Parasite Translator.

No, not an interpreter of parasites, but Darcy Paquet, the guy who did the English-language subtitles for Bong Joon-ho’s movie Parasite, this year’s surprise Oscar winner; Lee Hana had a nice interview with him last year for, and I’ll quote the most linguistically interesting bits here:

– For “Parasite,” you and Bong jointly revised the final version of the subtitles. What was that process like?

I typed up the subtitles for about a week and half. We sent some emails back and forth. Afterwards, there were two days of long meetings with the director, the producer, me and several people from the distribution company. They all spoke English and offered suggestions. It was helpful to have a group of us thinking together about the challenging parts of the translation.

– In one scene, a woman calls a dish “jjapaguri” but the subtitle says “ramdon.” Is it true that “jjapaguri” was the hardest to translate?

I was embarrassed because I made up this word “ramdon.” I thought people would laugh at me for it, but it works in the film. The word is first used during a phone conversation. Later, as one character prepares the food, we see the packages on the screen and I wrote “ramyeon” and “udon” over them to show how “ramdon” came about. I did actually Google “ramdon” before writing it and nothing came up. It appears to not be a word in any language at all.

– Couldn’t you have written in “jjapaguri” so that foreign audiences could look it up later?

There are always debates like that. In that case, if you put the original Korean word, people can search it up later. There are other examples, like “Seoul National University” (SNU) being translated to “Oxford.” The first time I did the translation, I did write out SNU but we ultimately decided to change it because it’s a very funny line, and in order for humor to work, people need to understand it immediately. With an unfamiliar word, the humor is lost.

– Was there a reason you went with Oxford rather than Harvard?

I think Bong likes England a lot. I’ve been joking about this as well, but when I was a high school student, I applied to Harvard and didn’t get in. Jokes aside, I think Harvard is too obvious a choice. It’s more memorable when you say Oxford.

He describes how he got the job and offers advice for people wanting to break into subtitle translation. Thanks, Bathrobe!

Euboean Greek to Etruscan to Latin.

Nick Kampouris writes about the path the alphabet took on its way to us:

As early as in the 8th century BC, Chalkideans sailed to Italy and established the first Greek colony on the peninsula, the city of Cumae (Κύμη). In what is now an ancient site near the town of Cuma (whose name was derived from ancient Cumae) lies the secret of the creation of the alphabet which is currently used by most of humankind. […]

The Greeks of Cumae spread their Greek culture throughout Italy and introduced the Euboean alphabet, the one their ancestors were using on Euboea, Greece, to the local people. The Etruscans, whose civilization came into direct contact and interrelation with the Greek settlers, were heavily influenced by Cumae and the rest of the nearby Greek settlements. Thus, from approximately 650 BC up until around 100 BC, the Etruscans adopted and used the Euboean alphabet introduced to Italy by the Cumaean Greeks, to create a written form for their own, Etruscan language. […]

The Etruscans, of course, added their own elements, shaping the Euboean alphabet in a way that would suit their own language, thus creating the precursor of the alphabet the Romans would eventually use. […] The Romans, along with their complete conquest of the Italian peninsula, adopted the Etruscan alphabet to use it as a written form of their own, Latin language, which soon became the lingua franca of Italy, eclipsing the Etruscan language and other dialects.

There are more details, as well as some great images and a fair amount of hot air (“The journey of any alphabet or language is far more complicated than we could ever even imagine…”), at the link. Thanks, Trevor!

The Provinces.

Back in 2010, I linked to Anne Lounsbery’s “To Moscow, I Beg You!”: Chekhov’s Vision of the Russian Provinces; she’s since incorporated her thoughts from that and other articles into her new book Life Is Elsewhere: Symbolic Geography in the Russian Provinces, 1800–1917. I am looking forward to acquiring it when used copies become available at a reasonable price (the Kindle version is a very reasonable $9.99, but this is one I want in hardcopy); in the meantime I had a sample delivered to my Kindle, and I’ve been enjoying it so much I wanted to quote some passages. Fortunately, I found another article of hers, No, this is not the provinces!”: Provincialism, Authenticity, and Russianness in Gogol’s Day, that has some of the same material in easily copy-and-pasted form, so I will take the easy way out and copy-and-paste a few paragraphs from that:

Ever since the founding of Petersburg in 1703, Russia has been in the rather anomalous position of having two capital cities. Both Moscow and Petersburg are undeniably capitals (stolitsy); each has inspired its share of literary paeans and literary attacks; each has been described and redescribed in terms ranging from the sociologically precise to the mystically evocative. But “the provinces,” on the other hand—and particularly the provincial city—have often been represented simply as the not-capital, as the embodiment of lack. The history of the word provintsiia and its cognates reflects this. The noun provintsiia entered Russian with Peter the Great’s reforms, when it was used to designate a large administrative and territorial unit of the Russian Empire. In 1775, under Catherine, another round of reforms did away with the term, replacing it with guberniia. After provintsiia lost its concrete administrative meaning, it came to refer simply to the not-capital, to things outside of Petersburg and Moscow; at the same time, it began to serve less as a real geographic designation than as a qualitative judgment.

But the designation “the provinces” does not refer to absolutely everything outside of Petersburg and Moscow, because the label “provincial” does not focus on rural life per se. Rural life is the village (derevnia, derevenskii). Instead, provintsial’nyi (or gubernskii) typically describes provincial cities and towns—places like N, the setting of Dead Souls. Similarly, a nobleman’s estate, regardless of its location, can be deeply provincial or not provincial at all. (For example, a huge lavish estate like the Sheremetevs’, complete with its own opera company, cannot accurately be described as provincial.) It is therefore crucial to recognize that in this sense of the word, peasants are not provincials, and peasant culture is not provincial culture. Above all, peasants are associated with a folk authenticity—and as I will argue, it is precisely authenticity to which the provincial sphere has no legitimate claim. Peasants are not trying and failing to follow the mode of the capital; they are not implicated in the system that Franco Moretti has described as “fashion, this great metropolitan idea … this engine that never stops, and makes the provinces feel old and ugly and jealous—and seduces them forever and a day.”

Russian literature’s preoccupation with provinciality seems to go hand in hand with the absence of a strong regionalist tradition. The striking frequency with which the peculiarities of European Russia’s huge array of local subcultures are collapsed into the label “the provinces” suggests that this literary tradition is not one in which particular regions (regions within European Russia, that is) have strong associations with particular meanings. Compare this to canonical European novels, in which, as Moretti has argued, quite typically “what happens depends a lot on where it happens.” In Jane Austen’s plots, for example, narrative complications generally arise in certain English counties,and these narrative complications then meet their (matrimonial) resolutions in certain other counties. Furthermore, English Gothic novels are virtually never set in the regions where Austen’s narratives unfold. This indicates that Britain’s and even England’s internal borders, those that divide regions, are meaningful for the narrative structure of English prose. In France, Balzac’s enormous Human Comedy develops a whole anatomy of the country’s very different, highly individualized provinces. While Lucien Chardon (in Lost Illusions, 1837–43) is as desperate to escape the provinces as any Russian hero has ever been, Chardon’s cheerless provincial hometown is a real place (Angoulême),and Balzac describes this real place in great historical and social detail. The same holds for the American tradition: we have learned to expect entirely different things of a story set in Oxford, Mississippi, than we expect from a story set in Maine. In fact, to a large degree American prose fiction (and particularly American realism) developed in response to the pressures and contradictions of regionalist perspectives.

All of which is extremely relevant to my 2013 post about the “city of N” and the lack of regional literature in Russia (using “regional” in Lounsbery’s sense of ‘part of traditional Russia outside the capitals, not the borderlands’).

OED Milestones.

The OED editorial leadership team has decided to change the way they update the dictionary; I’m not entirely clear on how it will work in practice, but it seems significant enough to post here:

Since the launch of the OED website 20 years ago, the OED editorial project has made numerous incremental changes in editorial practices, but the fundamental approach of revising all components of each entry in their entirety before publication has not changed. The website therefore presents a hybrid text, in which some entries are fully revised and others wholly unrevised; this inhibits holistic analysis of the OED dataset and delays implementation of important corrections and updates. Our current efforts are concentrated on finding ways of alleviating this situation, and removing constraints in accessing OED data for research purposes through or other means, while (as throughout the last decade) continuing with targeted revision of material most in need of thorough reassessment.

To accelerate the benefits of OED’s revision, the project is launching a new initiative, OED Milestones, through which the editorial team will implement cross-textual improvements to the dictionary alongside traditional entry-by-entry revision, as well as making the OED’s data accessible to scholars in new ways. The new approach to editing will be flexible and dynamic, but will in no way compromise the integrity and quality of the OED’s research. In order to facilitate these new ways of working, the project is also implementing some changes to its editorial structure.

They mention things like “Prioritizing those entries or parts of entries which stand in most urgent need of revision,” “Making spot-corrections to inaccurate or outdated entries,” and “Improving coverage of global varieties of English.” On the latter front, the previous OED blog post on Nigerian English makes enjoyable reading; a sample paragraph:

One particularly interesting set of such loanwords and coinages has to do with Nigerian street food. The word buka, borrowed from Hausa and Yoruba and first attested in 1972, refers to a roadside restaurant or street stall that sells local fare at low prices. Another term for such eating places first evidenced in 1980 is bukateria, which adds to buka the –teria ending from the word cafeteria. An even more creative synonym is mama put, from 1979, which comes from the way that customers usually order food in a buka: they say ‘Mama, put…’ to the woman running the stall, and indicate the dish they want. The word later became a generic name for the female food vendors themselves—Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka notably includes a Mama Put character in one of his works.

Book of Kells Now Online.

Josh Jones wrote this piece for Open Culture almost a year ago, but I missed it then:

If you know nothing else about medieval European illuminated manuscripts, you surely know the Book of Kells. “One of Ireland’s greatest cultural treasures” comments, “it is set apart from other manuscripts of the same period by the quality of its artwork and the sheer number of illustrations that run throughout the 680 pages of the book.” The work not only attracts scholars, but almost a million visitors to Dublin every year. “You simply can’t travel to the capital of Ireland,” writes Book Riot’s Erika Harlitz-Kern, “without the Book of Kells being mentioned. And rightfully so.” […]

Its exquisite illuminations mark it as a ceremonial object, and its “intricacies,” argue Trinity College Dublin professors Rachel Moss and Fáinche Ryan, “lead the mind along pathways of the imagination…. You haven’t been to Ireland unless you’ve seen the Book of Kells.” This may be so, but thankfully, in our digital age, you need not go to Dublin to see this fabulous historical artifact, or a digitization of it at least, entirely viewable at the online collections of the Trinity College Library. The pages, originally captured in 1990, “have recently been rescanned,” Trinity College Library writes, using state of the art imaging technology. These new digital images offer the most accurate high resolution images to date, providing an experience second only to viewing the book in person.”

(There is more, and a couple of video clips, at the link.) I was thrilled to see it in person when I was in Dublin many years ago, and I am thrilled to have it available online. Thanks, internet!

How Pushkin Became a Cat.

Ilya Vinitsky reports for NYU’s Jordan Russian Center (Part I, Part II) on the backstory of a surprisingly popular American cat name:

At the tail end of 1934, when Gorky and Co. were defending the honor of the USSR’s national poet from bourgeois vulgarity, with the result that the eponymous Moscow café was deprived of its name, the famous Hollywood singer and actress Lilian Harvey (1906-1968) ran a notice in Los Angeles newspapers. Her blue- and brown-eyed white Persian cat, who went by the name of “Pushkin,” had gone missing. […]

I don’t know whether this kitten with the multi-colored eyes (who, today, might have been named in honor of David Bowie) was ever found, but my attention was drawn to a curious coincidence, dating to the very same period. Newspapers from the end of 1934 to the beginning of 1935 tell us that a certain school in Arizona staged a puppet show entitled Pushkin, starring a kitten with the very same name — though it is unclear whether it was Lilian Harvey’s runaway — along with two of his relatives. English-language culture offers few themes more banal than “three little kittens,” and yet I remained interested in the question of why a 1930s-era American would name a kitten in honor of Russia’s greatest poet.

Moreover, an American magazine article from 1936 plainly states that “the name Pushkin is ideal for a cat.” The tradition has proven quite powerful — in fact, one of my friends in Philadelphia has a cat named Pushkin. […] In fact, American newspaper clippings from the 1930s allow the historian to pose the question somewhat differently: when and why did these Pushkin-kittens appear?

Let’s start with what we know. In 1922, prolific Philadelphian author and well-known gourmand Christopher Morley (1890–1957) released a children’s book called I Know A Secret. The 1920s and 30s saw several editions of this delightful book released in America and England, accompanied by Jeanette Warmuth’s delightful illustrations. One of Secret’s most popular stories, “The Scheming Cat,” features a naughty white kitten named Pushkin. […] Several sources attest to the popularity of this story, including some from 1934. The puppet show about the naughty Pushkin was most likely an adaptation of this very story. The Hollywood actress and singer, therefore, likely named her white cat Pushkin under the influence of the children’s tale about the mischievous kitten in the bathroom. Incidentally, Morley himself loved the kitten he invented so much that he signed his editorial column in the Saturday Evening Post “the Cat Pushkin.”

In Part II he suggests that Morley, who is not known to have been interested in Russia or Russian literature, may have given his kitten the name “based on the phonetic model for funny children’s nicknames, along with ‘baby-talk’ modes of addressing children: Munch-kin, Pussy-cat, puss-puss-puss-push-push-push, Push-kin.” All I know is that I myself have a cat called Pushkin, and I had no idea of the tradition he unwittingly represents.

Ottoman Turkish in Armenian Script.

It’s been a while since I’ve featured Poemas del río Wang, but the latest post is right up my alley:

The Kumbaracı yokuşu, that is, “Bombardier descent” runs down to the always crowded İstiklal Avenue at its end near the sea, not far from the Passage Oriental, which housed the Café Lebon, the once famous café built in Art Nouveau style by the Istanbul-born French architect Alexandre Vallaury, not long after returning home from his studies in Paris. There were several similar passages on the İstiklal, the former Grand Rue de Péra, the main avenue of the European quarter of Istanbul from the Galata Tower up to Taksim Square, some of them are still open nowadays.

But if you also wander into the small streets and alleys opening from the İstiklal, you can find other, more neglected heralds of old Istanbul, a world gone almost a hundred years ago. On the Kumbaracı, not far from the fountain of Miralem Halil Ağa built as a pious gift in 1729, there is an interesting fin-de-siècle house. Arriving from the İstiklal, the French inscription on the left side of the doorway catches the eye first: “Fabrique et dépôt de meubles”, furniture factory and depot. The inscription on the right side is indecipherable, but the ones on the street front are mostly still there, defying time and weather, advertising the wares of the former owner in three languages and three different scripts.

The one on the left side seems to be the most interesting of all of them. The script is Armenian, but the language is Ottoman Turkish: ՄԷՖՐՕՒԶԱԹ ՖԱՊՐԻՔԱՍԸ mefroizat fabrikası, in modern orthography mefruşat fabrikası, “furniture factory”. It may sound strange today, but Ottoman Turkish was often written with Armenian script until the alphabet reform in 1928, after which the Latin script has been used for Turkish – even the very first Turkish novel, the Akabi’s story was published in Armeno-Turkish script in 1851. For most people it was easier to learn and the language itself could be rendered more precisely than in the otherwise used Ottoman Turkish script, a modified version of the Perso-Arabic alphabet. Precision depended on the language user him/herself too, however. In the inscription of the furniture factory two peculiarities can be observed: first, the ՕՒ oi standing in ՄԷՖՐՕՒԶԱԹ mefroizat instead of the properly used Ու u, which seems to be an influence of Greek. Then, the use of Ք k in ՖԱՊՐԻՔԱՍԸ fabrikası is quite uncommon as it usually stands before front rounded vowels. Before back vowels its almost mirrored counterpart, a Գ should be used (the difference between the two might be more palpable if one looks at their counterparts in the Ottoman script: ك and ق‎, respectively).

It turns out I actually posted about Armeno-Turkish in 2017, but in the interim I forgot all about it, so this is a useful reminder! It’s well worth visiting the río Wang post for the gorgeous images; I will make one pedantic correction: İstiklal Avenue is not “at its end near the sea” but at the upper end; the one near the sea is Kemeraltı Caddesi, as you can see from the map.

The Female Canon.

Полка ( — see this 2018 post) became concerned that they had so few women writers in their list of 108 important Russian books, so they decided to put together a female canon, from Catherine the Great to Elena Fanailova (they stopped in the year 2000, having decided that the 21st century needs its own list). I thought I had delved pretty deeply into women writers in Russian, but I found both writers and books I was unaware of, from Alexandra Zrazhevskaya’s 1842 Зверинец [The menagerie], “one of the first examples of feminist criticism,” to Olga Komarova’s 1999 Грузия [Georgia], a posthumous collection of a dozen stories, the only remaining legacy of a woman who steeped herself in an extreme form of Russian Orthodoxy, burned her writings, and asked that none of her stories, originally published in samizdat, be reprinted after her death (which came in a car crash in 1995). Thanks, as always, to Lev Oborin for his work on Polka and for posting about it on Facebook where I can keep up with it.


Charles Q. Choi writes for Spectrum about an unusual new programming language:

The world’s first programming language based on classical Chinese is only about a month old, and volunteers have already written dozens of programs with it, such as one based on an ancient Chinese fortune-telling algorithm.

The new language’s developer, Lingdong Huang, previously designed an infinite computer-generated Chinese landscape painting. He also helped create the first and so far only AI-generated Chinese opera. He graduated with a degree in computer science and art from Carnegie Mellon University in December.

After coming up with the idea for the new language, wenyan-lang, roughly a year ago, Huang finished the core of the language during his last month at school. It includes a renderer that can display a program in a manner that resembles pages from ancient Chinese texts.

“I always put it off and tried to read more books in classical Chinese. Eventually I decided that reading more books might be just a euphemism for procrastination, and I needed to just implement it,” Huang says.

I know the feeling! There is more description at the link, little of which I can understand, and some gorgeous illustrations. I have no idea if this is useful or just a jeu d’esprit, but I’m glad to know about it. Thanks, Trevor!

What’s It Like?

I’m still making my way through Irina Reyfman’s How Russia Learned to Write (see this post), and I just came across a translation that amused me. On page 93 she quotes a typically excitable and mendacious letter Gogol sent his mother in May 1829, in the course of which the young scapegrace invents a position he’d been offered at a thousand rubles a year and asks loftily why he should sell his health and precious time for such a pathetic sum (as Reyfman points out, it was actually a good salary for a starting position, and he would later accept much less), adding “и на совершенные пустяки, на что это похоже?” which she translates “And [sell it] in order to do nonsense. How can this be acceptable?”

That made me laugh out loud. I mean, it’s not wrong; “на что это похоже,” though it literally means “what’s it like?” (i.e., what does it resemble?) and can be used that way, is a common expression signifying indignation, and Sophia Lubensky’s invaluable Dictionary of Idioms renders it “whoever heard (of) the like?; whoever heard of such a thing?; what (sort of game) is this? what do you <they etc> think you <they etc> are doing? [in limited contexts] what will (did) it look like?; what sort of situation is this […].” Even those renditions sound too formal for the context (though “whoever heard of such a thing?” would pass well enough), but “How can this be acceptable?” is just ludicrous. (I suppose if he were a young man today he might say “What’s that about?”)

I’d say the paradigmatic example of its use is this, from Vera Panova’s Валя (1959):

― Как можно, ― говорили одни, ― ехать зайцем, на что это похоже!
[“How can you ride without paying,” some of them said, “na chto eto pokhozhe?”]

The thing is that you can’t really render it “whoever heard of such a thing?” because of course everyone has heard of such a thing, it’s common practice, it’s just reprehensible. I guess “shame on you!” is a likely equivalent, but does anyone say that any more? I think there are few vestiges left of the shame culture that used to govern civilized people. For that matter, do Russians (other than old babushkas) still say на что это похоже? Or is it all mat these days?