I’m still reading Звёздный билет/A Starry Ticket (see this post from yesterday), and I hit a snag at the point where Linda, an Estonian girl, asks Galya (one of the seventeen-year-old Muscovite protagonists): “А вчера на стадионе, когда “Калев” стал проигрывать, он сказал: “Повели кота на мыло”. При чем тут кот и при чем тут мыло?” [Yesterday at the stadium, when “Kalev” started to lose, he said: “The cat has been brought to the soap.” What do a cat and soap have to do with anything?] I shared her puzzlement, and wrote to Sashura asking if he could help. Of course, as I expected, he could and did, and he has graciously allowed me to share his typically thorough answer, which I expect others besides myself will enjoy and find useful (I’ve added helpful Wikipedia links):
Ah, that’s a lovely phrase! There are several puns in one. Classic Aksyonov. No wonder she is confused.
Kalev first appears as a handsome man. Then, a few paragraphs later, Kalev, from the giant of Estonian-Finnish mythology, is a very strong basketball team (football too). When people are nimble, jump and catch skillfully they can be compared to cats. Presumably they were watching men’s teams play. That’s why it’s кот, not кошка. But the idiom is with кошка – как мокрая кошка [‘like a wet cat’ -LH] is to look pathetic, pitiful.
The first reading of the phrase looks like the cat is going for a wash (мыло [‘soap’] – мыть [‘wash’]). Cats don’t like to be washed. I think there is умыть – to wash – implied here. Умыть someone also means to beat someone in a (sports) competition, to win (e.g. here: note разговорно-сниженное [‘low conversational’] stylistics). Kalev is getting a wash and doesn’t like it.
Second pun, “на мыло”. Idiomatically, it means to send to an abattoir, to slaughter, as when an old horse is slaughtered and its bones are boiled to make soap. And it’s a popular traditional cry of displeasure at Russian stadiums: судью на мыло! вратаря на мыло! – down with the referee, goalie.
A nimble tom-cat gets a wash with soap and is sent off to the slaughterhouse.
I don’t know how I’d translate it to convey both the meaning and the incomprehensibleness. Perhaps: The cat is in for a washout and with a lot of soap?
I don’t think it’s possible to translate it fully, any more than the “stock exchange hare” I wrote about here, but I certainly do enjoy it.
Incidentally, I learned another word that barely exists in English, to the point that there is apparently no accepted spelling for it: Russian глинт [glint] is English klint, clint, or glint (Wikipedia prefers the first). It’s “an erosional limestone escarpment on several islands of the Baltic Sea, in Estonia and in Leningrad Oblast of Russia,” and the word is from Danish klint ‘cliff.’
Update. I got a review copy of the new (“Main”) edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary in the mail today, and rarely has a book justified itself so quickly: I looked up clint and found it there, defined as “a block forming part of a natural limestone pavement,” which not only provides an authoritative spelling but makes more sense of the Russian word’s occurrence in the novel. Score one for Oxford!