What Kind of Spy?

Anatoly Vorobey has a post discussing Freeman Dyson’s NYRB review “Scientist, Spy, Genius: Who Was Bruno Pontecorvo?” and in particular the linguistic analysis foregrounded in Dyson’s opening paragraphs:

“I want to die as a great scientist, not as your fucked spy.” These words were spoken in Russian by Bruno Pontecorvo a year before his death in 1993, in reply to a Russian government official who was trying to arrange for a visiting historian to interview him. They come as close as Pontecorvo ever came to confirming the widespread belief that he had been spying for the Soviet Union when he was working at the Canadian nuclear reactor project in the 1940s.

The words vash jebanyi shpion describe the way he did not wish to be remembered. In Half-Life, his new biography of Pontecorvo, the particle physicist Frank Close translates them as “your fucking spy,” which misses the precise meaning. Pontecorvo was certainly aware of the precise meaning of the word when he used it. It describes his emotional reaction to the way he was treated by the Russians as well as by the Western media. It gives us a glimpse of the inner turmoil that he successfully concealed from his family and friends. He was undoubtedly a great scientist. Whether he was a spy is still open to question.

As Anatoly says, Close is right and Dyson is wrong: though “ваш ебаный шпион” technically “means” ‘your fucked spy,’ the participle ебаный [yobany] being a passive one, translating it that way is incorrect. In this context, “ебаный” has a purely emphatic sense, precisely like English “fucking,” and “your fucking spy” is the correct way to render the phrase in English. Anatoly goes on to write:

Дайсон неправ, и его ошибка тут очень типична для понимания неродного языка, даже такого, который хорошо выучил. Когда нам встречается фраза типа “ебаный шпион”, нам помогает ее понять богатый языковой опыт, накопленный за много лет – в течение которых мы снова и снова слышали “ебаный такой-то, ебаный сякой-то” и усвоили, насколько в этой конструкции нивелирован буквальный смысл.

Dyson is wrong, and his mistake here is quite typical for understanding of a language that is not one’s own, even if one has learned it well. When we [native Russian speakers] encounter a phrase like “ебаный шпион,” we are helped to understand it by a rich linguistic experience accumulated over many years in the course of which we have heard again and again “ебаный this, ебаный that” and have assimilated the extent to which in this construction the literal sense is leveled.

I am happy to say that thanks to my determined immersion over the years in all registers of Russian (and particular credit goes to my unbelievably foul-mouthed ’90s pal Anatoly Lifshits, who included at least one блядь in every sentence) I instinctively knew the force of the word here and would never have dreamed of translating it Dyson’s way. (I hope someone writes a letter of correction and they print it; Russian obscenity is important stuff!)

This problem with a passive participle reminds me of a recent e-mail I sent to Sashura:

My wife gave me the English translation of Annenkov’s «Замечательное десятилетие. 1838–1848» for Christmas, and I’ve been happily reading along. Then I got to this, from chapter VIII:

Thus, Belinsky argued against the critic of the Moscow Observer of 1836 when the latter, in some strange fit of enthusiasm, declared that supposedly for the sake of the single expression “I hear” which burst from the lips of Taras Bulba in answer to the exclamation of his son, his torturer and executioner, “Do you hear this, father?” […]

I immediately said “What?!” and managed to find the Russian original online:

Так, Белинский опровергал критика «Московского наблюдателя» 1836 года, когда тот, в странном энтузиазме, объявил, будто за одно «слышу», вырвавшееся из уст Тараса Бульбы в ответ на восклицание казнимого и мучимого сына: «Слышишь ли ты это, отец мой?» […]

I’m not sure which is worse, the failure to understand the Russian or the fact that poor Irwin Titunik, the translator, clearly had no idea of the plot of Taras Bulba!

Sashura was tickled enough to make a post of it (in Russian); you can read a plot summary of Taras Bulba, and see that the son Ostap was tortured rather than torturing, here.

Comments

  1. They say that once Russian foreign minister Lavrov said to John Kerry “Who are you to fucking lecture me?” Second hand (in my case more like fourth or even more) reports are not reliable in situations like this, but if he really said it as reported, it means Mr. Lavrov really internalized usage of English expletives. The question in question can’t be literal translation of any idiomatic Russian phrase I can think of.

  2. Carol Sandstrom says:

    I read this article in the print version and it’s been altered for the web. In print, Dyson proposed “I want to die as a great scientist, not as your chewed-over spy.” I’m sorry that I’ve already recycled that issue — I wanted to see the hard copy again. But I’m pretty sure it said “chewed-over” because I puzzled over it for a while: the sentence struck me as not idiomatic, not felicitous, and not even clear in meaning.

    I guess somebody told him it was wrong, but instead of saying “thanks, you’re right, I’m wrong,” he tried to cover his tracks.

  3. >who included at least one блядь in every sentence

    To insert blyad’ into every sentence is the natural tendency of Russian speakers when they get excited. Here‘s a video of a Russian Israeli security guard giving it to a Sephardi delivery man who was not aware of the May 9th Victory Day holiday. Blyad’ is in every other sentence… Even though the conversation is in Hebrew

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZS6AI6U-q4

  4. The Russian colonization of Hebrew is a truly remarkable phenomenon of our time; cf. this decade-old LH post.

  5. I guess somebody told him it was wrong, but instead of saying “thanks, you’re right, I’m wrong,” he tried to cover his tracks.

    Sounds like Dyson alright.

  6. The “passivity” of “fucked” as opposed to “fucking” is well embedded in every Eastern European language, including mine, so nobody would translate “ебаный” with the latter. This subtle distinction reminds me of the anecdote of the great Cela, Nobel of literature and supreme master of Castellano, who in this quality took part in the formulation of the post-Franco constitution in 1977-79 (what a great idea, to invite a great master of the language as a collaborator to the formulation of a constitution, no?). Allegedly, he dozed off during a session. Someone, perhaps the King himself, discovering it, roused him with the question:

    “¿Está usted dormido?”

    to which he, half sleeping, but fully vigilant, replied:

    “Majestad, no estoy dormido, estoy durmiendo.”

    “¿Es lo mismo, no?”

    “No, Majestad, son cosas distintas. No es lo mismo estar dormido que estar durmiendo, de la misma manera que no es lo mismo estar jodido que estar jodiendo.”

  7. fucked spy

    2The Russian present active participle is borrowed from the equivalent Church Slavonic construction, and doesn’t fit the register of swearing at all.

    “I hear”

    Gale and I are watching Hawking (we may finish it tonight). There’s a scene where S.H. tells Hoyle the mathematics of his latest steady-state cosmology is wrong (he got hold of a copy the day before the lecture and spent all night analyzing it). When Hoyle, not unnaturally, asks S.H. how he knows that, he mumbles “I worked it out in my head” or something of the sort. Whereas S.H. could have said what Newton said when Halley asked him how he knew, apparently off the bat, that an inverse-square force between a planet and the Sun gives the former an elliptical orbit: “I have calculated it”! (Newton couldn’t find his calculation, and had to re-create it in the form of the three-volume Principia; S.H. followed Newton in a more material way by occupying his chair at Cambridge.)

  8. I am not sure if etymology of bliad’ (whore) was discussed here.

    Anyway, it is related to Polish błąd (mistake, error) and comes from verb bludit’ – it now also changed meaning to whoring, but originally meant to stray away, lose way (as in zabludit’sya –
    go astray)

  9. Reading very closely it looks like the phrasing has been arranged so as to allow for an argument that it might idiomatically be translated “fucking”, but the precise meaning … thus, etymologically speaking … Russian verb morphology … Western activity versus Eastern passivity … true intention behind … even if not consciously … and never the twain shall meet.

  10. “Блядь” is used as a noun and as an expletive, similar to the double use of “putain” and “kurwa,” but more and more as an expletive and less and less as a noun. I recall an unexpected call for decency from a generally foul-mouthed youth some 30 years ago. Hearing a younger boy yell “Блядь!” on some occasion, he reproachfully riposted, “Надо дома оставлять!” I was in my teens back then, and didn’t figure out the “Gotta leave her at home, mate” connotation at first.

    As a fellow native speaker, I fully agree with Anatoly on the meaning of “ёбаный” as used by a native speaker. But Pontecorvo was not one, so who knows what he really had in mind? I would note that “ёбаный” (still blushing as I type this) seems a verbal adjective rather than a participle: there is only one “н” in the suffix, after all. At about the same time as the episode in the first paragraph, I knew a boy whose swearing was over-the-top even by the standards of aspiring teenage dirty-talkers; instead of the uncomplicated, one-size-fits-all “блядь,” he would exclaim, “ёбанный в рот!” when something went seriously wrong. Coming from a somewhat puritanical background, I was ignorant to the expletive’s true meaning at that time. But it must have been a genuine passive participle.

  11. In looking up the meaning of all this filth, I ran into the very handy Russian slang dictionary at Пиздец!. Hat, I’m surprised you don’t have a link to it.

  12. But Pontecorvo was not one, so who knows what he really had in mind?

    I think it overwhelmingly likely that he had heard “ёбаный” often enough (as one does in the Motherland of Developed Socialism) that he knew how to throw it into a sentence as a powerful expletive, without (probably) analyzing its strict grammatical function. After all, how many non-native-speakers who freely employ the word “fucking” could tell you it’s a present active participle?

  13. that he knew how to throw it into a sentence as a powerful expletive, without (probably) analyzing its strict grammatical function.

    it’s possible, but his usage sounds distinctly non-native to my ear. It’s either (as you suggest) a non-native speaker’s [clumsily] speckling his speech with expletive for generic emphasis effect (in which case it might correct to translate it as f*cking although it doesn’t convey the possible extent of L2’s confusion about the fine delails of the usage of swearwords), or actually appealing to the original sense and grammatical function of the word (“a spy you screwed”).

  14. That might account for the fugitive chewed-over, as a euphemism for screwed-over.

  15. Cuconnacht says:

    Re inserting блядь in every sentence:

    In the movie El Norte (1980s), a Guatemalan brother and sister must pose as Mexicans. The brother instructs the sister that the way to sound Mexican is to insert “chingado” (fucked, but in idiomatic English fucking) before every noun. She has a hard time doing that.

    People more familiar with Mexican Spanish than I am tell me that it’s not innaccurate.

  16. Gassalasca says:

    FWIW, BCS has the exact same thing — jebeni/jебени.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    Here‘s a video of a Russian Israeli security guard giving it to a Sephardi delivery man who was not aware of the May 9th Victory Day holiday. Blyad’ is in every other sentence… Even though the conversation is in Hebrew

    That is fascinating. If American cops learned to swear, a few hundred people would still be alive.

  18. This video is hilarious. Chances are, the next day neither of them remembered anything about the argument.

    I notice that when the security guard asks “Are you a Jew?!” He pronounces yehudi as yegudi. Otherwise he pronounces his h’s fine.

  19. I guess it should be mentioned that, alongside ёбаный, is used грёбаный, analogous to freaking as a (supposedly) more decorous variant of fucking.

  20. Ha! Thanks for that; I know a lot of euphemisms, but I hadn’t run across that one.

  21. Also заколебал(а) in place of заебал(а)(~I’m sick and tired (of you, of it, etc)).

  22. Finally, back at school there was a guy called Askar, and for some time – if he was around – someone would say, loudly enough: “Не надо меня оскорблять!”(Don’t insult me!), and someone else was supposed to reply: “Аскар не блядь!”
    To be sure, Askar was not amused.

  23. GeorgeW says:

    “They say that once Russian foreign minister Lavrov said to John Kerry “Who are you to fucking lecture me?”

    I have read that Putin’s language is very salty, maybe crude, as well.

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