I am deeply grateful to the blogger at Particularly in Burma for first reposting the wonderful anecdote recounted by slawkenbergius in this contentious thread (“my uncle, who lives in Israel, sent me this great story…”) and then, in today’s post, translating it from Russian, saving me the trouble. So instead of producing and posting my own translation of a hilarious story that gave me a much-needed laugh that day, I can just send you there, adding only that getting the joke depends on awareness of the beginning of Pushkin’s Ruslan i Lyudmila: ‘By a sea-cove [stands] a green oak,/ on that oak a golden chain,/ and day and night a learned tomcat/ walks on the chain around [the oak]. If he walks to the right, he starts singing a song; if to the left, he tells a fairytale.’ These are some of the most famous lines in Russian poetry, and any Russian with more than a minimal education knows them by heart.

While I’m at it, let me highly recommend to readers who know Russian the latest post at Anatoly’s blog, in which he asked readers to describe their experiences with Soviet elections. I’ve read all three pages of the thread, and it’s a fascinating look at one aspect of Soviet life. Everyone remembers the holiday atmosphere and the spread of hard-to-find items (sausages, books, etc.) offered as inducements for voting (i.e., dropping the ballot into the urn—there was, of course, no choice of candidates); opinions differ on how widespread failure to vote was and what the consequences were (apparently none in the last years of the USSR, but older people remembered the harsher conditions of Stalin’s day). I particularly recommend this lively comment by drakosha_ru about what voting was like in a small town in 1958.


  1. To set the Khatul Madan record straight, this beautiful retelling of a well-known story originates here: And while I’m at it, the blog’s author is an amazing contemporary Russian writer (as well as a child psychologist), which you can easily find proof of in her blog.

  2. Thanks! Here‘s the direct link.

  3. Stihistihi says

    “By a sea-cove [stands] a green oak,/ on that oak a golden chain,/ and day and night a learned tomcat/ walks on the chain around [the oak]. If he walks to the right, he starts singing a song; if to the left, he tells a fairytale.”
    Russia, I am not impressed.

  4. Me, I would have said “Russia, I’m sorry I don’t know your language so I could appreciate the incredible beauty and subtlety of your great poetry.” But if you think lyric poetry can be judged by literal translation, I can’t stop you.

  5. have you renamed your cat yet, Hat?

  6. oh, and I found a clip with the famous Russian stand-up comedian Mikhail Zadornov performing the story at the appropriately named show ‘Through reason, not make sense of Russia’ (Умом Россию не понять). (The link above is to my blog with the video, youtube direct link is here.)

  7. about the learned cat ‘Prologue’
    translators seem to be struggling particulary with this line:
    Там русский дух, там Русью пахнет!
    There is the Russian spirit,
    it smells of Russia there!
    I’ve seen a version with ‘odour’ and another one with ‘scent’.

  8. Your links have gotten lost. If you’ll tell me what they were, I’ll add them to your comment.

  9. The so-called literal translation above is a bad joke. We’re dealing with a poem, not an exercise in imitating Russian grammar and vocabulary in English. Only a minimal effort is required to get something poem-like, that scans a little. Note I am not claiming to have a good version, since I have no Russian. But the following is at least not an execrable thumpy-dump sequence of words and pedantic parenthesis as in the “literal translation”:
    By the sea a green oak stands,
    Encircled by a golden chain
    To which a learnèd cat is tied
    That stalks around it night and day.
    Going right it sings a song,
    Going left a fairytale.

  10. The so-called literal translation above is a bad joke.
    It’s mine, and it’s not a “bad joke,” it’s a literal translation that doesn’t pretend to be anything more. My aim was simply to convey what the Russian words said, which is what is needed to understand the joke. God knows how long I’d have to spend to do a “real” translation, and knowing in advance that it wouldn’t begin to satisfy me, I don’t have much incentive. Try translating “Kubla Khan” into some other language and see what you get.

  11. I understood Hat’s translation just fine. I don’t see anything wrong with it. Above all, it didn’t waste my time. Although it might not drill down to layers of meanings like his Mendalstahm translations, this one has clarity, the same kind of clarity that Slawk’s Russian translations have, in that you get an immediate mental image unencumbered by the translator’s psychological baggage or need to impress (if he has any). It scans well and preserves a meter–I can’t comment on whether it’s the same as the original Russian meter–so it’s easy to read out loud. Writing something simple is much more difficult than writing something complex, and perhaps requires a special gift.
    I rather like the imagery too. The poem evokes a scene in the same way as By the shores of Gitche Gumee/ By the shining Big-Sea-Water/ Stood the wigwam of Nokomis/ Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis, but the way the three ordinary elements–tree, gold chain, cat–are behaving is out of the ordinary and you know when you enter the pages, you are entering a magical world that does not work in the same way the known world works.
    The one confusing thing (from the linked translation of the joke) is “a grub, hanged on a tree”. It must be some sort of mistaken translation of cat.
    All in all, it’s more imaginative way to begin a story than “once upon a time”. There is a charming way of starting a fairytale in Arabic: kan, ma kan, كان ما كان “there was, there wasn’t” that emphasizes the fictional, but yet true-on-a-deeper-level nature of myths and storytelling.

  12. a grub, hanged on a tree
    grub = kozyavka (little thing, creepy-crawly, also snot) – refers to the picture, awkwardly drawn by the boy conscript and in the original text adds to why the psychologist couldn’t see the cat in picture.
    It also reminded me of Nabokov’s translation of Alice in Wonderland – he must have been thinking about Pushkin’s Khatul when he was doing the Cheshire cat scenes.

  13. For walking cats who tell stories, there is also Puss in Boots.

  14. There is a charming way of starting a fairytale in Arabic: kan, ma kan, كان ما كان “there was, there wasn’t”
    This is not just Arabic, it’s standard throughout the region (like the proverb “the dog barks but the caravan moves on”). It’s used, for instance, in Georgian as well.

  15. (I mean, obviously, the idea “there was, there wasn’t,” not the Arabic form.)

  16. It’s mine, and it’s not a “bad joke,” it’s a literal translation that doesn’t pretend to be anything more.
    Sorry, Hat, I didn’t know that. I should have said something like the following, because it is what I mean, without the sarcasm.
    My own opinion is that “literal translations” are of very limited use. (I also think that the concept itself is dubious, but I’ll leave that topic for another time.) They are a kind of learning crib, and as such are just fine. But they can also be self-defeating, particularly when the text is a poetic, literary or philosophical one, full of allusiveness or constructions (conceptual, grammatical, rhyming) that don’t exist in those forms in the target language of the translation.
    What set me off was the above “Russia, I am not impressed” as a response to the literal translation of the Pushkin. I thought: “not surprising, because there is nothing impressive about it”. Hat, since a literal translation is almost by definition awkward, I wonder why you preferred to give one for this short text instead of, say, a rough version that at least scans, however inaccurate it may be ? I had no idea that the literal crib was yours, because from your Mandelshtam versions I know that you can do marvellous translations of poetry.
    I suspect that the very notion of “literal” is confusing the issue, because it somehow suggests that accuracy is not being compromised, whatever else may go by the board. But that is the topic I want to avoid just now. Again, I apologize for the sarcasm.

  17. [“there was, there wasn’t,”] is standard throughout the region
    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”: might Dickens has started his novel in deliberate imitation of that construction ?

  18. there is also Puss in Boots
    and The Cat Who Walked By Himself

  19. I wasn’t so sure about kozyavka = grub, but it was the best word I could think of quickly. Perhaps it could simply be ‘worm.’ Any other suggestions?

  20. John Emerson says

    “Grubby” can mean “snotty” (“the boy’s grubby face”) so I’d keep it. Not knowing Russian, based on what’s been said here it seems like wonderfully excellent translation good luck.

  21. the dictionary said grub=the larva of an insect, so, something looking like a worm
    i thought kozyavka is not the larva, it’s an insect though tiny, with the whole limbs and how a cat can be drawn like a grub i can’t imagine

  22. John Emerson says

    Isn’t there an evil cat in “Master and Margarita”?

  23. Begemot!

  24. I dunno if I’d call him evil, exactly. It’s not easy to tell good from evil in that book.

  25. Clarifying the Hebrew part, “mad’an” means ‘scientist’—no more, no less. The kid just pulled out of his head the only word he knew which came close. “Melumad” would be the appropriate word for ‘learned’, or perhaps “khakham”, ‘wise’.

  26. “Learnèd” always implies book-learning, doesn’t it ? While an illiterate person can be wise. “A wise shoemaker” does not posess shoemaking wisdom, but rather shoemaking ability as well as wisdom about things other than shoes. I suppose this is just a reflection of the invidious distinction between techne and episteme. And yet I just found out in this Stanford Philosopy article that Greek writers had ideas about these concepts that do not correspond with my simple-minded phrase “invidious distinction”. The introduction ends:

    The relation, then, between epistêmê and technê in ancient philosophy offers an interesting contrast with our own notions about theory (pure knowledge) and (experience-based) practice. There is an intimate positive relationship between epistêmê and technê, as well as a fundamental contrast.

    Puss in Boots has a hat with a plume that he uses when glossing his editions of Aristotle.

  27. Is it right to call Kathul Madan “learnèd”, or would “wise” be more appropriate, say in the ways of the world ? After all, he merely sings songs and tells fairytales. Perhaps he’s a cunning philosopher, or a good art director for a marketing agency ?

  28. I think learnéd is best because учёный has two meanings: scientist (academic, the learned one) and also trained, skilled in, qualified to do certain things. In fact Ushakov dictionary has the Pushkin phrase to illustrate this second, slightly archaic meaning. And, for translation purposes, it shows why ученый cat turned into mad’an. Isn’t there an archaic meaning of ‘to learn’ as ‘to teach’?

  29. Ushakov dictionary has the Pushkin phrase to illustrate this second, slightly archaic meaning [trained, skilled in, qualified to do certain things]. And, for translation purposes, it shows why ученый cat turned into mad’an.
    Sashura, that second sentence seems to contradict the first one. If Ushakov is right, then “for translation purposes” it should not be mad’an (out of ignorance of Russian, I’m relying here on the above statement by Anonymous that “mad’an” means ‘scientist’—no more, no less”). Instead it should be “skilled cat”, as in “there’s more than one way to skill a cat”.
    Isn’t there an archaic meaning of ‘to learn’ as ‘to teach’?
    You bet. There’s the threatening American English expression “I’m goin’ to learn you a lesson !”, which nowadays counts as uneducated. The OED says: II. To impart knowledge. Now vulgar. The connection between learn and teach is more obvious in the German lernen [learn] and lehren [teach]. Duden says lehren is related to lernen, “which is related to leisten in its original meaning of ‘follow a track'”.
    In German as well there is a regional use of lernen to mean “teach”. Duden gives the example: Der Lehrer hat uns … das Telefonieren gelernt (probably a bit of dialog) from a volume of Walter Kempowski’s Deutsche Chronik.

  30. Also, the OED sez about “lore”:

    1. The act of teaching; the condition of being taught; instruction, tuition, education. In particularized use: A piece of teaching or instruction; a lesson. Now arch. and dial. Phr. †to set to lore: to place under instruction, send to school. at, to the lair (Sc.): at or to school.

  31. If Ushakov is right, then “for translation purposes” … it should be “skilled cat”
    No, I agree with Sashura—”skilled” has no semantic connection with “scientist,” so “learned” is a better equivalent.

  32. (The point being not to render the fine shades of early-19th-century meaning but to make the modern joke intelligible.)

  33. OK, I didn’t really understand what he meant by “for translation purposes”. Anyway, my sole goal was to lead into “to skill a cat”.

  34. “for translation purposes”
    for the purposes of translating the Khatul story, not the Pushkin verse itself. On contradicting statements, I’m more with Hegel than Aristotle.
    lernen [learn] and lehren [teach]
    in Russian it’s even closer: the verb is the same, the управление (government) is different, учить что? (to learn what?) is with Accusative, учить чему? (to teach to do what?) is with Instrumental. Alternatively, reflexive form учиться (lit.teach yourself) can be used.
    Duden Illustrated (French-English) is my desktop dictionary. I know it’s a German invention, but didn’t realise it’s also a general purpose dictionary, as your comment implies?

  35. sole skill gets cats sole,
    skilled cats love sole
    on the golden chain
    by the sea-cove
    posts crossed!

  36. if you look at the thread Valera Fooksman quoted above, commenters say there are several other versions of the same story, including a computer programmist who draws a ‘binary tree’.

  37. the управление (government) is different
    That’s neat, one less thing to learn in Russian when expounding learnedly on linguistics. We also say “the case governed”: “учить in the sense of ‘learn’ governs the accusative”.
    On contradicting statements, I’m more with Hegel than Aristotle.
    Mix-and-match, right ? Chocolate and vanilla sauce on your ice cream ?
    I know it’s a German invention, but didn’t realise it’s also a general purpose dictionary
    Duden is the standard reference on the German language, compiled by the non-existent Akademie der deutschen Sprache with headquarters in Mannheim. Grimm is cumbersome, and is still being brought up to date (although it’s available on CD, which I have). On the other hand, I didn’t know that Duden publishes a French-English dictionary.

  38. i always read kot uchenyi as like kot ‘dressirovannui’ – nauchennui, taught to do something, not learned or wise by itself which is very sceptic of me

  39. computer programmer who draws a ‘binary tree’
    Unfortunately, all I can figure out there is that someone left the room (can выходит have the sense of “flew out”, say if the leaver is a demon ?) through an open second-story window.

  40. Duden publishes a French-English dictionary
    Duden Illustrated is wunderbar because it groups words and phrases as a case study: I go to a garagiste with my Duden, open it on the moteur double page spread and point to the picture of the gear box where I think the problem is. I can’t remember who introduced me to it, but I do know that there are numerous bilingual editions.

  41. can выходит have the sense of “flew out”
    выходит в открытое окно = walks out through the open window
    I think it’s the psychologist tricking the conscript. Futher down commenters say it was ok, because the room was on the second (for Brits: first) floor and beneath it was a soft flower-bed.

  42. i always read kot uchenyi
    I read it as both

  43. I go to a garagiste with my Duden, open it on the moteur double page spread and point to the picture of the gear box where I think the problem is.
    By golly, I’ve been looking for something like that for years ! In the ’70s, I had a fat German reference book (no, not me, I’m American) filled with pictures and callouts to the names of the various objects in the pictures.

  44. Sashura, I just did a double-take: you wrote book. I thought you were talking about a CD. But that is also available, I presume.
    I thought you meant: “I go to the garagiste [entry] with [in] my Duden, open it on the moteur double-page spread [via a ‘picture’ link, a ‘double-spread’ picture that may need to be scrolled, depending on monitor resolution] and point [with the mouse pointer] to the picture of the gear box ‘where I think the problem is’ [I took this to be a little joke, because the problem is ‘what is the word for this thing?’]”.

  45. Actually you didn’t write book !

  46. holy-molly, it is a BOOOK, and that’s why Duden Ilstrd. is so wonderful – it links the alphabetic side of a language with the pictographic side, i.e. word with picture, like in Japanese or Chinese, from ‘gyptian hieroglyphs to Greek alpha-omega. But even that is not the best, the best is topical, ‘nest’ grouping of words. In Robert’ s you look for ‘Allen key’ under A, but for ‘spanner’ you have to go to S, and the Phillips turnevis would be under P. In St.Duden they are all on one 2-page spread, searchable as pictures, point and – click. Whoever thought of putting together a dictionary of that type first (it must have been a German?) should be given a Nobelevka, sure. Not just garagiste, I always go to my medecine generaliste (GP) with the Duden to show which particular joint aches, and to my printer – to discuss which particular ‘fraktur’ more reeks of collaborationistes – and ameliorate my French in the process.

  47. where I think the problem is
    is both – the word and the car problem

  48. “Learned” is certainly applicable in an oral or semi-oral culture to those who know the monuments of that culture.
    Here’s Heinz Politzer’s 1952 translation of “Kubla Khan”, for what it’s worth. I admire the last four lines greatly, though I admit that “Und Kubla hörte aus den wilden Schlünden / Der Ahnen Stimme fern vom Kriege künden” is only a shadow of “And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far / Ancestral voices prophesying war!” I’d guess (it’s no more than a guess) that the nucleus of the whole thing was the discovery of “Höhlen ohne Maß und Plan” as the equivalent of “caverns measureless to man”; if it’s rhyme-driven, so are a lot of Coleridge’s own phrases, including this one.
    In Xanadu ließ Kubla Khan
    Der Lust geräumigen Dom erstehn,
    Wo Alph, das heilige Wasser, rann
    Durch Höhlen ohne Maß und Plan
    Zu sonnenloser See.
    Zehn Meilen so von Furcht und Grund
    Umgürtet Wall und Mauerrund,
    Die Gärten voll von Rinnsal vielgestalt,
    Wo mit dem Laub von Weihrauch Bäume blühn,
    Und schwarze Wälder, wie die Hügel alt,
    Mit Sonnenflecken zwischen Immergrün.
    Doch oh, durch grüne Hügel die romantische Schlucht,
    Der tiefe Spalt quer unter Zedernhainen,
    O wilde Stätte! Heilig und verflucht,
    Wie jene, die ein Weib je heimgesucht,
    Dem liebsten der Dämonen nachzuweinen.
    Aus diesem Spalt, da wilder Aufruhr kochte,
    Als ob die Erd in steten Stößen pochte,
    Ohn Aufenthalt hoch eine Springflut sprang,
    In deren heißem, ungestaltem Drang
    Bruchstücke flogen, rückgeschnellt wie Hagel,
    Und wie die Spreu sprühte von des Dreschers Schlegel.
    In diesem Tanz der Brocken und Getrümmer
    Sprang auf das heilige Wasser, jählings immer.
    Fünf Meilen wandernd irren Wandelgang
    Durch Wald und Tal das heilige Wasser rann,
    Trat in die Höhlen ohne Maß und Plan,
    Bis sprudelnd es ins starre Meer versank.
    Und Kubla hörte aus den wilden Schlünden
    Der Ahnen Stimme fern vom Kriege künden.
    Des Freudendomes Schatten schwebte
    Und spielte spiegelnd auf der Welle,
    Da Rhythmus Rhythmus sich verwebte:
    Der Höhlen Echo und der Quell.
    Ein seltner Plan und wundersam ersonnen:
    Eisgrotten und der Dom der Lust voll Sonnen.
    Ein Fräulein mit dem Harfenspiel,
    Die einst im Traum ich sah;
    Sie kam aus Abessinienland,
    Schlug ihre Harfe mit der Hand
    Und sang vom Berge Abora.
    Strömt’ wieder durch die Brust mit
    Süß ihr Zusammenklang.
    Stieg’ aus dem Sange Lust mir,
    So daß mit Liedern laut und lang
    In Luft ich ließ’ den Dom erstehn,
    Den Sonnendom! Das Eisverließ!
    Und die mich hörten, würden sehn
    und rufen: Wunderbar! Wunderbar!
    Sein Aug’ aus Blitz! Aus Sturm sein Haar!
    Schlingt dreifach einen Kreis um dies!
    Schließt euer Aug’ vor heiliger Schau,
    Denn er genoß vom Honig-Tau
    Und trank die Milch vom Paradies.
    Apologies in advance for any typos.

  49. I don’t have a good enough feel for German poetry to pass judgment on that (I welcome input from Germanophones, of course), but you inspired me to look up Russian translations. Balmont did a surprisingly good job; I was ready to give up after the first few lines, but then it got into gear and went from strength to strength. He must have been very pleased to come up with “Меж вечных льдов и влажных сфер.” The only other translation into Russian I found was this terrible version by Ivan Anisimov, but in the search I ran across this list of the Top Ten Unfinished Works of Art, ranging from Mozart’s Requiem to Bruce Lee’s Game of Death.

  50. David Marjanović says

    Duden is the standard reference on the German language

    In Germany! Mwahah. In Austria, the Österreichisches Wörterbuch is official* instead. It was a 1950s/60s attempt to get a bit further away from Germany… and didn’t work particularly well. The Duden is used over here, too, almost certainly more commonly.
    * Don’t ask me what that actually means.

  51. Stu: The Hebrew melumad ‘learned’ and khakham ‘wise, clever’ are the words most often used for clever animals, babies etc. Clever Hans, the counting horse, is referred to as khakham. I read a translation of an O. Henry story featuring a ‘learned pig’, which was translated as melumad.

  52. Anonymous, I didn’t know a word of Hebrew, now I know two. Your examples are good mnemonics for me. As a clueless piglet in El Paso, I read everything by O. Henry I could get my hands on.
    John, I want to say something about the German Kubla Khan, but hardly know where to begin – except to say it’s a very mixed bag. I wonder what David’s take on it would be. There are lots of right-on bits in it – I also see Politzer patting himself on the back for “Wo Alph, das heilige Wasser, rann / Durch Höhlen ohne Maß und Plan / Zu sonnenloser See”. You write “if it’s rhyme-driven, so are a lot of Coleridge’s own phrases, including this one”. That touches on the problem I have with it. Rhyme is fime, but I miss the druggy lilt of the English. The German version is not sufficiently spaced-out. I don’t know how hard it was to get opium in 1952, but Politzer could surely have bought enough dope off American GIs to tide him over the translation.
    For instance, the repetition-with-variation of “dome” and “caves”. Politzer has in various places Höhlen, Grotten and Eisverließ. I like Eisverließ by itself, but ain’t no “dungeon” in the English, and no “grotto”. He should have stuck with the Höhlen, and let the rhyme slide if need be.

    Ein seltner Plan und wundersam ersonnen:
    Eisgrotten und der Dom der Lust voll Sonnen.

    Why not

    Ein seltner Plan und wundersam ersonnen:
    Sonnendom der Lust mit eisigen Höhlen.

    Just two more things. The convoluted, ugly 18-century subjunctivitis of the next passage initially lost me (I have corrected “mit” to “mir” at the end of the first line):

    Strömt’ wieder durch die Brust mir
    Süß ihr Zusammenklang.
    Stieg’ aus dem Sange Lust mir,
    So daß mit Liedern laut und lang
    In Luft ich ließ’ den Dom erstehn,

    There is no difficulty with Coleridge:

    Could I revive within me,
    Her symphony and song,
    To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
    That with music loud and long,
    I would build that dome in air,

    The last thing is: WTF is Wunderbar ! doing in the place of “Beware !” ??

  53. In Germany! Mwahah.
    Now that the David competition is watching my every move again, I simply must remember to add “in Germany” to everything I say. Or “in the Reimland, far from Linz, where everything makes regional sense”.

  54. A bit ambiguous, that one. Better: “in the Reimland this is so, in Linz it might be different though”.

  55. Hat, I wondered what Видение во сне was doing in the Balmont title (I am finally condescending to use my “Hyperwords” translator occasionally, moderately). This WiPe says: “In the final work, Coleridge added the expanded subtitle ‘Or, A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment’ “.
    hyperwords turns the passage Balmont must have been pleased with into the vaguely lubricious “Between eternal ices and the moist spheres”. This appears to correspond to “A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice”. I thought the “moist spheres” were the icy caves, lady-wise speaking ?!

  56. Rhyme is fime, but I miss the druggy lilt of the English.
    Exactly! The druggy lilt is all-important, and Balmont is good at that; a misplaced jolly trot is only one of the things that goes badly wrong with the Anisimov.

  57. David Marjanović says

    John, I want to say something about the German Kubla Khan, but hardly know where to begin – except to say it’s a very mixed bag. I wonder what David’s take on it would be.

    Phew. I’ll need to look into it. I’ve never tried to translate poetry, and I haven’t even read a lot.

    Rhyme is fime

    Ein Wiesel
    saß auf einem Kiesel
    inmitten Bachgeriesel.
    Du fragst, weshalb?
    Das Mondkalb
    verriet es mir im Stillen:
    Das raffinier-
    te Tier
    tat’s um des Reimes willen.

    – Hans Christian Andersen, IIRC.

    For instance, the repetition-with-variation of “dome” and “caves”. Politzer has in various places Höhlen, Grotten and Eisverließ.

    Pretty much the first thing I was taught about writing was to avoid word repetitions. Bad newspapers take this to ridiculous extremes, for instance referring to people by the completely unknown villages they come from. It’s deeply ingrained.
    As part of that, I was taught never to begin two sentences the same way. That rule isn’t even feasible in English, where the grammar doesn’t offer that many ways of starting a sentence.

    in the Reimland, far from Linz

    There’s a Linz in Austria, on the Danube, and one in Germany, on the Rhine. =)
    (Anyway, I’m in Vienna. The family moved in 1993.)

    and let the rhyme slide if need be

    You can’t ask that of an 18th- or 19th-century poet. You just can’t.

    The convoluted, ugly 18-century subjunctivitis of the next passage initially lost me

    Yeah. It’s definitely on the extreme side.

  58. One knows in Köln what phrases mean
    That aren’t intelligible in Wien.

  59. Trotzdem: die Wiener Herrentorte
    Wird auch geschätzt am anderen Orte.

  60. Der “Schmarrn” steht in jedem Buch
    das Wiener Kochrezepte faßt.
    “Was soll das sein ?”: der Kölner paßt,
    Er kennt nur seinen Pannekuch’.

  61. OK, after double-checking I’ll risk it: “Wat sull dat senn ?” [PLZ D-50]

  62. Ein Wiesel
    saß auf einem Kiesel

    That’s unlikely to be Andersen, who was Danish (although at least he read German, I think). It’s actually by Christian Morgenstern, Das ästhetische Wiesel.

  63. David Marjanović says

    <facepalm> Oh yes. I wondered. Yes, now I remember it’s by Morgenstern.
    I hope I’ll never need to distinguish Tolstoy from Pushkin.

  64. One of them had a beard.

  65. David Marjanović says

    Here is the original of Kubla Khan side-by-side with a German translation that doesn’t rhyme.
    It’s a worst-of-all-worlds translation. It tries to be literal, but fails all the time (…no, a single tree cannot be numerous, and to translate many a tree that way is just stupid). The lines have a meter, but widely different lengths; many are simply too long for a poem. And when the original (sort of) rhymes, I think the translation should, too; this one doesn’t even try.
    It sounds… spiritual. Boring like mysticism. It reeks of newage (rhymes with sewage).

  66. “Newage”, what a great word ! “New Age newage”.

  67. David Marjanović says

    The translation quoted above, on the other hand, is much better. However, it’s more lively and colorful than the original. Occasionally it adds images that aren’t there in the original, for instance the “ancestral voices prophesying war” come out of “wild chasms” while in the original they aren’t anywhere, Kubla Khan just hears them “‘mid this tumult”. It’s generally an imprecise translation. The translator sort of put it into his own words.
    That the caves of ice are part of sunny pleasure-dome is completely kept under wraps, it’s just “ice grottos and the dome of pleasure full of suns” which hardly means anything anymore. This here

    Ein seltner Plan und wundersam ersonnen:
    Sonnendom der Lust mit eisigen Höhlen.

    would have been much, much better, except it’s too far away from rhyming.
    The last stanza contains… phenomena that make me wonder if the translator understood all the words. But wunderbar instead of “beware” is rhyme-driven, perhaps rather desperately so.

  68. I think the “Wunderbar!” is bizarre too: “Gotta finish the damn thing, the threatening letters from the publisher are getting overwhelming”. Okay, it rhymes, but flashing, or for that matter storm-blown, hair was something we actually could have done without.
    David, what … phenomena do you have in mind?
    FWIW, I do not believe a word of Coleridge’s claim that the poem started out as 200-300 lines but he couldn’t finish it, nor do I find its meaning obscure. It gives you first a vision of Kubla, then one of the Abyssinian maid, whose playing, if only it were made real, would break open the Western Gate (Blake reference) and achieve the direct union of art and love, and make the Kubla vision real too. Simple.

  69. how do we pronounce Duden?
    is it a Brooklyn Doo-dehn?
    or Oxbridge Dew-d’n?
    or even Dud-in?
    or Russian Дудин (Doodin)?

  70. David Marjanović says

    David, what … phenomena do you have in mind?

    I’m not sure what I meant. Probably the holy dread which turns into a holy sight in the translation – together with the wunderbar, it turns everything on its head.

    how do we pronounce Duden?

    Who is “we”?
    In German: /ˈduːdn̩/.

  71. In German: /ˈduːdn̩/.
    I use an Americanized version of that (alveolar d’s).

  72. Who is “we”?
    it’s called Zamyatin’s we.

  73. David Marjanović says

    alveolar d’s

    Also used in northern Germany, in places where Low German dialects are or were spoken. The same holds for /t l n/.

  74. That “Wunderbar! Wunderbar!”, is actually another typo: it should have been “Wunder! Wunderbar!”, which scans. But that doesn’t make it any the less WTF to me.

  75. As a clueless piglet in El Paso, I read everything by O. Henry I could get my hands on.

    Stu: As a clueless piglet in New Jersey, I did the same. I wonder if you remember “Bexar Scrip No. 2692”? If not, refresh yourself at the link. Now see the actual document of that name. Pages 6 and 8 (use the “Sequence” dropdown) explain the connection between it and the story (short version: none).

  76. JC: Your first link ain’t got no link.

  77. The meme now modified into я же соскальзываю (but I’m slipping!!)

  78. I wondered if an Israeli had perhaps made a Hebrew translation of the anecdote, and indeed found “חתול מדען”. The translator skipped the explanation of what a “kaban” is, and added a brief note about Pushkin’s poetry.

    The translator suggests that a similar example to Pushkin’s imagery for an Israeli would be a boy with a big hole in his pants climbing a tree, which I confess is obscure to me, but I suspect is a reference to this little ditty I found:

    יונתן הקטן,
    רץ בבוקר אל הגן
    הוא טיפס על העץ
    אפרוחים חיפש

    אוי ואוי לו לשובב
    חור גדול במכנסיו
    מן העץ התגלגל
    ועונשו קיבל

    Some of the word choices are interesting, and may be mistakes. The penultimate line, for example, says “כולם מדענים” rather than “כולם מלומדים”. When speaking to his female colleague, the kaban says “את אדם שקול ויציב”, which I think would be more grammatically correct as “את בת אדם שקולה ויציבה”, although the phrase doesn’t feel like idiomatic Hebrew at all, either way.

    In Hebrew, the cat simply tells stories when going to the left. The English translation by estrusk says “fairytales”, and Google translate suggests that the Hebrew for “сказки” would be “אגדות”. Yet the latter seems wrong to me; an “אגדה” is a legend, and the sort of things “אגדות” usually refers to do not feel homely enough to mean fairytales. So maybe just “stories” is best.

    Would “сказки” be considered the same thing as “märchen”?

  79. The song is indeed the first song you learn in kindergarten: “Little Yonatan ran in the morning to kindergarten. He climbed the tree, looking for baby birds. Oh, that rascal, there’s a big hole in his pants. he rolled out of the tree and got his punishment.” You can hear it here. The tune is borrowed from a German song, Hänschen klein.

    אדם adam, like человек, means ‘person’, despite its masculine gender and origin. שקול ויציב shakul veyatsiv, something like ‘thoughtful and reliable’, seems clunky. I would translate the Russian нормальный человек simply as אדם נורמלי adam normali, which conveys the sense of ‘sane’ — not clinically, just someone who you can talk to when everyone else is weird.

  80. David Marjanović says

    Would “сказки” be considered the same thing as “märchen”?

    Yes, as far as I know, but that’s no different from “fairytale”.

  81. John Cowan says

    Except that Tolkien has to start by debunking the etymological fallacy when talking about fairy tales:

    I said the sense “stories about fairies” [of fairy-stories] was too narrow. It is too narrow, even if we reject the diminutive size [that fairies have in English], for fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faerie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs [sic!], witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.

    Stories that are actually concerned primarily with “fairies,” that is with creatures that might also in modern English be called “elves,” are relatively rare, and as a rule not very interesting. Most good “fairy-stories” are about the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches. Naturally so; for if elves are true, and really exist independently of our tales about them, then this also is certainly true: elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.

    When talking about Escape, one of Tolkien’s four criteria for fairy-stories proper, Tolkien tosses off one of his great lines: “The Human-stories of the elves are doubtless full of the Escape from Deathlessness.” In its context, this looks like mere verbal paradox, but in the Matter of Middle-Earth it alludes to the idea of Death as the Gift to Men: what we see as the common fate, they see as the ability to escape (in the spirit if not in the flesh) the world and its destiny, and go on to … something else, something beyond the knowledge of the Elves.

  82. David Marjanović says


  83. While investigating something else, I ran across this 2003 post (archived) at Renee’s long-gone and much-lamented Glosses blog, and thought I’d reproduce some of the material relevant to khatul here. Renee starts off with a question from Sharona: “Do you think there is a connection between ‘chat’ in French and ‘chatul’ in Hebrew?”

    She finds a quote from Hiya Dahan’s Milim, milim (Akademon 1993): “The word khatul ‘cat’ does not appear in the Bible. Some claim that it is of Hittite origin.” This sends her to Puhvel’s Etymological Dictionary of Hittite, where she finds:

    hatt- make a hole, pierce, prick, stab- also as a means of killing.
    hattalu- bolt, lock
    hattul (a)- well, healthy – also a deverbative abstract noun hattulatar. Like innarwatar which often adjoins it in the “lists of blessings”, hattulatar denotes physical wealth and vitality. innar- being “force(fullness)”, hattul- is “keenness, sharpness”, from hatt- “slash, penetrate”. Compare hattatar (s.v hattant), which may be another abstract noun from the same root, specialized as “(mental) activity, incisiveness, intelligence”.

    In the comments, Justin says:

    I remembered an Egyptian cognate, but it doesn’t appear to be too helpful. J. Cerny’s Coptic Etymological Dictionary p. 238a. Sahidic Coptic shathôl (or -oul), Old Coptic xatoul “ichneumon.” Hieroglyphic Egyptian xAtrw, Demotic Stl, or Ctl. Cerny says the word is probably from Semitic, and mentions “Chaldean” chatul and Arabic… er, I don’t know the vowels, but the consonants are xyṯl. He gives some references on the Egyptian word, but probably nothing you need as this seems to be a dead-end.

    aa quotes the OED entry (from 1889 and still, alas, unrevised) — “The name is common European of unknown origin […] History points to Egypt as the earliest home of the domestic cat, and the name is generally sought in the same quarter” — and the entry:

    cat – O.E. (c.700), from W.Gmc. (c.400-450), from P.Gmc. *kattuz, from L.L. cattus. The near-universal European word now, it appeared in Europe as L. catta (Martial, c.75 C.E.), Byzantine Gk. katta (c.350) and was in general use on the continent by c. 700, replacing L. feles. Probably ult. Afro-Asiatic (cf. Nubian kadis, Berber kadiska, both meaning “cat”). Ar. qitt “tomcat” may be from the same source. Cats were domestic in Egypt from c.2000 B.C.E., but not a familiar household animal to classical Greeks and Romans.

    If anyone knows more, please share.

  84. I figured it would not hurt to check Wiktionary for “חתול”, and was quite surprised to see it explained:

    Related to a Jewish Babylonian Aramaic חתולין‎, a plural form appearing in the Targum Jonathan version of Isaiah 13:22, rendering the Hebrew “איים” as “חתולין” (cats).

    (for non-Hebraicists, “חתולין” = “ḥatulin“; “איים” = “ʾiyim“)

  85. The Hebrew Wikipedia for “חתול” offers more detail about the etymology. Since I’ve had trouble pasting in large chunks of non-Latin text, I’ll offer my own rough translation, with my own comments on what it says. Those with better Hebrew than myself are invited to double-check the original and offer corrections.

    The word ‘ḥatul’ dates to Mishnaic Hebrew. In Biblical Hebrew, it would appear that cats were called “אי” [ ʾiy? ʾee? Not sure how to best transliterate]. This word appears in the verse [Isaiah 13:22] “וענה איים באלמנותיו” [“and ʾiyim will cry/howl in their towers/citadels”] ¹, and is translated in the Targum Jonathan as: “ויצטרחן חתולין בבירנתיהון” [ “the wild cats shall shriek in their palaces”/”And cats will growl in their palaces”]. ² ³ Rashi [an important medieval biblical scholar] also explains the verse that way: “ויגורו חתולים בארמנותיו”.

    In recent times, the hypothesis arose that the word came from the root “ח-ת-ל” (ḥet-tav-lamed) meaning “covering”, because the cat covers his leavings. ⁴ An additional hypothesis is that there is the Arabic word “חַיְטַל” (ḥaytal)[note the tet rather than tav] – one of the words for a cat that is also used for dogs. ⁵ These two derivations are very tenuous.

    From the Aramaic comes “חֲתִי,חֲתָה” (ḥati, ḥatah), meaning “לכסות, לאסוף, לגרוף” [“to cover”, “to collect”, “to sweep/rake/shovel”] (see: “מחתה” [maḥteh, a fire spade/shovel], whose use is reminiscent of a cat raking his leavings. Unlike the dog, who was in the area before the dispersal of Proto-Semitic into the various Semitic languages (and therefore this animal is called by terms that are nearly identical in these languages), note that the cat arrived afterwards and therefore received very different names, each from the other.

    1: Most translations of the bible translate ʾiyim as “hyenas”. In modern Hebrew, “אי” means, commonly, “island”, and the KJV has “the wild beasts of the islands”. I’m a bit suspicious of the convenient identification ofʾiyim with cats. But Targum Jonathan does support it. Why don’t more translations rely on Targum Jonathan?

    2: There’s a note that ʾiyim also appears in Isaiah 34:14, and is translated similarly.

    3: The first translation is from “The Chaldee Paraphrase on the Prophet Isaiah”. The second, more recent recent translation is from (Chilton, 1987). Hm, I see that (Chilton 1987) has an interesting footnote: “The reference to “cats” in v. 22. especially as related to the repeated reference to “Babylon” becomes especially pointed when one considers that such creatures figure prominently in Sassanid art (cf. Porada [1963] 178-227).” Where that expanded reference is:
    E. Porada (tr. J.R. Weiland), Iran Ancien. L’art à l’époque préislamique: L’Art dans Le Monde (Paris: Albin Michel, 1963)
    Ref: Chilton, Bruce D. The Aramaic Bible, v11: The Isaiah Targum: Introduction, Translation, Apparatus and Notes. Michael Glazier. 1987.

    4: In Modern Hebrew, “לְחַתֵל” (liḥatel) means “to diaper/swaddle/swathe/”, just to clarify the sense of “cover” being referenced.

    5: I may have misunderstood this — is the Arabic word supposed to mean something more general, like “pet”? Or “domestic animal”? Also, while I may have goofed the transliteration, I can’t find “حيطل” in Google Translate/Wiktionary.]

  86. Extremely interesting, thanks for doing the research and translation!

  87. David Marjanović says

    there is the Arabic word […] – one of the words for a cat that is also used for dogs.

    Four meanings: its meaning, its opposite, “camel”, and a Name of God.

  88. Four meanings: its meaning, its opposite, “camel”, and a Name of God.

    「For 28 years of my life, the word in Farsi that I thought meant remote control was actually just the Farsi equivalent of “thingamabob.” WTF. I just sat there, with my mouth hanging open, for a solid minute. My mom was like “wait… You thought that was the actual word for remote?”」

  89. David Marjanović says

    Yeah, that’s famous.


    Edit: oh yeah, here it is.

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