Call Me tato.

The wonderful Marian Schwartz (see this 2011 post) has an essay in Literary Hub whose title is nicely descriptive: How the Russian and Ukrainian Languages Intersect in Eugene Vodolazkin’s Brisbane. Here are some noteworthy passages:

Brisbane opens with the central character, Gleb Yanovsky, a world-famous guitarist, noticing a nearly imperceptible flaw in his tremolo during a concert. Soon after, he receives a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. The novel pursues two lines of narrative: one in the present, as Gleb contrives to live his life and even perform despite this diagnosis; and one in the past, starting with Gleb as a boy in Kyiv and moving through his coming-to-be as a musician, through young love, and eventually to fame and the good and bad his fame brings. The two narrative lines alternate like a fugue. […]

Born in Kyiv to a Ukrainian father and a Russian mother, Gleb is educated first in Ukrainian, then in Russian. The bilingual and bicultural nature of Gleb’s world is so deeply embedded in Russians’ and Ukrainians’ reality that the Russian reviews don’t have to point it out. Both Ukrainians and Russians viscerally understand this state of being, and Gleb himself embraces his native cultural duality.

Ukrainian makes a pointed entrance in the book in the very first pages when it appears untranslated, in the Ukrainian Cyrillic alphabet, in the words of Gleb’s Ukrainian-speaking father, Fyodor. Tolstoy footnoted the French in War and Peace. Junot Díaz footnoted the Spanish in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. For the most part, Vodolazkin felt no such need. He rightly assumes the Russian reader will understand his Ukrainian. Rather, at this first appearance, the author offers a lovely long footnote explaining Ukrainian pronunciation for Russian speakers, by way of emphasizing the language’s musicality.

Just as Vodolazkin was thinking about his Russian reader here, so I, too, writing the English version, had to consider my reader—who could not be expected to understand Ukrainian and for whom the nuances of Ukrainian pronunciation would be meaningless. So I translated and italicized the Ukrainian and added a footnote explaining how Ukrainian and other foreign languages—German, English—appear in the translation. My hope is that the Anglophone reader will understand the fact of Ukrainian’s beauty through the characters’ response to it and the language of my translation.

There is a push and pull between Fyodor’s loyalty to Ukrainian language and culture and Gleb’s fascination with an affection for Ukrainian and his eventual choice to speak Russian and live in Russia. Father and son respect each other’s choice without being drawn to change. Early on, Fyodor asks his young son to call him tato, the Ukrainian for “father.” Although they live in Ukraine, none of Gleb’s friends call their fathers that, but even at this early age Gleb has an inkling of his father’s feelings about his Ukrainian identity and so tato it is. The dynamic can work in the opposite direction, establishing a poignant distance between father and son. […]

Gleb is by no means blind to the power relationship between Russian and Ukrainian. In the present-day thread, he explains why he chose to be a Russian speaker: “Russian was the more prestigious language, shall we say. Everyone realized you couldn’t get anywhere without it. I’d put it this way. The question of prestige stands above national identity. When that identity becomes a matter of prestige, then that’s another matter.” It makes perfect sense for a young man like Gleb, no matter how deep his affection for Ukrainian folk culture, to look to Russia, not Ukraine, for high culture.

This is the same trajectory talented young colonials have followed throughout history and all over the world, be it Senegalese moving to Paris or Ukrainians moving to Moscow. The impulse is exactly the same, only the degree of the colony’s political and cultural suppression varies. Once teenage Gleb travels to St. Petersburg and falls in love with its “crystalline Russian,” the die is cast. His love of Ukrainian remains inalienable but unchanging.

Language is at least as much a focus for the author as it is for his protagonist. From my standpoint as a translator, the text poses the grand challenge of writing as beautifully as I can and also of recreating Vodolazkin’s wordplay in English, all the tongue-twisters, counting rhymes, song lyrics—even palindromes.

She gives a delightful example of such a palindrome, and describes her own history as a translator; I recommend the whole thing.


  1. When I read Mann’s Magic Mountain, or tried to, the French was not footnoted. Neither was the French in Edmund Wilson’s “Memoirs of Hecate County”.

  2. Three nitpicks.

    tato is dad, not father. That would be bat’ko

    Palindrome: Kleshchuk popolz, zlo popku shchelk. Kleshchuk is from kleshch = mite. It reads like Mite crept and meanly bit the butt.

    Also, I don’t know who made the mistake, but in the quote
    “Will you stay for dinner?” Gleb asked his father. Ne. Ne zaproshue.” “What does ne zaproshue mean?” the boy inquired.
    Ukrainian makes no sense. In the original it is
    Ні, ответил Федор. Мене ніхто й не запрошує. Что такое нэ запрошуе, полюбопытствовал мальчик.
    which really means what in-book translation to Russian says (No one even invites me)

  3. ktschwarz says

    Junot Díaz footnoted the Spanish in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

    What? No, he very much did not. It’s a book with heavy footnotes, and a heavy admixture of Spanish, but the Spanish is not footnoted or even italicized; instead, the footnotes tell background stories about Trujillo and Dominican politics. The monolingual reader has to glark the Spanish from context, or look it up, or just deal with missing a lot of it (there are some fan-made annotations on the web).

    Oscar Wao has been translated into other languages, including Spanish. Some comments from the translator, Cuban-American writer Achy Obejas, on making it a specifically Dominican Spanish:

    There was additional pressure because Junot had had problems with Spanish translations before. His first book, “Drown,” had initially been translated for a Spanish — as in Spain — audience that made his New Jersey homeboys sound like … well, Toni Morrison characters speaking in Irish brogue, or a Cockney accent. It was that dissonant. Junot was able to get a second translation, but it opted for a “neutral” Spanish that varnished off much of the Caribbean feel of the original.

    She got a lot of help from Dominicans who read her drafts and “excised any unnecessary Cubanisms”.

  4. Thanks for that correction — it’s understandable that Schwartz, no expert in Spanish-language literature, would get it wrong, but it’s good to know the facts.

  5. David Marjanović says

    Tolstoy footnoted the French in War and Peace.

    I thought he didn’t?

  6. I just checked the 1869 edition, and yes, the French is translated in footnotes.

  7. ktschwarz says

    But Oscar Wao isn’t Spanish-language literature, it’s in English with some Spanish words dropped in. If you only know English, you can read it, mostly; if you only know Spanish, definitely not.

    It’s about being bilingual and bicultural, so you might be interested in it on that basis. Me, I get about 100% of the comics and sf references and about 0% of the Spanish, so it gives me a constant feeling of whiplash, which I’m sure is the intent.

  8. Interesting — maybe I’ll give it a try.

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    Are the zaproshuets Cossacks the ones the local villagers invited to brighten up their boring lives with a bit of rape, pillage and looting?

  10. Proszę!

    They were the original battalion Azov, then called kurin Khortytsia.

  11. Repin’s painting is my usual visual reference for the Zaporozke. I imagine it may so be for many Russians and Ukrainians as well. Note the skillfully executed variation in dress styles worn by the Cossack leaders, from very conventional Russian (most obviously on the educated scribe) to much more exotic; Taras Bulba (on the left, arms akimbo, chortling) is somewhere in the middle of the dress spectrum.

  12. I don’t know where Repin took the Cossacks’ dresses from, but the scribe in the middle refers (for me) to a wayward seminarist mingling among the Cossacks. Kiev had its first “higher education” institution before anything in Russia of the day. If I were in a bloody outraged mood, I would say that associating the only obviously literate person in the picture with Russia denigrates all Ukrainians as country bumpiks (in a manner of a recently discussed Brodsky’s poem), an approach worthy of a Putin’s acolyte. But I am not, and I don’t think it means anything other then different ideas brought up by painting.

  13. Owlmirror says

    The word “tato” reminded me that the common Yiddish term for father is “tati” or “tateh” (Harkavy has “טאטע”). I never knew where the word came from; it doesn’t sound either Hebraic or Germanic.

    Wikitionary, at least, claims that it is indeed “Likely from a Slavic language, from Proto-Slavic *tata.”

    Wikt has the pronunciation as [ˈtatə], which does not match what I recall hearing from Orthodox speakers in the NY area. I always heard it as “tati”, and I actually expected to find the word spelled as “טאטי”.

  14. never underestimate yiddish vowel variation!

    some southern (i think southwestern?) dialects go towards /i/ for final ־ע, and it’s pretty common to hear that version in the wild (including in isolated yiddish words in english-speakers’ idiolects). the YIVO so-called-standard was mostly built from northeastern dialects, and so prescribes something in the /ɛ/-to-/ə/ range.

    but the real prize is hearing proper southeastern “tote-mome-loshn”, where the first vowel in טאַטע goes all the way to /o/.

    and i’ve never seen argument with the slavic etymology – bouncing it back to proto- is a pretty unnecessary hedge, though: i’m pretty sure the smart money these days is specifically on old czech for tate/mame/bobe/zeyde (not gonna get up and confirm it with alexander beider right now).

  15. @Brett: “…from very conventional Russian (most obviously on the educated scribe)…”

    He doesn’t look Muscovite at all to me, considering the time of the event (supposedly 1676). First, he doesn’t have much of a beard in either of the two principal versions of the painting. Very unusual for a pre-Petrine Russian. Second, his white collar and the way the sleeves are attached to his black garment suggest a Polish or Catholic influence. Of course he must have been Greek Orthodox, as D.O. points out, but the Mohyla Academy in Kyiv was modeled after a Jesuit college.

  16. David L. Gold says

    The probably Kenaanic immediate origin of Eastern Yidish zeyde and bobe has been demonstrated here:

    Gold, David L. 2009. “On the Probable Kenaanic Origin of Two Eastern Yiddish Kin Terms, zeyde ‘grandfather’ and bobe ‘grandmother’.” In his Studies in Etymology and Etiology (With Emphasis on Germanic, Jewish, Romance, and Slavic Languages) / Selected and Edited, with a Foreword, by Félix Rodríguez González and Antonio Lillo Buades. Alicante. Publicaciones de la Universidad de Alicante. Pp. 639-668.

    Eastern Yidish tate and mame are probably of more than one immediate origin.

  17. @David L. Gold: I must confess that the most immediately interesting thing about your comment was that I learned that the name of Judeo-Czech was Kenaanic, ultimately after the Biblical land of Canaan. Per Omniglot:

    Knaanic is West Slavic Jewish language that was spoken mainly in Bohemia and Moravia (what is now the Czech Republic), and also in Poland, until the late Middle Ages. Knaanic was written with a version of the Hebrew script, and Knaanic inscriptions appeared on some coins minted in Ruthenia and Poland between the 9th and 16th centuries.

    Knaanic is also used to refer to the language of Slavic-speaking Jews in Kievan Rus between the 11th and 13th centuries. Kievan Rus was a federation of East Slavic and Finnic peoples in parts of modern day Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

    The name Knaanic comes from Knaan, which is what the Jewish people living east of the Elbe River were called. Knaan comes from Canaan כנען (kəna’an). The language is also known as Canaanic, Lešon kenaan, Judaeo-Czech or Judeo-Slavic.

    It is thought that Knaanic was replaced by Yiddish after many Yiddish-speaking Askenazi Jews migrated to Knaanic-speaking areas. Evidence for this comes from the numerous Yiddish loan words of Slavic orgin that were no longer used in Czech, Polish or other Slavic languages at the time, and therefore probably came directly from Knaanic.

  18. “knaan” (like “ashkenaz” and other traditional rabbinic geographical terms) is a multilayered pun, connecting the curse on the biblical canaan (“a servant of servants”) to the latin/byzantine extension of “sclavus” from ethnonym to label for people in servitude.

    and there’s lively debate about whether it makes sense to think about either flavor of knaanic (“west”, from bohemia/moravia / “east”, from ‘rus – separate and basically unrelated communities) as separate lects, or just the local vernaculars written in jewish characters.

  19. David Marjanović says

    some southern (i think southwestern?) dialects go towards /i/ for final ־ע

    That’s also a thing in Switzerland otherwise, so southwestern sounds right.

  20. Owlmirror says

    In an odd coincidence, I recently saw a solicitation mailing that had, printed on the outside, something like: “She lost her totty”.

    I didn’t see the inside, but the mailing was from Misaskim, and from their website, they provide support for the bereaved. I see that they’re based in Brooklyn.

    A web search reminds me that “totty/tottie” is British slang for a sexually attractive woman, but I am fairly confident that most of the people receiving these mailings will parse the term as intended.

  21. @Owlmirror: That Web site mentions “252 [at the time of writing] AUTOPSIES/ CREMATIONS PREVENTED THIS PAST YEAR.” Intellectually, I understand why this should matter to Orthodox Jews, but it still seems like a awfully ambiguous achievement to be boasting about.

  22. Owlmirror says

    Another Brooklyn-area (Crown Heights) transliteration: tatty

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