The Georgian Sea.

I’m still reading Dmitry Bykov’s biography of Pasternak (see this post; it’s been less than two years, and I’m already over halfway through!), and when he got to Pasternak’s translations from Georgian he quoted the first stanza of his version of Valerian Gaprindashvili‘s poem “The Sea,” and I was impressed enough to memorize it:

Море мечтает о чем-нибудь махоньком,
Вроде как сделаться птичкой колибри
Или звездою на небе заяхонтить,
Только бы как-нибудь сжаться в калибре.

The sea dreams of something tiny,
like turning itself into a little hummingbird
or a star to jacinth in the sky,
if only it could somehow shrink in caliber.

Bykov says it’s wonderful poetry but sounds more like Mayakovsky than Pasternak, who doesn’t reveal himself fully in translation. If you’re wondering about “jacinth,” it’s my attempt to render заяхонтить [zayákhontit’], which is not a Russian verb, nor is яхонтить a word if you get rid of the за- prefix — it’s a nonce form based on the obsolete noun яхонт [yákhont], which could mean either ‘ruby’ or ‘sapphire.’ The noun is from Middle High German jachant, which is from Latin hyacinthus, and as it happens there’s an obsolete English jewel word jacinth which derives from the same Latin source, so I figured it was as close as I could get.

But then the fatal question occurred to me: how good a translation is it? I googled [Гаприндашвили, море] and found a different translation, by the poet Maria Fargi; it’s about halfway down this page, and the first stanza goes:

Морю хочется быть мелким,
Как нежнейшая колибри,
Утром с маленькой постельки
Прыгать в радостные игры.

The sea wants to be small/petty/shallow/fine,
like the tenderest hummingbird,
in the morning from a tiny little bed
to jump into joyful games.

Hmm. OK, let’s check the original, ზღვა [zghva], which (thanks, internet!) is online; here’s the first stanza:

ზღვას ენატრება იყოს პატარა,
ვით უნაზესი ჩიტი კოლიბრი,
თავისი თავი ვარსკვლავს ადარა,
ცაზე რომ ბრწყინავს დაუბრკოლებრივ.

zghvas enatreba iqos patara,
vit’ unazesi ch’iti kolibri,
t’avisi t’avi varskvlavs adara,
ts’aze rom brtsqinavs daubrkolebriv.

Google Translate says:

The sea misses a little,
As the best bird bird colibri,
She stared up the star,
To shine on the sky shine.

Hmm. Well, with my very rusty Georgian plus a few reference books I can make out that “misses” is in the “I miss you” sense and იყოს is the 3rd sg. optative ‘that it be,’ so the first line might be “The sea misses being small.” In the second line, ჩიტი is ‘bird’ and კოლიბრი is ‘hummingbird’; უნაზესი is a superlative from ნაზი ‘soft, tender,’ so score one for Fargi. In the third line, თავისი თავი means ‘its head’ — I have no idea how GT came up with its version. In the last line, ცა is ‘sky,’ რომ ‘that, if,’ ბრწყინავს ‘shines,’ and დაუბრკოლებრივ ‘unhindered,’ so I’m guessing something like ‘that it shine unhindered in the sky.’ But really, I’m pretty lost and need to relearn Georgian.

I seem to remember that Pasternak told another poet that the trick with translating is to render two lines of the original and then add two of your own taking off from the first bit, and all I can say is that both he and Fargi seem to have worked on that principle here. But hey, whatever produces good poetry is OK with me.

Comments

  1. Pasternak preserved colibri/caliber rhyme of the original. Also, it is not very Mayakovsky-like, too smooth.

  2. In the second line, ჩიტი is ‘bird’

    vit’ unazesi ch’iti kolibri,

    I’m guessing that “ch’iti” is a version of “chito” from an extremely popular song from the Soviet-era Georgian hit movie called Mimino.

  3. David Marjanović says:

    There’s a fellow named Яхонтов who has worked on Old Chinese. Good to see the surprising stress on the first syllable (heard from Baxter in a video) is correct; I would never have guessed German is to blame. (…Or did the word pass through West Slavic?)

    varskvlavs

    A consonant cluster after mine own heart.

  4. I’m guessing that “ch’iti” is a version of “chito” from an extremely popular song from the Soviet-era Georgian hit movie called Mimino.

    Here‘s the Mimino song in Georgian and Russian.

  5. Here‘s the Mimino song in Georgian and Russian.

    The “da” at the end of the refrain is translated on that site into Russian as “da”, meaning yes. I thought “could that be one of those amazing coincidences like Chinese “de” and Romance “de” meaning the same thing? I just looked up “და” in the Wiktionary, and it seems to mean “sister” instead.

  6. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    Hummingbird though?
    Did someone introduce these new world birds into Georgia, or are they being referenced by reputation, or does that word actually mean some other kind of small active bird?

  7. It would have to be a sunbird (nectariniidae, in the passerine order). They have a similar appearance and niche as the new world hummingbirds.

  8. I don’t believe hummingbirds are naturalized anywhere in the Old World. No sunbirds around Georgia either. By reputation I guess?

    [Y, are there sunbird species in the area after all?]

  9. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    I looked up “colibri” and its origin appears to be a Caribbean language, so maybe not the sunbird, but actual hummingbirds, then, probably meant to be exotic.

  10. Y, are there sunbird species in the area after all?

    I guess not.

  11. Colibri can’t be Carib. The language doesn’t have l sound.

  12. From the CRTL: “Orig. obsc. Malgré la localisation de ses premières attest., le mot ne semble autochtone ni en caraïbe insulaire ni en galibi. Une dérivation de l’occitan colobro, colubro «couleuvre» en raison des subits accès de colère du colibri, le mot ayant été véhiculé aux Antilles par les colons fr., fait difficulté des points de vue phon. et sémantiques.”

    However La Salle de l’Étang’s 1763 Galibi dictionary records “COLIBRIS. Oiseau de la plus petit espece, sa gorge ressemble à une émeraude” (after Biet).

    [l] is an allophone of [r] in Carib.

  13. Sunbirds live in warm climates, from Africa to the Middle East to South Asia and as far as the Solomon Islands. The closest they get to Georgia is Iran.

    Maybe Gaprindashvili saw hummingbirds in books.

  14. I just looked up “და” in the Wiktionary, and it seems to mean “sister” instead.

    Georgian და also functions as a conjunction (“and”) and as an affirmative particle. Since (besides “yes”) Russian да also can be both a conjunction (“and”) and a particle (“well”), it seems appropriate enough to keep it, though I suspect it’s in the song only for euphony.

  15. I’m guessing that “ch’iti” is a version of “chito”

    Another thing I remember from my basic Georgian is that changing the “i” (the usual nominative singular ending of most nouns) to “o” renders it vocative.

  16. Gaprindashvili was a Symbolist so restricting his choice of simile to the locally available fauna would not have been a particular concern, but rather the more exotic the better as long as it fits the poem.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    As tropical South American birds, hummingbirds are famous far and wide, and get colibri-based names.

    Fun fact: the oldest hummingbirds are from Germany and France, some 30 million years old. The closest thing the Old World has now are hummingbird-sized moths.

  18. As tropical South American birds

    North American, too. They can be found as far north as Alaska, and are extremely common in my neck of the woods (California).

  19. Found another source which claims that the word is probably of Tupian origin.

    In Karipuna French Creole (weird variety of French – borrowed lots of vocabulary from several Indian languages – mostly Arawakan and Tupi):

    Kulubhu – colibri (beija-flor in Portuguese).

    Kulubhu is said to be a borrowing from Tupi.

  20. Gaprindashvili was a Symbolist so restricting his choice of simile to the locally available fauna would not have been a particular concern, but rather the more exotic the better as long as it fits the poem.

    Exactly; he wasn’t a localist who filled his poems with Georgian realia. Pasternak, however, insisted on sticking them in, most embarrassingly in the last stanza of this poem:

    Эйфель за Эйфелем, башня из пены!
    Всем ураганом своим тигрошкурым
    Море вприпрыжку ползет за надменной,
    Все изгибаясь, как шлейф за тюрнюром.

    Throwing in тигрошкурым ‘tiger-skin’ as an homage to the Georgian national epic is just sad. (Plus he misspelled турнюром, with турнюр ‘bustle (of a dress)’ from French tournure.)

  21. I just wanted to observe that jacinth is certainly not obsolete in English.

  22. David Marjanović says:

    North American, too. They can be found as far north as Alaska, and are extremely common in my neck of the woods (California).

    Yes, and in South America they range all the way south, too. But somehow they’re only famous as tropical rainforest birds in European common knowledge.

  23. I just wanted to observe that jacinth is certainly not obsolete in English.

    Oh, thanks for letting me know. I wasn’t familiar with it, so made an incorrect assumption.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    The French word for the hyacinth flower is la jacinthe. The TLFI says that the gem (which I did not know of) is called hyacinthe but also jaconce and similar terms, reflecting a tortuous path from Greece to Syria and back to Europe.

  25. It seems like there may have been some cross contamination between jacinth and jargoon, both of which are varieties of zircons. The former comes from the Latinate flower name hyacinth, while the latter comes (like zircon itself) ultimately from the Persian zargun meaning “gold colored.” The cross contamination may be most evident in the (truly obsolete) form jagounce.

  26. Jacinth may be too technical a translation for a word which today just means a generic ancient / mythical / poethical precious stone (even though it may have meant a specific mineral centuries ago). In Russian there isn’t really a way to render a word for “jewel” or “gemstone” into a poetic line, they are too cumbersome multi-word constructs. So a poet must either name a specific gemstone, or use “yakhont”. In English, just jewel or gem will work the same in a verse line.

  27. But “jewel” and “gem” don’t work the same, because they’re boring everyday words. It may be that “jacinth” is too obscure to render яхонт, but we’re not talking about the noun, we’re talking about a nonce verb invented by Pasternak. If you have a better suggestion for заяхонтить in that line, I’m all ears.

  28. I thought “jacinth” was very effective as a nonce verb, but I knew the noun well beforehand.

    While doing a little research on gemstone terminology as a result of this discussion, I found out that references to “topaz” in ancient times were probably actually to yellow peridot (gem quality olivine; an iron-magnesium silicate), as opposed to modern topaz (which is an aluminum silicate-fluoride-hydroxide).

  29. I think ‘jacinth’ is amazing for яхонт, with the same flash and ember inside that get extinguished by the end (I guess the column of noise is the flash, the sonorant is the glow, and the voiceless last segment makes for the slaking).

  30. David Marjanović says:

    That’s lost on me. Do you have synesthesia?

  31. I do but I tried to ignore color and ground the rest (I guess I failed). I think G. M. Hopkins threw about his “inscape” (I don’t have a good quote, and probably wouldn’t if I had his letters and journals to hand) without reference to synaesthesia, as an inner landscape of a word, more or less. I think of the induced perception as a label for a class of things; the class would still be there without the label.

    I thought a hissing sound as a ‘flash’ (suddenly bright across a lot of frequencies), sonorants as more radiant than obstruents, and an obstruent following a sonorant as extinguishing it would work as reasonable metaphors if not along the lines of bouba/kiki. If not, I’ll rephrase my previous comment as “‘jacinth’ for ‘ya[x]ont’ just feels right to me.”

    A bunch of ‘inscape’ snippets from a biography

  32. The sea dreams of something tiny,
    like turning itself into a little hummingbird
    or a star to jacinth in the sky,
    if only it could somehow shrink in caliber.

    A couple of respectful suggestions:

    If you’re following his lead and inventing a verb “to jacinth”, which is a great idea, it might be worth altering the third line to make it clear that that’s what you’re doing, rather than just using the noun “jacinth”. Because at present the most obvious reading (to me anyway) is to just read “jacinth” as a noun:

    The sea dreams of something tiny, like turning itself into a little hummingbird, or [like] a star [dreams of turning itself] to jacinth in the sky,

    Which isn’t quite what you’re aiming at.

    So maybe make the third line “or a star that jacinths in the sky” to make it clear that it’s a verb?

    Also, I know “caliber” is the direct translation of калибре but is it the best one? For me it has very definite mechanical (in particular firearms) connotations which sound a bit odd in context. Scope? Scale? Extent? None of those quite work either….

  33. Excellent points all, thanks!

  34. @anya: That’s interesting. I have mild synesthesia, but it’s purely color-related; the visual associations that you mention do seem novel to me.

    (In my case I associate each letter with a color, with some colors used more than once, and a whole word takes the color of its first letter. Likewise with numbers.)

  35. Lazar, I wouldn’t think of making an argument from synesthesia; I was thinking that the sequence ‘fricative – vowel – sonorant – obstruent’ and the sequence ‘flash – glow – glow – go out’ share enough structure (‘a brief expansion (across frequencies or in physical space) – something sustained – the end’) for the former to work as a sonic/articulatory gesture or metaphor for the latter.

  36. David Marjanović says:

    I thought a hissing sound as a ‘flash’ (suddenly bright across a lot of frequencies), sonorants as more radiant than obstruents, and an obstruent following a sonorant as extinguishing it would work as reasonable metaphors if not along the lines of bouba/kiki.

    That makes sense when I think about it. One reason it doesn’t come to me naturally, though, is that the [n] is simply too short that I could interpret it as an ongoing process stopped by the following obstruent.

  37. Bykov says it’s wonderful poetry but sounds more like Mayakovsky than Pasternak…

    It’s so-so poetry if you ask me but it does sound Mayakovskian, especially this rhyme, mákhon’kom – zayákhontit’. It’s second-rate Mayakovsky though, copied from his last-resort rhymebook. Yuri Olesha wrote that he had once offered to sell Mayakovsky a rhyme: medyakámi-medikáment. Mayakovsky bid one ruble – a pittance in Olesha’s eyes. The proper stress, Mayakovsky explained, was on the last syllable of the second word: medikamént. “Why are you buying then?” – “Just in case.” I guess Pasternak would have gotten 1 ruble 50 kopecks for this one.

    On a side note, one wonders if the irregular stress was an Odessa thing or a legacy of Olesha’s childhood bilingualism.

  38. Ha, that’s a great story!

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