Glenny’s Leaking Spades.

Back in 2006 I had occasion to quote Simon Karlinsky’s “wonderfully splenetic blast at poor Michael Glenny, the translator”; now that I’m reading Dombrovsky’s Хранитель древностей (see this post), I’m occasionally checking Glenny’s 1968 translation, The Keeper of Antiquities, when I run into difficulties, but I quickly realized he wasn’t going to be much help. I can forgive him rendering Усуни ‘Wusun‘ as “Usuni” — there probably wasn’t an easy way to check on such things in 1968 — but not his leaving out entire chunks of text (a practice depressingly common among translators). This passage, on the other hand, gave me as much true pleasure as Isidor Schneider’s manglings of Gorky (see here, here, and here). The narrator has gone to his office in the museum where he works, the former cathedral of Alma Ata, and found the old carpenter, a notorious drunk, sitting there; he accuses him of smoking up the place:

– Нет, я сейчас много курить не могу, – ответил дед печально. – Сейчас у меня задышка и грудь ломит. Скажи, что это вот тут, под лопатками, колет? Вот тут, тут, смотри.
Дед опять похозяйничал, привел монтера Петьку и они дулись в козла. Деревянный ящичек с костями торчал из лошадиного черепа (Усуньское погребение), и я сразу его заметил, как только вошел. И пили они тут, конечно. […]
– […] Нет, ты вот скажи, отчего у меня задышка. Иногда будто ничего, а иногда так подопрет, вот тут, – он ткнул себя пальцем под лопатку, – ой-ой-ой!

Here’s my translation (and of course I welcome corrections);

“No, I can’t smoke much these days,” answered the old fellow sadly. “I can’t breathe, and there’s a pain in my chest. Tell me, what is it that’s hurting here, under my shoulders? Here, right here, take a look.”

Once again, the old man was acting like he owned the place, he’d brought the electrician Petya and they’d been playing dominoes. A little wooden box with tiles was sticking out from a horse’s skull (Wusun burial), and I had noticed it as soon as I came in. And of course they’d been drinking. […]

“[…] No, you tell me why I’m so short of breath. Sometimes it seems like nothing, but sometimes I can feel it really pressing, right here” — he poked his finger under his shoulder blade — “oy oy oy!”

And here’s Glenny’s:

“No, I can’t smoke much nowadays,” he replied sadly. “I have asthma and it’s bad for my chest. Say, what’s that leaking over there, under those spades? Look, over there.”

The old man had brought Petka the plumber with him and they had been blowing through the heating pipes. A little wooden box of bones was sticking out from inside a horse’s skull (Usuni burial), and I noticed as soon as I walked in that some liquid was dripping from it. They had been drinking, of course. […]

“[…] But I wish you could tell me why I get asthma. Sometimes it seems to go, then it comes back here,” and he tapped himself under the shoulder-blade.”

(I’ve omitted a funny passage where the narrator tells the old man the alcohol he’s been drinking had been used to preserve a rattlesnake.) Now, задышка isn’t “asthma,” but shortness of breath is a symptom of asthma, so fine, I won’t quibble. A монтер is not a plumber (it can mean a fitter or mechanic, but usually means an electrician), but never mind — what’s all that about leaking and “blowing through the heating pipes” and “some liquid was dripping from it”? There’s not a hint of any of that in the Russian. Glenny seems not to have understood колет (literally ‘[it] pricks,’ but used impersonally, as here, it refers to bodily pain), and he couldn’t make head nor tail of дулись в козла (colloquial for ‘played dominoes’), so in desperation he created this tale of dripping liquid leaking from the “spades” (he’s also mistaken the word for ‘shoulder-blade’). The odd thing is that the second time the word comes around, after only a few paragraphs, he renders it correctly (“he tapped himself under the shoulder-blade”). I can only shake my head and wonder how these guys keep getting work.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    While not absolutely foolproof, a good principle in translation is surely “if it doesn’t make sense, you’ve got it wrong.”

    wonder how these guys keep getting work

    The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

    In the Orwell translation:

    Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

    (I hold no brief for Orwell’s actual essay.)

    [It’s just occurred to me the the verse from Ecclesiastes would make a great motivational poster.]

  2. Your translation is fine.

    Of course, it’s not a poetry and every translation has its limits, but what makes the text especially funny is juxtapositions. The workingmen play “goat” (i.e. domino) in horse’s skull and they use “bones” (tiles) for that. It would be even funnier if the act of playing was described not as дулись (“were blowing themselves”, well, sorry — no sexual connotation in Russian — translating is difficult. The connection in Russian with playing a game would be worth an essay), but as забивали (probably, directly from some variant of “strike”, but as related to goats it means “slaughter” ).

  3. Yes, I enjoyed the goat/horse/bones thing too.

  4. Just to be clear, in English, dice can be called “bones” (c. f. Porgy and Bess), but not dominoes. I suppose you could introduce them as “bone dominoes” and refer to them as “bones” thereafter, but only if the tiled were literally made of bone, not so common an occurrence in modern times.

  5. Yes, I was sorry they hadn’t been playing at dice.

  6. John Cowan says

    Objective considerations

    Ivor Brown thought that Orwell’s ” success or failure in competitive activities” was insufficiently absurd, and proposed it be replaced by “optimum or inadequate performance in the trend of competitive activities, and it’s this version that I use as one of my email signatures.

    dice can be called “bones” (c. f. Porgy and Bess), but not dominoes

    “That turns out not to be the case”; see Green’s Dictionary, where most of the quotations are American, though the oldest one is English. A specific domino can be called the 3-4 bone, and the pool of dominoes on the table to draw from is the boneyard

  7. I stand corrected, Sir Kevin.

  8. The translator probably left notes and question-mark guesses (like, misunderstanding “playing dominoes” as literally “blowing” and the “mounter” as “plumber”, he might have scribbled something like, ” a plumber blowing? Pipe heating? Leaks?” meaning to investigate later if the pipes were frozen and a blow torch might have been involved etc. Then he came back to his notes again in a hurry, having forgotten it all, and strung together all the guesses as if they were footnotes into a semblance of a coherent text.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    “Bones” may in fact be used to mean “dominoes” in some (not all) varieties of English, but “boneyard” isn’t evidence of that. Consider e.g. the aviation use of “boneyard” to mean something like “site used for long-term storage of aircraft not currently in active use but that haven’t actually been scrapped either because they might be put back to active use in the future if circumstances change or because they may be in the future cannibalized for spare parts for still-operating aircraft of the same model.” (Right now the boneyards are getting fuller as dramatic reductions in demand for commercial air travel means many airlines are taking part of their fleets out of active service.) It just doesn’t follow that “bone” is idiomatic for “individual aircraft in such circumstances” much less “individual aircraft in active service.” If you use “boneyard” in your dominoes lexicon but *don’t* refer to individual dominoes as bones (which as best as I can recall was my lexical situation back when I played dominoes with any regularity), it’s perfectly easy to understand it as a metaphor for how a domino taken out of the “boneyard” comes back to life, as it were, and can then be used for active play.

  10. David Marjanović says


    Just Усунь, with the usual rendering of n as нь and ng as н. Усуни, as in the title of the Russian Wikipedia article, is the plural for members of the tribe.

    The English one, BTW, contains this gem of complete lack of editing:

    The Wusun are generally believed to have been an Indo-Aryan-speaking people.[48][49][50][51] They are thought to be Iranian-speaking by the archaeologist Elena Kuzmina,[52] linguist János Harmatta,[53] Joseph Kitagawa,[54] David Durand-Guédy,[55] Turkologist Peter B. Golden[56][57] and Central Asian scholar Denis Sinor.[21][58] That the Wusun were Iranian-speakers is supported by archaeological evidence.[59]

    The Russian one starts out by calling them “of Indo-Iranian [6 references] or Turkic [12 references] origin”.

    Then he came back to his notes again in a hurry, having forgotten it all, and strung together all the guesses as if they were footnotes into a semblance of a coherent text.

    That implies a really long pause.

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    The Green’s cite for “bones” meaning “dominoes” is right after it giving another slang sense of “bones” meaning “gambling chips” (with attestations of more than a century ago), which I have never myself heard. Obviously slang meanings can be limited to specific dialects or speech communities and/or they can be completely obsolete in all extant varieties of English but still worth documenting in a reference work.

  12. Just Усунь, with the usual rendering of n as нь and ng as н. Усуни, as in the title of the Russian Wikipedia article, is the plural for members of the tribe.

    Right, but Усуни was the form in the text, which is why I said he was rendering Усуни as “Usuni.”

  13. Vaguely remember that dominoes were called bones in Heart of Darkness, and sure enough, it’s right there on page 2: “The Accountant had brought out already a box of dominoes, and was toying architecturally with the bones.”

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    I wonder if Conrad might have been carrying over a Polish usage?

  15. The cathedral in Almaty is serving as a church again. I assume all those finds are now in the newly built museum of national history.

  16. Those that haven’t been mislaid or tossed over the years…

  17. Jen in Edinburgh says

    The OED’s first quote is from 1897 from something mysteriously called ‘Foster’s Complete Hoyle’, which turns out to be an encyclopedia of games.

    It used the word ‘dominoes’ more often, but also things like ‘Each player draws seven bones.

  18. That’s pretty convincing. Still, I wouldn’t dare use “bones” in the context of that translation; it would certainly be misunderstood by almost everyone.

  19. John Cowan says

    Dem bones, dem bones, dem spotted bones ….

  20. Jen in Edinburgh says

    And according to one of the quotes under ‘Hoyle’:
    It has been the custom to call books of rules on card and board games ‘Hoyles’, so that ‘according to Hoyle’ has come to mean ‘according to accepted rules’.

    So that makes a kind of sense – I thought it must be like one of those things where X’s book of some kind of law is now written by Y.

  21. SFReader says

    Actually it’s not clear to me that дулись в козла means playing dominoes.

    There is also a card game with such name and dut’sya is a slang for “playing cards”.

    Playing dominoes for me is associated with another slang expression – “zabivat’ kozla”.

  22. If it were cards he wouldn’t talk about the ящичек с костями.

  23. From Stacy Schiff’s biography of Véra Nabokov: “[1970] began with Vladimir reworking Michael Glenny’s version of Mary, […] to which he did not feel Glenny had done justice. (For his part, Glenny concluded the author to be “some kind of lexicomaniac”)” (p. 341)

    Btw, there is a sequel to Хранитель древностей, Факультет ненужных вещей (it’s in volume 6 of the Collected Works available online from ImWerden (the text at seems to be incomplete). It was first published in Paris in 1978.

  24. For his part, Glenny concluded the author to be “some kind of lexicomaniac”

    Imagine, an author caring about words! Thank god translators don’t have to do that!

    Oh, I have Факультет ненужных вещей (in the same beat-up ex-library volume, in fact) and will read it when I get to 1978.

  25. J.W. Brewer says

    I think it has at least been established that anyone translating this particular 20th century Russian text into English for an intended readership of late-Victorian Britons can probably get away with using “bones” to mean “dominoes.” English translations with different intended readerships should perhaps be more cautious.

  26. Crawdad Tom says

    When I learned to play dominoes long ago, the term “bones” was noted as a variant based on the fact that some sets of dominoes had formerly been made of ivory–and many are still made of imitation ivory plastic or resin or some such. Thus I never thought of the boneyard in the J.W. Brewer sense, though it fits, too.

  27. I got to a later point in the novel where “наш электрик Петька” is referred to, and this time Glenny calls him an electrician. I guess he thought the guy was a jack of all trades.

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