I’m taking a break from Serious Literature (next up: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich!) and reading Ivan Yefremov‘s 1957 Туманность Андромеды (The Andromeda Nebula), a foundational work of modern Russian science fiction. It’s frankly not very good—lots of chunks of “As you know, mankind long ago eliminated…” exposition and ludicrous love interests shoehorned in (showing the wisdom of early American sf writers in entirely avoiding the issue)—but it’s interesting enough to keep me reading (if occasionally skimming). There’s a mix of astronomy (it involves space travel and communication with alien civilizations) and paleontology (Yefremov was a paleontologist by profession), each of which provides me with plenty of opportunities to guess the English equivalents of technical terms. I just ran across a constellation with a fascinating history, which I will now share with you.

The Russian name I ran into was Гончие Псы [gónchie psy], which means ‘hunting dogs’ and did not immediately suggest a constellation to me. With Wikipedia to hand, I quickly learned that it is known to English speakers as Canes Venatici, which was probably familiar to me when I was a thirteen-year-old astronomy maven but has long since been displaced by some Russian word for part of the harness of a horse or by an irregular Georgian verb. At any rate, here, courtesy of Wikipedia, is the story of how it got its name:

In the medieval times, the identification of these stars with the dogs of Boötes arose through a mistranslation. Some of Boötes’ stars were traditionally described as representing the club (Greek, Κολλοροβος) of Boötes. When the Greek astronomer Ptolemy’s Almagest was translated from Greek to Arabic, the translator Johannitius (following Alberuni) did not know the Greek word and rendered it as the nearest-looking Arabic word, writing العصى ذات الكلاب in ordinary unvowelled Arabic text “al-`aşā dhāt al-kullāb“, which means “the spearshaft having a hook”. When the Arabic text was translated into Latin, the translator Gerard of Cremona (probably in Spain) mistook the Arabic word كلاب for kilāb (the plural of كلب kalb), meaning “dogs”, writing hastile habens canes (“spearshaft having dogs”). In 1533, the German astronomer Peter Apian depicted Boötes as having two dogs with him.
These spurious dogs floated about the astronomical literature until Hevelius decided to specify their presence in the sky by making them a separate constellation. Hevelius chose the name Asterion (from the Greek ‘αστέριον, meaning the “little star”, the diminutive of ‘αστηρ the “star”, or adjective meaning “starry”) for the northern dog and Chara (from the Greek χαρά, meaning “joy”) for the southern dog, as Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs, in his star atlas. In his star catalogue, the Czech astronomer Becvar assigned Asterion to β CVn and Chara to α CVn.

O felix culpa, that added two happy hunting dogs to the night sky!

Update. Primaler has posted a nice collection of images illustrating the story.


  1. As a thematic counterpoint to Andromeda, it might make sense to read Voynovich’s Moscow 2042.

  2. I’ll add it to my list; thanks.

  3. Oh, how fun! Yes, they’re the two dim little stars sitting more or less in the concavity of the Big Dipper’s handle: I always wondered how those dogs came to be running there! I thought they were chasing the bears.

  4. the translator Johannitius (following Alberuni) did not know the Greek word and rendered it as the nearest-looking Arabic word, writing العصى ذات الكلاب in ordinary unvowelled Arabic text “al-`aşā dhāt al-kullāb”, which means “the spearshaft having a hook”
    Actually, he doesn’t seem to have rendered it with the nearest-looking Arabic word; he seems to have guessed at the meaning (“al-`aşā”, spearshaft) and then added the nearest-looking Arabic word (“al-kullāb”). A rather interesting approach to translation — having a stab at the meaning while adding ‘with’ and then something similar in pronunciation to the original. Would this have been a way of covering both bases, a bit like giving a tentative translation while giving the original pronunciation in parentheses?
    Incidentally, Google Translate renders العصى ذات الكلاب as ‘stick with dogs’.

  5. Snooping round, one finds that there is a star in Boötes itself known as Alkalurops (also Inkalunis, Clava, and Venabulum), which (according to Wikipedia) “is from Greek καλαύροψ kalaurops “shepherd’s staff”, through the Arabic.” Those pesky Greek-Arabic translators seem to have done a lot of transliteration where they should have been translating!

  6. Steven Lubman says:

    Efremov is pretty good, my favorite of his is “Таис Афинская”. However, Strugatsky’s brothers’ Noon Universe (Мир Полудня) cycle is better literature but not harder to read and has plenty of action, and better sci-fi, I would start with “Трудно быть богом”

  7. I agree that this book is less thrilling than it should be because of lots of needless padding, although I still loved the whole iron star/planet-with-nasty-aliens episode. I also loved the characters’ ridiculous names, with Erg Noor as my absolute favourite. The film of the book, with English subtitles, can be found on YouTube…

  8. Yep. Tais, and even the Nebula, made me believe that Soviet sci fi as Efremov developed it was just a party line-compliant erotic literature…

  9. It is often claimed that main protagonist of this novel Dar Veter was an inspiration for Darth Vader of the Star Wars…. ;-)))

  10. Just a note on гончие (gonchiye): it is simply a generic word for hounds (bloodhounds, trackhounds, foxhounds,etc.), the type of hunting dog that chases the game rather then sets or retrieves it.
    They are wonderful runners, but in my experience not very good companions.

  11. I think with Andromeda the historical background is important: 1957, the height of the thaw, the year after Khrushchev denounced Stalin, the year of Sputnik and the Moscow Youth Festival. It reflects the optimism of the time, the strange, enthusiastic belief in the triumph of Good. The young generation didn’t reject communism then, but they filled it with a strong humanistic message. Wimbrel recommends above Voinovich, later one of the most caustic critics of the Soviet system. In 1960 he wrote ‘The Cosmonauts Song’ (‘Fourteen Minutes to Liftoff’), a romantic marching song that became an anthem of the period (music by Oscar Feltzman).
    Perhaps the atmosphere was similar to the idealistic euphoria of the Kennedy years.
    Space exploration in that context was probably a metaphor for reaching out to the world – the West and the US. In Andromeda, thanks to travel beyond the speed of light, Earth people meet red-skinned people of some distant planet, many fall in love, but soon discover that the Redskins and the Earthlings can’t have children together and looking for a solution becomes the hottest research topic.
    I agree with LH, the book is slow, full of didactic digressions. Mind, Yefremov is first an academic, and then a writer. But I think when you are young you are more likely to overlook these faults and absorb the imagery and the ideas, rather than be concerned with literary subtleties. I read Andromeda for the first time in the early 70s and I clearly remember the shivers of excitement going down my spine.
    Language-wise, at some point there is an interesting discussion of comparative merits and disadvantages of alphabetic (Western) and pictographic (Eastern) written language systems. And won’t you just love Tantra as the name of a spaceship?
    There is also a fine example of how easy it is to fall into anachronisms. A history student draws a picture of life in XVIII Century  – with electric trams in the street.
    I second Steven’s recommendation of “Таис Афинская” (Thaïs of Athens) and Wimbrel’s ‘Moscow 2042’ by Voinovich. Though Andromeda and 2042 are in different leagues. 2042 is a satirical antiutopia (distopia), more bitter than funny. A lot of it can be applied to modern Russia. Andromeda is a serious humanistic utopia on a grand philosophical scale.

  12. Strugatsky’s brothers’
    oh, they are world class writers, top of the league.

  13. Dar Veter was an inspiration for Darth Vader
    really? how interesting, can you give a reference?
    Has anyone seen references/claims that Jabba’s name is from Russian жаба (toad)? I’ve scanned the Russian internet for it, but only found about half a dozen suppositional refs.

  14. how interesting, can you give a reference?
    I think the fact that the original comment ended with “;-)))” suggests that it should not be taken as a serious contribution to history. I’d say “amusing coincidence” best describes the situation.
    I also loved the characters’ ridiculous names, with Erg Noor as my absolute favourite.

  15. As a child of the 70s, Star Wars was my religion and a sick one at that concerning our parents hard-earned bank balance! I had the figures, even the Star Wars wallpaper which my parents still remind me was “bloody expensive!”
    I grew up with the old Darth Vader is Dutch for “dark father” which any investigations with a Dutch dictionary proves untrue. But recently I heard a new one, well, new to me in my adult “put away childish things” world? Darth Vader is loosely based or inspired by the Dutch gas mask makers name Vajen-Bader dating from between the mid-1800s and World War I.

  16. Gerard of Cremona is the same guy who gave us the name of the sine function, again through a mistranslation.
    Mistaking “jiba”, chord of an arc, for “jaib”, bosom, he translated it as “sinus”.
    Interestingly, it was later translated literally into russian, so in the 18th century “лоно” was used in scientific literature instead of the modern “синус”.

  17. oh, they are world class writers, top of the league.
    Really? I can understand reading Yefremov as a period writer, enjoying the monumental sweep of his vision, etc. I can also understand reading Voynovich as a symptom of a time and a place. But almost everything I’ve read by the Strugatskys seemed to fall somewhere between unremarkable 50s scifi about scientists doing science (e.g., Извне) and ham-fisted, mawkish ruminations on human nature that’s more developmentally appropriate for adolescents (e.g., Трудно быть богом, Хищные вещи века). The only Strugatsky I value having read is Понедельник начинается в субботу, because its combination of Russian folktale motifs and gentle satire of bureaucratic institutions is impossible to find in other countries’ sci-fi literatures.
    Then again, I haven’t read everything they wrote. I own the 10-volume collected works, including volumes 11 and 12, so it’s quite possible I’ll find something of theirs to fall in love with. It’s just that I have little faith in their fans’ judgment.

  18. I consider Efremov to be a master or realistic but just a touch sci fi travelogue short stories (off the top of my head, Бухта радужных струй, Олгой-хорой etc.).
    ruminations appropriate for adolescents tend to seamlessly merge into sci-fi in any culture IMVHO, and Понедельник is specifically subtitled “… for the underage researchers”, too. This said, I’m sure most of us will take issue with equating Efremov or Voinovich with the Strugatsky geniuses.

  19. Wimbrel, try За миллиард лет до конца света.

  20. I illustrated the story a bit, so now you can see the whole development:

  21. Very nice collection of illustrations and good links!
    I’m still not sure about the nature of the mistranslation. Looking at the extant pictures, it almost looks as though Hunayn ibn Ishaq (Johannitius) might have got his Arabic translation from looking at illustrations — the examples primaler has found do indeed show a ‘crooked staff’.
    The addition of ‘dhāt al-kullāb’ is the puzzle. There are two possibilities: ‘with a hook’ was an attempt to explain the strange shape of the club, indicating that he really didn’t know what the herdsman was holding and was trying to come up with an Arabic description. The second is that ‘al-kullāb’ is added as some kind of phonetic gloss (spearshaft pronounced ‘kullāb’). The fact that other Arabic translations used transliterations of star names suggests that this is a possibility.
    I do think that to vaguely describe this as a ‘mistranslation’, without describing the actual mechanics is to glossing over the question. If he was just transliterating, he wouldn’t need the ‘aşā’. If he was translating the meaning, then ‘spearshaft with hook’ is a reasonable attempt if he didn’t know what Κολλοροβος really meant. But to say that he rendered it as the ‘nearest-looking Arabic word’ seems to be a rather gross misrepresentation.

  22. Good Shepherd, just like old Bootes, is depicted with a traditional shepherd’s cane with a crooked handle all the time (never with any sort of a beating stick or a cudgel). So the Arabic translator might have believed the familiar pictorial metaphor rather than the textuak description. Like c’mon, these pastoralists have canes, not clubs!
    Very nice page, primaler! Do you also have one of the story of “sinus”?

  23. LSJ glosses κολλόροβον (not κολλόροβος) as “shepherd’s staff or crook”, so “the spearshaft having a hook” isn’t actually too far off.

  24. If I understand the one of Kunitzsch’s works cited by Wikipedia’s notes that’s online, the Arabic had a phonetic transliteration and then the phrase in question as a gloss.

  25. Ptolemy has for the Boötes:

    ὁ βορειότερος αὐτῶν καὶ ἐπι τοῦ κολλορόβου
    ὁ ἔτι τούτου βορειότερος ἐπ’ ἄκρου τοῦ κολλορόβου

    and for Orion:

    τῶν ἐν τῷ κολλορόβῳ 2 ὁ προηγούμενος

    so the Arabic was guessing whether it was masculine or neuter.

  26. He may have guessed right, actually; looking more closely at the LSJ entry, the word apparently existed in both masculine and neuter (Hesychius uses both in glosses).

  27. Mistaking “jiba”, chord of an arc, for “jaib”, bosom, he translated it as “sinus”.
    From what I could find in a cursory web search, it may not be a true mistranslation either, for “jiba” / “jiva” wasn’t really an Arabic word, but rather an Arabic transliteration of a word from the Hindi math texts meaning a chord [of a bow] (which the Arabs themselves may have eventually chosen to pronounce as / to equate with “jeib”, generally a bend or a sinuous fold, but more narrowly meaning a vagina). Apparently XIIth c. European texts also transliterated rather than translated this word, as “geib”

  28. a bend or a sinuous fold, but more narrowly meaning a vagina
    Vagina or vulva?

  29. Wimbrel,
    I’m with Sashura on this. Did you read later Noon books, like Жук в муравейнике? I think it’s their best (scifi, that is, otherwise Понедельник FTW).

  30. Precisely which body part or fold did they mean centuries ago? As far as I understand, the “polite society” words for the indecent matters are subject to particularly swift runaway evolution. Names of the nearby parts, or of thesuperficially similarly objects, take their place very fast.
    “Bosom” (Lat. Sinus, also more widely meaning “bay”, “fold”) has come, by the end of its evolution, to designate a protrusion of a female mammary gland, rather than a cleavage between the two of them, or any other sort of a taboo’ed cleft or hollow. The original Biblical Greek κόλπος, bosom, is described as designating either specifically a vagina, or more generally the whole of the genital cavities / or the womb. Old Slavonic => Russian equivalent лоно (which, in archaic math texts of XVIIIc. also designated the sine function) has an extant adjective, лонный “pubic”, and it’s often equated with another archaic Biblical word чресла “hips / waist”.
    Pushkin was sometimes blamed for “illegitimately” shifting the meaning of лоно in Russian even further, supposedly by mis-applying French “seine” to not merely cleavages, or breats, but to the whole chest, and so, figuratively, to any flat surface (as in Pushkin’s classic “задумав плыть по лону вод”). Something hollow -> something sticking out -> something flat, how about this chain of shifts!

  31. Did you read later Noon books, like Жук в муравейнике? I think it’s their best (scifi, that is, otherwise Понедельник FTW).
    No, I haven’t read any of those — it seemed like a hopeless waste of time given what I thought of what I’d already read. Thanks to the two of you for the suggestion, I’ll focus on that string of novels. (I don’t think I can ever address Sashura by his handle — at one point I was trying to reach some Саша on the phone, only to receive the pointed correction of “Между прочим, Александр.”)

  32. I don’t think I can ever address Sashura
    You can call me Al, [æ:l]
    if you can’t handle Sashura.
    There is a straight political dimension to Strugatskys too, more subtle than Voinovich’s. Read their 1991 play ‘The Yids of the City of Peter’, extremely funny and thought-provoking.

  33. David Marjanović says:

    “Bosom” […] has come, by the end of its evolution, to designate a protrusion of a female mammary gland, rather than a cleavage between the two of them

    Funnily, German Busen has undergone the exact same development.
    And before that, it meant “front side of the torso”, especially in the metaphoric sense; 18th-century male writers talked about their Busen and the feelings in it all the time, much to the amusement of modern readers.

  34. Busenfreund = “intimate friend”, in those days. But even “intimate” has been debased.

  35. The American version, still current = “bosom buddy.”

  36. I thought bosom buddies were school friends who shared the same teatcher, like Romulus and Remus.

  37. What I mean to say is: in the 18th C in Germany, Busenfreunde were swept away by each other without the aid of a third-party besom.

Speak Your Mind