In Praise of Miss MacIntosh.

I have occasionally come across mentions of Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling as a notoriously long and unreadable novel; this charming essay by Meghan O’Gieblyn makes about as good a case for the defense as is likely to be mounted (first acknowledging the problems the reader faces):

Like the holy books, long novels are more often maligned than read. Critics complain that they’re exasperating or impossible or not worth the time. But in the history of my reading life, I’ve encountered nothing like the caveat lectors surrounding Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. They feel less like user warnings or cautionary tales than being forced to gaze upon the skeletons of those who had previously made the attempt. When it was published in 1965, the critic Peter Prescott gave up after two days, even though his editor offered him four times the normal rate (everyone else had refused). The online reader reviews I found vary between naked revulsion and sheepish endorsement. One Amazon reviewer claims he gave a copy of the twelve-hundred-page novel to each of his friends and promised that if they finished, he would pay for their children’s college education. “I’ve paid for no one’s education!” he writes. Upon Young’s death in 1995, thirty years after the novel was published, the New York Times proclaims it “one of the most widely unread books ever acclaimed.” […]

[Read more…]

Have You Noticed?

A very interesting Quora thread is Have you noticed any change in your native language? The top answer at the moment is from Jose Geraldo Gouvea:

Yes. When I was a kid it was still common to hear ‘standard Brazilian Portuguese’ on radio and television. It was neutral pronunciation, which eschewed the most notable regional features and emphasised on whatever was more widespread or not notably regional. Singers, radio announcers, television hosts, actors, everyone seemed to strive to speak like that. Then, in less than a decade (from 1981–1991) every trace of ‘standard Brazilian Portuguese’ disappeared from mass media. The ‘r’ was not trilled any more (almost like in Spanish), it was softened. People didn’t shy from hissing their final ‘s’ (if they were from Rio) or pronouncing retroflex ‘r’ (if they were from São Paulo). Regional accents ceased to be considered ‘low class’ and suddenly became acceptable, especially Rio and São Paulo dialects (from the cities where most films and television shows are produced). People who still spoke ‘standard’ suddenly sounded ‘funny’. A lot of old pop music became ‘fun’ to hear (it is now considered quaint and ‘bookish’ to hear an old samba sung in standard, because people assume samba, being from Rio, should be sung in carioca dialect). People like me, who didn’t watch much television any more (because I was working 9 to 6 and studying at night) suddenly lost contact with that (because in everyday life we always spoke our dialect, of course) and now sounded ‘funny’ too. Since old habits die hard, people like me, who once strived to forget the dialect and embrace standard are now seen as weirdos. People often comment on my accent that it is ‘good’, which sometimes sounds as an irony, or bewildered praising.

There are a number of answers about Russian, e.g., “a Russian-speaker from Ukraine doensn’t know that there exists a Russian word akimat which is very widely used in Kazakhstan. A Russian speaker from Kazakhstan will not understand the word nardep which is very common in Ukraine.[…] Russian-speakers of Ukraine have invented words like деловодство (делопроизводство in standard Russian) and милозвучность (благозвучие in standard Russian). Those words are never used outside Ukraine” and “With the breakdown of the USSR we also used our last available option of neutral polite address (товарищ).” There are reports about German, Norwegian, Chinese, Turkish, Bengali, Cebuano, and others; it’s fascinating stuff. Thanks, JC!

The Romantic Theory of Language Origin.

I should say up front that I consider Mark Vernon’s Aeon essay “The say of the land” (“Is language produced by the mind? Romantic theory has it otherwise: words emerge from the cosmos, expressing its soul”) an example of what some call “woo,” right up there with reiki and homeopathy (apologies to devotees of those disciplines, but I calls ’em as I sees ’em). But like so much of the vasty and multifarious thought-world of the early nineteenth century, it’s interesting woo, and it’s worth dipping into this stuff even if one has no intention of swallowing it. I note that the author “is a psychotherapist and writer, with a PhD in ancient Greek philosophy and other degrees in theology and in physics,” and he quotes various poets and philosophers, all of whom are sure they have special insight into the Soul of Language by virtue of their complete lack of qualifications other than the ability to speak. With that cynical preface, and without further ado:

In conversation at the Hay Festival in Wales this May, the English poet Simon Armitage made an arresting observation. Discussing the nature of language and why it is so good at capturing the experience of being alive, he said: ‘My feeling is that a lot of the language that we use, and the best language for poetry, comes directly out of the land.’ Armitage was placing himself within the Romantic tradition’s understanding of the origins of language, which argues that words and grammar are not the arbitrary inventions of human brains and minds, but are rather suggested to human beings by nature and the cosmos itself. Language is an excellent way to understand the Universe, because language springs from the things it describes.

The English philosopher Owen Barfield, a member of the Oxford Inklings in the 1930s and ’40s, whose work as a philologist convinced him that the Romantic tradition was broadly right, put it succinctly. Words have soul, he said. They possess a vitality that mirrors the inner life of the world, and this connection is the source of their power. All forms of language implicitly deploy it. Poets are arguably more alert to it because they consciously seek it out.

It’s an insight with radical implications for theories about the origins of language, primarily because the dominant hypotheses in modern science regard words very differently, as soulless signs that act as labels for objects and symbols that facilitate cognitive agility. […]

[Read more…]


I recently heard a nurse use the word troche, which was unfamiliar to me; Merriam-Webster defines it as “a small usually sweetened and flavored medicated material that is designed to be held in the mouth for slow dissolution” and gives the pronunciations “\ˈtrō-kē, British usually ˈtrōsh\.” AHD — which has a fuller etymology: “Back-formation from Middle English trocis, troches (taken as pl.), from Old French trocisse, from Late Latin trochiscus, from Greek trokhiskos, diminutive of trokhos, wheel, from trekhein, to run” — gives only \ˈtrō-kē\ (i.e., TROH-key). But this was an American nurse, and she said \trōsh\. So if you are familiar with this word and use it in speech, where are you from and how do you say it?

Ostrovsky’s Forest.

I hadn’t really been planning to read more Ostrovsky. I’d read and enjoyed several of his early plays and last year read Гроза [The Thunderstorm], which is generally considered his masterpiece; I’m not really a theater person, and I was eager to read more Dostoevsky, but I wanted to take a breather before attacking Бесы [The Devils], so I thought what the hell, I’d give Лес [The Forest] a try. The first act was an enjoyable bit of domestic comedy, with the greedy landowning widow Gurmyzhskaya trying to sell some forest lands to the merchant Vosmibratov while insisting her poor-relation dependent Aksinya (nicknamed Aksyusha) marry the handsome but brainless orphan Aleksei (“Alexis”) Bulanov; Aksyusha and Vosmibratov’s son Pyotr love each other, but Vosmibratov won’t allow Pyotr to marry without a 3,000-ruble dowry, which Gurmyzhskaya is never going to provide — she wants to get the girl off her hands as cheaply as possible. I thought I’d gotten the general idea, and was almost ready to abandon it, but I turned to the second act, and in Scene 2 the play is lifted into another sphere entirely by the appearance of two provincial actors who run into each other while trudging the back roads of Russia looking for work (“Where are you going?” “From Vologda to Kerch, and you?” “From Kerch to Vologda”). Gennady Neshchastlivstev (“Unhappy”) is a tragic actor, Arkady (“Arkasha”) Shchastlivtsev (“Happy”) a comic one; Neshchastlivstev, whose real name turns out to be Gurmyzhsky, is the long-missing nephew of Gurmyzhskaya, who has been talking loudly about her intention to leave him all her wealth.

Neshchastlivstev is one of the great characters of world drama, impulsive, generous, and imperious, without much regard for the feelings of those about him unless they touch his heart. In their first scene together, Shchastlivtsev objects to Neshchastlivstev’s putting his hand on his shoulder, recounting with remembered horror an episode when he was playing the German doctor Fidler in Kukolnik‘s play Князь Михаил Васильевич Скопин-Шуйский [Prince Mikhail Vasilevich Skopin-Shuisky] and the actor playing the hero, Lyapunov, had gotten overexcited and actually thrown him out a window (“I flew three sazhens and broke the door of a women’s dressing room… I could have been a cripple for life!”). Neshchastlivstev enthusiastically says “Эффектно! Надо это запомнить” [Effective! I’ll have to remember that], grabs poor Shchastlivtsev by the collar and pretends he’s about to reenact the scene. Realizing they’re near the estate where he grew up, he insists Shchastlivtsev accompany him so they can both rest up and be well fed for a few days… but Shchastlivtsev will have to pretend to be his servant.

Neshchastlivstev is constantly referring to Shakespeare and quoting Hamlet (he also recites a provocative bit of Schiller’s Robbers at a critical moment), and with his appearance the play becomes Shakespearean and remains so, with a superb mix of comedy and pathos. At one point Aksyusha tries to drown herself, and when Neshchastlivstev rescues her he tells her to forget about her love and become an actress (“They’ll shower you with flowers and gifts… You’ll go onstage a queen and leave as a queen”). He torments the people who need tormenting and helps those who need helping, and the play ends with him telling the old servant Karp (whom he’s been calling by different fish names all along, and who at one point comes out with the marvelous “Живем в лесу, молимся пенью, да и то с ленью” [We live in the forest, we pray to a stump, and that lazily]) “Руку, товарищ!” [Give me your hand, comrade!]. I read with increasing enthusiasm and was sorry when it was over, and I was pleased to see Prince Mirsky’s comment that it “shares with The Thunderstorm the honor of being regarded as his masterpiece.” There’s a terrific performance by the Maly Theater online here, with Aleksandr Yermakov as an unforgettable Neshchastlivstev, and you can read an appreciative review of a Classic Stage performance in English here; there are at least a couple of translations available, though I have no idea how good they are. I’m glad I took a chance on it!


I thought this paragraph from the History of Russian Literature (see this post) was worth posting:

After its fledgling start in the Jesuit plays of the seventeenth century, it would be several decades before theater became a fixture in the culture of the court. In 1702, on the order of Peter the Great, a theater opened to the general public in a special building on Red Square. It was named the Kunst–Fuerst Theater after the two German directors of the company that also trained Russian actors. The German company brought with it its usual repertoire, the so-called “English comedies,” popular in Germany in the seventeenth century. The plays were full of adventures, bloody fights, love, sorcery, and so on. The repertory often consisted of adaptations several times removed from the original. For example, the skit “Prince Pickled-Herring, or Jodolet” (“Prints Pikl′ gerring, ili Zhodolet”) can be traced (through Dutch, German, and French adaptations) to one of Calderón’s plays. Molière was represented by “A Comedy about a Beaten Doctor” (“Komediia o doktore bitom,” a version of Le Médicin malgré lui) and “Precious Amusings” (“Dragyia smeianyia,” a version of Les Précieuses ridicules). The theater proved unpopular; nor did it satisfy Peter’s desire for a propaganda medium, and it closed in 1706.

In the first place, the explanation of the name is mildly astonishing; if I’d seen a mention of the Kunst–Fuerst Theater, I simply would have assumed that it meant “Art-Prince” (it’s a theater, started by a ruler) — talk about your appropriate surnames! We learn from A History of Russian Theatre, edited by Robert Leach and Victor Borovsky, that Johann Kunst was the manager of the troupe when it arrived in Russia in the summer of 1702, and that after Kunst died in 1703 he was replaced by “Otto Fuerst, a goldsmith.” We are also told that “the theatre did not live up to Peter’s expectations, primarily because the plots of the plays tended to be beyond the comprehension of the Russian audience.”

Also, the mention of “adaptations several times removed” is relevant to the discussion of mediation through third languages going on in this thread.

Horseshoe: Trees and Ships.

I’m once again making my way through Mandelstam (in conjunction with my reading of Lekmanov’s biography, which it turns out is available in English), and I’m rememorizing his longest poem, “The Finder of a Horseshoe” (which I translated in 2012). The first time I memorized it was in 2002 (I remember I was working on it when I started LH); that experience confirmed my sense that it was a great poem, but I still didn’t even begin to understand it. Some people read like birds flying over a text, comprehending the layout from above; I’m more like an ant, making my way laboriously through the words, from consonant to vowel to consonant, getting a feel for the structure at the micro level but oblivious to any larger meanings for a long time. This time around, I’ve managed to grasp the first two of the nine sections in a way I hadn’t before, and I thought I’d talk about it here before I forget, planting a milepost to help me next time I attempt the journey. I’ll discuss it in translation because I’m talking about sense, not sound, and out of laziness and egotism I’ll refer to my own translation, which is easily accessible to all of us.

I realized that the two sections constitute a lovely ring structure, starting and ending in the same place and establishing what I think is the main theme of the poem, the confrontation of different layers of time. At the start, we are looking at trees and saying “That forest’s for ships and masts” — we are looking ahead into a possible future. We see them in imagination as the masts they should become, standing fast, “fitted to the dancing deck,” and our thoughts turn to the seafarer making use of them to drag “over humid ruts/ The fragile tackle of a geometer.” The first section ends, and we get a mysterious gerund: “inhaling the smell/ Of tarry tears that ooze through the ship’s planking…” Who is doing the inhaling? After a few more lines, it turns out that it’s us: “We say…” We are magically transported into a different realm, in a way that reminds me of the equally magical end of Pound’s Canto IV:

And we sit here…
            there in the arena…

(The Cantos are also about the confrontation of different layers of time.) We are in that imagined future, and what do we say? “They too stood on the earth…” We are now imagining the ship’s past as trees, “Their tops forgetting their roots/ On the well-known mountain ridge” (the task of poetry being to ensure that the tops don’t forget their roots), and we imagine those trees “Unsuccessfully offering to the sky in exchange for a pinch of salt/ Their noble load and burden.” In other words, they wanted to be “Free to their very tops from shaggy burden,” in the words of the poem’s fourth line. This commodius vicus of recirculation is one of art’s reliable joys. Now if I can only get a similar handle on the rest of this long and inexhaustible poem…

Translation Apps Are Getting Better.

This BBC News story by Emma Woollacott starts with some glitches that are old hat and have been covered here and/or at the Log, but goes on to some interesting material:

“Rather than writing handcrafted rules to translate between languages, modern translation systems approach translation as a problem of learning the transformation of text between languages from existing human translations and leveraging recent advances in applied statistics and machine learning,” explains Xuedong Huang, technical fellow, speech and language, at Microsoft Research. […]

But a new project from Mr Lample and a team of other researchers at Facebook and the Sorbonne University in Paris may represent a way round this problem [of “low-resource languages for which the amount of parallel sentences is very small”]. They are using source texts of just a few hundred thousand sentences in each language, but no directly translated sentences at all.

Essentially, the team’s system looks at the patterns in which words are used. For example, the English words “cat” and “furry” tend to appear in a similar relationship as “gato” and “peludo” in Spanish. The system learns these so-called word embeddings, allowing it to infer a “fairly accurate” bilingual dictionary. It then applies the same back-and-forth techniques as we’ve seen with Microsoft Translator to come up with its final translation – and not a biblical reference in sight.

Thanks, Trevor!

Jingrwai lawbei.

Agence France Presse reports on an interesting form of musical language:

Curious whistles and chirrups echo through the jungle around Kongthong, a remote Indian village, but this is no birdsong. It’s people calling out to each other in music — an extraordinary tradition that may even be unique.

Here in the lush, rolling hills of the northeastern state of Meghalaya, mothers from Kongthong and a few other local villages compose a special melody for each child. Everyone in the village, inhabited by the Khasi people, will then address the person with this individual little tune — and for a lifetime. They have conventional “real” names too, but they are rarely used. […]

Kongthong has long been cut off from the rest of the world, several hours of tough trek from the nearest town. Electricity arrived only in 2000, and the dirt road in 2013. Days are spent foraging in the jungle for broom grass — the main source of revenue — leaving the village all but deserted, except for a few kids. To call out to each other while in the forest, the villagers would use a long version lasting around 30 seconds of each other’s musical “name”, inspired by the sounds of nature all around. […]

The custom is known as “jingrwai lawbei”, meaning “song of the clan’s first woman”, a reference to the Khasi people’s mythical original mother. […] The origin of “jingrwai lawbei” isn’t known, but locals think it is as old as the village, which has existed for as long as five centuries. The tradition’s days may be numbered, though, as the modern world creeps into Kongthong in the shape of televisions and mobile phones.

Thanks, Kobi!

Translation and/as Disconnection.

Joshua L. Miller and Gayle Rogers have produced a “Translation and/as Disconnection” issue (Volume 3, Cycle 3) of Modernism/modernity with fascinating-sounding articles: “Death Ships: the Cruel Translations of the Interwar Maritime Novel” by Harris Feinsod, “Translation in Noh Time” by Carrie Preston, “Disconnecting the Other: Translating China in Spain, Indirectly” by Carles Prado-Fonts, “Before Global Modernism: Comparing Renaissance, Reform, and Rewriting in the Global South” by Lital Levy, “Philology Contra Modernism: Translating Izibongo in Johannesburg” by Matthew Eatough, and several more. Miller and Rogers write:

We are scholars who, in our own work, have explored modes of interconnection across a number of sites, texts, and figures. But like many others before us, we also acknowledge the pitfalls of connectivity, and in a moment when the map of global modernisms seems increasingly networked, it seems timely to pause and consider the kinds of work connectivity does and doesn’t do—and about connection’s unintended effects. Furthermore, we want to consider how intertextual and linguistic disconnection formed both the modernisms that feel familiar (national, regional, and global) and those we have yet to recognize or have possibly misconstrued. If we set aside our predisposition to celebrate connection and to mourn disconnection, and instead view them as integral to one another’s functions, the field before us can look refreshingly unfamiliar.

Thanks, Jonathan!