I’ve quoted John Derbyshire a number of times; here‘s a nice piece he wrote about his experience having one of his books translated by Alexei Semikhatov, an unusually scrupulous, thoughtful, and literate man. Derbyshire asked “an erudite Russian friend” to explain to him one of Semikhatov’s Russian footnotes, which turned out to mean:

NOTE. The Russian language as spoken by educated people at the beginning of the 20th century clearly demonstrated the same effect, using tretievo dnia, “the third day,” to indicate the day before yesterday. Nowadays this term has been almost completely supplanted by the word pozavchera, “day before yesterday.” The word pozavchera was formerly considered as belonging to the speech of the common people.

The erudite friend added “I have probably heard this expression tretievo dnia, but never used it myself. I always use pozavchera. In my opinion, this shows that your translator loves the Russian language.” What better tribute could a translator ask?

Also, I very much like this passage near the end:

These kinds of encounters are common enough in the literary life. I am always heartened by them. The nations of the world are great lumbering behemoths ridden and directed, more often than not, by gangsters, poseurs, or buffoons. Nestled in their coarse hides, though, are parasites like myself and Aliosha, not much bothered by great matters of state or the antics of vapid “celebrities,” but endlessly fascinated by language, history, mathematics, music. We must be baffling to the gangsters and buffoons, as baffling as they are to us. Sometimes the rougher kind of rider will, with a flick of his crop, flatten a few of us.

Such is my view of life as well. (Thanks for the link, John!)


  1. Electric Dragon says

    And here is John Derbyshire himself singing the Riemann song referred to:

  2. Digressing a bit, may I plug a Swiss film I saw yesterday – The Woman with the Five Elephants, about Swetlana Geier, originally from Ukraine (born 1923), who has translated Dostojevsky (the 5 elephants are the novels) into German?
    There is a trailer in English and the film has certainly been shown in the UK with English subtitles.

  3. Of course you may. How did you like it?

  4. Funny, where I grew up “tretievo dni” definitely belonged to the speech of the common people.

  5. And where was that?

  6. I was particularly charmed by the folk song about the Riemann hypothesis. I wonder whether the Russian version is equally charming?
    (There is also an anonymous ballad about simple groups to the same tune: this seems to be the online version with the fewest errors, but there are still plenty.)

  7. If you’ve got JSTOR access, it’s in there, with extra verses and music, too. I’m not clear from the Saunders Mac Lane interview whether he’s claiming authorship or just remembering it.

  8. (To the Simple Group song, that is. In the same thought he recalls the Riemann song and says he learned it from some analysts at UCLA.)

  9. Oh, and the translation is apparently out since the New Criterion piece.

  10. MM, thanks for the trailer link for the film on Geier. It’s good to know it’s going to be released in movie theaters. I caught the last part of it on German TV recently, and enthused about Geier on this site – both her work and the woman herself.
    Let me briefly mention something before getting back to Geier and Dostoyevsky. For each book I read I note on the title page the date on which I finished it. Each time I reread a book, I add the new date. I’ve been doing this for decades now. The dates are like fuzzy travel photographs in which I can just barely make out signposts in the background. They help me to reconstruct other things I encountered at those times and locations.
    I’ve just reread Geier’s Aufzeichnungen aus dem Kellerloch in the little Reclam edition, the first time being in 2005. To my astonishment, I find that I might just as well have not read it at all, since so many things appear to have gone right past me. Using my IT resumé as another signpost for what I was doing in 2005, I discover nothing that could explain this lapse. The only explanation I can think of is that what I have read since then – Geier’s Die Brüder Karamasow and Böse Geister, Sloterdijk, Luhmann, Bachelard, Atlan, Morin – has sharpened my focus.

  11. For each book I read I note on the title page the date on which I finished it. Each time I reread a book, I add the new date.
    That’s a great idea; I wish I’d thought of it.

  12. You will, Hat, you will …
    I wonder how many people deliberately reread books, and which ones, and why ?

  13. Someone “deliberately rereads” a book because they want to – not just because it’s the only English-language one in the hospital library

  14. I have a book of Rupert Brooke poems published in 1915. I bought the book in 1965 (in a book stall in Chapultepec Park in Mex. City). On the title page the owner had that time wrote his name, Frederick Alexander, and the date he bought the book. Then I found on reading the book a note written over the poem “Finding” under which Mr. Alexander had written, “I read this poem over again on Aug. 28, 1916.” That note caused me to start reading the same poem over every Aug. 28th and noting it on that same page–I’ve now got 43 entries of having read that poem every year now for the past 43 years–and in a month, I’ll add the 44th entry.
    I, too, admire a man like John Derbyshire–my only problem with ignoring the gangsters and buffoons (politics, economics, warfare, etc.) is that it leaves me feeling vulnerable to who knows what machinations they’re up to–the possibility of one day perhaps being shipped off to a concentration camp when the Fascists reveal themselves as having taken over say the USA–you know, these despots hate intellectuals. And I know what you mean–I too am always leaning toward anarchy, but the buffoons (actually Mass Man–the man of common speech) must be watched by somebody and ridiculed by good writers with great wit–I mean, these buffoons can rewrite history, even retranslate our literature–because like Ortega y Gasset wrote back in the early 1930s, these people have changed reasoning–reasoning should lead to peace–if not, then exasperated reasoning leaves us open to violence (direct action)–Mass Man, however, has inverted this concept and starts off with Direct Action (violence) and then starts reasoning…it’s too complicated to ignore–though, like I say, and L Hat you know this, too, I lean heavily toward anarchy (I’ve been dubbed a far-left-wing Libertarian)–and love reading the Russkies, especially Dostoyevsky (in the mouse hole–and aren’t we all).
    Also, as an aside, I once had one of my short stories bought by a Danish magazine. The Danish translator wrote me and said he was sorry he couldn’t translate “horseshit” into Danish so he was leaving it in English in parens–and that’s how it was published. I never thought about it until this LH post. Is there no horseshit in Denmark?
    ur fiend

  15. I love the idea of dating books when reading (or rereading them). Never thought of that, either! And I love thegrowlingwolf’s tradition of rereading the poem every year. I like it when objects or traditions continue living with new owners.

  16. Hey, m.a.b. is back ! But you don’t say what your traditions might be, mab. I’m sure everybody has at least read certain books that they like seeing on the shelf when they pass by.

  17. I’m a bit surprised that the practice is apparently not that widespread (size of statistical sample: 3). But I can guess one reason why that might be so. Most people don’t feel it’s right to write in books, even their own ones – as if there were something sophomore-year-in-college about it, or as if public buildings were being defiled. I remember that feeling held me back when I was in my twenties. I used a light pencil at the start, but now all my books are so timestamped and bristling with comments that I could never sell them. As if I would ever want to !

  18. marie-lucie says

    I rarely buy a book unless I think that I will want to reread it, sometimes right away, sometimes in a few years, when I will only have a vague recollection and will enjoy rediscovering the details.

  19. marie-lucie, does that apply primarily to works on linguistics ? Don’t you sometimes buy novels ?

  20. marie-lucie says

    Grumbly, I don’t mean professional books which I need (or think I need) to have around to consult, but those for my own personal pleasure and entertainment.

  21. Is there no horseshit in Denmark?
    Sili would know, but in Norwegian it’s hestemørk. Dritt would be an equivalent expression (= shit, in the sense of “rubbish”). Probably the same in dansk, except that you slur the words and leave out alternate syllables.

  22. But I can guess one reason why that might be so. Most people don’t feel it’s right to write in books, even their own ones – as if there were something sophomore-year-in-college about it, or as if public buildings were being defiled.
    That’s certainly not the case with me (and I doubt it’s the case generally); I have no problem writing my name and the month and year of purchase on the half-title page (which I did religiously until I started cataloging my books on LibraryThing, where I can always find out when they were bought). I just didn’t write the date when I finished reading it, information I never realized until now it might be nice to have.
    I rarely buy a book unless I think that I will want to reread it.
    Same here. I agree with… was it Nabokov?… who said that you can’t be said to have read a book until you’ve read it at least twice.

  23. The same goes for music and movies, mutatis mutandis.

  24. Hat: I liked the film a lot, or would not mention it! Curses, I missed i on TV. It was very respectful of the translator’s privacy, but showed glimpses of her in her kitchen, with her family, and as you see in the trailer, with a musician who reads her texts back to her, very critical on punctuation – she actually dictates the translation to another white-haired woman, with a typewriter with cloth ribbon, who seems to hang over her typewriter like a hawk waiting for something to happen. At the age of 85, Geier goes back to Kiev, which she has not seen since she was 20. I would have liked even more about translation and language, but her life had to be shown in detail too and I think because her son died while the film was being made, there was probably less opportunity to film her translating.

  25. I have no problem writing my name and the month and year of purchase on the half-title page (which I did religiously until I started cataloging my books on LibraryThing …
    Hmm. It has never occurred to me to note down the date of purchase. What I buy is just a bundle of paper, so I don’t care when I bought it. It becomes a book only when I have read it – think radical constructivism. The only exceptions are dictionaries and other reference works. I tend to have paper-buying phases, followed by reading phases, so all the more reason to record when books were born, rather than when they were conceived.
    I rarely buy a book unless I think that I will want to reread it.
    marie-lucie, I can’t imagine how one could judge or guess that a book might be worth rereading, before one has read it. Unless it’s a book reputed to be inexhaustible, such as the Bible, or not intended to be finished, such as a 17-volume reference work.

  26. Really? You couldn’t guess that, say, Proust might be more worth rereading than a thriller intended for beach reading?

  27. Well, Proust would be an example of something reputed to be inexhaustible. I myself don’t pay that much attention to reputation when it comes to buying and reading. What I hear about a book “out of the blue” at most causes me to look into it. The decision to buy or not is based on my actual perusal.
    Usually I follow the smell of herring from one book to the next, through the footnotes and bibliography. I don’t really collect books, they just drift up and stick to me like lengths of seaweed.
    When I last moved, I discarded two large heaps of paper entitled À la recherche du temps perdu and Auf der Suche nach der verlorenen Zeit.

  28. The Bündel I had inherited, the liasse had been unloaded on me by someone else.

  29. Well let me know next time you’re moving.

  30. I remember the exact moment when I threw off the incubus (yes, incubus) of Famous Books You Must Read At Least Once. It was when I by chance read the Frankfurter Poetik-Vorlesungen of Walter Jens (I think it was), in which he praises Jurek Becker. Then I read Jakob der Lügner and several more of Becker’s novels. That was the start of the herring-trail.

  31. Yes, I don’t believe in Famous Books You Must Read At Least Once to the extent of forcing myself to read them; on the other hand, I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt to the extent of buying a cheap used copy if I run across one with the idea that I might give it a try someday.

  32. cheap used copy
    Now you’re talking. I presented myself above as having aims more rarefied and superior than mine really are in practice. Cheap copies even of Famous Books have found their way into my rucksack. As you say, might as well give them a chance.

  33. I rarely buy a book unless I think I might want to read it some time and can’t remember having already bought it.
    Except for a few very weird books I’ve gotten as curios.

  34. marie-lucie says

    buy a cheap used copy
    Sometimes I do that, like LH and Grumbly, to give the book a chance..
    How do I know if I will want to read a book? – I don’t buy it if it is enclosed in plastic with no means of looking inside(, and there is no open copy to look at. I browse through the book – unless it is a detective novel by a favourite author, in which case I trust the author and don’t want to spoil the surprise, so I just check the blurb rapidly to make sure that it is not a story I have read before, reissued under a different title (an infuriating custom).

  35. I always buy cheap used copies if available.

  36. marie-lucie says

    It depends how “used” the copy is, and what the book is. But actually I rarely buy brand-new books. I frequent used bookstores, both in person and online.

  37. LGrumbly Stu: As far as I can tell, the film about Swetland Geier has not been on TV yet but will be shown on 3SAT in November. For those in Germany, there is a more informative trailer on the ZDF website – I doubt this can be seen abroad.

  38. Having now watched the trailer through to the end, I find that it is not the documentary I saw part of on German TV recently. It was on one of those arts programs (I can’t remember the channels and the program names, and I never try to – most good things turn up in good time on other channels in other programs).

  39. bruessel says

    ” … there is a more informative trailer on the ZDF website – I doubt this can be seen abroad.”
    As a matter of fact, the ZDF Mediathek is very good and can certainly be seen in Belgium – I have seen whole episodes of SOKO Leipzig and the like when I forgot to record them. Not at all like the BBC that hides even its trailers from us foreigners.

  40. And where was that?

    White Sea coast, Onega region.

  41. Ah, so a northern usage. Interesting; thanks!

  42. I thought it was odd that Dr. Semikhatov considered it an error to call Ernst Johann von Biron “German.” Maybe it’s confusing to modern readers, but von Biron (aka von Buehren) certainly considered himself German, and would probably have been deeply insulted to be called “Latvian.” In the 18th century those were simply ethnic designations, since neither a state called “Germany” nor a state called “Latvia” existed. John should have stood his ground on that one.

  43. Yes, I forgot to mention that; I completely agree with you. It would be ludicrous to call Biron “Latvian.”

  44. Ah, so a northern usage. Interesting; thanks!

    I doubt it’s specifically northern – Dahl dictionary doesn’t give any regional annotations. It also gives a number of phonetic variations, which hints at wide distribution.

  45. Grumbly, I read Speak, Memory every summer. I have no idea why I only reread it during the summer, but there you have it. When I was a child I read The Secret Garden every time I got sick. Every once in awhile I reread all of Jane Austin. I’ve gone on Bronte rereading jags. (These are winter books.) Sometimes I reread Chekhov (various seasons). Right now I’m in the mood to reread Turgenev, although Oblomov might be better (we’ve now broken every record for heat and the peat bogs are burning around Moscow, so the fields are covered with smoke; lying in bed and having a servant bring you tea — or rather reading about lying in bed and having a servant bring you tea — seems very appealing right now).

  46. I was disappointed with “Oblomov”. Goncharov failed to recognize Oblomov’s awesomeness.

  47. Well, he was torn. I think he did recognize Oblomov’s awesomeness, but the civic-minded part of him felt the need to demonstrate the superiority of his friend Stoltz. But let’s face it, all the civic-minded characters lead miserable, driven lives, whereas Oblomov lives and dies exactly as he chooses.

  48. Goncharov’s esteem at least sufficed to write a book about him. But I suspect you’re telling us more about yourself here, Mr. John O. Emerson.

  49. How curious. I’ve always thought Goncharov loved Oblomov deeply (it was all the critics who said we should despise him). Stoltz gave him a headache.

  50. Stolz is definitely a headache, and a pain in the ass.

  51. I used to joke that Yeltsin was Oblomov and Putin was Stoltz. But the analogy isn’t that good, and besides, it’s not really very funny.

  52. Oblomov, Bartleby, and Kafka’s hunger artist are my heroes.

  53. Then you should read Marian Schwartz’s translation of Oblomov.

  54. When I buy a book in person, I read it while walking home. When I buy one on-line, I drop as much as I can after it arrives while I read it. I also reread a lot.

  55. I finish very few books, but I reread frequently.
    Most of what I read is poetry (the genre for the short attention span), and often I will pick up the same book I’ve picked up many times, dipping my beak into a spot where it hasn’t been before.

  56. Oblomov was the first literary character I had empathized with (or so I remember). I nearly wept over his fiasco with Olga and his life with the bare-elbowed wife. Oblomov was both sensitive and decent, while most sensitive people are cruel egocentrics.

  57. I ordered Schwartz’s Oblomov, without procrastinating for more than 2-3 days.

  58. ChristopheS says

    Increasing the “statistical sample” of people who write dates in books:
    * date and place of purchase: basically since I started buying books;
    * date when I finished reading a book: last two years (but maybe not systematically, and since a lot of time can pass between date of purchase and the day I start reading, I should also add the start date, FWIW)
    You could put this on SurveyMonkey to get more data 😉

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