THE CAT AND THE SOAP.

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!

Comments

  1. Valera Fooksman says:

    Isn’t there also a reference to “повело кота на блядки”?

  2. I believe that in English we send old horses to the glue factory.

  3. This may not do the trick, but how about: “That stud got shellacked — off to the glue factory.” Or a bit more cryptically: “That stud got shellacked — he’s fit for glue.” It may be possible to keep the feline: “That slick cat got a licking — he’s all washed up.” But I believe that the notion of “making soap” out of a living creature is far more ominous in English; the only thing it brings to mind for me is WWII.

  4. Another potential subtext is a popular parody of Pushkin’s lines about “lukomor’e”:
    “У Лукоморья дуб спилили, / Златую цепь в «торгсин» снесли, / Кота на мыло растопили, / Русалку…”
    http://www.antho.net/jr/30-2009/10.php
    Most variants seem to have it as: “Кота на мясо зарубили, / Русалку в бочку посадили, / И написали «огурцы».”

  5. I believe that the notion of “making soap” out of a living creature is far more ominous in English
    It would be ominous in any language. Soap is usually made from dead creatures only. Live animals don’t like being soaped down, and especially not cats.

  6. in English we send old horses to the glue factory
    Is that what’s meant by meeting a sticky end?

  7. Кота на мыло растопили
    I forgot about that one! Could well be.

  8. Crown: Is that what’s meant by meeting a sticky end?
    Things are getting a litte rude here. According to Partridge, in Australia “come to a sticky end” was (is still ?) a “pleasing pun” for masturbation. Here is Partridge on “sticky”.

  9. There’s a term in Yiddish na shmalts which refers to the fate people met in the camps. I never got where the na came from, but now it seems like an echo, if not of the exact phrase here, then of a like idiom.

  10. Zackary: There’s a term in Yiddish na shmalts which refers to the fate people met in the camps. I never got where the na came from
    Is na here the preposition nach ? Can one in Yiddish say something like *”nach Schmalz verwandeln“, where German has “in Schmalz verwandeln” ? Or is it nach here in the sense of “resemble”, as “riecht nach Schmalz” or “er geht nach seinem Vater” (takes after) ?
    I googled nach Schmalz, and found a phrase I don’t think I’d heard before in the Rheinland: mir hängt die Zunge nach Schmalz. Also some sharp lyrics by Udo Jürgens in a song titled Die Glotze (the boob tube), here excerpted:

    Die Glotze ist doch das größte –
    ist ja klar.
    Ich glotze mir meine schönsten
    Träume wahr.
    Mord und heiteres Raten,
    Aktion, Spannung und Show.
    Was ich im Leben nicht habe –
    und das alles in Farbe.
    Wer klärt die Kinder mit 4 schon auf?
    Aha – die Glotze.
    Wer ist d’ran schuld, daß ich rauch’ und sauf’?
    Aha – die Glotze.
    Wer stillt den Hunger nach Schmalz und Blut?
    Wer wäscht das Hirn mit einer Bilderflut?

  11. Yiddish has the preposition nokh (like German nach), but the na in the phrase I mentioned is something else. I don’t know the right linguistic term – it’s a preposition that’s only functional as part of certain set phrases. Actually, the only other one I can think of right now is
    na shpits “in front/in the lead” (said of horses drawing a carriage, for example)

  12. the na in the phrase I mentioned is something else. … it’s a preposition that’s only functional as part of certain set phrases
    Could it derive from the Russian preposition na ?

  13. In Ireland we learnt about clints and grikes in Leaving Certificate geography, for describing the Burren.

  14. Could it derive from the Russian preposition na ?
    Right, I assume it does, but my question is how it got incorporated in certain Yiddish phrases and not others.

  15. Bathrobe says:

    I thought old horses were sent to the knackers.

  16. I don’t think knacker(‘s/ed) is part of AmE at all; the OED only records it in this sense from 1812.

  17. Yeah, I have only encountered “knacker” in British (or maybe Commonwealth) sources. (The first place I remember is in Animal Farm.) It is definitely not part of American vernacular.

  18. It’s one of many terms that I learned from watching Britcoms as a child. But yeah, not used over here at all.

  19. ObDanish: klint has exactly the sense quoted for the Baltic/Russian limestone feaures. Møns Klint is the canonical example, and probably part of the same Baltic limestone deposits. The White Cliffs of Dover are klinter if you ask me.

    I don’t know where the OED / British geologists got their definition — when not exposed by wave erosion, the limestone in Denmark is either scraped away by the ice ages or covered in a mile of gravel / 100k years of undisturbed topsoil. It’s never exposed in glacial abrasion surfaces.

    Also the word is a doublet with klit which now means ‘sand dune’.

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