Untranslatable Gronas.

I encountered Mikhail Gronas as a literary theorist (see this LH post and its first two links) and therefore thought of him that way, even though I knew he was a poet. Now, having read Lev Oborin’s review of his new collection and delved into his poetry, I will be thinking of him primarily as a poet. The review starts:

Gronas’s last collection, Dear Orphans, came out 17 years ago. As I see it, it was the most important book of Russian poetry of the first twenty years of the 21st century, and there’s not much you can set beside it. A Short History of Attention has been eagerly awaited.

Fortunately, the earlier book is online in its entirety, so I was able to dive in, and the first poem blew me away. Here’s a link to the poem on its own (with a photo of the author), and here’s a slightly adapted Google Translate version (which was surprisingly accurate):

what was acquired – burned: coals

I’m going to rake the ashes I might find an iron ruble (not in use for a long time) or a top
in the former children’s corner
and don’t poke into the former kitchen, it will collapse: weak ceilings, foundation, risers

we my children my old people were on the street not knowing where to poke around
however, the Lord does not spare either a warm winter or free food
it turned out that the house was not needed outside is no worse

and everything is quietly arranged

our neighbors are also fire victims
they
are rebuilding a house
I don’t really believe in the success of this new fuss: they’re not builders, but like us are fire victims, it’s not even that, it’s just not clear why they need a house – it will be a reminder about the house

houses about houses people about people hand about hand meanwhile in our language forgetting means starting to be forgetting means starting to be nothing is brighter and I need to go but I will say goodbye several times so that you forget well:

to forget is to begin to be
to forget is to begin to be
to forget is to begin to be

I used GT so as not to drive myself crazy trying to render it into poetry, because I could spend way too long and not succeed; in Russian it’s magical. To give you one example of pure untranslatability, the last line, repeated several times, is “забыть значит начать быть” [zabyt’ znachit nachat’ byt’]. The play of sounds (z – b – t – z – n – ch – t – n – ch – t – b – t) is bad enough, but the crucial element is the fact that забыть ‘forget’ looks like the prefix за- ‘begin’ (as in залаять ‘to start barking’) plus быть ‘to be.’ I don’t know if I had ever noticed that; if I did, it didn’t stick with me — it would be like analyzing forget as for + get: mildly curious, but what’s the point? Except of course when a poet sharpens the point until it pokes right through you, and there’s absolutely no way to convey it in English (or indeed any language outside of East Slavic, since the other Slavic languages have different forms for ‘forget’). Another example from the second poem in the collection: the line “родство и сиротство” [rodstvó i sirótstvo] ‘kinship and orphanhood’ gets its effect from the striking assonance of the two words. That kind of linguistic play is something I crave in poetry, and I’m glad to have found a mother lode of it.

Comments

  1. “Zabit” in Croatian means an inaccessible or remote place. In other words a forgotten place. The etymology, apparently, is from “biti” = to beat / strike, not “biti” = to be.
    The Croatian for “to forget” is “zaboraviti”, from “boraviti” = to remain, to abide.
    Also doesn’t make sense when it’s broken down into constituent parts.

  2. Interesting, thanks!

  3. The Polish for “forget” is a false friend for Russian speakers – it’s zapominać, while Russian zapominat’ means exactly the opposite, i.e. “remember”.
    (The construction of the Polish word looks parallel to Russian zapamyatovat’ “forget” (a synonym of zabyt’), literally something like “put beyond memory “.)

  4. Thank you LH for turning us on to this wonderful poet!

  5. January First-of-May says:

    an iron ruble (not in use for a long time)

    As a numismatist, I have to comment on this line: he is presumably talking about the 1992 type, which was made of brass-clad steel.
    Those coins were demonetized in 1998, by which point they were worth circa 0.016 US cents in exchange rate (and probably weren’t seen often in circulation); as such, Gronas was correct to say, in 2002, that iron rubles hadn’t been used in a while.

    Ironically enough, in 2009, a new type made of nickel-plated steel was introduced – so now (different) iron rubles are in use again (though they look approximately the same as the earlier cupronickel type, so I doubt that many non-numismatists realized the difference).

     
    EDIT:

    A more linguistically relevant comment: the phrase “and I need to go” is и мне надо итти in the original, with the word итти “go” spelled in the pre-1956 Soviet orthography (the modern spelling is идти).

    Admittedly, I’m not sure what he intended by this choice; though he certainly intended something. I doubt it’s accidental.

  6. Thanks for the numismatic explanation, and I too wondered about итти!

  7. The Croatian for “to forget” is “zaboraviti”, from “boraviti” = to remain, to abide.

    Macedonian *zboruva “to speak” (Serbo-Croatian cognate “zboriti”) looks like from the same root.

    Zbor, zboriti, zboruva all developed from “to gather” via “to gather” – > “to gather in a meeting” – > “speak at the meeting” – > “speak”

    Maybe zaboraviti is similar – > “to forget your speech at the meeting”

  8. PlasticPaddy says:

    Re forget, this map is nice.
    https://www.reddit.com/r/etymologymaps/comments/713mwd/etymology_map_for_the_verb_to_forget_3507x2480_oc/
    Re itti/idti, all I could find was prescriptive sites that justified spelling from idu etc., although they did point out priIti is spelt that way and not pridti. Bulgakov uses both itti and idti in Zoikina Kvartira.

  9. Great map. The Lithuanian “pamiesti” seems to fall under the etymology for Polish. The meaning of “cease to exist” for the prefix za- is new to me.

  10. Rawley Grau says:

    Just to add to the list of Slavic forgets: in Slovene the word has the same derivation as Russian: pozabiti (with the prefix po-). Etymologist Marko Snoj writes (my translation): “We can imagine the semantic development as *’bi(va)ti daleč’ [*’be far away’] > *’ne imeti, ne dobiti’ [*’not have, not get’] > ‘pozabiti’ [‘forget’]; it is the direct opposite of the semantic development of the verb dobiti, in which ‘be, remain until (a certain time)’ > ‘reach’ > ‘acquire’. Compare this development ‘not acquire’ > ‘forget’ to the English get – forget.” (Slovenski etimološki slovar, 2003)

  11. Just to add to zyxt’s comment, “zabiti” as a verb means “to nail down”, and “načeti” in BCS also has a different meaning, which is “to begin to consume something (esp food).” The more general verb for beginning is “početi”. So even a simple four word stanza can be impossible to understand without a dictionary.

    (As an aside I find the “cease to be” etymology of the Slavic “to forget” unconvincing, given that some BCS dialects use poboraviti and SLO uses pozabiti, to say nothing of PL/CZE variants which break the pattern even more dramatically)

    But even if those verbs were the same you could not repeat this line in BCS for the prosaic reason that the infinitive and the third person form of the verb do not both end in -it, and also for the deeper reason that a language with initial-syllable stress is inherently ill-suited to these kinds of prosodic flourishes (as well as, one might argue, to lyrical poetry in general).

    And at the risk of appearing pedantic, I wanted to observe re: Hat’s attempt to decompose “zabit” – the prefix “za”, like basically every other Slavic prefix, has no fixed meaning outside of the verb it’s joined to. Not saying he was wrong to hear the echo, but I think the line works really well even without it.

    FInally rodstvó i sirótstvo is of course very reminiscent of “bratstvo i jedinstvo” – the national motto of Yugoslavia which comes out as the ungainly “brotherhood and unity” in English.

  12. January First-of-May says:

    “zabiti” as a verb means “to nail down”

    …so, corresponding to Russian забить, as opposed to забыть “forget”. I suppose they could have merged in some non-Russian Slavic language.

    Ironically enough, in modern colloquial Russian, you can забить на something (literally “nail down on”), which means “ignore”.
    I’m not sure if it’s related to the word to “forget”; it doesn’t look like it directly is, but there might have been some kind of contamination involved.

  13. in modern colloquial Russian, you can забить на something (literally “nail down on”), which means “ignore”.

    Originally, it was “khuy zabit’ na shto-to.”

    This reminds me ot maths lectures when I was a student. Whenever the lecturer said, “Polozhim ‘Let us suppose’,” there was a question from the audience—from the same source, to be sure—asking “Na shto? ‘On what?'”

  14. Re forget, this map is nice.

    It’s nice, but I was shocked to see the Greek etymology given as “from Ancient Greek xekhno,” and was even more shocked to discover that the same error is in Wiktionary (from which they undoubtedly took it):

    Etymology
    from Ancient Greek ξεχνῶ (xekhnô), itself from ξε- (xe-, “un-, de-, out-”) +‎ χάνω (khánō, “lose”)

    I simply don’t understand how anyone could think any of those forms are Ancient Greek; they’re post-medieval on their face (χάνω ‘lose,’ for example, is a medieval formation based on χάος, and of course there’s no ancient prefix ξε-). The Ancient Greek word for ‘forget’ is (ἐπι)λανθάνομαι. If somebody can correct that Wiktionary entry, it will make me feel better and be a service to humanity.

    And at the risk of appearing pedantic, I wanted to observe re: Hat’s attempt to decompose “zabit” – the prefix “za”, like basically every other Slavic prefix, has no fixed meaning outside of the verb it’s joined to. Not saying he was wrong to hear the echo, but I think the line works really well even without it.

    That’s not my “attempt to decompose” it, it’s what the poem is literally saying: “забыть значит начать быть”!

  15. Stu Clayton says:

    Transposing a bit, “быть значит начать забыть” reminds me loosely of Heidegger’s Seinsvergessenheit. As it says there: In Sein und Zeit macht Heidegger die Seinsvergessenheit am Versäumnis der Frage nach dem Sinn von Sein fest.

  16. “he crucial element is the fact that забыть ‘forget’ looks like the prefix за- ‘begin’”

    I was responding to this. “Za” definitely does not mean “begin” – as a standalone word it means primarily “behind” and when used as a verb prefix its meaning and function is ambiguous and depends on what it’s prefixed to, which is my entire point. You seemed to be saying that decomposing “zabit” is the key to appreciating the line, and I was pointing out the issues with that reading.

  17. Oh, I didn’t mean that was the meaning of за- (few if any verbal prefixes have unambiguous single meanings), just that for the purposes of this poem that’s how it was being analyzed. Sorry for the lack of clarity.

  18. “…so, corresponding to Russian забить, as opposed to забыть “forget”. I suppose they could have merged in some non-Russian Slavic language.”

    RIght or maybe Russian created two variants where Proto-Slavic had only one.

    Zabiti is these days used primarily in the narrow sense of scoring a goal in soccer, as in “Jao kako im je Mandžukić zabio”. “Za-” in general can signify the root verb being somehow performed to excess, and it initially was used for very hard kicks into net, but now it just means any goal.

  19. PlasticPaddy says:

    So zanimat’sja is to seize (reflexively) to excess. The word is self-critical and shows why intellectuals may need correction. Note here also that the Russian seizes knowledge, like the Italian and the German.

  20. Always thought Slavic ‘za’ corresponds to English ‘out’.

    zapominać – [for]get it out of memory

    zapomnit’ – memorize out

    zaboraviti/zabyt’ – [for]get something out of existence

    zabit’ – strike out

    zanimat’sya – excercise out

  21. It corresponds to various concepts, like most prefixes.

  22. David Marjanović says:

    Note here also that the Russian seizes knowledge, like the Italian and the German.

    No, I’ve always interpreted begreifen “to get it” as “to get your grubby fingers all over it”; angreifen means “touch” (…when it doesn’t mean “attack”).

  23. David Eddyshaw says:

    In Kusaal you seize decisions, which seems reasonable enough.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    That’s an option in German: einen Entschluss fassen.

  25. John Cowan says:

    as well as, one might argue, to lyrical poetry in general

    Finns and Hungarians seem to believe otherwise.

  26. RIght or maybe Russian created two variants where Proto-Slavic had only one.
    No, it’s South Slavic that has merged Proto-Slavic “i” and “y”.

  27. John, it’s really quite rude of you to respond to my crackpot hypothesis with “facts” and “knowledge”. But speaking of Hungarian poetry, until your response prompted me to read up on it, i had no idea that Sandor Petofi, whom I’d heard of but knew nothing about, was born Aleksandar Petrovic. His parents were Slovak immigrants, but with a name like that it was inevitable that Serbian internet would claim him as one of our own, and indeed the Sr Wiki gamely attempts to present Petrovic family lore as incontrovertible fact, though one of which the man himself remained tragically ignorant during his life. Ironically Petofi’s very real historical influence on Serbian literature (via Jovanovic Zmaj who translated his poems into s Serbian and became an influential poet himself) becomes a mere footnote to the quest to establishing his blood quantum. Surreal.

  28. RIght or maybe Russian created two variants where Proto-Slavic had only one.

    No, it’s South Slavic that has merged Proto-Slavic “i” and “y”.

    My point was that Russian is not the “default” Slavic language from which the others deviate which seemed implicit in JFOM’s post, though I should have made the point more directly and not by reframing what he said.

  29. PlasticPaddy says:

    @dm
    So for German speakers greifen is the imperfective aspect “reach out to take hold of”, unlike English grip, which is perfective. The German perfective of greifen is of course begrapschen, although recent immigrants have been known to outperform natives in this activity.
    Ps: fassen/erfassen/zusammenfassen is also used figuratively for the display or disgorgement of knowledge, and I think more rarely for the initial seizure (or failure to accept, nicht fassen können)

  30. I wouldn’t say that it works like this in German. Firstly, “begrapschen” is often iterative and thus imperfective, and secondly it generally disapproving, a connotation “greifen” doesn’t have. And secondly, greifen can be used as a perfective verb, especially the reflexive forms: er griff sich einen Apfel und verließ den Raum “he grabbed an apple (for himself) and left the room”.

  31. Stu Clayton says:

    By way of contrast: Er vergriff sich an einem Apfel und verließ den Raum

  32. PlasticPaddy says:

    @hans
    Thanks. I was not aware of that usage and thought the usual verb in that case was nehmen, but greifen is much more descriptive there. I suppose ergreifen would also be possible but sounds a little extreme for an apple.

  33. January First-of-May says:

    My point was that Russian is not the “default” Slavic language from which the others deviate which seemed implicit in JFOM’s post

    …Huh. I didn’t realize it could be interpreted that way.

    I was assuming that minimal pairs don’t come out of nowhere (now that I think of it, apparently sometimes they do – the bad/lad split comes to mind), and that those two common roots must have been distinct in Proto-Slavic (though I probably thought the difference was in the palatalization, rather than the actual vowel).

    But I admit that the phrasing I used probably wasn’t particularly clear.

    Zabiti is these days used primarily in the narrow sense of scoring a goal in soccer, as in “Jao kako im je Mandžukić zabio”.

    This sense exists in Russian as well (I wanted to translate your example, but I can’t make any sense of “Jao kako im je”, and I’m not even sure which language it is in), but it is far from the only meaning of that word (though probably the most common one now that hardly anyone is still nailing things down).

    I don’t think the “only hard kicks” thing ever existed in Russian, but Russian football barely existed prior to 1936 (while the Yugoslavian tradition is much older), so I suppose if the terminology was different at some earlier point I’m unlikely to find out.

  34. David Marjanović says:

    although recent immigrants have been known to outperform natives in this activity.

    Hard to tell, because recent immigrants find it a lot easier to get into the media when they do such a thing. Some women have said they and others have always been groped at large public gatherings like that.

    I was not aware of that usage

    As usual, it’s not universal…

    Ergreifen is literary, though. Ergreift sie! is how an evil overlord tells his guards to seize the intruders.

    I can’t make any sense of “Jao kako im je”

    jao = “oh”, in flagrant breach of a euroversal*
    kako = Russian kak, not sure what happened there
    im as in Russian
    je = “is”, an obligatory part of the analytic past tense even in the 3rd person singular.

    * Seriously. Between Irish a and Tatar i**, the whole continent seems to use o, and to have done so ever since Ancient Greek at least.
    ** Do other Turkic languages use e?

  35. Russian football barely existed prior to 1936

    Not even a little bit true. To quote WiPe:

    Before the revolution of 1917, football was quite widespread in the Tsarist Russian Empire. In 1914, the Russian Football Union included representatives from 33 cities, while the number of football teams was close to two hundred and the number of registered players – five thousand.

    For the history of Russian footie I highly recommend Robert Edelman’s Spartak Moscow: A History of the People’s Team in the Workers’ State, where you will learn, for example, that in 1912 Boris Chesnokov wrote that futbol was Moscow’s most popular sport.

  36. PlasticPaddy says:

    @dm
    Re irish a, the exclamation is Ó; a is a marker of the vocative like O in Latin or Biblical English:
    Ó a Thiarna na glóire, tá sé le dúiseacht.
    (= Oh lord he is about to wake up)
    https://www.gaois.ie/g3m/ga/?txt=gl%c3%b3ire&SearchMode=broad

  37. JFOM it’s not in any sense your fault. But in my current attempt at self edification on how the Slavic family came to be, I must have activated some long dormant nationalist gene, a little too quick to see perceive slights everywhere. Your point re: minimal pairs was perfectly well taken, but I think given that Stari Slaveni were apparently loath to invent new verbs so they kept reusing the same stems with new prefixes, those seemingly “out of nowhere” coincidences seem to be quite common.

    “Jao kako im je – well David’s already filled you in but, I would say “jao” here is more like “wow”, belong to the “uzdasi i uzvici” part of speech (i.e. sighs and shouts), very on brand for the Balkans that these merit an entire category by themselves. But here I’m putting you on notice that I’m about to relate something big or at least worth listening to. Can be reduplicated to emphaize the impressiveness and/or your sense of marvel at whatever the sentence is about.

    Also I’m not so sure the Yugoslav soccer tradition is all that much older, although it’s true that the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was at the very first World Cup and finished ahead of Brazil in their group before losing to Uruguay due to allegedly improper refereeing, beginning a kind of tradition that we still very much practice today.

  38. January First-of-May says:

    Jao kako im je

    So… let me figure it out… in a slightly overly literal rendering, “Во как им Манджукич забил”?

    not sure what happened there

    Syncope on the Russian side, I believe, and/or something to do with the fall of the yers. Don’t recall the details offhand.

    Also I’m not so sure the Yugoslav soccer tradition is all that much older

    Than 1936? Very much so.
    Or, at least, there’s a relatively unbroken connection with the current tradition, unlike in Russia, where the pre-1936 and post-1936 situations are almost entirely unrelated to each other.

    I don’t know much about Russian football before 1917 (though I do know that there was some), and between 1918 and 1936 it was, to the best of my knowledge, nearly vestigial (until officially revived and legalized).
    Almost none of the currently extant Russian clubs go back to before the 1930s – but such clubs are a lot more common in Yugoslavia.

  39. Во как им Манджукич забил looks right on the money though I have to actively suppress the urge to read the first word in the animal sense. Is “Vo” derived fromt he english wow or whoa?

    I don’t know how much that tradition is worth, given that their highest ambition is to be cannon fodder in the group stages of Champions League, whereas Russian and Ukrainian teams can not unreasonably hope for a spring season in Europe. And in any event, pre-WWII continuity is often a phantom given the revolutionary nature of our war, eg Dinamo refused to go back to its pre-war name. In general The Kingdom of Yugoslavia died unmourned, unlike its replacement.

    And also frankly, in general, pre-1970 or so sports in were mostly a joke except for a few athletic disciplines. Anglo American nations have an undoubtedly rich tennis tradition, but the moment the sport was democratized Yugos (and Eastern Europeans in general) proved to be far better at it, China is now a winter Olympics powerhouse, tradition is great for us as fans but it does nothing to produce new talent.

  40. between 1918 and 1936 it was, to the best of my knowledge, nearly vestigial (until officially revived and legalized).

    Nope, still not true. One of the greatest Soviet novels, Olesha’s «Зависть» (1927), prominently features a soccer match.

    Almost none of the currently extant Russian clubs go back to before the 1930s

    Depends what you mean by “go back.” Spartak, for instance, was officially recognized/organized under that name in 1935, but basically the same team had come together a decade earlier, and its roots go back even further. And as for popularity, here’s a snippet (chosen at random) from Edelman:

    The new stadium, named for M. I. Tomskii, the head of the trade unions, was built as promised. Initially there were places for thirteen thousand spectators. Eight thousand more seats were added a few years later. The team began play there on May 3, 1927, losing a friendly 0–2 against the new team of the Trekhgornaia Manufaktura, which had been given the old Krasnaia Presnia stadium, a short stroll from the factory gates. They were also able to assemble a very strong team that included such stars as Mikhail Sushkov (1899–1983) and Evgenii Eliseev (1908–??). Pishchevik’s competition with Trekhgorka was intense. Each team won its share of titles in the brief period the two coexisted (1926–1931), but theirs was a friendly rivalry, unlike Pishchevik’s with Dinamo. The latter had improved its play by 1928, when it won the Moscow championship, beating Pishchevik on June 17 for the first time ever, by a 3–1 score before twelve thousand fans at Tomskii. Pishchevik, Trekhgorka, OPPV, and Dinamo were the leaders of football in the capital. The success of one or another of these teams depended as much on the vagaries of the constantly changing structure of the Moscow league as it did on the clubs’ actual play on the field.

    I think it’s clear soccer was neither nonexistent nor vestigial in the 1920s.

  41. I was not aware of that usage and thought the usual verb in that case was nehmen, but greifen is much more descriptive there. I suppose ergreifen would also be possible but sounds a little extreme for an apple.
    Yes, “nehmen” is the usual verb, its relationship to “sich greifen” is roughly that of “take” to “grab” or “snatch”. And yes, “ergreifen” would be extreme, as DM said, it’s literary and a bit too dramatic for that situation.

  42. John Cowan says:

    in flagrant breach of a euroversal

    Like castramentation, there’s more to it than you might suppose. The presence of O vocative and o exclamatory in the Germanic languages is probably a borrowing from Latin, which in turn borrowed it from Classical Greek ὦ, which already has both semantic roles. Old English had ea, presumably vowel-broken ō, but also used (Middle and Modern lo) and eala, from either ea + lá or ‘hey!’ + .

    But in Sanskrit the vocative is a, which shows that this is perfectly cromulent PIE. I presume the Irish situation results from inherited a versus borrowed o, either from English or direct from Latin.

  43. January First-of-May says:

    Is “Vo” derived fromt he english wow or whoa?

    I think it’s a colloquial clipping of вот “there [it is]”. (Wiktionary agrees.) It fit the context, and sounded about right, but it’s not a borrowing from English (as far as I can tell).

    Russian Wiktionary, quoting Vasmer, gives the FYLOSC cognate of вот as е̏то [sic] – I think that would be “eto” or “jeto” in modern spelling?

  44. It’s “eto”, which I’m realizing is not easy to translate but “there it is” is certainly one of the meanings. It’s part of a threesome with “evo” (here) and “eno” (there). In the goal case ‘eno’ is probably the best choice, as in “Eno gola!”

  45. David Marjanović says:

    given that Stari Slaveni were apparently loath to invent new verbs so they kept reusing the same stems with new prefixes, those seemingly “out of nowhere” coincidences seem to be quite common

    This happens within German, too: within 150 years or 150 km the same root will happily take a different prefix to arrive at the same meaning.

    Can be reduplicated

    More often retriplicated, I think.

  46. Stu Clayton says:

    Like castramentation, there’s more to it than you might suppose

    Is that a misspelling of castrametation ? Or do you mean “gradual acquisition of camp mentality” ? ☺ Susan Sontag wrote about this.

  47. John Cowan says:

    A misspelling, yes. I was alluding to a conversation in one of the Aubrey-Maturin books.

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