Restoring Bad Rhyme.

I have no idea whether I’d actually like The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of PI, Part 1, by “Eugenes Ostashevsky and Timerman,” but I certainly enjoyed this review by Joe Milutis, from which I extract the middle section:

Ostashevsky is himself an accomplished translator of Russian, but it is his original American poetry that seems ready-made to discuss the the multiple mutating filters of translation, or, to paraphrase Nabokov, the re-Englishing of Russian re-versions of an English re-telling of a Russian memory. His poetry’s battery of English sound effects—which generate surprise even from the most potentially cringe-inducing end rhymes—seem to retain with them a Russian bemusement at unnoted or ignored English assonances, while at the same time perhaps attempting to restore the “bad rhyme” principles of Alexander Vvedensky, a forgotten Russian poet who he’s translated. And the cross-cultural pollination extends to high and low culture, with signifiers of intellectual, philosophical, and mathematical erudition remolded into American vernacular idioms like rap, Dr. Seussisms, borscht-belt comedy and elephant jokes. Appropriately enough, the epigram that heads the collection Iterature, in his poem “Autobiography”—“structaque sunt nostris barbara verba modis”—is a plaint written by Ovid about his attempts (no longer extant) to write in Getic (the language of his place of exile, corresponding with present day Romania, but which may have more generalized affiliations with the “gothic”—a productive engine of translational oddities, as we’ll see in future posts.) The longer quote reads something like “What shame, that I write this little book in a Gothic tongue! What barbarous words have been built into our style!” Metamorphosis, exile, drift . . . the translational gothic creates not merely new texts, but also new beings in process, who are untranslatable, or at least untranslatable back to their origins.

The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi starts with an absurdist syllogism regarding the difference between “pirate” and “parrot,” although we’ll see the two become indistinguishable—especially in Timerman’s images which reconstruct fractured assemblages of parrotness and pirateness. We know that pirate and parrot are already, at least in their most archetypical manifestation, in a kind of symbiotic relation—that parrot, in its mimickry is always becoming-pirate, and that the “pirate” in his contemporary manifestation as “digital copier” is a kind of parrot of peer-to-peer. Both engage in forms of copying that are without or beyond commercial “value” (or pi, or any other numeric or mathematical system. If anything, the pirate’s “ship describes a Markov chain”—a random process). Nevertheless, there is a type of exchange displayed in this chapbook, a commerce between signs that is not explicitly pinnable or parrotable.

Again, while this book is not a “translation” strictly conceived, it is engaging in all manner of translational themes and deformations. Perhaps most interesting is that embedded in Timerman’s images of pirate and parrot—composed of broken, painted, and scanned pieces of glass—are fragments of Russian language, inextricable from the transformation into English. Mirroring these fragments, seemingly random bolded letters in Ostachevsky’s text turn out to be the Roman cognates of their Cyrillic doubles, so that one can make out, but not strictly decode a sense of Russian caught up in the matrix of pirating-parroting. It seems like a visualization of George Steiner’s notion that “We must not trust the translation whose words are entirely ‘unbroken.’”

Weird and wonderful stuff: the “bad rhyme” principles of Alexander Vvedensky, Ovid’s regrets about writing in Getic (oh to have those poems!), the symbiotic relation of pirate and parrot… much to muse on.


  1. So get the book, read it, and then tell us about it already!

  2. I know one word in Getic

    Perhaps that was the topic of Ovid’s Getic poem

  3. David Marjanović says

    oh to have those poems!

    So much.

  4. SFreader…we have no way of knowing whether Romanian brânză indeed goes back to Getic or not. As a matter of fact I am inclined to argue that it probably does not. Getic was spoken along the coast of the Black Sea, whereas Proto-Romanian was certainly spoken far inland (the evidence to me points to present-day central Serbia).

    It is a natural urge to try to connect what is observed today (such as Romanian words of unknown etymology) to what we know of the past (such as the linguistic landscape of the Balkans in Roman times). But what we know of the latter is so limited that there is no guarantee that it will supply us with the right data to explain the former.

  5. ‘Dacia, Getica finiuntur ab oriente desertis Sarmatiae, ab occidente flumine Vistula, a septentrione Oceano, a meridie flumine Histro. quae patent in longitudine milia passuum CCLXXX, in latitudine qua cognitum est milia passuura CCCLXXXVI’

    This is a rather big area (Serbia included).

    And indeed, we are told that ‘Bryndza is product of a sheep milk cheese made mainly in Slovakia, Romania and Moldova, but also in Poland, Ukraine, Hungary and part of Moravia (Moravian Wallachia).’ which pretty much overlaps the area given by Agrippa.

    Coincidence? I think not.

  6. I wonder whether Timerman and/or Milutis understand the technical meaning of “Markov chain.” A Markov chain is a (generally random, although it does not need to be) process, but one with the key characteristic that the future behavior only depends on the state at the present, not on what has happened in the past (except insofar as that past behavior brought it up to the present state).

  7. I would say that the probability of a transition depends only on the current state, and that this stochastic nature is an essential part of it. Otherwise we’d have to say that a computer running a program that accepts no inputs while it runs is a Markov process, which seems perverse, since it is quite deterministic.

  8. In studies of deterministic time evolution, the Markov property is a crucially important assumption. It is typically assumed in analyses of, for instance, simple differential equations. However, for many more complicated/realistic systems, the future behavior depends not just on the current state but also on the past. At some level, this can be attributed to an underspecification of the system; you are not describing the full number of degrees of freedom. For example, the behavior of a ferromagnetic material like iron in an applied magnetic field depends on the previous history of how the sample has been exposed to field. The results are purely deterministic, but the future evolution is not knowable in terms of the (readily observable properties) of the present state. The lack of the Markov property is the most important characteristic of this kind of system.

    Of course, at a purely formal level, any deterministic process can be considered to be a stochastic process—just one with a particularly simple probability distribution at a given time. Of course, the behavior of a single system is not interesting in this regard, but considering families of systems is interesting. The families are characterized by differing external conditions (differing inputs for a computer program), which are not probabilistic—in the sense that they are controlled by the experimenter/programmer/oracle/god—but which differ from instance to instance.

  9. A couple of peeves:

    I thought the identification of the Getae with the Goths had been exploded long ago.

    Is Vvedensky really a “forgotten poet”? I’m not that familiar with him as my Russian isn’t good enough to appreciate him in the original, but I do know Pussy Riot claim him as a big influence. “Relatively unknown in the West” might be more accurate, although a complete translation of his works into French appeared in 2002.

  10. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    Coincidence? I think not.

    Typical Vlach word, no need to bring the boundaries of Roman-era Dacia into this 🙂 From those footloose medieval shepherds who spread along the Carpathian arc and specialized in castrating things (supposedly that’s why wałach is Polish for ‘gelding’). Of course it doesn’t mean the word can’t be ultimately from sth Paleo-Balkan.

  11. I still get confused by the meanings of Götaland and Gotland, and their various renderings as Gothia, Gothland, Gothenland (cf. Göteborg = Gothenburg), Gautland or Geatland.

  12. The trick is to wait and see if they unlock their word-hoards. Classic Geat, that move.

  13. @Sir JCass: “Is Vvedensky really a “forgotten poet”?” Not for the literati, certified or wannabe. Some Russian poets/connoisseurs rate him the greatest 20th-century poet, bar none. He had been largely forgotten (other than as a children’s author) up until the 1960s; since the 1990s, OBERIU has almost been a household name.

    “…I do know Pussy Riot claim him as a big influence.” Yes, to one poet and critic’s ire: he was outraged that they (those profursetki) dared invoke the great master’s name.

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