This Nation review by Lee Siegel of Chekhov’s The Complete Short Novels, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, expresses concisely why I like Chekhov so well:

Zhizn zhizn” goes a Russian saying: Life is life. Experience ultimately defeats the most elevated attempts to make sense of it. Art, science, ideas (not to mention debates over realism versus modernism), all go down before the onslaught of time and sensation. An unmediated clarity—the illusion of actual experience unfolding through actual time—characterizes Chekhov’s fiction, and also his plays, which revolutionized the theater in the way they stripped the stage of theatricality. Indeed, when the people in Chekhov’s plays dream of transforming themselves through devotion to a plan for the betterment of humankind, or through love or travel, they are yearning for the type of dramatic twist that you find in a well-constructed plot. In Chekhov’s plays, the promise and salvation of the theater are always waiting, unattainably, just offstage. The honest core of Chekhov’s art is the acknowledgment that even art is helpless in the face of life.

I just wish Siegel had expanded on the statement that the collection is “sometimes maladroitly translated.”

Incidentally, I was very happy to run across this page (from J.M. Martinez‘s Waxwing site) on the Nabokov resonances in Siegel’s novel Love in a Dead Language, including its references to the Zemblan language:

“My heart lubdubbed itself into a gyroscopic spin. Oh, her use of the precious present participle, ‘fucking,’ from the Indo-European peik, cognate with the Latin pungere, related to the Germanic ficken, purloined from the Middle Dutch fokken, associated with the Zemblan fogun, universalized in the Esperanto fuga.”

“The Kamasutra was translated into Zemblan verse by the poet Romulus Armor (1914-58), who had retired to an ashram in Rishikesh during World War II. He also translated the Bhagavadgita from Sanskrit (1943), as well as Ovid’s Ars amatoria from Latin (1925). The graphic images on screen five represent one of the semantic curiosities and wonders of Zemblan. When a woman says ‘I love you’ in that language, the mouth replicates the actions of the vagina in orgasm from the excitement phase (I/jo) through the plateau phase (love/leva) to the resolution phase (you/zua); so too, when a man says ‘I love you’ in Zemblan, his tongue imitates the movement of the penis from flaccid (I/ya [should this be ja? -LH) to the erect stage (love/lev) and back down again (you/vi). The breath is different too. This is in part a result of the fact that, in Zemblan, all personal pronouns (not simply the third-person singular as in English, nor only the third-person singular and plural ones as in French and Sanskrit) are gendered. The word for ‘I’ or ‘me’ is different for a man than for a woman; so too the gender of ‘you’ is always indicated, whether male, female, or both. Zemblan is an intensely carnal language, giving verbal expression to anatomical, physiological, and glandular activity. It is ejaculatory parlance. To say ‘I love you’ is to make love. To hold those words back, restraining premature articulation, intensifies the final release. In Zembla, being unable to speak of love is considered a kind of linguistic impotence or frigidity. ‘I (jo/ja)’ brings a drop of mucous to the lips; ‘you (zua/vi)’ causes contractions of the larynx; and ‘love (leva/lev)’ requires a high level of cortical activity. Zemblan, like many Sanskritic languages, is well suited to charades, hence Roth’s interest. The great Conmal termed Zemblan ‘the forked tongue of tongues.'”

Some Asian languages (eg, Japanese and Thai) have gender-specific first-person pronouns; does anybody know of other languages with this feature?


  1. John Emerson says

    A friend of mine who dabbled in heieroglyphics told me that some of the ideographs relatable to sexual things are quite graphic. Unfortunately I forget the specifics.
    That’s not really true of Chinese, though there are ways of putting obscene interpretations on some of them as a sort of party game.
    I have also seen obscene characters not in normal use and not found in dictionaries. Cantonese are reputed to do a lot of this kind of things.

  2. And still, what does zhizn zhizn mean? Sounds like a beginner student of Russian tried to translate “life is life” and, keeping in mind that “is” normally has to disappear, arrived at this nonsensical “saying.”

  3. Yeah, I wondered about that too.

  4. I’m certainly no fluent Russian speaker, but couldn’t it be “zhizn, zhizn” — with a comma? Oh, life, life. . .
    Anyway, there seems to be a poem with that title, which I can only read slowly and with great difficulty.

  5. I love that poem — no wonder the phrase sounded familiar!
    …Бессмертны все. Бессмертно все. Не надо
    Бояться смерти ни в семнадцать лет,
    Ни в семьдесят. Есть только явь и свет,
    Ни тьмы, ни смерти нет на этом свете.
    Мы все уже на берегу морском,
    И я из тех, кто выбирает сети,
    Когда идет бессмертье косяком.
    (I mentioned Arsenii Tarkovsky in a post about his son the film director.) Do you suppose Siegel might have run across it and mistaken the title for a “Russian saying”?

  6. I cannot think of any common hieroglyphs that are particularly graphic. A penis (horizontal shaft with some testes at the end) means male as a determinative or mt as a sound. A penis with fluid means penis or things having to do with it. Testicles (upside-down heart with a neck) means testicles. A breast (sideways D with a nipple) means breast or nurse. The sign for vulva is a pelvis so stylized that it is often confused with that for well, from which it differs only by the slit at the bottom. The god Min is ithyphallic and his sign is a standing god with a horizontal stroke. The ordinary word for have intercourse is nk, spelled water basket like you’d expect with the leaking penis determinative; not much going on there, either.
    Maybe in the Old Kingdom, before writing was so standardized.

  7. The “Waxwing” link is a great find. Bravo!
    Now I have to read Love in a Dead Language.

  8. “…sometimes maladroitly translated.”
    On Pevear and Volokhonsky’s imperfections, see this review by Gary Saul Morson of their version of Gogol:

    But Gogol’s most Gogolian punishment, something his paltry demons might have conjured up, has been his translators, who have almost always been pedantic and humorless. And what is the point of reading humorless comedy? Gogol’s idiosyncratic play with language, his sense of the funniest possible word, the rhythms of his absurd syntax—the reasons Nabokov considered him Russia’s greatest writer—are replaced by prose “as flat as a pancake.” There are a few exceptions, notably Milton Ehre’s rendition of the plays and, especially, the Dead Souls rendered by Bernard Guerney, which Nabokov lauded and which was recently made even better by Susanne Fusso. By contrast, the new version of the tales translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky is bedeviled by an almost perfect sense of the least apt choice. Anyone who knows Gogol will only be able to “gasp and spit” at their tin ear. This is all the stranger since Pevear claims in his introduction to be an admirer of Gogol’s linguistic legerdemain. If you want to know what Gogol doesn’t sound like, pick up this version and hold your nose.

    Also, he’s written a book called And Quiet Flows the Vodka, or: When Pushkin Comes to Shove, which sounds amusing.

  9. Incidently, does anyone know whether the language spoken in Bend Sinister is the same as Zemblan or not?

  10. To avoid lengthy explanation why their translation is flat, consider comparing example used by reviewer for his summary, and the original:
    Chekhov, Steppe:
    …- Ну, как доехал, puer bone? (4) – засыпал его о. Христофор вопросами,
    наливая ему чаю и, по обыкновению, лучезарно улыбаясь. – Небось надоело? И
    не дай бог на обозе или на волах ехать! Едешь, едешь, прости господи,
    взглянешь вперед, а степь всё такая ж протяженно-сложенная, как и была:
    конца краю не видать! Не езда, а чистое поношение…
    …Well, how was the journey puer bone [my good boy]?… Sick of it, I suppose…. You go on and on, Lord forgive me, you look ahead, and the steppe still stretches out as continuously as before: there’s no end of it to be seen! That’s not traveling, it’s sheer punishment…
    In other words, all color of Chekhov’s character and nuance of meaning are gone.
    Although I more or less agree with reviewer on his asessment of Chekhov’s prose, i have to say about the one part of review itself that Siegel’s misunderstanding of “Three years” is astonishing. (Btw, he calls it “one of the lesser-known”. Lesser-known? By whom and where? On the contrary, it’s one of the MOST praised stories. But may be what author means in comparison to Steppe, which is a subject of mandatory study in elementary school? than yes, Three years would not be appreciated by 4-grader.)
    Siegel’ summary of the story and conclusions he draws from it sound at least like he only read it half-way. Or is it, too, translators’ fault?

  11. “zhizn zhizn” — never heard this saying. :confused:

  12. PF:
    Incidently, does anyone know whether the language spoken in Bend Sinister is the same as Zemblan or not?
    Formally, no. However, I think the language in Bend Sinister is characterized (by Nabokov himself in the preface? — It’s been a while since I’ve read it) as “Kuraninan” — that is, a mix of Kurlandian and Ukrainian. Zemblan language and culture is also an amalgamation of Slavic and Norse elements.
    There are other parallels too, of course: ekwilist = extremist etc.

  13. Checking the preface somehow never occurred to me; reading it, I find:

    The language of the country, as spoken in Padukgrad and Omigod, as well as in the Kur valley, the Sakra mountains and the region of Lake Malheur, is a mongrel blend of Slavic and Germanic with a strong strain of ancient Kuranian running through it (and especially prominent in expressions of woe); but colloquial Russian and German are also used by representatives of all groups, from the vulgar Ekqilist soldier to the discriminating intellectual. Ember, for instance, in Chapter Seven, gives his friend a sample of the three first lines of Hamlet’s soliloquy (Act III, Scene I) translated into the vernacular (with a pseudo-scholarly interpretation of the first phrase taken to refer to the contemplated killing of Claudius, i.e., “is the murder to be or not to be?”). He follows this up with a Russian version of part of the Queen’s speech in Act IV, Scene VII (also not without a built-in scholium) and a splendid Russian rendering of the prose passage in Act III, Scene II, beginning, “Would not this, Sir, and a forest of feathers…”

    Quickly looking through, I can’t seem to find much besides scattered words in “the language of the country”; mostly it’s English with occasional sentences in Russian or French. My impression upon reading it this summer had been, for some reason, that they spoke something uncommonly like Zemblan there, but it seems I’m wrong.

  14. Map: I’m pretty sure it’s Siegel who’s confused.

  15. zhizn zhizn
    For what it’s worth, there is a (more or less) stable Russian expression zhizn yest’ zhizn — “life is life”. Its meaning, however, runs more along the lines of resignation, of “whatchagonnado”.

  16. Quickly looking through, I can’t seem to find much besides scattered words in “the language of the country”
    I seem to remember the title of Krug’s dissertation being written in that language in one of the early chapters.

  17. I just wish Siegel had expanded on the statement that the collection is “sometimes maladroitly translated.”
    And I, four years later, wish he had expanded on: “debates over realism versus modernism…all go down before the onslaught of time and sensation.” I saw the Seagull this past Saturday (the production with Kristin Scott Thomas everyone has been raving about), and since then I’ve been surprised that none of the reviews mentions the play’s prescience and clear position re that debate (the position being, obviously, that the whole debate is beside the point.) As far as I’m concerned, The Seagull should serve as a peremptory snort to all critics even contemplating, a hundred years later, wringing their hands about “forms.”
    For anyone who doesn’t remember, it starts with Konstantin, a young writer, attacking cliches in theatre, before introducing his own “new form” — sort of a Beckett play written by an average writer: “All men and beasts, lions, eagles, and quails, horned stags, geese, spiders, silent fish that inhabit the waves, starfish from the sea, and creatures invisible to the eye–in one word, life–all, all life, completing the dreary round imposed upon it, has died out at last.” (I pulled that off some website — the new performance actually makes the lines sillier, something about “micro-organisms,” I think.) Then, as if that isn’t self-conscious and self-referential (i.e., modern) enough, one of the characters disdainfully calls the eponymous seagull a symbol. The whole plot, as a matter of fact, is purposefully woven out of pure cliches: love triangle, jilted actress.
    The thing is, though, it all works. The cliched plot is compelling; the seagull, in spite of its stated obviousness, is moving and meaningful. Chekhov even has Nina repeat the same nonsensical lines from the earlier play-within-a-play in a moment so poignant the words take on enough significance to move you to tears. The whole play, in this sense, is a brilliant performance working to prove something Chekhov goes so far as to have Konstantin say explicitly: “The conviction is gradually forcing itself upon me that good literature is not a question of forms new or old, but of ideas that must pour freely from the author’s heart, without his bothering his head about any forms whatsoever.”
    Now maybe I’m just keying in on one aspect relevant to a subject that’s been on my mind lately, but to me it does seem important to the play, and you’d think — when you’ve got Zadie Smith writing 9,000 words about THE STATE OF REALISM in the most important literary journal in the country ( — that some critic would notice it. There. That’s what I think, anyway.

  18. As Zachary suggest above, жизнь, жизнь isn’t really a saying as such, but a not so rare figure of speech used in a roughly similar way as ‘that’s life’ in English, often in a sad context and with the interjection of disappointment эх – ah. It’s in this sense that Tarkovsky uses it, I think.
    More common is такова жизнь – that’s life, which is a calque of French c’est la vie (селяви in Russian), with a wider emotional field not necessarily sad.
    Stylistically, жизнь, жизнь are often together but used as a repetition opening an attributive clause ‘life, life that was such and such’ as in this example from Kazakevich:
    Начинается сравнительно тихая жизнь, мокрая жизнь, жизнь липкая, дрянная, земляная, но всё-таки жизнь. – There begins a relatively quiet life, life that is wet, life that is sticky, rotten, and earthy, but still life.

  19. Just found “Эх, жизнь, жизнь!” in Ostrovsky’s Не в свои сани не садись.

  20. And I just found “Да, жизнь, жизнь!” in Aitmatov’s И дольше века длится день…

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