I’m slowly and painfully making my way through Brodsky’s “Литовский ноктюрн: Томасу Венцлова” [Lithuanian Nocturne: for Tomas Venclova], one of the most difficult poems by that frequently difficult poet, and in the third stanza I hit a couple of particularly difficult words: “Запоздалый еврей/ по брусчатке местечка гремит балаголой,/ вожжи рвет/ и кричит залихватски: ‘Герай!'” In Brodsky’s own translation, this goes: “And a cart-riding Jew,/ late for home, drums the village’s cobblestone, trying to make it,/ yanks the reins hard/ and bellows ‘Gerai!'” By comparison we can guess that балаголой [balagoloi] might have something to do with a cart, but there was no балагола in any of my Russian dictionaries, even Dahl… but when in desperation I checked Vasmer, there it was (in masculine guise): “балагол: ‘еврейский тарантас’, […] из еврейско-нем. balagole “кучер” […]. Ср. знач. русск. извозчик: 1. ‘кучер’, 2. ‘повозка, экипаж’.” In other words, it’s a word for a Jewish springless carriage, from Yiddish balagole ‘coachman’ (for the shift in meaning, compare Russian izvozchik 1. ‘coachman,’ 2. ‘unsprung carriage’). This sent me to Weinreich’s Yiddish dictionary, where sure enough, I found בעל-עגלה [balegole] ‘coachman,’ which appears in my Hebrew dictionary as ba’al ‘agalah ‘coachman, wagon driver,’ with the same ba’al ‘owner’ that appears in so many Hebrew and Yiddish compounds, a familiar one in American Jewish circles being baleboste (sometimes “baleboosteh”) “a capable, efficient housewife, especially a traditional Jewish one, devoted to maintaining a well-run home.”
Oh, and that mysterious “Gerai!” the coachman bellows? It’s simply the Lithuanian word geraĩ ‘well’ (the adverb from geras ‘good’). Except it’s not as simple as all that; as “A. G.” says on this page, it seems unlikely that a Jewish coachman in (necessarily prewar) Lithuania, traveling through a shtetl, would be talking to himself in Lithuanian. A. G. suspects “ироническое значение” (an ironic meaning).


  1. Is this ba’al also familiar from the Biblical false god Ba’al and from Beelzebub?

  2. Fascinating post! But isn’t it בעל-עגלה with a ה, not בעל-עגלת with a ת in Weinreich’s Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary? (A ת, proper to the construct form of Biblical Hebrew עֲגָלָה “cart”, would suggest the pronunciation [s] in this position in Yiddish.)

  3. Keith: Yes. It can mean owner, boss, master, lord, husband. In Leviticus, the phrase “ba’al of the ox” just means the owner of the ox. A “master of return” is a non-observing Jew who is learning to be observant.

  4. But isn’t it בעל-עגלה with a ה, not בעל-עגלת with a ת
    Yup, my typo; I’ll fix it. Thanks!

  5. I’ve never heard the word “baleboste”, but my father, whose first language may have been Yiddish though he spoke English without the trace of an accent, had an antonym for “baleboste”: a word which sounded something like “shlumpeke” (a diminutive of German Schlampe?), an incompetent, slovenly housewife. Yes, I know, it’s sexist, but give my father a break: he was born in 1896.

  6. i am really maybe havent grown up yet enough to get brodsky, every time i try to read him and it gives me not much, just always some kind if depressive images despite all the masterful rhymes and expressions, not my kind of a poet i guess
    yesterday i watched this movie,
    almost the same sceneries as in the poem i guess, but the message is so different, at least for me
    it cant be just, that, soviet and non-soviet kind of perception of the world or is it

  7. My immediate thought in seeing “baleboste (sometimes baleboosteh)” referring to a capable, efficient housewife: could that be a source for “ballbuster”…or vice versa?

  8. Just an amusing coincidence.

  9. One thing that can be said is that Brodsky’s translations are not that useful for analyzing the original. In fact, he seemed more interested in showing off his English than actually translating his poems. And his English wasn’t really up to the level of translating his poems, I think. There was a documentary about him produced by some PBS station back in the 80s (I think) that I saw not too long ago on YouTube (I’ll hunt up the link later) where he refers to one of his cats, which had died, as his “ex-cat,” like he had divorced or fired it or something.

  10. And his English wasn’t really up to the level of translating his poems, I think.
    Very true. But I think you’re wrong about “ex-cat”; Exhibit A.

  11. J.W. Brewer and Dmitry Pruss: I accidentally deleted your comments in the course of cleaning out spam; please repost!

  12. I accidentally deleted your comments in the course of cleaning out spam; please repost!
    Gotta remember to save the drafts 🙂
    Anyway I hypothesized that Brodsky’s use of balagola may have been due to one of the less-documented Petersburg regionalisms (the better-known regional usage quirks I mentioned were поребрик as well as точка or лестница – all three probably known far better because they repeatedly come up with the out-of-towners asking for directions in St Petersburg, only to be bewildered by the locals’ terms)
    And then I mentioned how the ryth of the Nocturne evokes, for me, Pasternak’s “1905”, and how poignant is the fact that this Pasternak’s poem, which the author himself described as a “deal with the times”, is a beatifull verse nonetheless.
    I cited one stanza with struck me with onomatopeia of a railroad junction:
    “Мин и Риман”, гремят
    На заре переметы перрона,
    И Семеновский полк
    Переводят на Брестскую ветвь

  13. While we are at that, another fairly onomatopoeic stanza from 1905, the final one, with the hushed sound of subdued crowds:
    Пресня стлалась пластом,
    И, как смятый грозой березняк,
    Роем бабьих платков
    Выступы конного строя
    И сдавала
    Браунинги на простынях

  14. “Our love is like the water / That splashes on a stone / Our love is like our inadvertently erased blog comments / It’s here and then it’s gone.” I don’t know, something about possible influence of Monty Python on Brodsky’s English, and an anecdote about an immigrant with English as a second language (but seemingly entirely fluent) who had used “ex-wife” where the idiomatic thing to say in context would have been “late wife.”

  15. Yeah, you definitely can’t use “ex-wife” that way!
    Thanks for reconstructing your comments, both of you; I try to double-check before hitting Delete that I’ve marked spam comments and only spam comments, but when it’s late and I’m tired…
    I hypothesized that Brodsky’s use of balagola may have been due to one of the less-documented Petersburg regionalisms
    Could you say a little more about that?

  16. Language, the quirks of St.-Petersburgian word usage are fairly well known to the Russians; what usually happens is that a word shifts its meaning to a distantly related object, like the famous поребрик “porebrik” stands there for a curb-stone, while elsewhere in Russia it is a stone-block placed diagonally in a wall of a building (the common theme here must be a stone block with a visible edge); точка stands for a high-rise tower, and лестница for a section of a high-rise, both usages unknown in mainstream Russian.
    Petersburg regionalisms are poorly documented AFAIK. E.g. the local usage of литер isn’t documented anywhere (a fairly long list of modern dialectisms is tabulated in Wikipedia) (литер literally – sorry for an unintened pun – means “letter”, but stands for a “govt-issue travel document” in the rest of Russia, vs. “building” in St.Petersburg)
    Therefore I wondered is “balagola” might have been an obsolete local usage in St. Petersburg, stemming, like most of the rest of these regionalisms, from a transfer of meaning to a related object (from coach-driver to coach)

  17. PS: Peculiarly, last time when Peter-speak was discussed @ LH, the main cited paper started from … a Brodsky quote as an example of Petersburg local dialect usage! 🙂

  18. An ex-dog may have died, but an ex-cat almost certainly slipped out one night and hasn’t come back, although you’re pretty sure you saw her the other day hanging out with the alley cat from two blocks over.

  19. And we all know what happened to the ex-parrot.

  20. I’ve spent the past 30 minutes scouring YouTube for the video. When I found it I hadn’t been looking for “Joseph Brodsky” or “Иoсиф Брoдский” and I can’t remember what the search terms were…

  21. I did find this, though: a dirty linguistic joke told by Brodksy. The audio is pretty bad (as is his kartavost’) so it took me a few listens, but it’s worth the effort.

  22. лестница
    Years ago I attended a Russian class for a year or so. After an interval of many years I had the opportunity to take another course. Among the class materials was a short novel that the class was going to read over the semester. I read it in a week-end, without using a dictionary, which meant that I did not understand very much, but I still got the gist of the story: a small group of students had been sent to work in some sort of anti-spying Cold War setup in an isolated house in a forest, the house was attacked but the group eventually triumphed over the enemies, etc. I managed to guess a number of common words through context, but there was one word which defied me to the end: it occurred quite frequently and referred to something in the house, but I had no idea what. After I finished the story I looked it up in a dictionary: лестница ‘staircase’.

  23. That audio is terrible, but I found it transcribed here (a commenter said “Бродский матом разговаривал, как и любой питерский интеллигент, и делал это весьма искусно”):
    Я тут вспомнил кстати хороший анекдот. Это будет жутко, не стоит записывать..
    Работяги собрались. Один хвастается, что говорит на испанском.
    Они ему: Ну скажи нам что-нибудь на испанском!
    Он: Нет, ну вы что мне не верите?
    -Да нет, мы тебе верим, просто хотим услышать что-нибудь.
    -Ну вы мне не верите, суки. Вы мне не доверяете.
    -Да верим и верим.
    ну и начинают в таком духе.
    И тут он: Ну ладно, ладно.
    -Ну скажи что-нибудь по испански.
    -Ну сейчас-сейчас скажу…ПОШЕЛ НАХУЙ, АНТОНИО!

Speak Your Mind