Rasputin’s Downstream.

A few months ago I raved about Valentin Rasputin’s Последний срок [Borrowed Time]; his 1972 Вниз и вверх по течению [Downstream and upstream, translated as Downstream] isn’t as good, but I enjoyed reading it — it’s basically a preparatory study for his famous Прощание с Матёрой (Farewell to Matyora), which came out four years later (and which I’ll be reading and reporting on before long). It describes the writer/narrator Viktor’s return by riverboat to his native village, which has been moved because the river it was on has been enlarged to create a reservoir; its message is basically the time-honored You Can’t Go Home Again, but it’s padded out with excessive descriptions of nature (these are almost irresistible to Russian writers). I probably wouldn’t post about it except that I liked this passage, which is entirely extraneous to the story but clearly something Rasputin felt strongly about (you can read the original Russian here — scroll down to “До чего было просто раньше,” near the bottom of the page); Viktor finds himself unable to read in his cabin, and reflects on how reading has changed for him since he became a writer:

How easy it was before, and how hard it is now — as if you’re perpetually on duty and can’t help seeing how a misplaced word fidgets or even thrashes around in painful convulsions, how empty, useless sentences giggle or call out in the middle of a serious conversation because they have nothing to do there, how a positive hero lies, bursts into falsehood like a nightingale, rolling around in high-sounding, respectable words as if in soapsuds just when the author thinks he ought to be uttering the truth, the truth and only the truth, how the whole book is hitting out and kicking, demanding that you read it and howling about equal rights for books, when you won’t and can’t get any benefit from that kind of reading. You see, you understand, but you can’t interfere — you can’t help it, restrain it, or shame it. It would really be better not to see or understand. The whole point is that a good book and a bad one are created from the same material, the same words — placed, however, in a different order, sounding in a different intonation, and blessed by a different finger.

But a good book, thanks to the same professional fastidiousness, is also not easy to read. When a phrase as ordinary as “she began to moan” makes you shudder from the pain of that moaning, when the name of a painted color lets you clearly distinguish its shades and smell, when you hear with your own ears the sound of an apple falling from a tree in a book and cry about the meeting of two people invented by an author’s imagination, you try to understand how all this was achieved, with what living water it was sprinkled; you go over the words again and again, following them like the steps of an endless staircase, trying to penetrate the amazing secret that makes them sound, smell, shine, and agitate. And you see everything, because in a book it’s difficult to hide anything, the whole intricate weave of words, their music, indicated note by note, the joints between phrases and pauses between thoughts — you see it all and still don’t understand a thing. Desperate, you put down the book and impotently close your eyes, hating yourself for your helplessness and mediocrity and all the rest of it.

But you can’t do without books. And of course you read, but lord, what difficult, trying, and endless work it is!

That’s eloquent, but (ironically) also somewhat bloated — compare Babel’s famous “Никакое железо не может войти в человеческое сердце так леденяще, как точка, поставленная вовремя” [No iron can pierce the pierce heart as icily as a period in just the right place]. And I note, checking the translation by Valentina Brougher and Helen Poot (in the indispensable Contemporary Russian Prose edited by Carl R. Proffer and Ellendea Proffer [Ardis, 1982]), that they have mistranslated хихикают ‘giggle’ as “hiccup”; this is not nearly so bad, however, as their later rendering of штабеля леса ‘stacks of timber’ as “neat rows of trees.” And my jaw dropped when I noticed they’d simply omitted this sentence (about a little boy standing in the water to look at an arriving ship):

Зато после некоторого раздумья он приподнял свой открывшийся всему белому свету отросточек и, направив его в сторону теплохода, стал булькать в воду.

But after some hesitation, he lifted his little appendage, which was revealed to the whole wide world, and, directing it towards the ship, began to gurgle into the water.

They’re translating for Ardis, the publisher that provided the world with editions and translations of the most daring modern Russian literature, and they can’t bring themselves to include a little boy pissing in a river!

I’m now reading Tendryakov’s Весенние перевертыши [Spring reversals, translated as A Topsy-Turvy Spring], and I was tickled to come across an extended description of piles of wood just like those in Rasputin:

The village had a timber transshipment base, a river pier, a railway station, and stacks of logs. These stacks were a whole city, almost larger than the village itself, with its own nameless streets and alleys, dead ends and squares; a stranger could easily get lost in them. But strangers rarely showed up in the village. Here even little boys were well versed in the wood – tarokryazh container wood, timbering, pulpwood, rezonans wood for musical instruments…

В поселке была лесоперевалочная база, речная пристань, железнодорожная станция и штабеля бревен. Эти штабеля – целый город, едва ли не больше самого поселка, со своими безымянными улочками и переулками, тупиками и площадями, чужой человек легко мог заблудиться среди них. Но чужаки редко появлялись в поселке. А здесь даже мальчишки хорошо разбирались в лесе – тарокряж, крепеж, баланс, резонанс…

I have no idea what резонанс, literally ‘resonance,’ might mean here, and тарокряж seems to occur only here in all of Russian literature — anybody know anything about either mystery word? (D.O. has solved the mystery — see below.)


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    compare Babel

    Too high a mark: I found Odessa Tales so good even in translation that I really wished I’d carried on with Russian at school. (A credit to the translator, to be sure, but few authors have that effect, no matter how well translated.)

  2. David Marjanović says

    The whole wide world is the whole white world in Russian?

    There’s another unintentional (one presumes) pun in there that only emerges in translation: “iron” and “icy” in German are Eisen & eisig.

  3. The whole wide world is the whole white world in Russian?

    Not exactly; белый свет is (in the words of Википедия) “мир, планета Земля со всем её животным и растительным миром” [the world, the planet Earth with all its animals and plants]. But close enough, and I like the quasi-pun. Note that Kira Muratova’s movie Познавая белый свет is called Getting to Know the Big, Wide World in English.

  4. From Wiki

    Кряж — отрезок нижней, комлевой части древесного ствола, предназначенный для выработки специальных видов лесопродукции.

    Резонансный кряж — для выработки резонансных пиломатериалов, применяющихся в производстве музыкальных инструментов.

    Тарный кряж — для выработки пиломатериалов, используемых в производстве тары.

    And for completeness

    Рудничная стойка, рудстойка (сокр.), или крепёж (неофиц.) — круглый сортимент для крепления горных выработок (устройства крепи). Зарубы и запилы не допускаются.

  5. резонанс
    Maybe this is meant?
    Резонансная ель (для изготовления музыкальных инструментов; спец.).

  6. Thanks to both of you; I’ve emended the post accordingly.

  7. Heh. I just thought to check the published translation; Google Books has snippet view, so all I can see is “And here even the small boys knew all about timber – blocks, props, balance,” but I’ll bet they went with “resonance” for the last word. Lazy.

  8. If you search for “resonance” in the book, it doesn’t show any results, so they must have used a different translation or left the word out.

  9. Interesting; thanks.

  10. In Lois McMaster Bujold’s four-volume novel (or pair of two-volume novels, as you will) The Sharing Knife, the characters often refer to “the wide green world”, particularly in the phrase “What in the wide green world …”, and this has become the name for the universe in which the book is set. Part of its background is the process of reclaiming its ecology from a series of magical disasters that left large blighted patches, so by no means all of the wide world is green.

    The book is also remarkable for its deep integration of the romance and science fiction genres (as opposed to the mere appropriation of tropes) presaged in her earlier book A Civil Campaign, with its Heyeresque title and its dedication to “Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, and Dorothy” on the one hand and the dependence of its plot on genetically engineered insects, vat-grown human organs, and what happens to a hereditary aristocracy when exposed to the realities of DNA analysis for the first time.

  11. PlasticPaddy says

    Re sjtabel’ Vasmer has iz nem. Stapel but there is for example sjtepsel’ iz nem. Stöpsel. Why is the German p not consistently borrowed as p in Russian? Maybe hans or Alex K knows????

  12. directing it towards the ship, began to gurgle into the water.

    Surely the appropriate onomatopoeia here is “tinkle”?

    I would associate “gurgle” with a liquid in or from some sort of resonant tube or partial tube; A drainpipe or a throat or the neck of a bottle, or something like that. A gurgling brook would be water in a carved-out channel, so the sound reflects from the sides a little.

    Yes? No?

  13. You might think so, but the Russian word is definitely more of a gurgle; the onomatopoeia for liquid glugging out of a bottle is бульк-бульк-бульк.

  14. David Marjanović says

    Why is the German p not consistently borrowed as p in Russian?

    I suspect Inderior German Gonsonant Weagening; the resulting /b/ is voiceless, though, so still has at least a 50/50 chance of being borrowed as /p/ in Russian.

  15. Inderior German Gonsonant Weagening

    You refer to Sächsisch here inter alia, right? <* shudder *> Tolerance is a stern taskmaster.

  16. Farewell to Matyora

    Matyora in the novel is the name of a Siberian village which goes under water after construction of hydroelectric plant.

    The word roughly means “hard land near the riverbank” in local Russian dialect and is cognate to English “matter”. Derived from “mother”, similarly to Latin materia < – mater (stuff, material < – source, mother).

    Second theory says it's cognate of "mature". (“hardened, ripe, matured” land)

  17. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Neither you nor the Wikiparticle about Valentin Rasputin answer the question that must occur to most people when they first see his name: is there any relationship between him and the Rasputin who was prominent in the last days of tsarist Russia?

    As there are several people here who know about Slavic languages I’m wondering if there is anyone who saw the original Polish version of Zasada przyjemnosci. We have been watching it as Géométrie de la mort, with everyone speaking Parisian French and no one having any trouble understanding anyone else, but can it have been like that in the original version: can Poles understand Czech without difficulty, and vice versa? Can either of them understand Ukrainian without difficulty, and vice versa? Most of the characters were old enough to have had compulsory Russian at school, and that may be what they used except with people of their own language. Even then there might have been problems: would the Polish audience understand Czech when two Czechs were talking to one another? Would the Polish audience be happy to hear Poles talking to Poles in Russian?

  18. Rasputin is a surname derived from nickname Rasputa which means an immoral, useless person, a scoundrel.

    Semantically, Rasputa is “off the [right] path”.

    So, of course, it’s highly unlikely they are related, because such people can be found in every village in every country.

  19. can Poles understand Czech without difficulty, and vice versa?

    Yes, they can. I am sure there would be difficulties, but with a desire for communication on both sides, they can be overcome.

    I once visited a town where everybody does that. (the town of Český Těšín/Cieszyn was partitioned into Czech and Polish part in 20th century)

  20. David Marjanović says

    You refer to Sächsisch here inter alia, right?

    Säggsisch, Frängisch, Häsisch*, Schwäbisch, and on into the Saarland where they pronounce Panther as Panda. Plus large parts of Bavarian, partially.

    * The Hessischer Rundfunk once parodied itself that way, complete with hares.

    can Poles understand Czech without difficulty, and vice versa?

    Poles understanding Czech: without difficulty after getting used to it for two days. Czechs understanding Polish: without difficulty (just ignore most of the palatalizations and half the adjective endings, and it’s transparent).

    Český Těšín/Cieszyn

    …also has a local Silesian dialect, so that’s not a fair comparison.

  21. Wikipedia:

    The names of Silesia in different languages most likely share their etymology—Polish: Śląsk [ɕlɔ̃sk]; German: Schlesien [ˈʃleːzi̯ən]; Czech: Slezsko [ˈslɛsko]; Lower Silesian: Schläsing; Silesian: Ślōnsk IPA: [ɕlonsk]; Lower Sorbian: Šlazyńska; Upper Sorbian: Šleska; Latin, Spanish and English: Silesia; French: Silésie; Dutch: Silezië; Italian: Slesia; Czech: Slezsko; Slovak: Sliezsko; Kashubian: Sląsk; Upper Sorbian: Šleska; Lower Sorbian: Šlazyńska. The names all relate to the name of a river (now Ślęza) and mountain (Mount Ślęża) in mid-southern Silesia, which served as a place of cult for pagans before Christianization.

    “Most likely”?

  22. Stu Clayton says

    “Most likely”

    That effectively means “I don’t know much about this, but I really want to make bold claims. Nobody can be absolutely sure of anything, after all”. I have encountered this gambit quite often recently, in newspaper articles. It’s suggestiveness on steroids.

    Adding phrases like “most likely”, “undoubtedly” etc to prose is a hard habit to break. I still have to prune them out of mine. The trick is to make bold claims period, with no indication of uncertainty. It’s up to other people to call me out on these claims. Everybody gets something to do, idle minds are the devil’s beauty salon.

  23. I think the most obvious explanation is the most likeliest.

    “River of tears” (or “river transparent as a tear”).


  24. January First-of-May says

    of a river (now Ślęza) and mountain (Mount Ślęża)

    Sic; the names of the river and the mountain are spelled (and presumably pronounced) slightly differently.

    “River of tears” (or “river transparent as a tear”)

    Doesn’t explain the nasal vowel.

  25. Polish nasalization is just that, Polish.

    Even Czechs don’t have it – Slezsko.

  26. Maybe in Polish it’s from a contraction of something like Lower Sorbian Šlazyńska.

  27. I’ve finished Весенние перевертыши, and I doubt I’ll post separately about it because I don’t have much to say beyond “it’s wonderful,” but hey, it’s wonderful, and Tendryakov is a wonderful writer, and it’s well worth seeking out the translation (“A Topsy-Turvy Spring”) and giving it a read.

  28. my experience traveling in eastern europe with a cradle-tongue polish speaker (from the dakotas) was that she got along fine with czech pretty immediately, even better with slovak (after a week in czechia), but bulgarian took a little adjustment. russian as lingua franca (in romania and hungary) seemed harder than any of those, but mostly worked…

  29. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    russian as lingua franca (in romania and hungary) seemed harder than any of those, but mostly worked…

    Yes, but she probably had no exposure to Russian at school in the Dakotas, just about anyone who lived in Eastern Europe before the collapse of the USSR will have had Russian at school.

  30. David Marjanović says

    “Most likely”?

    No mention of what I thought was the standard/textbook etymology?

    It’s from the Vandals, who probably lived there at some point. They came in two sorts, Siling- and (H?)Asding-; if you send the former into Slavic at an appropriate time, you get *sьlę-, which would give ślę- or ślą- in Polish depending on its tone. The g in a front-vowel word would probably give dz in Polish, but perhaps not in Silesian and definitely not in Czech. Add the usual adjective suffix, and you get Śląsk.


    That’s a phonemic transcription, not a phonetic one. Phonetically, there’s a loud and clear [n] in it.

    Silesian: Ślōnsk IPA: [ɕlonsk]

    Which dialect of Silesian is that? I’ve heard “in Silesian”, Standard Polish po śląsku, pronounced nasal-free as [pɔˈɕlusku].

  31. I think it’s more likely that the Silings were named after Silesia, not the other way around.

    That’s how usually hydronymy works.

    For example, the Ukrane and Sprewane tribes were named after Ucker and Spree rivers in Brandenburg.

  32. I think it’s more likely that the Silings were named after Silesia, not the other way around.
    In any case, -ing- is a suffix denoting people, so whatever the Vandal tribe was named after, it must have been something like *sel-/sil-. That means the -ę(d)z- part in Slavic comes from a suffix, and that, besides the nasal vowel, speaks against your “tear” etymology.
    a river (now Ślęza) and mountain (Mount Ślęża)
    That would point to a river name *Silinga and a mountain name *Siling-ja-, i.e. the mountain name would be derived from the river name (or the tribal name).

  33. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    The Sileni that Joscelyn Godwin mentioned briefly on p. 405 of his translation of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili were presumably different: [Their eyes were] large and round, they rolled in their cavernous sockets beneath bushy eyebrows, dense and bristly with long thick hairs like those of the Sileni.

  34. The plural sileni refers to the mythological figure as a type that is sometimes thought to be differentiated from a satyr by having the attributes of a horse rather than a goat

  35. @Athel:
    (belatedly, back here thanks to David M)

    yes, precisely: it was harder for my friend to parse the hungarians’ and romanians’ russian than the various native speakers’ czech, slovak, and bulgarian; she had no russian of her own. so i don’t know whether the difficulty has to do with the polish/russian interface or the quality of the russian she was dealing with.

  36. The word roughly means “hard land near the riverbank” in local Russian dialect and is cognate to English “matter”. Derived from “mother”, similarly to Latin materia < – mater (stuff, material < – source, mother).

    Second theory says it's cognate of "mature". (“hardened, ripe, matured” land)

    I wonder if manner/mantere is related.

    “Saarta peittävät metsä ja suot, ja leveä Itämeren salmi erotti sen mantereesta.”
    “The island was covered in forest and swamp, and was separated from the mainland by a wide Baltic sound.”

    It’s the opening of an excerpt from Pako helvetistä’ (Побег из ада/An Escape from Hell ) by Mikhail Devyataev.
    More about his escape (in Russian).

    BTW, has anyone seen the Devyatayev movie? Is it any good? The reviews are not exactly gushing…

  37. Mikhail Petrovich Devyataev (Russian: Михаил Петрович Девятаев; Moksha/Erzya: Михаил Петрович Девятаев; 8 July 1917 – 24 November 2002)

    What the hell is the point of “Moksha/Erzya: Михаил Петрович Девятаев”? Is there any reason not to delete it?

  38. What the hell is the point of “Moksha/Erzya: Михаил Петрович Девятаев”?

    Especially given that the Moksha version starts with Девятаев, Михайила; there’s understandably no Erzya version.

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