing episode from a few years back:

…when was it? Oh yes, that’s right, in ’13: “Birzhevka” [Birzhevye vedomosti, the Stock-Exchange Gazette] suddenly started publishing on the last page—framed by a dotted line, so interested parties could clip it out—a list about which nobody could say anything for sure. It was simply called “List,” without any further clarification. There were thirty-nine family names, fairly neutral, some of which he knew—Mizerov, Foskin—but with different initials. What if he found his own there? Whether it was the list of members of some secret organization (doubtless for terrorists of a certain stripe it would be especially stylish to publish it under the nose of the government, on the principle of “hiding a leaf in the forest”) or an innocent register of founders of a joint-stock corporation which didn’t have enough money to publish its excessively lengthy company name in full, Yat never could figure out. Once he discussed the story with [his imaginative friend] Grem.

“That was a list of actioners [д е й с т в о в а т е л е й],” said Grem with his usual emphasis, not wasting even three seconds in coming up with a new story.

“Go on, go on,” Yat encouraged him.

“Actioners are people destined to change the world. In that configuration [в этом составе: ‘with that makeup’?] they are capable of acting with maximum results, like a bullet sent to its goal at the proper angle.”

“But who determines that maximum?”

“Not the Birzhevka, of course. Once a week a secretive man in a red-brown overcoat—definitely red-brown—shows up. He hands over the list, and an envelope with money in it. The compositor sets it in type, but each time he changes one name, thinking that that way he’s disrupting the devilish plot. One fine day they find the compositor dead. But it’s too late—everything’s gone wrong, and as a result we’re living in this very world we’re living in. That would be good, you know, to burn it at both ends [жечь с двух концов: can anybody explain how this idiom works here?]: first the secret list, then the murder of the compositor.”

“But you don’t want to help me figure out what the list is all about?”

“No, of course not!” Grem stared at Yat with horror. “Why would I want to know how it is if I know how it must be?”

That last line (Зачем мне знать, как е с т ь, если я знаю, как н а д о?) expresses perfectly the mind of the storyteller. I envy such people and their unstoppable flights of fancy, but I have an equally powerful drive to know how it is.


  1. In French actionnaires are owners of stock in a stock market. But you probably knew that.

  2. Nice snippet. It looks like an interesting book, unfortunately it’s not translated in any of the languages that I read.
    This Bykov seems a rather eccentric man, judging from this
    interview in the Moscow Times.

  3. In French actionnaires are owners of stock in a stock market. But you probably knew that.
    I did, but hadn’t thought about it, and now that you bring it up, I guess my desperate stab at a way to render действователей [deistvovatelei] will have to be rethought yet again, since the French connection just muddies the waters. The Russian word déistvovatel’ is a rare equivalent of déyatel’, which itself is a bitch to translate. It simply means ‘person who acts, who takes actions,’ but there’s no way to say that in English thanks to the expansion of actor and agent into totally different semantic spheres. The common designation politícheskii déyatel’ can simply be rendered politician, but what to do with déyatel’ by itself, let alone with a variant rare enough not to be in my Oxford dictionary? Bah.

  4. The expression “жечь [свечу] с двух концов” usually refers to recklessly cutting corners. You can light a candle at both ends to get twice the light, but then you can’t put it down. I think Grem is using it in the general sense of two strange events converging on the same ominous implication.
    Could действователь be rendered in English as activist?

  5. Only if a Russian, reading действователь, would assume that the person so described was a proponent of direct action, likely to get involved in, say, confrontations with the police, which I suspect is not the case. And “actioner” won’t work because it turns out it means “An artisan who makes the action of an instrument, as of a gun, piano, etc.” Bah.

  6. I’m getting the impression it means what “movers and shakers” means, but you could not use that in the translation, I suppose.

  7. Maxim Afanasiev says:

    As regards the translation: “действователь”, as many here probably know, is somewhat uncommon in spoken Russian, one of those words that — at least for an average reader — have nothing wrong with them, are constructed correctly, but are not in use for some reason; maybe it’s just the sound – the “вова” in the middle is not for a hasty speaker. On the other hand, “повествователь” (story-teller) is definitely in use…
    What I am getting at is that another direction to search for the English translation would be to try and construct some equally awkward-sounding uncommon or artificial word that would warrant a “what?” from the listener, just like “действователь” does, rather than search for the “best” translation that already exists. “Activationer” would perhaps be strange enough, and would also hint at the names triggering events, but is it a word that would stand in English? I am not suggesting it, just bringing up an example of what I have in mind as a direction.

  8. Yeah, that’s what I was going for with “actioner,” but it turns out that’s already a word meaning something very different. “Activationer” is a possibility — I’ll think about it. Thanks!

  9. michael farris says:

    I think ‘activationer’ is just a little too … something, what about ‘activator’? It’s a real word but not normally applied to people AFAIK.

  10. OED: “activator, one who (rare) or a thing which activates (in various technical senses); a catalyst.” I like it! Activator it is.

  11. I don’t comment often (since I have little to add as evidenced right now), but I have to mention just what a joy it is for someone like me who can only just spell his way through some of the Cyrillic, to read these comments.
    Everything is explained so readily that I feel very illuminated.
    As for Grem, I’m reminded of the late? Danish author Jørn Riel who wrote what he called “skrøner” (roughly “tall stories”), which he defined as “stories that might well be true, but aren’t, or that sound implausible, but aren’t”.
    I have to shamefacedly admit that I don’t own any of his books, myself (they were a favourite of my father’s, in part because of their setting in Greenland) — or at least I don’t think so, but I’ll know soon enough since I’m currently in the process of buying new bookcases. But typing out that definition from memory reminded me of an old Danish saying along those same lines: “Det er så længe siden, at det er løgn” – “It happened so long ago, that it’s a lie” (or “that it might as well be a lie).
    I see that it’s recorded as early as c. 1700, but it’s possibly survived in common use through a ditty from 1875 (I knew of, myself, but I can’t sing it, that’s for sure).

  12. It is interesting to witness in the process something I only knew from results: a poorly written book made good by translators. As a native speaker, I feel that действователь is definitely not a good occasionalism. It just sounds artificial.

  13. The interview that Bertil gave a link to has an interesting mistake:
    “it is titled “Zh.D.” in Russian, an abbreviation that means many things and could be tentatively rendered as “A.D.” in English, also evoking many meanings.”
    In fact, the abbreviation ж/д has only one widespread meaning in Russian – namely, железная дорога, railway. The dictionary of abbreviations here adds to that жилой дом (dwelling) and жёсткий диск (hard disk, HDD), but both are very rare and have nothing to do with Bykov’s novel, as far as I can imagine.
    The reason Bykov chose the abbreviation as the name for his novel is probably that it sounds remotely similar to жиды, which is derived from Judas and historically just meant “Jews”, but then became insulting and is now replaced by евреи, иудеи or израильтяне (Israelis) in all non-antisemitic discourse.
    Obviously, AD would be an extremely bad translation.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    The Mainland European Sprachbund once again rears its possibly ugly head against the Splendid Isolation of English: German Aktionär “shareholder”; Aktie “share” (singular count noun, unlike “stock”, for which there’s no direct translation); Börse “stock exchange”, also “purse”.

  15. In fact, the abbreviation ж/д has only one widespread meaning in Russian – namely, железная дорога, railway. The dictionary of abbreviations here adds to that жилой дом (dwelling) and жёсткий диск (hard disk, HDD), but both are very rare and have nothing to do with Bykov’s novel, as far as I can imagine.
    Bykov discusses it here: Нет обязательной для всех расшифровки названия – “ЖД”: железная дорога, жесткий диск, жаркие денечки, жирный Дима, жуй давай, жуткая дрянь, жалко денег, живой дневник, Живаго-доктор. Я придерживаюсь варианта “Живые души”.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    David M: German Aktionär “shareholder”; Aktie “share” (singular count noun, unlike “stock”, for which there’s no direct translation); Börse “stock exchange”, also “purse”.

    The German words must be from French: une action (in financial context) ‘a share’, so un actionnaire ‘a shareholder’. No word for ‘stock’ here either.

    Also la Bourse ‘the Stock Exchange’, original meaning ‘money purse’, later also ‘fancy purse’, usually made of cloth, with a round bottom part and closed by a cord. Before the adoption of paper money, coins were usually carried in such a purse. The word is also used figuratively. There is also the transitive verb débourser ‘to spend’ (out of one’s stash of money), usually said about a substantial amount.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    Yes, that’s my point.

  18. January First-of-May says:

    The word for “shareholder” is also акционер in Russian, and the word for “share” is акция, both clearly loans from the same origin as the German and French.

    Also can’t think of an equivalent of the English mass noun “stock” (there’s доля, literally “fraction”, which means someone’s entire stock, but I think the English term for that is “stake”).

    As for “stock exchange”, the Russian word is биржа. which is clearly somehow related to the French and German words, but I can’t figure out how precisely.
    [EDIT: Wiktionary says it’s from Dutch, but still doesn’t explain the weird form. It looks like it should have been **борса or similar.]

  19. Misreading of handwritten or even printed word ‘Burse’ as Cyrillic.

    u becomes и, r becomes р and se becomes ж

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