The Vauxhall at Pavlovsk.

Vauxhall is an interesting word. It originally referred to a district of London named (according to Wikipedia) for Falkes de Breauté, “the head of King John’s mercenaries, who owned a large house in the area,” and gave its name to the Vauxhall Gardens, “one of the leading venues for public entertainment in London, from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century.” So well known were the Gardens (“References to Vauxhall are, for 150 years, as ubiquitous as references to ‘Broadway’ later would be”) that the word was borrowed into Russian in the 18th century as воксал [voksal], and when the first public railway line in the Russian Empire was built from Saint Petersburg to Pavlovsk in 1836-37 and to attract passengers a music hall with gardens was added at the Pavlovsk station, it was called by that name. (That English Wikipedia article is a mess; it doesn’t distinguish the first station from the Pavlovsk-II station built in 1904, shown in one of the images, and says “The current station building was built 60 meters north of the old building in 1955” when by “the old building” they mean Pavlovsk-II.) Since the concerts at the воксал were very popular and since the music venue was next to the station itself, the name of the former got attached to the latter, and now the Russian word for any main station is вокзал [vokzal] (a lesser station is a станция [stantsiya]).

I first encountered the concerts in Mandelstam’s great memoir The Noise of Time (the first chapter is called “Music in Pavlovsk”), and I’ve just encountered a more detailed description in The Idiot (III:2), in the part where the Epanchins decide to walk from their dacha to take the air and hear the music. But where do they walk to? The воксал, but what is that? As it happens, The Idiot is (according to the Вокзал Wikipedia article) one of the first texts in Russian literature where the word is used for a railway station, and indeed, it is so used from the very first chapter. But in this passage things are not so simple. Dostoevsky writes “Все места около игравшего оркестра были заняты. Наша компания уселась на стульях несколько в стороне, близ самого левого выхода из воксала.” [All the places near the orchestra were taken. Our group sat down on chairs a bit to the side, near the leftmost exit from the voksal.] Now, if you’ll examine the map I hope you can see here (click on the map and use the plus sign to zoom in), you’ll find that the “Rail. Station” is a small structure just north of the “Vauxhall”; the map is from the 1914 Baedeker, which says “Near the station is the large railway restaurant of Vauxhall […]; popular concerts with a good band every evening in summer (adm. free; reserved seats 10-50 cop.).” So the restaurant/music hall is separate from the station, and in this scene it must be its exits that are intended. (You can see images here and here.) But the Carlisles, presumably confused by the multivalent word (and perhaps unfamiliar with the layout of the town), have “not far from the left-hand exit from the railroad station.” I’m pretty sure that’s wrong (I might go with “the leftmost exit from the vauxhall”), but I’m curious to know how other translators render it, so if anyone has access to other versions, please share.


Anne Curzan starts by describing a Scrabble game:

[…] I then played riven. There was no question about its wordiness, but as I played it, I suddenly wondered (aloud), “What is riven the past participle of?” (Yes, this is what it is like to play Scrabble with me.) I paused. “It is clearly a past participle,” I added. “It has to be. Rive? Does anybody rive?”

“Rift?” Peter threw out there. “But no, can’t be. That’s a noun.” (But he is right that it is etymologically related.)

Luckily, a dictionary was at hand, and there was the verb [“To rend or tear apart”] […]

It’s an old Scandinavian borrowing into English, with a regular past tense rived and a past participle riven. But as I said, Does anybody rive? Or anything for that matter? I had to know.

Her investigations, unsurprisingly, turn up exceedingly few citations for the base verb rive, which, as she says, “doesn’t look healthy.” An interesting situation I had never thought about.


In The Idiot II.11, Keller tells Prince Myshkin he has stayed around Pavlovsk in part “из особенного уважения к французскому архиепископу Бурдалу” [out of special respect for the French archbishop Bourdaloue], and since there was no annotation in either my Russian edition or the Carlisles’ translation, I consulted Dr. Google, and what I found astonished and amused me. Not the archbishop himself; Louis Bourdaloue was a perfectly respectable Jesuit preacher whose sermons were very popular. No, it’s the use the French language made of his name. My ancient Concise Oxford (1977, reprinted with corrections from the 1934 edition) defines bourdalou [sic] as ‘hatband’; as you can imagine, this pleased me. More recent dictionaries, even the huge (2,000+ pages) Larousse, don’t include it at all. But Doc Google turned up a much more entertaining eponym, bourdaloue ‘small chamber pot.’ You can see various lovely illustrations at this webpage, along with the popular explanation of the name:

According to legend, the name of this porta potty comes from Louis Bourdaloue (1632-1704), one of Louis XIVs Jesuit priests. His oratorical skills were reputedly so accomplished that people felt they could not miss a single word of his sermons. It is said that women sat through his masses with a bourdaloue placed under their dresses, whose skirts were held out by panniers. Since the priest’s sermons were somewhat longwinded, the chances that ladies would need to relieve themselves were almost certain. As a rule, churches and theatres had no toilets, and there were no breaks given during sermons. Ergo these portable urinals, which were ergonomically designed to accommodate the female body.

I presume both senses are long forgotten by current French speakers, other than specialists.

Native Land.

Cecilia Keating reports for Atlas Obscura on a valuable project:

For centuries, Indigenous peoples and their traditional territories have been purposefully left off maps by colonizers as part of a sustained campaign to delegitimize their existence and land claims. Interactive mapping website Native Land does the opposite, by stripping out country and state borders in order to highlight the complex patchwork of historic and present-day Indigenous territories, treaties, and languages that stretch across the United States, Canada, and beyond.

Visitors to the site can enter a street address or ZIP code into the map’s search bar to discover whose traditional territory their home was built on. […] The map, which is also a mobile app for Apple and Android, was created by a Canadian programmer named Victor Temprano, who started educating himself about Indigenous land rights and ownership when he got involved in anti-pipeline activism in British Columbia three years ago.

Temprano points out that if the map were to be a valid academic resource, “it would also need a time slider to specify different time periods, separate existing and historical nations, and highlight the movement of nations across time. That would be a huge logistical challenge, [..] requiring time, sources, and resources not currently available to him.” (Via poffin boffin’s MetaFilter post.)

Related only in that what happened to indigenous peoples here can happen elsewhere, legislation that makes studying minority languages voluntary in Russian schools threatens local languages and cultures: Tatarstan, the North Caucasus. (Thanks, Ayla!)

The Deep Roots of Writing.

Michael Erard, a longtime LH favorite (2016, 2003), has an Aeon piece that’s structured as a counter to the simplistic idea put forward by James Scott and others that “writing was invented so that early states could track people, land and economic production, and elites could sustain their power,” but it presents a nice summary of the present state of understanding of how writing developed:

I like to think of writing as a layered invention. First there’s the graphic invention: the notion of making a durable mark on a surface. Humans have been doing this for at least 100,000 years – the bureaucracy didn’t give humans that power. Then the symbolic invention: let’s make this mark different from all other marks and assign it a meaning that we can all agree on. Humans have been doing this for a long time, too. Then there’s the linguistic one: let’s realise that a sound, a syllable and a word are all things in the world that can be assigned a graphic symbol. This invention depends on the previous ones, and itself is made of innovations, realisations, solutions and hacks. Then comes the functional invention: let’s use this set of symbols to write a list of captives’ names, or a contract about feeding workers, or a letter to a distant garrison commander. […]

[Read more…]

Time No Longer.

I’m about a third of the way through Dostoevsky’s Идиот [The Idiot], and I’ve gotten to the bit in II:5 where Prince Myshkin is wandering around Petersburg and — shortly after the striking sentence “Что же в самом деле делать с действительностью?” [Really, what can you do with reality?] — he remembers what he had once said to Rogozhin about the moment just preceding his epileptic fits (which he hasn’t had since he left Switzerland): “в этот момент мне как-то становится понятно необычайное слово о том, что времени больше не будет” [“at that moment somehow the extraordinary words ‘there shall be time no longer‘ become understandable to me” — I quote the Carlisles’ translation]. That really is one of the more extraordinary quotes from the book of Revelation, and it’s caught the imaginations of many people, including me. But it turns out it may be one of those pesky mistranslations.

The Carlisles use the King James Version, which is probably still the most familiar (the exact words of the KJV, citing the seventh angel, are “there should be time no longer”), and this is equivalent to the modern Russian version Dostoevsky quotes and the Latin “quia tempus amplius non erit.” But the original Greek is ὅτι χρόνος οὐκέτι ἔσται, and apparently χρόνος has a special meaning here, because the New English Bible has “There shall be no more delay” — similarly, the New World Translation has “There will be no delay any longer,” and I assume this is the standard modern interpretation. Anybody know the story here? Frankly, the “delay” version is obvious and boring, so I’m going to stick with the mysterious and unforgettable “time no longer” no matter what the scholars say.

Also, when I checked the Church Slavonic Bible, I found that it has “лѣта уже не будетъ,” using лѣто (modern лето [leto]) not in what I thought was its usual OCS sense ‘year’ (in modern Russian it’s ‘summer’) but apparently in a more general sense of ‘time’ (which I thought was врѣмѧ, часъ, or годъ); I’m curious about the Slavic stuff as well as the New Testament Greek stuff, and will appreciate anything anybody can tell me.

Linguistics Clickbait.

Matthew Scarborough of Consulting Philologist says “An idea for a tweet came to me in a dream, and that tweet ended up going a little bit viral”:

There really needs to be a linguistics clickbaity website that publishes articles like “We’ve found the 10 best usages of the subjunctive in Old Phrygian. Number 7 will blow your mind!!!”. I’d write for that website.
11:42 AM – Jul 24, 2018

He got a lot of responses:

Doctors hate this one future optative.

He Found One Simple Trick to Trace Word Origins. Now Proto-Indo-Europeanists Hate Him!

We’ll tell you how synthetic or analytic a language you are based on which Disney princesses you identify with!

See the link for more, and thanks for a good laugh, Matthew!

Pathos II.

A couple of years ago I wagged my finger at a translator who used “revolutionary pathos” to translate Russian “революционный пафос,” and now I’m going to exercise that finger all over again, this time at the authors of Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Last week I chastised them for using the ridiculously lumbering terms “unfinalizability” and “heteroglossia,” and now I’ve run into another pair of infuriating choices. Here, let me quote a passage from p. 355:

The Discourse of Pathos

The first stylistic line of the novel developed what Bakhtin calls “the discourse of pathos” (or “the pathetic word”). It is important to note at the outset that the Russian words pafos and pateticheskoe, although routinely translated into their English equivalents from the same Greek roots, differ in meaning from English pathos and pathetic. Whereas the English terms carry overtones of sadness and suggest a quality that arouses pity, sorrow, or compassion, common translations of Russian pafos include “enthusiasm,” “inspiration,” “animation,” “passionate ardor or fervor.” Soviet dictionaries offer as sample phrases “revolutionary pathos,” “to speak with pathos,” and “the pathos of creative labor.”

Characteristically for this essay, Bakhtin distinguishes “prosaic pathos” or “novelistic pathos” (terms he uses interchangeably) from “poetic” or “authentic” pathos. [etc. etc.]

Reading that, I was both astounded and enraged. (I penciled in “by idiots” after “routinely translated.”) It’s bad enough when people mistranslate out of ignorance or thoughtlessness, but what kind of person deliberately mistranslates, saying “here, this is a bad translation I’m going to use, so please bear in mind that it doesn’t mean what you think it means”? It’s just… why would you do that?? (Also, “spirit” would be a more appropriate English rendering in this context than any of the alternatives they provide.)
[Read more…]

Writing, Translation, and Morality.

Arundhati Roy’s “What is the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write?” is very long (I confess to skipping some of the bits that go into detail about her novels, which I haven’t read), but makes a lot of interesting points. Here’s a good passage on her second novel:

Twenty years after the publication of The God of Small Things, I finished writing my second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but if a novel can have an enemy, then the enemy of this novel is the idea of “One nation, one religion, one language.” As I composed the cover page of my manuscript, in place of the author’s name, I was tempted to write: “Translated from the original(s) by Arundhati Roy.” The Ministry is a novel written in English but imagined in several languages. Translation as a primary form of creation was central to the writing of it (and here I don’t mean the translation of the inchoate and the prelingual into words). Regardless of which language (and in whose mother tongue) The Ministry was written in, this particular narrative about these particular people in this particular universe would had to be imagined in several languages. It is a story that emerges out of an ocean of languages, in which a teeming ecosystem of living creatures—official-language fish, unofficial-dialect mollusks, and flashing shoals of word-fish—swim around, some friendly with each other, some openly hostile, and some outright carnivorous. But they are all nourished by what the ocean provides. And all of them, like the people in The Ministry, have no choice but to coexist, to survive, and to try to understand each other.

For them, translation is not only a high-end literary art performed by sophisticated polyglots. Translation is daily life, it is street activity, and it’s increasingly a necessary part of ordinary folks’ survival kit. And so, in this novel of many languages, it is not only the author, but the characters themselves who swim around in an ocean of exquisite imperfection, who constantly translate for and to each other, who constantly speak across languages, and who constantly realize that people who speak the same language are not necessarily the ones who understand each other best.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been—is being—translated into 48 languages. Each of those translators has to grapple with a language that is infused with many languages including, if I may coin a word, many kinds of Englishes (sociolects is perhaps the correct word, but I’ll stay with Englishes because it is deliciously worse) and translate it into another language that is infused with many languages. I use the word infused advisedly, because I am not speaking merely of a text that contains a smattering of quotations or words in other languages as a gimmick or a trope, or one that plays the Peter Sellers game of mocking Indian English, but of an attempt to actually create a companionship of languages.

Of the 48 translations, two are Urdu and Hindi. As we will soon see, the very fact of having to name Hindi and Urdu as separate languages, and publish them as separate books with separate scripts, contains a history that is folded into the story of The Ministry. Given the setting of the novel, the Hindi and Urdu translations are, in part, a sort of homecoming. I soon learned that this did nothing to ease the task of the translators. To give you an example: The human body and its organs play an important part in The Ministry. We found that Urdu, that most exquisite of languages, which has more words for love than perhaps any other language in the world, has no word for vagina. There are words like the Arabic furj, which is considered to be archaic and more or less obsolete, and there are euphemisms that range in meaning from “hidden part,” “breathing hole,” “vent,” and “path to the uterus.” The most commonly used one is aurat ki sharamgah. A woman’s place of shame. As you can see, we had trouble on our hands. Before we rush to judgment, we must remember that pudenda in Latin means “that whereof one should feel shame.” In Danish, I was told by my translator, the phrase is “lips of shame.” So, Adam and Eve are alive and well, their fig leaves firmly in place.

[Read more…]

Sixteen Years of Languagehat.

Amazingly, it’s sixteen years since the beginnings of LH. I didn’t expect it to last six months, but here we all are, and it’s the “we” part that keeps it going — the dialogue, the back-and-forth, the heteroglossia, if you will. I never understand what the fun is in simply broadcasting one’s opinions and not caring what anyone has to say about them. How would I have learned so much without all you Hatters to set me straight when I shoot off my mouth? I guess there’s an egregore around here, if my glimmerings of incipient understanding of that esoteric expression are correct. Anyway, thanks for your support over the years; I miss those who are gone, and I welcome those who show up for the first time and have something to contribute, whether that be thoughts, jokes, questions, or a well-turned phrase. Let’s keep the conversation going as long as we can!