Tsvetaeva’s mature style is elliptical to the point that it’s sometimes hard to figure out what she’s talking about. Usually after I marinate in the verses for a while it becomes clear, but sometimes I’m at a loss and try to find a translation to lean on. Unfortunately, she’s poorly served by translation (unlike Akhmatova and Mandelstam, for whom pretty much everything has been Englished), so when I got stuck in her 1921 poem cycle Благая весть (“Good tidings,” with overtones of Благовещение ‘Annunciation’ — the poems are a response to the unexpected news that her beloved husband Sergei Efron was alive) I had to make do with an amateur online translation by someone who does not seem to actually know Russian (compare the Isidor Schneider translation of Gorky’s autobiography, mocked at LH here, here, and here). It was some help in a couple of places, but in general it raised more questions than it solved. What drove me to post was the bizarre line “Foaming lops on a mantle,” attempting to translate “Гривой/ Вспенённые зыби” [‘Like a mane (are the) foaming ripples’]. I thought “lops” might be a typo, but when I turned to my trusty Oxford Russian dictionary I found зыбь defined as “ripple; … (poet.) lop.” Lop?! Utterly flummoxed, I turned to my trusty Oxford English Dictionary and found, at the tail end of a series of nouns lop (“A spider”; “A flea”; “The smaller branches and twigs of trees, such as are not measured for timber; faggot-wood, loppings”; “A lobe (of the liver)”; “The infusion of bark and ooze used in tanning leather”) the following:

lop, n.6

A state of the sea in which the waves are short and lumpy.
1829 P. Hawker Diary (1893) I. 360 There was too much ‘lop’.
1838 P. Hawker Diary (1893) II. 153 The wigeon..were always on a ‘lop of the sea’.
1847 Illustr. London News 10 July 18/2 There being a ‘lop’ on, the boat lurched to windward.
1899 F. T. Bullen Way Navy 38 Quite a ‘lop’ of a sea gets up, but these battleships take no heed of it.

Now, this entry hasn’t been updated since 1903, so I can’t say that the word hasn’t been used in over a century, but I can say that I’ve never run across it, and it enrages me that the lexicographers who compiled the dictionary, fine fellows that they were, felt comfortable giving “lop” as an equivalent of зыбь without further explanation. Have any of you ever run across it in this sense? [An “English boatie” in the comment thread says “I’ve heard of a ‘lop,'” so I withdraw the tentative accusation of obsolete status.]

And while I have your attention, I’ll ask the Russian-speakers among you what you think is meant by the line “Меж дулом и хлябью” [‘Between gun-muzzle and хлябь’] in poem 5 — хлябь can mean either ‘abyss’ (archaically) or ‘mud’ (colloquially), and neither seems obviously correct to me here.


  1. Dahl says:

    Хлябь ж. простор, пустота, глубь, глубина; пропасть, бездна, с понятием о подвижности жидкой среды, в коей она заключена. Хляби морские, раздол или разлог громадных волн.

    Abyss – space, emptiness, depth, deepness; chasm, abyss, with idea of mobility of liquid medium, in which it is enclosed. Abyss of the sea, depression or dent in huge waves.

    In short, the line simply means “between gun-muzzle and rough seas”

  2. Why didn’t I think to check Dahl? Thanks very much!

  3. George Grady says

    I’ve never heard the word “lop” in all my boating days (here in Florida or up in Michigan). It sounds like what I’d call “chop”, especially one on the brisker end of the scale.

  4. I don’t know Russian, but “between gun-muzzle and abyss” makes sense to me as a more earthly equivalent to English “between the devil and the deep blue sea”. If someone (or even a whole army) is in front of you pointing a gun at you, and there’s an abyss (whether high cliff or stormy sea or maybe even mud/quicksand) behind you, you’re in a world of trouble, with nowhere to turn. Would the line make sense in context if it means that?

  5. Interestingly, Vasmer doesn’t connect Хлябь with onomatopoeic хлюпать. There is also a seemingly related word расхлябанный, which is also ultimately onomatopoeic. ~~ slurping, slapping, or clapping. The “lop” may also be a form of “lapping” (waves) ?

  6. Yeah, that’s what OED suggests.

  7. Well, ‘lop off (the end of sth)’ is more or less the same as ‘chop off’. But maybe that’s a totally different word.

  8. English boatie here. Yes I’ve heard of a “lop”. Only ever as a singular noun, so “lops” sounds wrong.

    @Michael Hendry ) It sounds like what I’d call “chop”. Indeed (and also singular). Though somewhat longer waves. Typical when there’s a swell left over from a weather system, and the diurnal breeze is filling in from an opposing direction. Sometimes also when two orthogonal tidal flows meet from opposite sides of a headland

    Nevertheless a lop could not be as agitated as “foaming”. That would be a swell or a wake.

    So the translator who in Hat’s opinion does not know Russian, I’d say also doesn’t know English.

  9. English boatie here. Yes I’ve heard of a “lop”.

    OK, I withdraw my grumbling about its being long out of use. Thanks!

    So the translator who in Hat’s opinion does not know Russian, I’d say also doesn’t know English.

    That is my impression as well.

  10. The “lop” may also be a form of “lapping” (waves) ?
    Yeah, that’s what OED suggests.

    Хлябь with usages as in Dahl may have been obsolete by Tsvetaeva’s time. The word survives pretty much only in an Old Testament quote, referring to Noah’s Great Flood: разверзлись хляби небесные. The connotation is fairly narrow, the Biblical Deluge.

    зыбь defined as “ripple”
    this one seriously misses the ominous connotation of the Russian word too. The word means “waves”, of course, but indirectly so. The direct meaning is something infirm, treacherous, shaky. Зыбкий means unreliable, wobbly; a quicksand mire is also called this way. Зыбка is another word of the stem, a rocking craddle.

  11. I second Dmitry Pruss’ excellent comment, with minor caveats. Tsvetaeva was probably familiar with the use of хлябь in the sense of “sea depth” by Baratynsky and Batyushkov. I can’t clearly recall хлябь used to mean “mud” in colloquial Russian, but I might have heard it decades ago. Anyway, this meaning is irrelevant to Tsvetaeva’s poem, in contrast to the depths of the sea and of heavens (Genesis 7:11).

  12. Thanks to you both!

  13. @Dmitry P The direct meaning is something infirm, treacherous, shaky.

    Thank you. That is indeed what “lop” connotes — definitely not as benign as “lapping”. As per the dictionary’s “lurched” example that Hat quotes, there can be an underlying strong swell or current that pushes the boat off heading. ( think of it as being a lop-sided wave form. That might be fanciful etymology.)

    So perhaps “lop” is a plausible translation; but over-obscure a word; and “foaming lops” is definitely a wrong usage.

  14. Двумолние is what gave me a real pause. Does it refer to some insignia? Sergei Efron wears nothing of a kind in the classic photo – just a regular numbered shifrovka of an acting lieutenant of territorial opolchenie guards

    All I got online was a ton of double-sided zipper ads 🙂

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