Russian Literature Read by Mongolians.

Bathrobe sent me links to two Facebook posts by Christopher Atwood; if you’re on FB you can read all the replies, but you can get the basic idea from the texts of the posts, which I will reproduce here:

1) Russian literature has had a big influence on modern Mongolian literature. In your opinion (and I’m specially interested in those who were educated in Mongolia), what are the three most important works of Russian literature that you need to know in order to understand Mongolian literature? In other words, which three works of Russian literature most influenced Mongolian literature?

2) Based on the great responses to my earlier post about Russian literature [here:], I confirmed what I’d suspected, that while both English-speaking and Mongolian-speaking readers and authors read a lot of Russian literature, they read rather different literature.

Tolstoy and Chekhov are shared between the two. Pushkin is also shared, but he seems more significant in the Mongolian canon. I guess this is because as a poet, his work is harder to translate and many more Mongolian writers than English speaking writers are fluent enough in Russian to appreciate Russian poetry.

Mongolian- and English-speaking readers both read Gogol, but it seems Mongolians read “The Inspector-General” most and English-speakers read “Dead Souls” most.

One big difference is that for English-speakers Dostoevsky is up there with Tolstoy as one of two greatest Russian novelists, while very few in Mongolia mention his work as influential.

When it comes to the “Soviet” canon, there’s no almost common ground. As I have seen it, a Soviet canon for English-speaking writers might be Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita,” Boris Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago” and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch.” That for Mongolian writers’ canon is headed by Sholokhov’s “Tikhii Don,” with Nikolai Ostrovsky’s “How Steel Was Tempered.” Gorky is probably the only shared author. This has to do with politics obviously — the English-speaking canon is pretty much all “dissident literature” while the ones well-known and loved to Mongolians are not.

I’m fascinated by the topic of which authors and books of a given national literature are read by people in other countries, and this is a nice exemplification.

And while we’re on the topic of Russian literature, a thousand thanks to whoever sent me a copy of Elena Kravchenko’s The Prose of Sasha Sokolov; not only is it a book I’m excited about in general (Sokolov published three novels, all of them considered classics, in the decade 1976-1985 and then went silent except for a few essays, and those novels are difficult enough that any and all help understanding them is welcome), but I’m up to 1976 in my reading and will be getting to Школа для дураков (A School for Fools), which Nabokov called “an enchanting, tragic, and touching book,” within the next few weeks, so it’s an exceedingly timely gift!


  1. Atwood misses the point with Pushkin.

    It’s not Pushkin’s poetry which is popular in Mongolia, but his fairy tales.

    There is a very good Mongolian translation of Pushkin’s “Tale of the Golden fish” (“The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish” in Russian) and every Mongolian child knows it.

  2. Agree with SF Reader. Pushkin’s Golden Fish is very well known to all Mongolians. Even if they aren’t totally clear who wrote it….

    One of the most famous Mongolian novels, the 1962 work Tungalag Tamir (“The Crystal Clear Tamir River”) by Lodoidamba Chadraabal, is transparently named after Sholokhov’s “Quiet Flows the Don”. (I’m not sure it’s actually modelled on the Russian work since I’ve read neither, but the inspiration definitely came from Russian literature.) Lodoidamba also studied in Russia.

    It would be interesting to know how such a list would read for states in the old Soviet Union (Kazakhstan, Georgia, Armenia, Baltic States, etc., etc.), Eastern Europe, socialist states in Asia (China, Vietnam), Western Europe, etc.

  3. It would be interesting to know how such a list would read for states in the old Soviet Union (Kazakhstan, Georgia, Armenia, Baltic States, etc., etc.), Eastern Europe, socialist states in Asia (China, Vietnam), Western Europe, etc.

    Yes indeed!

  4. John Emerson says

    Is the Czech author Jaroslav Hasek (“The Good Soldier Schweik”) read in Mongolia? He taught Russian to the Communist hero Sukhbator and has a line on the official history of the Mongolian People’s Republic for that reason.

  5. Paustovsky seems to be much more popular in The Netherlands than anywhere else.

  6. I think Schweik is available in translation. Don’t know how popular it is.

  7. John Cowan says

    “The Fisherman And His Wife” in the Low Saxon original, English, Scots, Dutch, German, cultural American, and Russian with “Kannitverstan” in the original German, English, and Dutch. Here’s an interlinear of the rhyme the fisherman uses (there is no Standard German version, at least not from the Grimms):

    Mandje! Mandje! Timpe Te!
    Mandje! Mandje! Timpe Te!
    Mannie, mannie, Timpee Tee,
    Mannetje, mannetje, Timpe Te,
    Fishy, fishy, in the creek

    Buttje! Buttje in de See!
    Flounder, flounder, in the sea!
    Fleukie, fleukie in the sea,
    Botje, botje in de zee,
    My wife’s been nagging at me all week

    Mine Fru, de Ilsebill,
    My wife, her name is Ilsebill,
    Ma lief wife the Iseabail
    mijn vrouwtje die heet Ilsebil,
    She says she doesn’t want a lot

    Will nich so, as ick wol will.
    Wants not, wants not, what I will
    Winna dae as A her tell.
    ze wil niet zoals ik wil.
    But she’s not happy with what we got.

  8. Lars Mathiesen says

    Flynder lille, flynder god,
    stig op til mig af havets flod,
    for min hustru Isabil
    vil meget mere end jeg vil.

    With an echo.

  9. John Cowan says

    Thanks, that led me not only to a full Danish version but to another English version with links to a bunch of other languages (across the top).

    I note that the Danish version omits the mysterious “Timpe Te” in the original (at least, it’s mysterious to me). The second English version says “O man, O man, if man you be / Or flounder, flounder, in the sea” which is rhyme-driven, but does at least explain what “man” is doing in the verse altogether. Of course, the fish was once a prince. Low Saxon is not exactly easy to find out about, but I can’t find any German root zimpf- either. (I found a suggestion that it is connected with Zipfel, but that is obviously bogus, as it doesn’t account for the /m/.)

    Digging about, I turned up Michael Krause’s piece “Mantje Timpe Te” (video). I like how he rhymes it with “Farewell my fairy fay” from “Polly Wolly Doodle” (video).

    I also note that in Danish the fisherman and his wife live in a muddergrøft, which appears to mean ‘muddy ditch’. Is this figurative? In the other versions it is a hut, or a hovel, or a shack, or in the original Low Saxon a Pissputt, which my mother explained to me as a house that has become unroofed. She read me the story in English, but the verse she repeated by heart.

  10. Lars Mathiesen says

    True, in the Danish version the fisherman and his wife start out living in a muddy ditch (which even smells bad), and the first wish upgrades them to a small hut (though more like a smallholder’s house, with a separate bedroom and all like the German Häuschen, and from there the steps up to the papal residence are the same). The name of the story is popularly called Konen i muddergrøften, in fact.

  11. in the original Low Saxon a Pissputt, which my mother explained to me as a house that has become unroofed.
    The things I learn… the version I know from childhood has Pisspott “chamber pot”, and in my imagination the couple lived under a giant overturned chamber pot.
    I assume the two actually are the same word and the unroofed house is called that way because it rains in.

  12. Lars Mathiesen says

    The Danish version at the link seems to be based on the 1905 translation by Carl Ewald which I have in a 1941 revised printing (well, my Mom has it, the first book she ever got). The online one is in the modern orthography, but I haven’t spotted any spelling changes apart from aa -> å and no capitals on nouns (only retained on Vorherre ~ ‘the good Lord’ which is the only proper noun in the story). One modal verb differs (in the first few paragraphs that I checked), but I think it’s more likely that it got changed in the revised printing and the online version reflects the 1905 one (which I have checked Gutenberg, Runeberg and for with no luck).

    In any case, I’m willing to lay the muddy ditch and the verse on Ewald. He did retain the title as Fiskeren og hans Kone, but everybody knows that Konen i Muddergrøften refers to this story and latter “modernized” versions generally use that as the title.

  13. John Cowan says

    I assume the two actually are the same word and the unroofed house is called that way because it rains in.

    I think so too. The OED gives four definitions for pisspot in English: ‘chamber pot’, ‘large quantity’ (as in pisspot of something), ‘(an) alcoholic’ (AusE), and ‘physician’ (especially one who diagnosed people by looking at their urine). These last were also called piss-prophets.

    The first, literal, one is the only one I know. The first regular use the OED shows is from 1529, when Thomas More wrote “And [= If] it happen to rayne, out poure they pispottys vppon his hed” in his Dialogue on Diverse Matters.

  14. @John Cowan: I wonder if the third OED definition of pisspot, “derogatory. A contemptible person; spec. (chiefly Australian) a drunkard” is really two separate senses—the first a general term of derision and the second (meaning “a drunkard”) influenced by tosspot. The word tosspot itself has moved in the other direction, toward being a general term of contempt, influenced by tosser.

  15. “Pisspot” in Australia is based on the fact that “beer” is commonly known as “piss”. Perhaps it was influenced by “tosspot” (which I’ve never heard), I don’t know.

  16. David Marjanović says

    the mysterious “Timpe Te”

    Nonsense syllables to fill out the line. Probably sold as magic words, because obviously you need some in a magic incantation.

  17. “Tosspot” is in The Hobbit (in a passage with perhaps the least faerie elves of all time).

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