THE BOOKSHELF: THIRST.

I had not been aware of Amazon’s translation imprint, AmazonCrossing, but that’s not surprising, since they only introduced it last year (press release). At any rate, they were kind enough to send me a copy of Thirst, Marian Schwartz’s new translation of Andrei Gelasimov’s 2002 Жажда, a prize-winning short novel (what the Russians call a повесть), and it’s certainly a good calling card for the imprint.
The story is simple: Kostya, a young man scarred by service in the war with Chechnya, holes up in his apartment drinking when he isn’t working; his war buddies show up and drag him out to look for one of their number who has disappeared; we get memories of his family and eventually encounter some of them. As always, the telling is all. It starts with a bravura passage I’ll quote in a minute, soon refers to the grenade that landed in his APC in Grozny and broke his life in half—this is the central image to which the book keeps returning—and then begins its slow spiral outward into the world Kostya is trying to avoid having to deal with; it’s told in a high-energy, slangy narrative voice that keeps the reader involved and often amused (an important consideration when dealing with potentially depressing material). The “About the Author” page compares him to Salinger; while I can understand the PR value of this, I think a better comparison is to the Bulat Okudzhava of “Будь здоров, школяр” (translated as “Good Luck, Schoolboy!”), also told from the perspective, and in the colloquial language of, a young man tossed unprepared into a hellish war—though at one point it reminded me of my favorite Okudzhava song, Молитва (YouTube), which made me choke up more than I probably should have.
But there wouldn’t be much point to my recommending a Russian novel if you couldn’t get a decent sense of it from the translation; fortunately, that’s not a problem here. Schwartz doesn’t need any encomia from me; she’s won all sorts of awards and is generally recognized as one of the best translators of our day. But this book is a tougher challenge than a more conventionally “literary” one; as I wrote in a comment to this post (still one of my favorites, if I may toot my own horn), “Russian dialog has a feel that I’ve never seen rendered successfully in translation.” Well, she does a magnificent job, which can be seen from the very first paragraphs:

All the vodka wouldn’t fit in the fridge. First I tried standing them up and then I laid them on their sides, one on top of the other. The bottles stacked up like transparent fish. Then they hunkered down and stopped clinking. But ten or so just wouldn’t fit.
I should have told my mother to take this refrigerator back a long time ago. It’s an affront to me and the little boy next door. Every night this monster cuts in full blast and he cries on the other side of the wall. And my vodka is never all going to go in. It’s too damn small.
Fucking pig.

I was nodding along to the convincing rhythm of the sentences in the first two paragraphs, and then when I got to the “Fucking pig” I laughed, relaxed, and knew I had nothing to worry about; I can’t imagine a better equivalent of “Засранец” here. She obviously spent a lot of time immersing herself in the narration and finding a voice to match its feel. I kept making marginal notes to remind myself of particularly felicitous renditions: “Thank you for the heads up,” “Cut the pity party,” “sweet wine” for портвейн (which far too many translators render “port” or “port wine,” as though it were the equivalent of Taylor Fladgate rather than Thunderbird). The potentially soppy themes of Kostya’s love for drawing and for children are handled with grace and pay off handsomely. And speaking of handsome: the book is a very nicely designed package (and with no typos that I noticed, which is an unexpected pleasure in these poorly edited times). If you have any interest in the subject of young men chewed up by war, or simply in a well-told story, you’ll probably enjoy this book.


The original of the quoted passage:

Вся водка в холодильник не поместилась. Сначала пробовал ее ставить, потом укладывал одна на одну. Бутылки улеглись внутри как прозрачные рыбы. Затаились и перестали позвякивать. Но штук десять так и не поместилось.
Давно надо было сказать матери, чтобы забрала этот холодильник себе. Издевательство надо мной и над соседским мальчишкой. Каждый раз плачет за стенкой, когда этот урод ночью врубается на полную мощь. И водка моя никогда в него вся не входит. Маленький, блин.
Засранец.

Comments

  1. This is totally off-topic, but you conveniently provided a Russian post to hang it on. I got my hair cut this evening, and the working language of my hairdresser’s is Russian — the proprietor is an ethnic Russian from Uzbekistan. When I get my hair, and especially my beard, cut, I keep my eyes closed to keep the loose hairs out of them, so I just listen to the flow of Russian around me.
    So today I heard two different people say очень хорошо, and neither one pronounced the second word the way I was taught to say it back in Russian 101, thirty-six years ago. Both of them stressed the first syllable, whereas I was taught to put the stress on the third. Well, that’s not too surprising by itself; after all, some anglophones say CONtroversy (as I do) and others conTROVersy.
    But what seemed decidedly strange was that the vowel reductions continued to reflect final stress! The pronunciation I learned was [xəraˈʃo], with the stressed /o/ preserved, the /o/ just before the stress reduced to [a], and all other /o/ reduced to [ə]. But the first speaker said [ˈxraʃo], with the first syllable gone to zero, and the second said [ˈxarəʃo]. In both cases, the final syllable remained unreduced and the other syllables were reduced despite the stress.
    [wʌtsgoʊənˈanhiɻ]?

  2. Valera Fooksman says:

    A more accurate translation for портвейн would be “fortified wine” which poorly fits the rhythm but could be just called “wine” most of the time. “Sweet wine” is a better translation for ликёр I think.

  3. For портвейн, I’m not sure that “sweet wine” is ultimately less misleading than “port.” After all, we’re not talking about a Riesling or an Eiswein. Likewise, “fortified wine” can be a high-end product or low-end product, so wouldn’t convey to the English-speaking reader much about the nature of the product. I think I’d opt for a word expressive of cheapness and bad quality, like “plonk.”

  4. des von bladet says:

    I like my Rieslings bone dry, personally, and I don’t have any problems getting them.
    ‘Fortified wine’ is more exact, but it may not be an appropriate kind of exactness for the purpose.

  5. I think I’d opt for a word expressive of cheapness and bad quality, like “plonk.”
    In the first place, I believe that refers to actual wine; in the second place, it’s U.K. (which is why I’m not sure of its scope), and this is a U.S. translation.
    ‘Fortified wine’ is more exact, but it may not be an appropriate kind of exactness for the purpose.
    Exactly. It’s a formal/commercial expression which would be completely out of place here. (And the context pretty much rules out a Riesling or Eiswein.)

  6. A university press translation intended for scholars, with the requisite apparatus of footnotes, would probably use portvein, since none of the translations is really accurate, but this is not that, and a good thing too—it’s aimed at the general reader, who should have a chance to enjoy it. (For the same reason, Schwartz simply passes over in silence an allusion to the secret-police connections of the Dynamo soccer team, since it’s not important to the conversation—just a passing insult—and would have been too distracting to explain.)

  7. But the first speaker said [ˈxraʃo], with the first syllable gone to zero, and the second said [ˈxarəʃo]. In both cases, the final syllable remained unreduced and the other syllables were reduced despite the stress.
    That’s pretty bizarre. Are you absolutely sure you were hearing stress and not sentence intonation? My guess would be that it’s parallel to an English speaker saying “IF you know what I mean!” with affective initial high pitch/stress. But I await the input of actual Russian speakers.

  8. In the first place, I believe that refers to actual wine; in the second place, it’s U.K. (which is why I’m not sure of its scope), and this is a U.S. translation.
    Huh. I’m American and have used the word “plonk” unselfconsciously for several decades, completely unaware that dictionaries note it as “Chiefly British” (but of Australian origin). Go figure.
    In any event, you seem have broadly missed the point. Unless the aim is a literal translation, it’s not strictly important whether “plonk” can properly be applied to whatever the British analogues of Night Train and Ripple are; it only matters the word suggests something that is extremely cheap and barely drinkable. “Sweet wine” suggests nothing of the sort to me, since I happen to enjoy dessert wines and sweet Georgian varietals like Khvanchkara.

  9. Plonk is for the sound of uncorking and would broadly miss the important point about portvein, which is that it doesn’t even have a cork. I’ve long suspected that portvein may be equivalent to punch, but I don’t know for sure.
    @ laowai – can one even buy unadelturated Khvanchkara these days? Most Russians who still like the sweeties have switched to the likes of DOCG Albina de Romagna AFAIK

  10. On Kerouac: “His drink of choice was a jug of the kind of cheap, sweet wine, Tokay or Thunderbird, usually preferred by winos.”

  11. this “Очень хорошо” could give a clue. I think there is definitely a secondary stress on the first ‘a’ in kharasho.
    I don’t quite understand: how can the first syllable be stressed with the vowel reduced?
    In any case reducing (swallowing) the vowel in colloquial speech is very common. KhoroshO can sound as khrshO or khrashO or khrehshO.
    Accentuating and drawling O is a characteristic of some regional dialects, mid-Volga for example. Someone like Gorky would drawl khoh-roh-show which may lead to perceiving the first o as stressed.
    There is fun mnemonic for khorosho – horror show.

  12. what’s a Thunderbird?

  13. Fortified wine introduced by the Gallos right after Prohibition and marketed specifically in inner cities.

  14. Plonk is for the sound of uncorking and would broadly miss the important point about portvein, which is that it doesn’t even have a cork.
    Where are you getting that? I can find no suggestion whatsoever in any of a dozen dictionaries on the net that “plonk” in the sense of “cheap or inferior wine” has anything at all to do with the onomatopoeic sense of “plonk.” (The sound of a cork makes is a “pop” not a “plonk.”)
    Unadulturated Khvanchkara is extremely easy to find in the Republic of Georgia (where I used to reside) or anywhere with a good trading relations with Georgia and substantial ex-Soviet immigrant populations. You may not be able to find it in Moscow these days, but I could tell a dozen places to find it in London and San Francisco.
    Thunderbird is an American brand of extremely low-cost fortified wine…which is to say портвейн.

  15. komfo,amonan says:

    Mr Cowan, you have brought a smile to my face, as in all the years I lived up there, my favorite barbers were a Kazakh in Manhattan & and Uzbek in Brooklyn. Didn’t realize it was a thing.

  16. Hat:
    Thanks, first of all, for putting in that soft sign. I gave up looking for it, as the virtual keyboard I use for Cyrillic (which is not a standard Russian typewriter-style keyboard) isn’t very intuitive for things without obvious equivalents in Latin, and I have no picture of it — I have to find things by trial and error.
    I’d believe in sentence intonation if it was an unusual phrase or there was some contrast somewhere about, but the second speaker actually said the phrase twice in succession in exactly the same way.
    Sashura:
    In the song there definitely is a secondary stress on the first syllable, but the main stress on the last syllable outweighs it. That was not the case here: both speakers definitely had no stress on the third syllable at all. So it sounded a little bit like okanie, yes, but in okanie we’d expect clear [o] vowels in all three places, or at least the first and last. This sounded like the speakers had applied akanie correctly and then moved the stress.
    There is, of course, nothing impossible about a stressed syllable with [a]; it just would reflect an underlying /a/ rather than /o/, suggesting a dialect, or pair of dialects, in which the word actually is харáшо (for the first speaker) or хáрашо (for the second) combined with okanie rather than standard хорошó. (Sorry if that looks funny: there are no precomposed Cyrillic vowels with acute in Unicode, so I used Latin ones.) But that’s a lot of special pleading.
    In English words that get sentential stress, the vowel reduction generally disappears in the abnormally stressed syllable: “I said ‘THE dog’, not ‘A dog’” will get [ði] or [ðʌ], and [ʌ] or [eɪ] or [ɑ], respectively. (However, English differs from Russian in that some unstressed syllables remain unreduced in a lexically specific way: the verb implicate, for example, is /ˈɪmplɪkeɪt/, with an unreduced final syllable, whereas the much less common adjective implicate is /ˈɪmplɪkɘt/.)

  17. Plonk being onomatopoeic … hmmm … of course it is. The question is, which sound? I was first introduced to the word “plonk” on the Usenet where it was widely used for the sound of a moron dropping into a killfile. Someone mentioned that a word has better connotations too, as in uncorking a wine bottle … and I believed this info for all the post-Usenet years :) But it may be a wrong sound after all? Doh.
    Of course since the basic premise of stashing vodka in stacks in a refrigerator sounds so preposteriously untrue to a Russian, it just may be pointless to follow with a search for “better physical and/or cultural definition” of portvein. If the story is aready impossible to believe, then who cares about incremental truthfullness of the minor details ;) ?

  18. Here’s the famous opening of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novella A Clockwork Orange (italics below are mine). Reading this was quite a shock to me as an American teenager with barely a word of Russian:
    What’s it going to be then, eh?’
    There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither. Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They had no licence for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new veshches which they used to put into the old moloko, so you could peet it, with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog And All His Holy Angels and Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg. Or you could peet milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I’m starting off the story with.
    Our pockets were full of deng, so there was no real need from the point of view of crasting any more pretty polly to tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood while we counted the takings and divided by four, nor to do the ultra-violent on some shivering starry grey-haired ptitsa in a shop and go smecking off with the till’s guts. But, as they say, money isn’t everything.
    The four of us were dressed in the height of fashion, which in those days was a pair of black very tight tights with the old jelly mould, as we called it, fitting on the crotch underneath the tights. this being to protect and also a sort of a design you could viddy clear enough in a certain light, so that I had one in the shape of a spider, Pete had a rooker (a hand, that is), Georgie had a very fancy one of a flower, and poor old Dim had a very hound-and-horny one of a clown’s litso (face, that is), Dim not ever having much of an idea of things and being, beyond all shadow of a doubting thomas, the dimmest of we four. Then we wore waisty jackets without lapels but with these very big built-up shoulders (‘pletchoes’ we called them) which were a kind of a mockery of having real shoulders like that. Then, my brothers, we had these off-white cravats which looked like whipped-up kartoffel or spud with a sort of a design made on it with a fork. We wore our hair not too long and we had flip horrorshow boots for kicking.
    ‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’
    To understand some of this requires double-dip knowledge. For example, you have to not only know that ptitsa means ‘bird’, you have to further know that in British English bird means ‘woman’, prototypically ‘young woman’ (which is overridden here by starry grey-haired). Similarly, to recognize rookers as an instance of рука with an English plural (and Burgess uses it for ‘arm’ as well as ‘hand’ elsewhere in the book), you have to understand the written conventions for non-standard words in non-rhotic varieties of English.

  19. michael farris says:

    For me, plonk is a translation kind of word in that I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used spontaneously by a native speaker. I’ve only seen/heard it in translations that are either UK based or a-national when the translator doesn’t know (or care) about national differences in English.
    There’s no generic word in American for sweet ‘wine’ of no aesthetic quality and favored by alcholics on the downward slide. Typically people use a brand like Thunderbird, Night Train or Mad Dog 20/20 to refer to the category.
    Polish has a nice word ‘jabol’ from apple (from which some kinds were made).
    For stronger alcohol there’s rotgut but that might sound kind of dated.

  20. the virtual keyboard I use for Cyrillic (which is not a standard Russian typewriter-style keyboard) isn’t very intuitive for things without obvious equivalents in Latin
    This is what I use; you just hit an apostrophe and you get a soft sign. (You get shch by hitting w, which is very convenient.)

  21. Plonk being onomatopoeic … hmmm … of course it is
    I have no opinion on whether ‘plonk’ is an appropriate translation, but I can assure you that this Australian has NEVER associated ‘plonk’ with the sound of opening a bottle. It’s just a name for cheap wine. It may ultimately have an onomatopoeic etymology, but that’s irrelevant. To let the supposed onomatopoeic aspect dictate the usage of the term (only something that comes in bottles with corks) is quite idiosyncratic. Plonk definitely doesn’t imply something that comes in bottles with corks.

  22. One source suggests that “plonk” comes from “blanc”.

  23. I agree completely with Bathrobe about ‘plonk’. In England ‘a bottle of plonk’ means ‘a bottle of cheap wine’, with the implication that it’s not outstandingly good for the price. It’s the kind of wine I’m used to getting at an art opening.

  24. I’m pretty much sure that in the US, plonk is still primarily used by ex-Usenet survivors and other grizzled online discussion group warriors. In this subculture, “plonk” is explicitly onomatopoeic (it describes a particular “sound”). The problem is, it’s hard to know what it actually sounds like LOL. Just what kind of sound would a noob make hitting the bottom of the ignore-list?
    Ø’s link makes it clear that I wasn’t alone making an (apparently incorrect) conjecture that it is related to the sound of a pulled cork (“chpok” in Russian):
    …which has led some writers to guess that plonk is an imitative invention from the sound of a cork being pulled from a bottle.
    Some other online sources think that it imitates the sound of poured liquid (“bul’k” in Russian) or of falling objects (“plyukh” in Russian). Either way, thanks a lot for enlightening me. I will avoid further embarassment by never mentioning, again, the supposed “sound of plonk” at a party table :)
    The whole onomatopoeic-or-not conundrum reminds me of an old silly Russian joke about the handyman and the глюкало.

  25. J. W. Brewer says:

    The classic, if non-alcoholic, onomatopoeic sequence is “kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk” (parallel to the ablaut sequence seen in certain strong verbs), from which I deduce that “plonk” sounds like nothing in particular and the “blanc” theory is thus plausible. I’m pretty sure I learned the word “plonk” from John Mortimer’s Rumpole stories (where Rumpole sometimes calls his plonk of choice “Chateau Thames Embankment”). “Plonk” seemed in context to be quite a different sort of tipple than Thunderbird/MD2020/etc., in U.S. terms more like the generic cheap house red of unspecified origin you’d get at a French restaurant in a suburban strip mall.

  26. rootlesscosmo says:

    The full title of one of Stephen Potter’s books is Lifemanship–or the Art of Getting Away with it Without Being an Absolute Plonk . He also uses “in a plonking tone” to mean, roughly, “as irritatingly as possible without inviting outright abuse.” I first encountered the usage to mean “bad, cheap wine” in John Mortimer’s “Rumpole of the Bailey,” which is a whole generation later. But I think of it as British in both cases, and not quite right for Thunderbird-type products, generally understood to be fortified for the sole purpose of getting the consumer hammered quick, which sounds like what the character in Gelasimov’s book is talking about. I would say getting closer than Schwartz’s “sweet wine” would take a paragraph or so of explanation–not something you’d want to burden a short novel with.

  27. “Plonk” seemed in context to be quite a different sort of tipple than Thunderbird/MD2020/etc., in U.S. terms more like the generic cheap house red of unspecified origin you’d get at a French restaurant in a suburban strip mall.
    Yes, hence AJP’s “It’s the kind of wine I’m used to getting at an art opening.” (Incidentally, I met one of my Russian friends via our mutual unhappiness with the stingy pours at an art opening.)
    I would say getting closer than Schwartz’s “sweet wine” would take a paragraph or so of explanation–not something you’d want to burden a short novel with.
    Exactly.

  28. Ø: “plonk” comes from “blanc”
    I’ll buy that, it sounds the most likely to me.
    The other place you get a lot of plonk, especially at this time of year, is office parties.

  29. This Australian used to hear the expression about cheap wine : “You throw up the bottle and it comes down plonk”, but I never really knew how that connected plonk to cheap wine.
    Rootless: Plonk in the sense of the Potter book is more usually “plonker” in the UK now – “he’s a right plonker” of someone the speaker considers stupid.

  30. Портвейн (tangentally, why isn’t it spelled портвайн? Yiddish doesn’t seem to be involved in the way it is for –штейн) would seem to translate to Buckfast® in Scotland or Ireland. Again, inappropriate for a US-oriented translation, but a useful reference point for some.

  31. John Emerson says:

    “Thunderbird/MD2020″
    Red Rocket, Night Train Express, and Paradise are also recommended if that’s what you’re looking for.

  32. “Plonker” means (to quote the OED) “The penis” (to which it adds: “Also in extended use.” Fnarr fnarr.) “Plonk” in the sense of “cheap wine” the OED agrees is “probably representing a colloquial or humorous pronunciation of blanc”.
    There’s a good British equivalent of the sort of cheap fortified wine being mentioned here, I suspect – Buckie, more properly Buckfast Tonic Wine, 15% abv, the preferred drink of young drunks in Scotland, not least because it also contains more caffeine than Red Bull. However, although Groundskeeper Willie has apparently been seen drinking a bottle of Buckie, the drink almost certainly doesn’t mean anything to US readers.

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