Gritsman on Self-Translation.

Andrey Gritsman, born in Moscow and living in the US, works as a physician and writes poetry; he has an essay in EastWest Literary Forum called On Bilingual Poetry and Self-Translation that, while rambling and occasionally unclear, says some interesting things. A few excerpts:

At times, specific feelings and emotional situations are better expressed in a non-native language due to the development of a new sensibility, more natural for a newly acquired tongue. […]

I was asked several times in which language I dream. I was thinking about this and realized that in my dreams people talk, I talk to them, and there is some language. But then I realized that it is not English and it is not Russian, it is a language that I understand but it does not have words or familiar sounds of one of the recognizable languages. And then it occurred to me that this is similar to the famous Pentecostal event in Jerusalem when a crowd of people of different nations heard the same sermon spoken in a “language” understood by them, i.e., in their native tongue. So, I concluded that this probably could be qualified as the language of poetry or a language above other languages. Some see it as a metaphysical substance that a poet puts into a certain language but which existed before him and which is transferred into words, and subsequently, it lives in the poet’s soul and mind. A monologue of the soul, so to speak. […]

The language itself dictates the way a poem is to be created. This is why attempts, by a great poet such as Joseph Brodsky, to place a poem from the original language, a Russian syllabo-tonic poem, into a framework of a totally different language sometimes produce cumbersome results. The number of words in poems in two different languages varies, which is only natural considering the vast differences between Russian and English. Sometimes unexpected images or different idioms enter the plot of the poem, or the language itself pulls apart the plot or adds an additional layer to the poem. However, the most important criterion in translation is recognizing the sound, although a poet-translator should maintain fidelity to the meaning of words, as much as the other language allows.

Tess Gallagher once mentioned that, when reading a translation of a foreign poem, the English language reader would like to see a good poem written in English. This particular philosophy was shared by Boris Pasternak, a great Russian poet and a famous translator of Shakespeare into Russian. […]

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Bryan Garner’s Favorite Words.

As longtime readers of LH will know, I’m not a huge fan of Bryan Garner in his capacity of generalized style maven (though his books on legal usage are excellent), but as I wrote here: “if magisterial guidance, with an occasional twinkle in the eye and lots of citations, is what you want, Garner is your man.” I read Sarah Butcher’s OUP Blog Q&A with interest and pleasure, and I found this bit enjoyable enough to share:

By that time, my grandparents had given me Webster’s Second New International Dictionary, which for years had sat on a shelf in my room. I took it down and started scouring the pages for interesting, genuinely useful words. I didn’t want obsolete words. I wanted serviceable words and remarkable words. I resolved to copy out, by hand, 30 good ones per day—and to do it without fail.

I soon discovered I liked angular, brittle words, such as cantankerous, impecunious, rebuke, and straitlaced. I liked aw-shucks, down-home words, such as bumpkin, chatterbox, horselaugh, and mumbo-jumbo. I liked combustible, raucous words, such as blast, bray, fulminate, and thunder. I liked arch, high-toned words, such as athwart, calumny, cynosure, and decrepitude. I liked toga-wearing, Socratic-sounding words, such as eristic, homunculus, palimpsest, and theologaster. I liked mellifluous, polysyllabic words, such as antediluvian, postprandial, protuberance, and undulation. I liked the technical and quasi-technical terms of rhetoric, such as asyndeton, periphrasis, quodlibet, and synecdoche. I liked frequentative verbs with an onomatopoetic feel, such as gurgle, jostle, piffle, and topple. I liked evocative words about language, such as billingsgate, logolatry, wordmonger, and zinger. I liked scatological, I-can’t-believe-this-term-exists words, such as coprolalia, fimicolous, scatomancy, and stercoraceous. I liked astonishing, denotatively necessary words that more people ought to know, such as mumpsimus and ultracrepidarian. I liked censoriously yelping words, such as balderdash, hooey, pishposh, and poppycock. I liked mirthful, tittering words, such as cowlick, flapdoodle, horsefeathers, and icky.

In short, I fell in love with language.

I think many of us can relate. But I can’t resist pointing out, with copyeditorial schadenfreude, that there is no such book as “Webster’s Second New International Dictionary.” There is, in its stead, a book called Webster’s New International Dictionary: Second Edition Unabridged. Put that in your style guide and smoke it!

Sorokin’s Oprichnik.

A bit over a year ago I posted about Vladimir Sorokin’s 1994 novel Норма (Norma, forthcoming from New York Review Books in Max Lawton’s translation as The Norm); after that, put off by what I knew about his Ice trilogy, I didn’t read any more of his work until getting to 2006 in my long march and pulling his День опричника (translated by Jamey Gambrell as Day of the Oprichnik) off the shelf. The gap of a dozen years between the novels made this one feel like it was by a different writer, and that’s what I mainly want to talk about; for descriptions of the plot, I’ll send you to a good NY Times review (archived) by the deeply knowledgeable Stephen Kotkin (see my Year in Reading praise for his biography of Stalin: Volume I, Volume II), a recent n+1 essay by Michael Scott Moore that ties it in to current events, and a less-than-enthusiastic complete review review by M.A. Orthofer.

When we last met up with Sorokin, he was gleefully deconstructing Russian and Soviet reality and its reflection in literature, combining clichéd plots with wild and frequently obscene stylistic inventions. His avowed aim was to blow it all up so that it couldn’t be used any more; having succeeded, he had to decide what to do next as he stood amid the smoking wreckage. It would seem that he turned to the kind of skewed reflections of post-Soviet reality that his rival Pelevin had built a career on (see, e.g., this post), except instead of pop Buddhism and werewolves he has a revived oprichnina and some accompanying early-modern phenomena, all coexisting with modern cellphones, cars, and drugs. As I wrote Lizok: “It’s fun, mind you, I’m not complaining, and it’s good when authors change things up (Pelevin got predictable pretty fast), it’s just a bit of a shock.” The thing is that even though it’s readable and enjoyable, it doesn’t feel especially necessary in the way that Roman and Norma did — it’s like Sorokin has come down to earth and is venting his outrage against the outrageous nature of Putin’s Russia in reasonably typical Russian-novel ways. I expect I’ll read and enjoy more of his novels (I have copies of Метель and Манарага), but I doubt they’ll surprise me the way his early work did. The only author I can think of who made a comparable shift from the brilliantly experimental to the comparatively mundane is Alexander Veltman — see my posts about his first novel, Странник [The wanderer], and his later Саломея [Salomea], which is tremendously enjoyable but not strange in the way his early work was.

As a linguistic note, among the obsolete words he revives for use by his oprichniki, one of my favorites is уд [ud], a hilarious term for ‘penis.’ Pelevin used it in his 1999 novel Generation «П» as part of a slogan for a condom: МАЛ, ДА УД АЛ ‘SMALL, BUT THE PENIS IS RED’ (see this post for further explanation).

And now, back to Alexander Goldstein’s Спокойные поля [Peaceful fields] (see this post); I had to take a break from it because it was such a dense read, but now I’m eager to get back to it.


I don’t know why I posted about this on Facebook instead of here; I guess I happened to be there when the question occurred to me. At any rate, the word is so interesting and the solution so satisfying I’m going to repost it here:

I’m reading the Calvin Tomkins piece on Tala Madani in last week’s New Yorker, and I just got to this:

“Fortunately, I loved school, and reading was a big part of my life, especially history and Runi mythology,” she told me.

I’ve read a fair amount about Iranian history and culture, and I’ve never heard of “Runi mythology”; furthermore, there’s no “runi” in either of my Farsi dictionaries. Is this a lapse on the part of the famed NYkr fact-checking department? Should it be “Rumi” (but what might “Rumi mythology” be)? Or is it some obscure thing that Madani and the NYkr fact-checkers know about but I don’t? Any enlightenment is welcome.

UPDATE: It turns out that, as Lameen Souag suggested and Patrick Taylor confirmed, it’s the word “Irɑni” (‘Iranian’) with the colloquial shift ɑ > u before nasals, so it means “Iranian mythology.” I’m glad it’s not a mistake, but I wonder if the fact-checkers investigated — you’d think the magazine would have added an explanation…

Another interesting linguistic tidbit occurs later in the article: “a tasty Iranian soup called Ash-e-anar.” Setting aside the pointless capital A (would they write “a tasty Italian dish called Pizza”?), we have two common words, آش âš ‘(thick) soup’ and انار anâr ‘pomegranate,’ joined by the ezafe, which is omnipresent in speech but (to the annoyance of learners) not indicated in writing. Both nouns are of obscure etymology; for the former, Wiktionary says:

Perhaps from a Turkic language, see Common Turkic *. […] however there seems to be an unexplained mismatch in vowel length. Compare Azerbaijani , Bashkir аш (), Yakut ас (as).

Alternatively, inherited from Middle Persian (/āš/), a hapax legomenon found in the Vendidad, although this word is claimed to be misread.

Connections with Sanskrit आश (āśa, “food”) are also sometimes proposed, but the correspondance would not be regular.

And anâr is “Probably ultimately related to the pomegranate terms under Arabic رُمَّان‎ (rummān)” (itself “Uncertain direct and ultimate source, not Semitic,” with an impressive list of ancient comparanda). At any rate, the soup looks delicious.

Anglish Redivivus.

Back in 2017 I posted about a crackpot theory of the Germanic presence in Britain called “Anglish and English: Why our language is 750 and not 1,500 years old”; Yvy tyvy commmented: “When I saw the word ‘Anglish,’ I thought this was going to be about modern English without borrowings. I am saddened.” Well, let the unsaddening begin, because that’s the point of

What is Anglish?

Anglish is a kind of English which prefers native words over those borrowed from foreign languages. Anglish is linguistic purism applied to English.

For example:

Dictionary > Wordbook
Famous > Nameknown
Native > Inborn
Decide > Choose
Computer > Reckoner

This is achieved by simply choosing to use a native word over a borrowed word, or if there is no modern native word for a given concept, Old English words can be revived and updated to modern spelling and phonology to be used for a modern meaning.

More recently in the 21st century, author David Cowley has released his book called “How We’d Talk If the English Had Won in 1066“, among others, that goes into depth on the vocabulary and sound changes that happened to English as a result of Norman influence. Cowley is not the only one making new writings in and about Anglish, there are many online communities from YouTube to Reddit to Discord that generate new Anglish works on a regular basis. Many creators see this form of constrained writing as inspirational and challenging to their creativity.

As long as it’s just a stimulus to creativity and not a claim of superiority, I see nothing wrong with it. But I suspect the good people of the Anglish project (who sent me the link) expect more from it than it will give, and I’m also pretty sure that if the English had won in 1066 their language would have borrowed a lot of words anyway. That’s what languages do.

Gazabo II.

Back in the first year of this blog, I posted about the odd and enjoyable term gazabo, which came to prominence in the 1890s. Having revisited the post, I did a little googling and came across this early discussion of the word, a letter to the editor of The Book Buyer (Vol. XIII No. 12, Jan. 1897, pp. 954-55); it was so long and interesting I thought I’d give it its own post rather than include it as an addendum to the old one.


To the Editor of The Book Buyer

Dear Sir: It has been stated (with what gravity I cannot say) that on the announcement of the coming of Ian Maclaren, people began to form classes in Scotch, with a view to the fuller enjoyment of the order of literature which he represents. If, as I suspect, the movement had its origin with members of the same cult that organized the Browning Clubs, the fact would go to prove not alone our intellectual hospitality, but that craving for novelty which animates the reading public, even the more fastidiously critical. And where else can be found such novelty as in the untamed languages whose literature is mostly oral? I refer to Celt and Gael. In their familiar speech are words whose very sound might make us laugh or weep. Take, for instance, the pathos and pitying passion in the rhythm and cadence of the Celtic lullaby:

    ”Aziu, bye baby, Aziu, Aziu!”

I have seen paragoric-proof infants put to sleep in a few minutes by the magic iterance of those crooning syllables.

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Grandpa Moe’s Books.

Sadie Stein has an amusing and sobering (for us book hoarders) piece in the NY Times (archived) that begins:

When Grandpa Moe died, it took months and several rented skips to clear out the piles of rotted paper and the millions of printed words left behind. About a thousand books were salvageable. A guy my grandfather had met somewhere came and picked these up, and made them into “Moe’s Bookmobile” — a sort of performance-art-piece-cum-public-service that was, we all felt, very much in Moe’s spirit.

That spirit could be summed up in the slogan “So many books, so little time.” Indeed, the first time my grandfather saw these words, on a faded mug in the Goodwill’s homewares section, he was as electrified as a man encountering divine golden tablets. Here, in red Comic Sans, was his life philosophy.

Whether rooted in his unconventional childhood, his engineering training or something more mysterious, Grandpa Moe’s reading habits were … bizarre. He read incessantly, fanatically and promiscuously. He read, terrifyingly, behind the wheel of his jalopy; he read, constantly, against a corduroy Dutch Husband in a corrugated “book shed” — probably a valiant attempt by his wife to keep the chaos at bay — in his yard; he read multiple volumes at once, one in each hand, while he watched procedurals in his bedroom.

Did he “love to read”? Did he savor the smell of books? Almost certainly not; after a few California winters, most of his library just smelled like mildew and rats. The point — if there was one — seemed to be to cram in as many books as possible before meeting the nothingness his militant atheism mandated; his reading was frenzied and restless.

She goes on to talk about “opting for a touch of self-care: after a lifetime of climbing, I’m happy to stop and just enjoy the view,” but of course I’m fixated on Moe. I read a lot, but not — I think — “incessantly, fanatically and promiscuously.” Still, I’ll be leaving a lot of books for my heirs and assigns to deal with. What’s bothering me at the moment, however, is the phrase “Dutch Husband.” Neither my wife nor I was familiar with it; Urban Dictionary tells me it is “a long, usually rectangular shaped body pillow,” but it barely seems to exist in that sense — the vast majority of the hits are for actual husbands (“You want to find a Dutch husband, there are living millions Dutch husbands here”). Anybody familiar with the phrase and its history? (I also don’t think “husband” should be capitalized, but that’s on the Times copyediting staff, if they still have one.)

Through a Copyeditor’s Eyes.

Jeff Reimer at the Bulwark has one of the best descriptions of my former occupation that I’ve come across, The World Through a Copyeditor’s Eyes:

In general, there are four types of editing in the book world. Developmental editing takes place at the level of the big picture and organizing concepts. In line editing, an attentive editor will help a writer to say what they mean in a voice that best expresses the spirit of their ideas. Copyediting, my own domain, involves cleaving to the precepts of one style guide or another while making precise adjustments to word choice, order, rhythm, and so forth. And proofreading is a safari hunt for any last remaining typos and solecisms.

Because of the apparent overlap between the work of copyediting and line editing, some people conflate them, but those with correct opinions see them as distinct. Developmental editing and line editing both take place early in a book’s development, and they are both messy and more involved. Copyediting and proofreading come into play nearer to the end: They are the finish carpentry of the publishing process. The house is already built; we copyeditors arrive when the tarp is still on the floor to make sure joints and seams are properly aligned, that corners are sharp, and that there are no devils hiding in the details. […]

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Stray Phytotoponyms.

Via Laudator Temporis Acti, a quote from Gustaf Sobin’s Ladder of Shadows: Reflecting on Medieval Vestige in Provence and Languedoc:

For just as the flora has left its ghostly imprint embedded in so much fossilized matter, so, too, its memory has been sprinkled across the surface of innumerable church cartularies, bullaria, monastic records; been buried within the archival wealth of countless wills and testaments, marriage contracts, notarized deeds; or, occasionally, been inscribed across the surface of cadastral survey maps, outlining the limits of given properties. Within such documents, a stray phytotoponym—an oblique reference, say, to some olive grove offered up as part of a medieval dowry—gives researchers, on occasion, an invaluable aperçu of the floral environment of a particular locale at a given historical moment.

Fagus sylvatica, or common beech, is a perfect example in point. For the expanse that that tree once occupied can still be measured today, either by the lingering presence of ancient place-names in current usage or by the detection of such names in medieval records. In toponymic form, the tree appears under a variety of synonyms: Fage, Fau, Fagette, Fageas, Fayard, and so on. In each and every case, these place-names testify to a vanished environment. Infallibly, they indicate the exact location of forests that—in retracting—have left nothing for memento but their own estranged vocables. Among the many eloquent examples cited by Aline Durand, one in particular—drawn from a medieval cartulary— refers to a certain Faja oscura located in the Causse du Larzac. Faja signifies the tree itself, with all the nutritive oils inherent in its woody fruit, whereas oscura evokes the darkness, and thus the density, of those once-flourishing beeches. Long since converted into pastureland, that arboreal stand endures in a lone microtoponym: Lou Fagals. Mnemonic marker, it designates little more than a tiny ramshackle hamlet in the commune of Les Rives (Hérault).

The word—along with its residual counterpart, the fossil—bears witness to those vanished landscapes. Properly interpreted, its seemingly inconsequential particles, buried in so much somnolent documentation, allow one a glimpse—at least—of that lost ecology. It’s as if the word, as a token of human consciousness, had withstood the retraction and ultimate disappearance of that dense sylvatic canopy—that Faja oscura—in order to preserve the wood’s very memory. Even more, it serves to preserve our very own. For in that retraction and ultimate disappearance, the interface between culture and nature—cultum and incultum—has vanished as well. Only the word, it would seem, has withstood that spoliation. Having done so, it reminds us of a time in which the woods—the earth itself—hadn’t yet been sacrificed, alas, for the sake of ourselves alone.

Of course it’s wildly overstated (“In each and every case,” “Infallibly,” “exact location”), but it describes something real, and I confess I like that sort of thing even if I’m not a tree-hugger.

Amorite-Akkadian Bilinguals!

Andrew George and Manfred Krebernik have an article in Revue d’assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale (116 [2022]:113–166), “Two Remarkable Vocabularies: Amorite-Akkadian Bilinguals!” Here’s the abstract:

This article presents two previously unpublished Old Babylonian tablets on which are inscribed similar bilingual vocabularies. The language in their right-hand columns is Old Babylonian Akkadian. The language in their left-hand columns is mostly North-West Semitic, with some admixture of Akkadian. Editions of the two tablets are accompanied by a commentary which finds parallels for this language in the grammar and vocabulary of other Semitic languages. Evaluation of the results of this enquiry lead to the conclusion that the language of the left-hand columns is a variety of Amorite. The main part of the article concludes with consideration of the two vocabularies’ content, composition and intellectual background. An appendix offers an edition of a Middle Babylonian synonym list related in part to Malku V. It contains a passage on domestic and wild animals which collects mainly North-West Semitic words for domestic and wild animals and probably provides several further items of Amorite vocabulary. Finally we add an index of the words in the Amorite columns of the two Old Babylonian vocabularies.

The article itself is paywalled, but there’s a popular summary at Haaretz, “Two 3,800-year-old Cuneiform Tablets Found in Iraq Give First Glimpse of Hebrew Precursor“:

The two tablets were found in Iraq during the Gulf War and were transferred (some would say stolen) from there to a safe place overseas. However, they subsequently got swallowed up among thousands of other documents and archeological findings from the field. Only recently, more than 30 years after their discovery, did they catch the eye of two researchers. “Andrew George of the University of London and Manfred Krebernik of Germany’s University of Jena are the Ronaldo and Messi of the archeology world,” says Wasserman, as a way of making his field of scholarship more relatable for the wider public. […]

Cohen transcribed the Amorite/Canaanite text from cuneiform into Hebrew letters and presented a modern Hebrew translation. The result speaks for itself. The line ti -nam me -e la – a – i -de -ni translates to ten mayim al yadenu (“Give water on our hands”); ia – a – a -nam si -qí-ni – a -ti becomes yeinam shiqiniti (“Pour us wine”); si – ḫa šu -ul – ḫ a -nam is have et hashulhan (“Fetch the table”); la – a ḫ -ma -am bi -lam na – a -NAM is have lehem eleinu (“Bring us bread”); and bi -ik -ra -ti -ia za -ba – a – ḫa a -na DI ĜIR -ia la -am – [ti] -in equals et zevah bikurai lo eten le’eli (“I will make a sacrifice to my god”).

Thanks, Y and Dmitry!