Little Bustard.

I love English, really I do. It’s one of the best languages I know, almost infinitely flexible and expressive. But sometimes it lets me down, and this is one of those times, and I’m going to complain about it.

Mandelstam’s Грифельная ода (Slate Ode; see this post) is one of the most difficult poems I know. Mandelstam wrote a lot of difficult poems, but unlike, say, “The Finder of a Horseshoe” (see this post), where each line is perfectly understandable and the difficulty is in figuring out what to make of them as a group, here half the lines produce an initial reaction of “Huh? Wha?” Take the first line, Звезда с звездой – могучий стык ‘Star with star – (a) mighty styk.’ What’s a styk? Well, it can mean ‘joint, junction’ or ‘butt’ (in a technical sense) or various kinds of meeting-point (e.g., of flanks of adjacent military units) or, in Formalist poetics, a particular kind of sound repetition from the end of one line to the beginning of the next; we can probably leave the last couple out of consideration (though poetics were definitely important to Mandelstam and he’d certainly read Osip Brik’s essay introducing the term), and we can fudge the distinctions and say something like “Star with star: a mighty joining” (or, in Alistair Noon’s version, “The mighty joins of star upon star,” or, in this one, “A powerful junction, a star with a star”)… but what does that mean? Sure, it’s useful to know he’s quoting Lermontov’s famous Выхожу один я на дорогу/I go out on the road alone (see this post), whose fourth line is И звезда с звездою говорит ‘And star talks with star,’ and for that matter the next line quotes another line of the Lermontov poem, Сквозь туман кремнистый путь блестит ‘Through the mist a flinty path shines,’ but what does it mean? We proceed to the next two lines — ‘The language of flint and air,/ Flint with water, a ring with a horseshoe’ — and ask the same plaintive question. We enter a momentary realm of clarity at the start of the second stanza — ‘We sleep on our feet in the thick night/ Under a warm sheepskin hat’ — but after that it’s back to “Huh?” It’s a poem you need to break your teeth over for a long time before it starts to begin to sort of make sense, and I expect to spend the rest of my life chewing at it and trying to extract more from it.

But none of that is what I’m here to complain about; that’s just poetry being poetry. No, I’m here because of the last line of the sixth stanza (in the 1937 revision): Меняю строй на стрепет гневный ‘I exchange (a) stroi for an angry strepet.’ The first word I’ve left in transliteration, stroi, is problematic in the same way as styk above: it can mean ‘system, order; regime; (linguistic) structure; (musical) key, pitch; (fig.) mood; harmony; (military/aeronautical) formation; line, row; (mil.) unit in formation; (mil. and fig.) service, commission,’ and doubtless other things — cf. a dustman’s dumpling. I have no idea what specifically he meant by it here, but again, the translator can fudge. My problem is with the second word, which has one and only one translation: a strepet is a little bustard. I’m sorry, but that’s a stupid and unusable word (or expression). I wouldn’t even look at one flying and making its distinctive sounds and say “that’s a little bustard”; I’d contemplate it in silence. To use it in poetry is unthinkable (unless it’s a very jocular kind of poem). Noon has “I swap […]/ harmony for the bustard’s anger”; in the first place, it’s not a bustard, which is a different bird (Russian дрофа [drofá]), and in the second place, “bustard” is just as bad except for being a little shorter and thus getting out of the way quicker. The other version has “Exchange order for an angry vulture,” which, no, it’s not a vulture, which has entirely the wrong connotations (and doesn’t sound much better anyway). Why isn’t the bird called a “strippet” in English? That would have the same pleasing onomatopoeic sound as the Russian and could be placed with pride in a poem. But no, it is only and always the little bustard, and I declare the poem eternally untranslatable. WTF, English?!

Update. Alex K. (3:57 pm comment) astutely points out:

If strepet is animate, why isn’t its accusative strepeta? It’s most likely inanimate, so not a bird – the first meaning listed by Dahl (whom Mandelstam revered) and Vasmer is a sound: a sharp, whistling noise.

He is, of course, quite right, although all bilingual dictionaries have only the bird sense (which presumably misled the translators I quote above), so I reverse my judgment and declare the poem provisionally translatable.

Further update, resolving the whole thing. D.O. (in a comment from 6:15 pm) quotes an edition of Mandelstam as follows:

Стрепет (было «трепет») — опечатка машинистки, очень понравившаяся Тихонову, из-за чего автор ее сохранил (помета на экз-ре С из собр. М. С. Лесмана).
Strepet (originally trepet [trembling]) is a typo made by a copyist, which Tikhonov liked very much and because of that the author kept it.

You couldn’t make something like that up!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Surely this cuts both ways: Russian is griev(i)ously handicapped as a language for making comic poems about little bustards. The humour would be well-nigh impossible to recapture in Russian translation.

    Non omnia possumus omnes.

  2. True, true — I confess that hadn’t occurred to me. And now I want to read a comic poem about little bustards.

  3. It sure is a cute bird.
    Now, why did Mandelshtam pick that bird? What about its character fits the poem? Could another bird serve as an understudy?

    One can also call it an italicized Tetrax, but that’s a hideous solution.

  4. Isn’t strepet onomatopeic? The rustling of unfurled feather? Or tremble if that is cognate?

  5. Isn’t strepet onomatopeic?

    Yes, Vasmer says:

    стре́пет, род. п. –а I “резкий шорох”, птица “Otis tеtrах” (С. Аксаков, Гоголь), укр. стре́пет “Otis tеtrах”. ‖ В основе лежит звукоподражательный к., как в лат. strepō, -еrе “шуметь, бушевать, греметь”, strepitus, род. п. -ūs, -ī “шум” (о которых см. Вальде–Гофм. 2, 602, без русск. слов). По мнению Преобр. (II, 397), первое знач. связано с тре́пет (см.). Горяев пытается связать с нем. Тrарре “дрофа”, что неверно; против см. Преобр., там же.

    In other words, it, like Latin strepō ‘make noise’ and strepitus ‘noise,’ is onomatopoeic.

  6. So you don’t necesserily need the bird there? It’s stillness against flight, orderliness against suddenness, thump against rustle and tremble?

  7. The Spanish name for the bird is sisón which has an alternate meaning of petty thief. Googling sisón brings up Bart Simpson. Perhaps the strepet reference was to a person of similar character.

  8. If strepet is animate, why isn’t its accusative strepeta? It’s most likely inanimate, so not a bird – the first meaning listed by Dahl (whom Mandelstam revered) and Vasmer is a sound: a sharp, whistling noise. It’s onomatopeic, according to Vasmer, as in Latin strepō, strepere, from which obstreperous comes.

  9. Trond Engen says

    You’re judging your language for something that’s clearly the bird’s fault. If the English had known it since prelinnaean times, it would have had the cutest little name you can think of, but the little bustard simply won’t procreate in an anglophone environment.

  10. If strepet is animate, why isn’t its accusative strepeta?
    Excellent point. Tain’t a bird

  11. Yeah, that is a good point, and you’re right about Dahl. ‘Sharp noise’ it is, then!

  12. claudio marcondes says

    There’s a Medieval “cantiga d’escárnio”, by Alfonso X, in Galician-Portuguese, where the Otis tetrax (sisom/sisón) is associated to a farting girl, because its song “sounds like a fart”…

    Nom quer’eu donzela fea
    que ant’a mia porta pea.

    Nom quer’eu donzela fea
    e negra come carvom
    5 que ant’a mia porta pea
    nem faça come sisom.
    Nom quer’eu donzela fea
    que ant’a mia porta pea.

    Nom quer’eu donzela fea
    10 e velosa come cam
    que ant’a mia porta pea
    nem faça come alarmã.
    Nom quer’eu donzela fea
    que ant’a mia porta pea.

    15 Nom quer’eu donzela fea
    que há brancos os cabelos
    que ant’a mia porta pea
    nem faça come camelos.
    Nom quer’eu donzela fea
    20 que ant’a mia porta pea.

    Nom quer’eu donzela fea,
    veelha de má[a] coor
    que ant’a mia porta pea
    nem [me] faça i peior.
    25 Nom quer’eu donzela fea
    que ant’a mia porta pea.

  13. Here’s the comment from this edition
    Стрепет (было «трепет») — опечатка машинистки, очень понравившаяся Тихонову, из-за чего автор ее сохранил (помета на экз-ре С из собр. М. С. Лесмана).
    Strepet (was trepet [tremble]) is a typo made by copyist, which Tikhonov [no idea who’s that] liked very much and because of that the author kept it.

  14. John Cowan says

    Well, now that that’s cleared up, I must mention that the little bustard (Tetrax tetrax) does indeed belong to the bustard family (Otididae). The bustards (who I keep thinking must be related to the jubjub bird, presumably because they fit just as well into “The Hunting of the Snark” rhythmically) include species called not only bustards but also floricans (also spelled “florikan” and “florikin” and even “flanderkin”, etymology unknown) and korhaans (of which the kor- is probably an imitation of the bird’s cry and haan is Dutch and Afrikaans ‘cock’).

  15. David Marjanović says

    The heaviest surviving bird species capable of flight is the kori bustard, affricated (kgori) in the original Tswana. But that one is gompou in Afrikaans.

  16. Now, “florican” is a superb word.

  17. I made a comment with a link and Cyrillic text and it was duly relegated to purgatory or straight to hell. Unlike most of my other stuff, that one might be relevant.

  18. Wow, relevant indeed! I’ve rescued it and will add the essential bit as an update. What a find!

  19. It seems just about the only bustard left unmentioned here is MacQueen’s bustard (formerly Houbara bastard), in Russian jek/vikhliay. (The Russian Wiki article links to Houbara, not to this.)

  20. That Tikhonov must have been Nikolai Tikhonov, a disciple of Nikolai Gumilyov, a member of the (Russian) Serapion Brethren and the author of two well-known Kiplingian ballads. He made an impressive career later on as a Soviet literary official.

    My problem with that marginal note is that neither Irina Semenko in her study of the poem’s drafts nor Mikhail Gasparov in his inquiry into the history of the text mention the typist’s error. Princeton has these drafts and has made them available online.

    If anyone has a copy of Omry Ronen’s An Approach to Mandel’stam (1983), does he comment on that line?

  21. Anybody knows why Mandelstam collides “ring” and “horseshoe”? Everything that I’ve read (very cursory) talks about Lermontov and Derzhavin and flint v. water is also pretty obvious, but why “ring” and “horseshoe”?

  22. I wonder the same thing! Most of the poem hangs together if you read it over enough, but I’ve memorized the whole thing now and have no idea what the ring and horseshoe are doing there.

  23. Nick Karayev says

    Being Russian I percieve стрепет not as a bird (then it indeed should be in Acc.) but as the concatenation of стрекотать and трепет: the flapping movement of the wings, fidgety reaction, perhaps. So I understand why the typo was so good: the alliteration appears, STRoi, STRepet, and phonetically it’s a little wonder. I would say it could have been the poet’s design, not the typo, for the alliteration design here is pretty obvious.

    As for ring and horseshoe, isn’t it “styk”, the joint, again? This time low mundane iron and elaborate silver or gold. Flint and air or flint and water are the other incompatible pairs: flint is the hardest thing (we say “он кремень!”, “he is a flint!” meaning no one can make him say something he knows), water and air are the opposite.

  24. Yes, sure, but flint and water are basic elements of the poem, endlessly repeated in various guises and contexts; the ring and horseshoe seem to have wandered in from elsewhere. They are found nowhere else in the poem.

  25. OK. Here’s my current thinking about “horseshoe and ring” riddle (If you don’t understand Russian, but still read this thread, persten’ is not any kind of ring, but a heavy one like class or sport’s ring and also includes signet ring). Maybe Mandelstam thinks about Pushkin’s ring, which he considered his talisman and wrote two well-known poems about, Talisman and Guard Me, My Talisman. Later, it belonged to a string of literary figures, was donated to a museum, and lost during the revolution. Mandelstam probably means that particular ring in his riddle-poem Give a dragonfly to Tyutchev…. Horseshoe is universally used as a talisman. So here Mandelstam contrasts two types of luck, one a blind one, just take a horseshoe, hang it over the door, and the luck will find you. And another one, sort of higher category luck, that gives you a talent, an ability to write poetry.

    A bit thin for an explanation, but I will keep it until someone will come up with a better answer.

  26. I like it! As you say, it’s not especially convincing, but it’s something to hang on to for the time being. (A спасательный круг ‘life preserver’ to go with the подкова ‘horseshoe’ and перстень ‘ring.’)

  27. Hat, what would you rhyme gorlyashka (“laughing dove”) with?

  28. My first thought was букашка, but тяжко works too.

    It’s funny — a century or two ago every literate Russian would have recognized “Остановись, остановись, мгновенье!” as an allusion to Faust; I wonder how many do now?

  29. It is such a quintessentially Central Asian bird: you wake up in the morning to a male cooing somewhere, you can see it a few steps ahead, pecking at something. My grandma had a pair nesting on her porch and fed them some stale bread or grain.

  30. Here‘s a nice colorful горляшка.

  31. And the word gorlyashka is used only in Central Asia, as far as I can tell. It’s the usual word for me, gorlitsa being firmly bookish.

  32. Its name in Uzbek:

  33. Typo magic! That is a delightful discovery.

  34. David E’s point in the first comment is borne out by this limerick (quoted in the letters section of the current LRB):

    The bustard’s an exquisite fowl
    With minimal reason to growl:
    It escapes what would be
    By grace of a fortunate vowel.

    Let’s see a Russian translation of that…

  35. an allusion to Faust

    To be fair, a century or two ago a Russian wouldn’t be both literate and uneducated in literature.

    Этимологические заметки1
    На первый взгляд, между этими двумя словами нет ничего общего, кроме значения: оба они называют крупную степную птицу из отряда журавлиных Otis tarda. Утверждению лингвистов, что это одно и то же слово, но пришедшее в наш язык в разное время, трудно поверить.

    1968 Дрофа – дудак. Этимологические заметки

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