A Translator Takes Stock.

For years I’ve been looking forward to reading Yury Trifonov, and now that I’ve finally gotten to him, I find him even better than I expected. At the end of July I read his Обмен (The Exchange), the first of his famous “Moscow novels,” and now I’ve finished the second, Предварительные итоги (Preliminary results, tr. as Taking Stock, available in this collection); they’re both gripping stories of moral choices and fraying families, but the second has a language-related aspect, so it’s the one that drove me to make a post. Anyone who likes good novels should read both — they’re nice and short.

The novel is about a middle-aged hack translator, Gennady, who has fled Moscow for Turkmenia to get away from his wife Rita and son Kirill, with both of whom he is furious, and to earn some money by translating a long poem by his self-important acquaintance/patron Mansur, who seems to always come through when he needs a commission. In the process he thinks about his life, trying to come to some sort of conclusion, and this aspect seems to me to derive from two classic stories, Tolstoy’s Смерть Ивана Ильича (The Death of Ivan Ilich), in which a mediocre judge realizes he’s lived all wrong, and Chekhov’s Скучная история (A Boring Story; A Dreary Story; A Tedious Story), in which a famous medical professor, close to death, realizes his knowledge is useless to help himself or anyone else. (Apparently Trifonov originally intended for Gennady to die, but changed his mind as he was writing.) I suspect he’s influenced by Kataev’s memoir-novels as well, and it could also have links to Yuri Olesha’s Зависть (Envy; see this 2010 post), in which the woman several of the male characters struggle over is called Valya, like the young nurse Gennady reaches out to at the end. An interesting scholarly approach can be found in Andrew R. Durkin, Trifonov’s “Taking Stock”: The Role of Čexovian Subtext (Slavic and East European Journal 28.1 [Spring, 1984]: 32-41). At any rate, here’s my translation of a passage about his professional life (the Russian is here):

I’m translating an enormous poem by my friend Mansur, three thousand lines. It’s called “The Little Golden Bell.” As you might guess, Little Bell is the nickname of a girl; her fellow villagers called her that because of her clear, melodious voice. The poem will be published here [in Turkmenia], in Moscow, and in Minsk. I don’t know why Minsk — that’s his business. I’m doing it in a hurry; I need the money, and I have to leave here no later than the tenth of June. […] I’m doing as many as sixty lines a day, which is a lot. I don’t wait for inspiration: at eight in the morning I drink a bowl of last night’s tea kept in a thermos and sit at my desk till two, at two I have lunch in a lousy teahouse next to the post office, and from three till five or six I sit until my head hurts and I see specks in front of my eyes. But what can I do? Translating poems is my profession. I don’t know how to do anything else. I translate from an interlinear crib. For all practical purposes I can translate from all the languages of the world except for two which I have some knowledge of, German and English, for which I don’t have the heart, or maybe the conscience. I don’t have any need for fame; that’s come and gone (not fame, of course, but the need for it).

[…] A few days ago, having worked till I saw the black specks, I went to the teahouse […] and to cheer myself up drank two glasses of godawful Ashkhabad vodka. I drank with pleasure, but with some fear as well. And it acted on me in a strange way. It’s not so much that I got drunk — I’m sure my abstaining for so long had its effect — but my head worked with clarity, everything was normal except in one respect, as in the world of Kafka, where everything seems believable except for one particular circumstance: for instance, Samsa having turned into an insect. It seemed to me that the godawful Ashkhabad vodka standing on my desk was the interlinear crib whose amphibrachic tetrameters I had to translate into Russian, at which point it would become a bottle of Stolichnaya. That day I tossed off more than seventy lines.

I want to thank Alexander Anichkin, who comments as Sashura, for having urged on me some of the Russian authors it has given me most joy to read: Platonov, Kataev, the Strugatskys, and now Trifonov. I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the Moscow novels.

Two from Trevor.

That wonderful Irish poet and link-provider Trevor Joyce (see this post from a few years back) has been providing links, and here are a couple you may enjoy.

1) William Costa on languages in Paraguay in the Guardian: “The Paraguayan Guaraní language is a rare regional success story. But its own popularity is a problem for smaller languages.”

2) Eddie Moroney doing sports commentary in a South Tipperary accent so thick you could do somersaults on it. What is goin’ on? At all?

Thanks, Trevor!

Hebrew Infusion.

Renee Ghert-Zand writes for the Times of Israel about something I (a gentile who has been Judaism-adjacent all his life) had no idea of:

Kids in the Diaspora missed many things by not being able to attend Jewish sleep away camps this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been a rough couple of months not eating in the chadar ochel (dining hall), doing rikud (dance) and swimming in the breicha (pool). And of course, they missed polishing up their Hebrew.

However, a fascinating new book by a historian and two sociolinguists explodes the notion that campers and staff speak Hebrew at American Jewish camps. Instead, they become conversant in what Jonathan Krasner, Sarah Bunin Benor and Sharon Avni have coined “camp Hebraized English” (CHE), which is actually a rich register of Jewish American English. CHE includes both Jewish life words (such as Shabbat Shalom) and camp words (such as chadar ochel) — but it is not Hebrew.

To illustrate their point from the outset, the authors begin “Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps” by quoting a humorous bit performed by American-Israeli comedian and educator Benji Lovitt, who attended Young Judaea camps for many years. Lovitt, who made aliyah to Israel from Texas 14 years ago, jokes that the Hebrew he learned at Jewish summer camp consisted solely of nouns and set phrases, and as a result he couldn’t even string together a sentence. […]

Aside from a small number of hardcore Hebrew-language Zionist camps that operated in early- to mid-20th century, such as Camp Massad, established in 1941 in the Pocono Mountains, the vast majority of Jewish camps never intended to teach their campers to speak, read or write fluent Hebrew. In some cases, this was an ideological choice. In others, it was due to cultural, political, and economic exigencies.

From the mid-20th century onward, fewer and fewer Jewish American leaders — let alone lay people — were fluent Hebrew speakers, and camps reflected this reality. In order to attract staff and campers and keep their doors open, camps couldn’t restrict admissions to only those with strong Hebrew backgrounds.

Over time, almost all attempts at Hebrew immersion were replaced what Benor, Avni and Krasner term “Hebrew infusion.”

There’s much more at the link, including some great photos; frequent commenter D.O., who sent it to me, adds:

[This] got me thinking about “Moscow English”, a version of English language that was taught in the Soviet Union. It is pretty clear why English in the USSR was taught as if it were a dead language (though it was stupid nonetheless), it is less clear to me why American Jewish camps won’t hire a bunch of young Israelis to teach kids some real language. Anyway, it looks a bit like a language revival project for a language that is not in fact dead. Crazy! Do other expat communities teach their kids a canned language?

Good question!

On Sermons and the Vernacular.

I do like an eloquently obscene rant, and that goes double for rants about language and history, so I am grateful to my pal Nicholas Jainschigg for passing along this post by medieval historian Eleanor Janega responding to an idiotic tweet about “priests who kept reading their sermons in Latin after the printing press had come along.” I’ll quote the core of it here:

Somehow it seems that I have written very little about sermons here on the blog, and this is odd because I am absolutely obsessed with them. You may be wondering how a nice little Buddhist girl such as myself got that way. The answer is this: I like studying propaganda and sermons are one of the most effective and wide-reaching forms of medieval propaganda that there is.

Sermons were able to serve this purpose because of how they were spread and shared. An intense interest in sermons can be seen throughout the medieval period. […] We know a lot about the sermons that everyone was very busy delivering as a result of all of the sermon collections which have survived. Sermon collections are a super interesting source which existed in order to help out all those budding preachers across Europe who were compelled by the papacy to deliver timely sermons to their flocks, but who may not have been the most gifted speech writers themselves. Say you knew you had to give a sermon each week to your parish but weren’t sure what exactly you wanted to speak on. You could reach for a sermon collection which had developed using classical rhetorical approaches and which even followed the liturgical calendar for the year. Bang, all you had to do was look up Michaelmas and you would be given a model sermon to deliver to the faithful on that day. It would be neatly written out in Latin and give you a generalised topic and certain points to hit, but it also allowed for readers to add their own flourishes, elaborating on various images, or giving their own examples of virtuous lives, tailoring the experience to their own audience. […]

[Read more…]

Sokolov’s Monument.

I’m still dipping my toes into Sokolov’s Между собакой и волком, translated by Alexander Boguslawski as Between Dog and Wolf (see this post from July) — I find the “Hunter’s Notes” poems excellent bedtime reading. I’ve gotten to one called Архивная [Archival] that is uniquely (for this Finneganesque book) transparent, with nary a dialectal or invented word; more than that, it’s funny, touching, and a clever twist on a longstanding tradition in Russian poetry, updatings of Horace’s Exegi monumentum. Lomonosov in 1747 rendered it in iambic pentameter, keeping the Roman references; Derzhavin’s version is in stately Alexandrines and adds mention of the Volga, Don, Neva, and Urals; Pushkin’s “riff on (and in some ways gentle parody of) his elder Derzhavin’s Russian imitation of Horace’s ode” is well analyzed by Alex Foreman in this extended blog post, which itself is well worth your while (he delights me by pointing out Nabokov’s blunder in saying it is in “exactly the same verse form” as Derzhavin’s, which it totally isn’t); and there are versions by Kapnist, Batyushkov, Fet, Bryusov, and most recently (as far as I know) Brodsky. Sokolov’s poem is not about a bronze monument, but it presents a similar, if more modest, idea; here’s my translation:


Oh, how it will be stifling
for me one day in dust
amid the archive shelving —
boring for me, yeah.
One day in his pince-nez
an archivist will come;
he’ll root around and dig in me
and figure out my scribblings,
and this is what he’ll find:
a drawing and a portrait,
an old museum ticket,
and mixed in with the rest —
why, this here very note;
he’ll read about himself.
And then he’ll start to laugh,
ha ha, for the whole archive:
a hunter, so archaic
and really too indecent,
but a sagacious chap.
And oh how he’ll be happy
with his discovery.
And he will be, just be,
but me, I will not be,
on holidays nor weekdays,
but how I’ll be eternal
far away from time,
far from obligations,
in straitened circumstances,
amid the stifling dust!

  –tr. Stephen Dodson

And here’s Boguslawski’s:
[Read more…]

Comrade Duch’s Chinese Name.

A reader wrote to say “I was curious about the name of a Khmer Rouge leader who died yesterday, so I ended up writing a post about it”; the post, What was Khmer Rouge executioner Comrade Duch’s original Chinese name?, is exactly the kind of philological/linguistic excavation I enjoy, so I’m passing it along for those who have similar interests. Here’s the conclusion:

One character that came to mind was 耀 iău [iau˧˥] or iŏu [iou˧˥], meaning ‘radiance’, as can be found in the name of the Singaporean politician Lee Kuan Yew whose Chinese name was 李光耀 or Lí Kong-iāu in Hokkien. Sure enough, when I searched for 江玉耀, I immediately found a number of results confirming that this was the original Chinese name of Kang Kek Ieu, including the following excerpt from an English-language abstract:

One such killer who fits this description is Kaing Kek Iev (កាំង ហ្គេកអ៊ាវ, aka. 江玉耀Jiāng Yùyào, or more famously, “Comrade Duch”) …

So there you have it—the original Chinese name of this Khmer Rouge war criminal was 江玉耀, pronounced Kang Ge̍k-iău [kaŋ˧ ɡek̚˦ iau˧˥] or Kang Ge̍k-iŏu [kaŋ˧ ɡek̚˦ iou˧˥] in Teochew and Jiāng Yùyào in Mandarin. In Sino-Korean it would be 강옥요 Gang Okyo.

The nom de guerre usually romanized Duch or Douch is written ឌុច Dŭch in Khmer. The pronunciation would be [ɗuc~duc] where the final consonant is a unreleased palatal stop [c̚], although it appears that in many similar words the vowel may be a bit lower (e.g. ជុច chŭch [cʊc] [cɔc] according to the Khmer Pronouncing Dictionary). The sound d in Khmer seems to be variably pronounced as an implosive [ɗ] or the regular [d], with the latter favoured in educated speech. A reasonable approximation in English would be to rhyme it with ‘look’ as [dʊk]; it would be inappropriate to pronounce it like ‘Dutch’.

But it’s a lot of fun seeing the process of deduction; I recommend clicking through for the whole story. Thanks, Jongseong!

Living in Translation.

Aruni Kashyap (quoted here in 2017 on the difficulty of translation) has a wonderful essay in Catapult, “Living in Translation, or Why I Love Daffodils, an Unpopular Postcolonial Flower”; it’s one of those that can’t be summarized, so I’ll toss a few chunks out there and hope you rise to the bait:

Unlike many of my other schoolmates, I didn’t speak English at home. My father grew up poor in a village where the only English words used were the ones that had percolated deep into the Indian languages and were no more considered English: telephone, inland letter, telegram, Colgate, kerosene (daily necessity, since we didn’t have power), etc. On the other hand, my mother grew up in poverty in a small town called Golaghat and studied in an Assamese-medium government school, but never spoke English except in phrases, only when necessary. A professor of Assamese literature, her quotes, framed or unframed, came from the vast repertoire of the literary body in which she earned a doctorate. My parents didn’t have access to English books and didn’t read English, unless required.

Unable to resolve the language dilemma, I decided to broach the matter at the dinner table, announcing that I would never write in English again. After a while, Ma suggested, “You don’t have to stop writing in English. You can also write in Assamese. You should write in a language that makes you feel happy.” I was surprised by these possibilities. […]

For most English writers, it is a famous English-language novel that encourages them to pursue writing: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for Chimamanda Adichie, or Song of Solomon for Junot Diaz. Due to my parents’ upbringing, we had just a handful of English books at home, such as a tattered copy of Pride and Prejudice, Tales from Shakespeare by Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb, etc. My parents thought that their son’s English learning in school was enough. Perhaps that’s why one of the first novels to dismantle and remake my heart was by Assamese writer Indira Goswami: Dotal Hatir Uye Khowa Howdah (later translated from Assamese to English by the author as The Moth Eaten Howdah of the Tusker).

[…] In Moth Eaten, the central story is that of Giribala. The story of this rebellious transgressive teenage widow—who is found eating meat, and who falls in love with a British manuscript curator, leading to tragic consequences—is unforgettable. […] When I was a high school student, the novel wasn’t an easy read. Even though the narration is in standard Assamese, which I find no hurdle to read, the dialogues in the novel are in the South Kamrup dialect, from the village of Amranga. Not everyone in the state would find it easy to understand the dialogues, but it added a gritty realism to the book and made it impossible to translate.

The tragic story of Giribala and her aunts shook me to the core, saddening me for weeks. But it is the kind of satisfactory sadness and addictive rage only a powerful novel could provide. A few years later, when I was a student of English literature at Delhi University, I found a copy of this novel’s English translation (by the author) in a bookshop not very far from Professor Goswami’s Department of Modern Indian Languages and Literary Studies. I was disappointed to find that the dialogues in the translation are in standard English. The prose retains the original flavor, but the experience of reading it in English is different. Both versions of the book are compelling, heartbreaking, and follow the forbidden love stories of three widows, but I felt as if I was reading an entirely new book in English. When I read the original Assamese novel, the sounds that ring in my mind are far more redolent, immediate, with whiplashes’ power and speed. In English, something is missing.

Reading the novel full of stunning imagery and extended metaphors during my high school years helped me refine my prose. In my American creative writing classroom, when I talk about lush prose, I always bring up three of my favorites: Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and Indira Goswami—the queen of metaphors and similes. However, it was the voice of the omniscient narrator that would stay with me even longer, shaping what I expect from fiction. Goswami used a local dialect in the Assamese edition. Many Assamese readers wouldn’t understand it with ease. But she didn’t assume her reader was dumb. She refused to make it accessible for people who didn’t speak in the dialect. Reading the book required work from the reader. But her fiction is for those who are ready to do that work. […]

Perhaps this is also because Goswami and Debi didn’t write with the anxiety of being seen as Indian. Unlike the Indian writer in English, they were also not forced to accommodate a reader who didn’t live in India; or understand complex Indian realities. Also, Indian readers know that India is confusing. We don’t feel alienated if we don’t understand some cultural or historical specificities. These parameters—of living in perennial translation, and accepting that not everything is accessible—were foundational to me as a writer.

I haven’t even gotten to the daffodils (“perhaps one of the most disliked flowers among postcolonial writers”) or the discussion of Amitav Ghosh (“This is a Bengali novel, just written in English”); I hope you’ll click the link and read all about them. Thanks, Trevor!

Melius ex errore.

An interesting quote (via Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti) from Robert A. Hall, Jr., A Life for Language: A Biographical Memoir of Leonard Bloomfield (John Benjamins, 1990):

Part of the strong condemnation expressed in the last sentence quoted above was an outgrowth of Bloomfield’s disgust with the inexactitude and inaccuracy of the folklore taught in our schools as “grammar” (e.g., “a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing”). He used to say that it would be better for school children to remain totally ignorant of grammar than to be taught such traditional but false doctrines. On more than one occasion, I argued with him about this opinion of his, and tried to point out that, if a child is to recognize the desirability of analysing language at all, this must be demonstrated to him at an age when he is interested in such matters. Even if what the child learns is wrong, he can unlearn it later. But, once he has passed beyond the stage of acquiring his native language (normally wholly outside of awareness), he no longer sees any need for discussing or analysing it. I wish I had known the mediaeval Latin aphorism Melius invenitur veritas ex errore quam ex ignorantia ‘it is easier to get at the truth starting from a wrong notion than from no notion at all’, so as to quote it to Bloomfield.

I can understand both points of view; I think I would have firmly agreed with Bloomfield as a fervent young linguist, but now I incline toward Hall’s attitude. (The aphorism is apparently from Francis Bacon, Novum Organum 2.20: citius emergit veritas ex errore quam ex confusione.)

I can’t resist quoting another Laudator post, an excerpt from Alexander Langlands, Cræft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts (2017):

The local potter couldn’t specialise and expect to survive. Instead, they had to turn their hand to a huge range of vessels from pie dishes, pancheons, cream-making pans, bread crocks, butter pots, stew dishes, casseroles, cauldrons, fish dishes and bakers, to storage vessels, ham pans, salt kits, jelly moulds, jugs, plates, bowls and chamber pots. I could go on. In fact, I will: costrels, spittoons, alembics, paint pots, chicken feeders, hog pots, pitchers, fuddling cups, stinkpots, Long Toms, lading pots, bussas, chafing dishes, bed pans, benisons, barm pots, cloughs, clouts, piggins, posset pots, wash pans, whistles and widebottoms.

But wait, there’s more…

Rytkheu’s Fog Dream.

I just finished a book I never really expected to read, Yuri Rytkheu’s 1969 Сон в начале тумана [Dream at the beginning of fog]. I knew Rytkheu was “the father of Chukchi literature,” but frankly I had no interest in Chukchi literature, and I expected his novels to be a mashup of ethnographic detail and standard socialist-realist tropes. I do enjoy a good tale of Arctic adventure, so that was alluring, but I had also read that the hero tries to teach the Chukchi literacy and bring them into the modern world, which was exactly the sort of thing that made me tired just to think about. What pushed me over the edge was learning that Chingiz Aitmatov (see this post) was accused of plagiarism by people who claimed that his famous И дольше века длится день (The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years) was “substantially similar” to the Rytkheu novel. OK, that does it, I thought, I have to read it and see what it’s all about. So I did, and I’m glad of it.

Mind you, it’s not a Great Novel in either the Flaubert/Nabokov or Tolstoy/Dostoevsky sense; it’s just a good story well told, and anyone who likes accounts of protagonists overcoming apparently fatal handicaps and thriving in difficult circumstances will enjoy it, especially if they have a fondness for tales of the frozen North. And I’m happy to say that the business about teaching literacy and bringing the Chukchi into the modern world is a complete lie — there’s nothing like that in the novel I read, which is the exact opposite (the hero adopts and defends Chukchi culture), and I suspect it may describe the sequel, Иней на пороге [Frost on the threshold], which came out the following year. It wouldn’t surprise me if Soviet officialdom said “Look, pal, it’s all very well to praise the local way of life when the alternative was tsarist oppression, but you’d better make it clear that Soviet life was a necessary improvement.” But somebody will have to tell me if that’s so, because I’m not about to read it.

At any rate, the story is about John MacLennan, a Canadian sailor on an ice-bound ship in the Arctic Ocean in 1910, who is badly injured and left with the natives; at first appalled by his situation, he adapts to it, marries and has kids, learns to value the local worldview above the one he grew up with, and defends it against attempts by rapacious merchants to encroach on it. The final scene (somewhat mawkish, unlike the rest of the book) makes it clear he insists on staying — he has chosen his people. That scene is set in 1918: the locals are aware the Bolsheviks have taken control in far-off Russia, but nobody knows what that means, and there is no propaganda inserted to explain what a glorious event it is. The book is largely taken up with John’s struggle to learn the Chukchi methods of survival and convincing descriptions of the harsh environment they have to contend with; you end by deeply respecting the people who make their living there, as you are meant to. And since Rytkheu was Chukchi himself, you never have that queasy feeling you do when reading even the best-informed and best-intentioned fiction by outsiders trying to put you and themselves into the minds of “primitive” peoples; everyone here is absolutely convincing, even if there isn’t much psychological depth.

Oh, and the title: “Son” is the Chukchi attempt to pronounce “John,” and the name of the woman he marries, Pylmau, means ‘beginning of fog’; furthermore, “dream at the beginning of fog” is said to be an expression meaning a dream you barely remember when it’s over, so it’s multivalent. I should add that the book has been translated by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse as A Dream in Polar Fog (Archipelago Books, 2006), so you don’t have to read Russian to take the ride.

For anyone who doesn’t care about Arctic fiction but does care about the factuality of published books: Fact Checking Is the Core of Nonfiction Writing. Why Do So Many Publishers Refuse to Do It?, by Emma Copley Eisenberg. Read it and weep (though there are some encouraging signs). When I was a copyeditor, I routinely checked facts and quotes that I felt like checking, but of course that’s a very different thing from being paid to go through a text with a fine-toothed comb, checking every single thing — I have infinite respect for the people who do that well.

What Language Did Jesus Speak?

Alex Foreman has a very interesting Facebook post summed up by the title, and I wanted to rescue the first (and for me the more interesting) part from the memory pit of FB:

There are really two questions in this single one. What language might the Jesus of the Gospels speak, and what language might the historical Jesus have spoken.

A strong argument can be made that the Jesus of the Gospels — given all the linguistic behavior he engages in, and all the non-supernatural things he does — would have to be trilingual in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

In the time of Jesus, Hebrew was actively spoken and written, alongside Aramaic, by many Palestinian Jews — both as a learned language and as an L1. The view that Hebrew was, at this period, a dead language in any sense is out of date. Generally nowadays people posit the final death of L1-Hebrew in the 2nd or 3rd century CE. Perhaps later still among Samaritans. The Qumran texts are formulated mostly in Hebrew not because the writers wanted to imitate the Bible, but because Hebrew was the community’s language (and their dialect was clearly quite unlike Biblical Hebrew — a fact which is obvious even when they are consciously modeling their writing on Biblical precedents).
Biblical Hebrew had indeed become a language that needed to be learned but post-biblical Hebrew dialects were widely spoken.

Jesus would probably have used Hebrew in his discussion with the Pharisees on the washing of hands, for example (Mark 7:1-25). Only Hebrew was regularly used at this period in discussions touching on Jewish law. But he would have spoken Aramaic to the non-Jewish Syrophoenician woman whose daughter was possessed.

And anyone in Judea able to communicate with a guy like Pontius Pilate, would have known either Greek or Latin. Someone like Jesus would be unlikely to have learned Latin, but could easily have picked up Greek. Contrary to what Mel Gibson would have us believe, it was not normal for high-ranking soldiers to learn anything other than Greek when stationed in the east. In fact, we have very little evidence of anyone learning any other language other than Greek and Latin in the Roman Army, apart from one account in Apollonius Sidonius (describing Syagrius’ learning to speak Germanic) which suggests that such an activity was weird and unusual among cultivated Romans.

So the Jesus of the Gospels appears to be trilingual.

The post ends “The Lord’s prayer though, I think could not possibly have been produced outside of a Jewish milieu and is one of a number of places in the Gospels where an Aramaic linguistic background is pretty palpable”; I confess I don’t understand that part.