Mystery Translator.

A reader writes “this article about the Yiddish translation of that NYtimes yeshiva article is super interesting,” and it certainly is; Zach Golden reports for the Forward:

The NYT report has been translated into an extraordinarily high-quality Hasidic dialect of Yiddish. The online version has been widely read and shared on Hasidic online forums. A PDF version, created to circumvent the community’s strict internet filters, has also been making the rounds.

In the Hasidic community, even worse than people who reject their way of life are those perceived as betraying their own community. Known as moyserim, or informers, they can face harassment, excommunication or even extrajudicial violence.

Members of advocacy groups for improved secular education in Hasidic schools have been labeled as such, making anyone perceived as supporting them — say, a Yiddish translator of a critical New York Times report — a persona non grata within the Hasidic community. It is for this reason that the identity of the Yiddish translator remains a secret.

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I was reading J.H. Elliott’s NYRB review essay (cached) on several new histories of the conquest of Mexico when I was struck by this minatory footnote:

Both authors have difficulties not only with “empire” but also with “Aztec,” which is a highly questionable term. The inhabitants of Tenochtitlan and surrounding regions that recognized their dominance were technically Mexica, but as far as is known the Mexica, along with other peoples of central Mexico, never identified themselves as “Aztecs.” Irrespective of their geographical location and political status, each ethnic or social group referred to itself when dealing with outsiders and others as “we people here.” To avoid inconvenience and make the nature of their topic clear to nonspecialists, [Frances] Berdan and [Camilla] Townsend tend to fall back, with obvious misgiving, on “Aztec.”

I thought I pretty much knew what Aztec meant, but as Augustine said about time, “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” So for the benefit of others in the same boat, here’s the thorough discussion at Wikipedia:
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Bie(f), Ble(f).

I was investigating the odd-looking Russian word бьеф ‘reach, level, pond’ (верхний бьеф ‘upper pond, head water’) and discovered it was borrowed from French bief, which made sense… but where was that from? TLFi tells the tale:

Prononc. : [bjεf]. Antérieurement à Passy 1914 on indique également des prononc. sans f (Gattel 1841, Nod. 1844, Fél. 1851, Littré, DG). Sous la forme biez le mot est transcrit par Land. 1834 : bi-èze. Pour Mart. Comment prononce 1913, p. 350, au contraire on ne prononce pas de -z dans biez. Étymol. et Hist. 1. Ca 1135 bied « lit d’un cours d’eau » (Pelerinage Charlemagne, éd. E. Koschwitz et G. Thurau, 775 dans T.-L.) − xivᵉs., B. de Sebourg, ibid.; 2. 1248 bié « canal qui amène l’eau à la roue d’un moulin » (Ch. des D. de Bret. fᵈˢBiz., Bibl. Nant. dans Gdf. Compl.); la forme bief est donnée en 1635 par Monet, Invantaire des deus langues françoise et latine, mais elle ne s’est imposée qu’au xxᵉs.; 3. 1834 (Land. : Biez. Dans un canal à écluses, intervalle compris entre deux écluses). Très prob., et de même que les corresp. de l’Italie du Nord (REW³), d’un gaul. *bedum « canal, fosse » (gallois bedd, breton bez « tombe », Dottin, p. 232) en rapport avec le lat. fodere « creuser » (cf. Ern.-Meillet, s.v. fodire); le f final représente le traitement de -d- intervocalique (devenu ensuite final) dans un certain nombre de mots anc. d’orig. germ. ou celt. (cf. *bladu > *blavu [v. emblaver] > a. fr. blef, fr. mod. blé; germ. -bodu dans Elbeuf).

In other words, the final -f didn’t use to be pronounced, and the word was variously written bief, biez, bié, or bied; the suggested etymology is from a Gaulish bedum ‘canal, ditch,’ and the development of d to f is compared to that in blé ‘wheat’ < blef < *bladu. One wonders why blef lost its final f, while that in bief remained.

Translation and Etymology.

From Elaine Blair’s NYRB review of Essays Two: On Proust, Translation, Foreign Languages, and the City of Arles, by Lydia Davis:

For Davis the translator, pleasure is closely tied to difficulty. “See if, for oiseuse, you can find a word in English beginning with o and ending in the z sound that means the same thing and, if possible, has the same derivation”—this is the kind of challenge she sets for herself. “Handily, for this last problem, there was the perfect solution, otiose,” which means, “like the French, ‘at leisure’ or ‘idle.’”


Her goal of staying as close as possible to the vocabulary of the original novels leads her far down the path of etymology, both in English and in French. (Pleasure #10: “You become more and more knowledgeable about your own language and its resources as you work.”) Translating into a language that offers so many synonyms, Davis tries to find one that either shares its etymology with the French original or derives from a similar context. She might translate a word not into its exact contemporary equivalent but into its etymological ancestor: “Alors, ‘then,’ comes from the Latin illa hora, ‘at that hour.’” Knowing this, Davis might in some cases use “at that hour” instead of “then.”

I’m sorry, but that’s just crazypants. Sure, if you find a good equivalent that happens to be etymologically related, it’s pleasing (if your mind is that way inclined), but it’s also purely decorative — it has nothing to do with the actual business of translation. To use “at that hour” instead of “then” because of etymology is malfeasance, in my opinion, and I will regard Davis’s translations with increased suspicion in future. (For another view of her essays, see this post from last year, and for a different complaint about her methods, see this one from 2018.)

Multiocular O.

Multiocular O (ꙮ) was mentioned here back in 2019 (starting with Owlmirror’s comment); I’m giving it its own post because it’s shown up on MetaFilter (ꙮꙮꙮ Be Not Afraid ꙮꙮꙮ) and Eyebrows McGee has provided the following origin story:

Most Proto-Indo-European languages had a grammatical number for nouns between the singular and plural called the dual. That is, we have “cat” and “cats,” but most PIE languages had a special form for things in pairs. A lot of Celtic and Slavic languages preserve at least some dual forms. […] (In Slavic languages, a really common dual form, even in languages that have otherwise dropped it, is “riverbanks.”)

ANYWAY, in some Old Church Slavonic manuscripts, where a dual form was used (most often to say “two”), the scribes would turn “two” — двое– into двꚙе with the “double O” glyph.

Some OTHER scribes thought this was amazing, so specifically in the word “eyes” — “очи” — which is a dual-form noun because they typically come in twos, they’d use the “double monocular O” (Ꙭ, aka “boobs”) to make two Os and turn them into eyes, thus: ꙭчи. See? TWO EYES!

WELL. ANOTHER scribe comes along and says, “two eyes? Seraphim have MANY eyes!” and when he comes to the phrase “many-eyed seraphim (Серафими мн҄оочитїи), he chooses to render it as “Серафими мн҄оꙮ҄читїи҄”. CAUSE THEY’VE GOT A LOT OF EYES, y’all.

ONE TIME. This occurs ONE TIME in ONE MANUSCRIPT, but Unicode is dedicated to making sure manuscripts can be replicated accurately in unicode, so in 2008 we get a multiocular O.

BUT IT GETS EVEN MORE AWESOME, because they’re updating it to the full 10!. Although do look at the manuscript and note that the original 10-eyed multiocular O has FLAMES LICKING OUT ON THE SIDES, so Unicode should get on that!

Anyway, I 100% approve of literally all of this, because there is nothing I love as much as TAKING A JOKE WAY TOO FAR, especially when the joke is more than 600 years old.

It’s a great story, and I certainly hope it’s all true, including the ten-eye update.

Gandlevsky’s Illegible.

I started reading Sergei Gandlevsky’s 2002 novel НРЗБ (an abbreviation for неразборчивый ‘undecipherable, illegible’) some time ago on my Kindle; it was one of those well-spoken-of books I didn’t really know anything about, but I figured I’d give it a try. The more I read, the more I liked it, so a little over halfway through I ordered it in hardcopy from Globus Books in San Francisco (plug: they’re great, buy your Russian books from them!) and waited for it to arrive, at which point I started all over again, happy that I could now make marginal notes and create my own index on the endpaper. Since I’m going to be enthusing about it, I’m glad to report that it’s available in Susanne Fusso’s translation as Illegible, so if you don’t read Russian but are infected by my enthusiasm, you can give it a try; I’ve ordered a copy myself so I can read it to my wife once we’ve finished Louis Couperus’s Eline Vere (impressively modern for a book from the 1880s, with female characters my wife is surprised were created by a man).

Happily, Fusso’s introduction (as well as a brief excerpt from her translation) is online at the Jordan Center website (1, 2, 3), so I can send you there for a plot description and background on the author if you want it; I’ll just say he’s a well-known poet who dislikes “poetic prose” and the book is in four sections, the first and third in close third person and set around 1972, when the hero Lyova was a young, impetuous, and foolish poet, while the second and fourth are in first person and set thirty years later, when he’s older and in poor health but just as foolish. And one thing that impressed me is that Gandlevsky creates a perfectly appropriate prose style for him, competent and endlessly allusive, showing off a command of Russian idioms and a knowledge of classic poetry (especially, of course, Pushkin), but no real fireworks — it’s clear the protagonist is clever but no genius, and that’s a hard thing to pull off (I’ve read too many novels where supposedly mediocre people think in high-flown poetic metaphors). And yet within those constraints he creates brilliant effects: at one point, he talks about the world coming alive with the spring thaw and compares the grass shooting up with “a botany class film, when in the darkness on the screen a sprout under the ground sprouts out of a pea and butts the ground with its crown, and in a moment or two the shoot is wriggling in the open and pushing out leaves left and right, growing before your eyes” [стремительность учебного фильма по ботанике, когда в темноте на экране росток под землей выпрастывается из горошины и бодает маковкой почву, а уже через миг-другой побег извивается на воле и выбрасывает вправо и влево листья, взрослея на глазах]; then a couple of paragraphs later comes the capper: Krivorotov’s jealousy “grew, sprouted, and matured like that plant from the school movie” [росла, колосилась и матерела не хуже того самого растения со школьной киноленты] (my translations). That’s how to work an image!

Once I’d realized how good it was, what most surprised me was how its plot kept surprising — even shocking — me. It’s one thing to create a plausible portrait of young writers competing over poetry and women; it’s another to dole out information so cunningly you can make the reader feel as sandbagged as the hero when he belatedly discovers important facts about his own life. And I kept being reminded of earlier novels I loved, like Nabokov’s Дар [The Gift], Makanin’s Андеграунд [Underground; see this post], and Buida’s Ермо [Ermo; see this post] — in fact, there’s a setup-and-resolution that is so reminiscent of that last novel I think it must be a deliberate allusion. I’m going to be thinking about this book for quite a while.

The Quest for Perfection.

Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief of Random House, writes for the NY Times (archived) about his life as a copyeditor (or, as he puts it, copy editor); his origin story is unsurprising (he noticed errors even as a kid and was eventually pointed to a profession where you could be paid for it), but the anecdotes are a lot of fun:

Proofreading a new edition of a 50-year-old translation of a French classic, I was stopped in my tracks by a section of a half-dozen or so unattributed lines of dialogue in which one line seemed to be missing. He said, I pointed with my finger, she said, he said, she said … she said again? (It’s an indication of my stubborn faith in the printed word that I had to run my finger down that passage several times before I was sure that the error was on the page and not in my head.)

As it happened, the novel’s translator was still alive, and he was (I was told) delighted to fill in the missing line, which had apparently gone unnoticed all this time.

A more elaborate version of this story occurred a number of years later, when a puzzled email from a reader about what appeared to be a continuity glitch in a major work of 20th-century science fiction inspired me to do a bit of detective work. Assisted by a book pirate’s online post of the entire text, I uncovered eight paragraphs that had somehow gone missing decades before.

How can this happen? you might be wondering. I can’t be certain, but I infer that in the translation of the book from its original hardcover version to a mass-market paperback, an overburdened editorial assistant, tasked with photocopying the original, skipped a spread — two consecutive pages, a left and a right, that is. Or perhaps that assistant dropped the spread on the floor, and because the missing text, improbably and unluckily, began at the beginning of a sentence and concluded at the end of one, the gap went unremarked. (To be fair, this particular book drones on so uneventfully for pages and pages that one could be forgiven for not noticing that some of the drone was absent.) Of course, we fixed the error.

I’m just glad some publishers are still bothering to fix such errors. (Of course, one can’t help wondering what that “major work of 20th-century science fiction” was, but we’ll never know.)

Fermor in Hungary.

Recently I posted material about German from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople; Fermer has now moved into Hungary and has further observations on language. From Remnant Placenames in Hungary, 1934:

When I had unfolded my map under the carob tree, the Tisza river, flowing south-east to join the Danube, uncoiled straight ahead of my path; I was struck by the place-names scattered beyond the east bank: Kúncsorba, Kúnszentmartón, Kúnvegytöke, and so on. The first syllable, it seemed, meant ‘Cuman’ and the region was still known as Nagykunság or Great Cumania. On my side of the river, a slightly different profusion spread southwards: Kiskúnhalas, Kiskúnfélegyháza, Kiskúndorozsma. ‘Kis’ means ‘little’: they belonged to the region of Kiskunság or Little Cumania.

So this was where the Cumans had ended up! And, even closer to my route, lay a still more peculiar paper-chase of place-names. Jászboldogháza, for instance, only a few miles north; and a bit farther afield, Jászladány, Jászapáti, Jászalsószentgyörgy, and many more… Here the first syllable recalled a more unexpected and still hoarier race of settlers. In the third century BC, the Jazyges, an Iranian speaking branch of the Sarmatians mentioned by Herodotus, were first observed in Scythian regions near the Sea of Azov, and some of them made their way to the west. They were allies of Mithridates—Ovid speaks of them in his Black Sea exile—and, between the Danube and the Tisza, exactly where their descendants finally settled, the Romans had much trouble with them. We know just what these Jazyges looked like from the column of Marcus Aurelius in the Piazza Colonna. The bas-relief warriors—and their horses, right down to their fetlocks—are sheathed in scale-armour like pangolins. Javelins lost, and shooting backwards in the famous Parthian style, they canter with bent bows up the spiral. Had they left any other traces in the Plain? Any dim, unexplained custom, twist of feature, scrap of language, or lingering turn of phrase? A few sparse reminders of the Pechenegs and the Cumans still flicker about the Balkans; but this entire nation seems to have vanished like will o’ the wisps and only these place-names mark the points of their evaporation.

From Eliciting Romany in Hungary, 1934:
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Zimmer on Balk.

Now that the baseball season is drawing to the close (and my Mets are still not only in the chase but on top of their division, if only by a game), it’s a particularly good time for Ben Zimmer to write a WSJ piece about the word balk:

Major League Baseball has announced rule changes for the 2023 season intended to speed up the pace of play in a sport where games can seem to stretch on interminably. One new rule introduces a timer to limit how long pitchers take on the mound between their pitches.

As part of the pitch-clock rule, MLB has decreed that if a runner is on base, the pitcher is allowed to throw to the base or step off the rubber twice per plate appearance. If the pitcher attempts to pick off a runner a third time and doesn’t get the runner out, that will be called a balk, and all runners get to advance a base.

Confusing enough? The word “balk” was already one of the most perplexing in baseball. In use since the earliest formulations of the game’s rules, “balk” serves as a cover term for various illegal acts or motions by a pitcher, ostensibly made with the goal of deceiving the hitter or runner. But as baseball historian Richard Hershberger observed in his 2019 book “Strike Four: The Evolution of Baseball,” “confusion about balks has been a constant through baseball history.” (That confusion extends to the word’s pronunciation: it is generally pronounced “bawk” with a silent “l.”)

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Hamilton in Hamburg.

Michael Paulson reports for the Times (or, if you report for the paper, The Times; archived link) on the upcoming German production of Hamilton — amazingly, “the first production of the juggernaut musical in a language other than English.” The process of translation was, of course, complex:

For “Hamilton,” Stage Entertainment executives invited translators to apply for the job by sending in sample songs, and then, not satisfied with any of the submissions, asked two of the applicants who had never met one another to collaborate. One of them, Kevin Schroeder, was a veteran musical theater translator whose proposal was clear but cautious; the other was Sera Finale, a rapper-turned-songwriter whose proposal was imaginative but imprecise.

“Kevin was like the kindergarten teacher, and I was that child who wanted to run in every direction and be punky,” said Finale, who hadn’t been to the theater since seeing “Peter Pan” as a child and had to look up “Hamilton” on Wikipedia. “If you have an open mic in Kreuzberg,” he said, referring to a hip Berlin neighborhood, “and you’re standing there with a blunt, normally you don’t go to a musical later in the night.”

Both of them were wary of working together. “I thought, ‘What does he know?’” Schroeder said. “And he thought, ‘I’ll show this musical theater guy.’”

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