A Draft from the Past.

As a Nabokovian of long standing, I really should have read his novel Transparent Things (1972), but I think I was put off by the reviews at the time and besides was beginning my doomed trek through graduate school. I’ll read it eventually, VV! At any rate, once Nabokov became acceptable reading in Russia, it was immediately translated (by Dolinin and Meilakh) as Просвечивающие предметы [Translucent objects] (1991); a few years later it was rendered by S. Ilyin as Прозрачные вещи [Transparent things] (1996). Now there’s a new translation by Andrei Babikov with a completely different title, «Сквозняк из прошлого» [A draft from the past]; this is from the last stanza of his 1930 poem “Ты, светлый житель будущих веков…” (the whole poem is quoted here):

Я здесь с тобой. Укрыться ты не волен.
К тебе на грудь я прянул через мрак.
Вот холодок ты чувствуешь: сквозняк
из прошлого… Прощай же. Я доволен.

I’m here with you. You are not free to hide.
Across the dark I pounced upon your chest.
And now you feel a chilly breeze: a draft
out of the past… Goodbye. I am content.

As Babikov explains here (and as is mentioned in English in the previous link), Nabokov’s widow Vera told Gennady Barabtarlo that a Russian translation should be called by that title; Babikov says “Буквальный русский перевод английского названия не передаёт всего многообразия заложенных в нём значений, поскольку английское things — это не только предметы, но и существа, и духи” [A literal Russian translation of the English name doesn’t convey the full variety of meanings inherent in it, since English “things” are not only objects, but also beings and spirits].

What strikes me is that A Draft from the Past would be an awkward title in English because of the polysemy of draft: the ‘current of air’ sense is probably not foremost in most people’s minds. (In the poem, of course, it’s clear from context.)


  1. Gavin Wraith says

    Aah, you mean ‘draught’. The draft is when you are called up to serve in an army. Or is this a left-pond right-pond distinction?

  2. The latter; “draught” is not a thing in these parts.

  3. In fact, I would have assumed anyone who wrote “draught” at all would use it for all senses.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Nah, in UKanian, the windy and drinkable ones are draughts, but the military one is a draft.

    Of checkers, we do not speak.

  5. No wonder we fought for our independence. Who can be bothered to remember such details?

  6. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I think if you talk about a military draft, you mean the US one and spell it the way it spells itself – over here it’s just conscription.

    But the one thing that is definitely ‘draft’ is a version of a document, or the act of producing one.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    I thought the cromulent UKism for “draft” in the military-conscription sense was or at least had been “the call-up.” Did the Clash misinform me?*

    Of course it’s been just over 50 years in the U.S. (June 30, 1973 on the standard account**) since anyone was actually conscripted into the military. And longer than that in the U.K.

    *The word “conscription” does appear in the lyrics to a different Clash song, possibly just because they needed a rhyme for “prescription.”

    **That guy had been ducking draft notices for several years and eventually decided to comply rather than face criminal charges. For all I know the second-to-last drafted guy was inducted weeks or months earlier.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    As to US usage, you can find drinking establishments in the U.S. that use the spelling “draught beer.” I don’t much approve of this practice myself, but it’s a free country.

  9. There are drinking establishments in the U.S. that call themselves “pubs,” too (see this mystified 2009 post). I disapprove.

  10. John Cowan says

    Quoth the OED2 (1897) s.v. draft:

    “To draw off or out and remove (a party of persons, animals, or things) from a larger body for some special duty or purpose. Chiefly in Military use, and in Stock-farming: see quots. Also (chiefly U.S.), to conscript.”

    Here are the older UK quotations:

    Who was Draughted into Sir John Gibson’s Company of Invalid Serjeants.
    London Gazette No. 5193/4]

    The..Corps out of which they have been drafted.
    London Gazette No. 6309/2

    An order..for draughting out of the train of artillery..130 matrosses [gunner’s mates].
    Gentleman’s Magazine December 665/2

    Orders came..to draft the militia.
    J. Woolman, Journal (1971) v. 87

    The commander..shall draught off an equal number of men..to supply their places.
    J. Blake, Plan Marine System 12]

    Taddeus..had been drafted into one of the condemned regiments.
    H. Martineau, Charmed Sea i. 6

    So you can see how it works: conscripts are those drawn out of the whole population for military service.

    Here are the stock-raising quotations:

    Many exceedingly good animals are drafted in consequence of some little want of uniformity..It is not uncommon with the ram-breeders to draft the whole produce from a sheep that has disappointed them.
    Journal of Royal Agricultural Society vol. 8 i. 3C

    Draft out rams as flock is dipped and keep them in a separate flock.
    G. Duppa in S. S. Crawford, Sheep & Sheepmen of Canterbury (1949) v. 46

    You will see fit to draft out all the lambs that are ready for weaning.
    S. Butler, First Year in Canterbury Settlement x. 153

    And whether this is about soldiers or stock, I cannot tell:

    Promising young Scotchmen are yearly drafted off to complete their studies at Oxford.
    J. E. T. Rogers, Preface A. Smith’s Wealth of Nations vol. I. 7

    The two spellings are merged into a single entry for the verb (from 1897): there is one use of draught for ‘make a rough copy’ from 1878: “It is not draughting a Bill, but passing it, that is the difficulty.” The noun is much more complicated, and different senses match roughly with different spellings.

  11. You, brilliant dweller in far future times,
    you old enthusiast, on the proper day
    will broach this garland of forgotten rhymes –
    so firmly, though unfairly, cast away.

    In jester’s garb you’ll tastefully recall
    my evenings spent in ancient costume wound.
    Then leaning on your elbows, hear resound
    that ancient shell – the muses’ singing hall.

    An oval, topping verses four by four,
    that shows a faded photograph … Now dare
    a style so antiquated to deplore:
    my poverty, my neatness and my care.

    I’m here with you. There’s no way you can hide.
    Through darkness at your chest I’ve swiftly flown.
    You feel me as a draft: a chill wind blown
    from days long gone … Farewell. I’m satisfied.

  12. Nice work!

  13. I’ve been in the US so long that on the rare occasions I see the word ‘draught,’ the pronunciation that springs to my mind is ‘drawt.’ Or perhaps ‘drocht’ in a Scottish context.

  14. Ads for the old patent medicine Black Draught would refer to it as “Black Draft, sometimes called Black Drawt.”

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    Reminds me of Kusaal tisabilim, literally “black medicine”, but in fact the name of a specific very commonly used traditional supposed cure-all.

    (It was the bane of my obstetric colleagues’ lives, because it actually does have oxytocic properties, and was consequently often very dangerous when given to already-exhausted women experiencing difficult labour.)

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    Presumably the US spelling pronunciation would be “drot” for those with the cot/caught merger … (I don’t have the merge so can’t say directly.)

  17. Keith Ivey says

    “Drawt” should work perfectly well for those with the merger too. It’s a merger, after all.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    @Keith I.: That would actually be an interesting experiment, which I wonder if anyone has done. Get a bunch of people with the merger to listen to words they don’t know the “dictionary spellings” for (they could be made up words that still fit English phonotactics) that are subject to the merger as pronounced by someone with the merger, and ask the listeners to write down approximate spellings (phonetic spelling a la “drawt” using regular orthographic conventions rather than IPA). Would the spellings they come up with mostly suggest the “cot” vowel to those without the merger or the “caught” vowel? Or would it all be random and noisy and not particularly consistent even for an individual test subject?

  19. @DE It was the bane of my obstetric colleagues’ lives, because it actually does have oxytocic properties, and was consequently often very dangerous when given to already-exhausted women experiencing difficult labour.

    I heard very similar (from a GP specialising in pre-conception care) in Hong Kong, with Traditional Chinese Medicine. Some of those ‘herbs’ can be very powerful. Patients would go to both Western-trained doctors and herbalists. Of course you can’t prove the decoction ’caused’ a miscarriage. (Miscarriages are often spontaneous.) But the herbalist had no scruple blaming the Western medicine.

  20. Rodger Cunningham says

    J. W. Brewer: My impression is that in my youth, Black Draught usage survived mainly among Southerners, hence without COT/CAUGHT.

Speak Your Mind