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.)

Wilson’s Iliad : Pro et Contra.

Back in 2017 I posted about Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, and now her version of the Iliad has come out, to mixed reviews. Conveniently, I have been sent links to one rave (thanks, Songdog!) and one pan (thanks, Eduardo!), so I will present bits from both. First, Naoíse Mac Sweeney’s praise in the Washington Post (archived):

Wilson has forged a poetic style in English that captures the essence of Homeric Greek, a style that she explains in her helpful “Translator’s Note.” Eschewing rhyme, she has arranged her verse into a loose iambic pentameter, allowing it to spill over to occupy some 4,000 more lines than the original poem. On the page the metricality of Wilson’s verse is lost — the rhythm comes alive only when you read aloud, the words whistling up the windpipe, animating the tongue and striking the ear. No other translation communicates the oral nature of the poem so brilliantly.

Another key element in Wilson’s style is the register, poised between the high epic and the everyday. Her tone manages a sweeping grandeur without pomposity, and is both refreshingly modern and largely free of the jarring chattiness of contemporary colloquialisms. (There are a few exceptions where Wilson’s choice of vocabulary is somewhat incongruous: Achilles leaves his guests “flabbergasted,” for example; Paris is labeled a “sleazy flirt”; and Odysseus threatens to expose another man’s “private parts” when he is angry with him.) The resulting text is — and I mean this in the best possible way — highly readable. Wilson’s “Iliad” is a genuine page-turner, and it is all too easy to gallop through it as one would a beach read.

Wilson’s style is like the proverbial mountain stream — clean and clear, and bubbling along at pace. Reading hundreds of lines listing one violent death after another can, in some translations of the epic, feel somewhat tiresome, but in Wilson’s hands it is more like watching a tightly edited movie, the scenes slick and bloodily compelling. In her “Odyssey,” Wilson restricted herself to the same number of lines as the original poem, meaning that some sections came across as somewhat abrupt in English. In her “Iliad,” she has set herself free from this constraint, with some of the poem’s 24 books running hundreds of lines longer than in the original, and the verse breathes more easily as a result.

As counterpoint, Valerie Stivers bashes it for Compact. After calling it “the most readable Iliad I’ve encountered” and saying “many of her turns of phrase are direct and beautiful,” she goes on the attack:
[Read more…]

Yeshivishe reid.

Composer Abie Rotenberg enjoys the potpourri that is Yeshivish Yiddish, and so will you. The start:

To originate a language, a new way to talk and speak,
is a most imposing challenge, a monumental feat.
It takes a special talent, ’tis not for the faint of heart,
and most are doomed to failure before they even start.

But in the hallowed halls of yeshivos far and wide,
our young men have discovered a new way to verbalize.
With Yiddish, English, Hebrew, it’s a mixture of all three,
and a dash of Aramaic- A linguistic potpourri!

Yeshivishe reid, Yeshivishe shprach!
Takeh, Epis, Gradeh, ah gevaldige zach!
It’s called Yeshivishe reid, Yeshivishe shprach,
it’s the talk of the town, Mamesh tug un nacht!

It gets increasingly Hebrew/Yiddish-laden, with lines like:

I said “Then it’s an Onus if to Seder I’ll be late”,
“No”, he said, “I’m Makpid- Ein Somchin Al Hanes!”

(Calling rozele…)

My Work Here Is Done.

It occurred to me to wonder how far back the titular cliché went. Needless to say, I started by googling, and I found a remarkable unanimity among the websites that aimed to assist the eager seeker after truth; this Check English Words page is representative:

“My work here is done” is a popular phrase that originates from a piece of media called The Lone Ranger. There are countless examples of the phrase being used in pop culture, but The Lone Ranger is the earliest example of it being used. The Lone Ranger came out in 1938, and as the years went by, more and more pop culture movies and shows used the phrase.

I even found a site that gave a specific episode that used it, but I won’t bother to try to find it again, because it’s all a lot of hooey. The Lone Ranger used it for the same reason people use it now: it’s a memorable meme. And it started long before the Ranger ever ranged. A Google Books search easily turned up examples like these:

“Oh yes, my work here is done, and well done.” –Fergus Hume, A Traitor in London (1900), p. 158.

“My work here is done; and I am only going at my Father’s summons.” –T.S. Arthur, “The Story-Teller: Deborah Norman,” Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine, Vol. 43 (1875), p. 665.

“But my work here is done.” — George E. Fisher, Declaring all the Counsel of God (1852), p. 16.

“My work here is done. I am going to dwell in a world I am wholly unworthy of.” — David Stowell, Sermon […] (1836), p. 12.

I’m sure I could turn up earlier examples, but I think I’ve proved my point, so my work… well, you know.

Whom of Which.

This is another of those new developments in English that occasionally pop up to astonish me; Peter Dizikes reports for MIT News:

Back in the spring of 2022, professor of linguistics David Pesetsky was talking to an undergraduate class about relative clauses, which add information to sentences. For instance: “The senator, with whom we were speaking, is a policy expert.” Relative clauses often feature “who,” “which,” “that,” and so on. Before long a student, Kanoe Evile ’23, raised her hand.

“How does this account for the ‘whom of which’ construction?” Evile asked.

Pesetsky, who has been teaching linguistics at MIT since 1988, had never encountered the phrase “whom of which” before. “I thought, ‘What?’” Pesetsky recalls.

But to Evile, “whom of which” seems normal, as in, “Our striker, whom of which is our best player, scores a lot of goals.” After the class she talked to Pesetsky. He suggested Evile write a paper about it for the course, 24.902 (Introduction to Syntax).

“He said, ‘I’ve never heard of that, but it might make an interesting topic,’” Evile says. She started hunting for online examples that evening. Some of the material she ultimately found came from social media; one example was in a Connecticut state government document. Among her finds: “Dave, Carter, Stefan, LeRoi, Boyd, and Tim are special people whom of which make special music together.” And: “Our 7th figure in the set is one of the show’s main reoccurring [sic] characters, whom of which we all love to hate.” And: “Oh, that’s me whom which you’re looking for.” (Sometimes “of” is dropped.)

[Read more…]

Chants of Sennaar.

I don’t do computer games (haven’t touched one since I was bored waiting for someone and played a round of Leisure Suit Larry back in the ’80s), but how can I not post about Chants of Sennaar? To quote the description by Fizz at MetaFilter, where I learned about it:

Chants of Sennaar is a language-based puzzle game based on the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. In this retelling, your character makes their way through five floors of a tower, each of which is home to a different community with a different language. Using a pictorial journal, you assign every word you find to a picture, slowly piecing together each language as you go. You use the words you learn to solve other puzzles, navigate the tower, and understand what others are saying. All this is made possible through decoding language — and I can’t overstate how fun the process is.

I’m not actually going to play it, but I celebrate its existence! (Sennaar is the Septuagint’s Σενναάρ, an alternate form of Shinar.)

Saving Gaelic.

I know I post a lot about efforts to keep languages alive, but Rhoda Meek’s piece in The National (Glasgow) focuses on an aspect not often discussed (at least at LH) — the psychological barriers to using a fading language, in this case Scots Gaelic:

If Gaelic is to be “saved” in any ­meaningful way, we need a radical change in how we approach it, and that change has to start in the Gaidhealtachd itself – not by creating new speakers – but by inspiring those of us who already speak it. […]

Even as a reasonably confident Gaelic speaker, my opportunities to use Gaelic in Tiree are limited. I use it with some of the more willing older speakers – particularly in the context of crofting and fishing, or at funerals and animal sales. Over the last few years, a few of us “younger” ones have ­taken to proactively speaking to each other in public, or in the shop or pub, starting ­conversations in Gaelic and carrying on – trying to break the discomfort we feel. We’re ignoring the desire to be polite in the company of English speakers, and ­finishing our conversations in Gaelic ­before switching language. […]

The truth is that in a desire to do the right thing, we have “educationalised” Gaelic to the point that everyone is ­suffering. Older, native speakers, with ­beautiful, lyrical, spoken Gaelic, steeped in their ­dialects and with idiomatic turns of phrase I would die for, often think that their Gaelic isn’t good enough because it isn’t “school Gaelic”. They might use it among themselves, but rarely with my generation. The majority of school-age kids don’t regularly hear Gaelic at home or in the community. So how can they possibly ­become confidently fluent?

[Read more…]

Bakan, lac.

I’m reading Boborykin’s best-known novel, the 1882 Китай-город [Kitay-gorod], which is full of detailed descriptions of the central part of Moscow (in those days sometimes simply called город ‘the City’) before the renovations that began in the late 1880s (and of course the massive destruction of Soviet times). In Book I ch. XXXI he’s portraying one of the minor characters, the somewhat feeble-minded Mitrosha, who is sorting the materials used in the family business: “марену, кубовую краску, буру, бакан, кошениль, скипидар, керосин” [madder, indigo paint, borax, crimson lake, cochineal, turpentine, kerosene]. A number of these words are interesting — марена ‘madder’ is from a term of unknown etymology which “terminally ousted the other Slavic word for madder, *broščь, by the end of the Early Modern Age,” and бура ‘borax’ is from Persian بورهbure (and an earlier term tincal has its own complex etymology) — but what I want to focus on is that word бакан (bakán, with final stress as opposed to the more common бакан ‘buoy’). Wiktionary gives no etymology, but elsewhere I found it’s from Ottoman Turkish بقم‎ bak(k)am, from Arabic بَقَّمbaqqam, which that Wiktionary entry says is “From Persian بکم‎ (bakam)”… but things appear to be more complicated (“I now see how this name بَقَّم‎ […] came to the Near East, though not when, and I will not be able to write out all forms and make out whether it came from Sanskrit into the Dravidian languages or originally from Dravidian or even from Austronesian”).

And the English word I used in the translation, lake, “a pigment of a reddish hue, originally obtained from lac,” is (per the OED) a “variant or alteration” of lac “a dark red resinous substance produced as a protective coating by certain scale insects”; that latter entry, happily, was revised in 2017 and provides this extensive and complicated etymology:
[Read more…]

Nordmand  Can Stay.

Miranda Bryant has an encouraging Guardian story about a Danish dictionary:

The Danish language does not officially carry a male equivalent for the (often pejorative) term “career woman” or a female equivalent for the male-gendered noun “financier”. But after a major review of all keywords ending in -mand (man), -kvinde (woman) and -person (person), soon the terms karrieremand (career man) and finanskvinde (female financier) – as well as many new gender-neutral terms – will officially join the ranks of the Danish spelling dictionary, the Retskrivningsordbogen.

In its first review in 12 years, the Dansk Sprognævn (the Danish Language Council) has embarked on a new edition focusing on gender equality and making words and descriptions more gender neutral and less stereotyped. The council has also analysed the use of he, she, his and hers in the dictionary’s example phrases. The new edition, to be published next year, adds to afholdsmand, the existing word for someone who abstains from drinking alcohol, which has a male-gendered suffix, a female version: afholdskvinde. Financier, finansmand, now also has a female equivalent in the form of finanskvinde. […]

[Read more…]


Memory is a strange thing. I was looking at a loaf of bread when my mind suddenly tossed up a word I hadn’t thought of in decades: skalk. This is what we called the heel (the end slice) in my family when I was growing up, and since once I left home and went off to college I never heard anyone else use it, I must have let it slip to the deepest recesses of my wordhoard… but now there it was, so I googled, and found Maryn Liles’ webpage What Do You Call the End of a Loaf of Bread? Sure enough, after a few paragraphs we get:

The word “skalk” was popular among users from Norway. However, it seemed that this term could be seen as dated, as responders said that skalk was a term their grandparents used.

My mother was Norwegian-American, so that explains that. And Wiktionary has skalk ‘rind, crust,’ though oddly they only have it for Swedish and don’t give an etymology beyond “Doublet of skal and skilja,” which isn’t really satisfactory — it’s a Norwegian word in good standing, and the Norske Akademis ordbok suggests it may be from a Middle Low German word meaning ‘small piece.’