Maximilian Voloshin (the stress is on the second syllable: vah-LOSH-in) may not have been as great a poet as the famous “Silver Age” Russians (Blok, Mandelstam, Pasternak & Co.), but he was a very fine one, and his famous house at Koktebel in the Crimea served as a refuge for both Reds and Whites during the Civil War (and how, with his integrity and refusal to take sides, he not only survived the war but lived in peace until his death in 1932 is a mystery). At any rate, Greg Afinogenov (aka slawkenbergius) has translated his long and moving poem Дом Поэта as “The Poet’s House” (with the original Russian en face, a much-appreciated courtesy), and I commend it to your attention. You may be puzzled, as I was, by the reference to “Queen Taiakh”; I asked Greg about it, and he pointed me in the direction of this piece by Boris Grigoriev suggesting that the name Taiakh, which Voloshin gave to a reproduction of an Egyptian statue he acquired in Germany and installed in Koktebel, is the Arabic word حياة ḥaya(t) ‘life’ spelled backward. Se non è vero, è ben trovato!


  1. Incidentally, the reference to Cherubina de Gabriak in the Grigoriev piece is an interesting story in itself (Voloshin made it up as a mysterious exotic pseudonym to help his friend Elizaveta Dmitrieva get her poetry published).

  2. There’s a decent Wikipedia article about her (from which it would seem that Grigoriev is off base about the origin of the name).

  3. Yeah, that bit sounded like a stretch to me. Although I guess I wouldn’t put it past MV to make up a demonological manual either.

  4. David Marjanović says

    Hey, great, so now I know how to pronounce “H”ayat the lab technician! 🙂

  5. Se non è vero, è ben trovato!
    I was intrigued by the Italian saying you close with. It expresses a sentiment I often find myself wanting to express (I think there are a lot of stories that deserve that description.), but I don’t believe I’d ever heard it before, from an Italian source or otherwise.
    A little googling suggests that it might be better known outside Italy these days than inside it. I did find some modern Italian examples, but I found more citations of the “as the Italians say…” sort and postings in Italian fora concerning whether it would be recognized or understood by your average Italian (the answer seemed to be no to the ‘recognized’ question and yes to the ‘understood’ one).
    The OED entry for ‘ben trovato’ seems to support this, too. It says that the Italian saying was apparently popular in the 16th century, noting that “it is found… in Giordano Bruno (1585)”.
    What to other people know about the phrase? Does this ring true?

  6. I agree, LH, that the transation of Dom Poeta into Germanic syntax as The Poet’s House is preferable to the Romance syntax of House of a Poet as in the Wikipedia article on Voloshin. This incessant romanticizing has disfigured English too long. It originates in litteral translation from Romance languages, which fails to recognize differences between languages, doubtless due to too much emphasis on comparative rather than contrastive linguistics.

  7. That’s very interesting, Cindy. I had never thought about it, but it’s perfectly plausible that it would be better known in English than in Italian. Now I’m curious about the history of the phrase; I wonder if anyone’s ever done a detailed study?

  8. marie-lucie says

    Many Wikipedia articles seem to be either translations of each other, or written by non-native speakers of varying degrees of competence, without revision.
    About the “romanticizing” of English, the opposite is happening in French these days (as I have mentioned many times), with English syntax disfiguring the French language, in my opinion. However, the two languages have been entangled for centuries, the prestige going back and forth between them, and it could be argued that French influence in the Middle Ages, due to the political situation after the Norman conquest, disfigured English for ever.
    too much emphasis on comparative rather than contrastive linguistics
    Somehow I doubt that the poor translations are due to linguistics, a field that is not widely known, even by translators. But “contrastive linguistics” seems to be out of favour nowadays, perhaps because it is not considered theoretical enough. Incidentally, the term “comparative linguistics” usually applies to the comparison of languages for the purpose of reconstructing the common ancestor, a field that is not very crowded at the moment.

  9. I was at school with a Ben Trovato.

  10. At the other end, though the OED is vague, I can’t find anyone citing a specific usage before Bruno. It’s here in a legible edition, though most references seem to be to Wagner’s edition, here. The former has a note, referencing its listing in Büchmann’s Geflügelte Worte and wondering whether there are earlier uses. That editor, de Lagarde, then ties it to English seekers via a short note from the person who shared with Büchmann the 1881 Notes and Queries on it. That query seems to have gone unanswered, though the phrase does pop up again.

  11. Sorry, m-l, I’m not writing clearly enough. I meant that the use of Romance syntax in English puts a romantic sheen on the topic, as in Romantic poetry. This distorts the reader’s perceptions of the people and culture of the source language.
    And as for the two aspects of linguistics refered to, when I learned languages emphasis was put on the similarities, presumably to make it easier for the learner. Decades later when I jumped at the chance to take a seminar in contrastive linguistics, I discovered the the rest of the very large class were all ESL teachers-in-training. So contrastive ling. is applied linguistics; although those potential teachers would never have applied c. l. because they wouldn’t know the many languages of the immigrants in their classes, and probably would have taught both Germanic and Romance syntax anyway, so the disfigurement continues.

  12. marie-lucie says

    iakon: the use of Romance syntax in English puts a romantic sheen on the topic, as in Romantic poetry.
    I guess I misunderstood your use of the word romanticizing, but I don’t understand your point. Is Romantic poetry in English more Romance in syntax than earlier poetry? Is the influence of (mostly) French more apparent in poetry than in prose in the same time period?

  13. Romantic = fanciful, marvelous, extravagant, unreal as in the first definition supplied when you Google ‘define romantic’.
    Therefore, translations from, say, aboriginal American languages into English by using Romance syntax put the reader’s mind into an unreal mode of perceiving the world those languages describe.

  14. marie-lucie says

    iakon, Is this a comment on the latest “translation” of Haida myths, by a poet not a linguist?

  15. Not in the least, Marie-Lucie. I was thinking very generally of a ‘culture’ that’s in the minds of people that haven’t gone beyond high school in North American education.
    The poet you refer to, Robert Bringhurst, is a linguist, who probably began his intellectual journey in anthropological linguistics. He spent 20 years studying John Swanton’s phonetic notations (made in 1900) of Haida storytellers, in various archives in the States, and ‘oral literature’ more broadly in other aboriginal languages. He is knowledgable and sensitive. His book A Story as Sharp as a Knife is illuminating and pleasurable. One Haida, who saw me reading it, dismissed it as ‘cultural appropriation’, but I know he spoke out of prejudice, not knowledge. I can’t recommend Bringhurst too strongly.

  16. marie-lucie says

    iakon, Robert Bringhurst (whom I have met personally) may be a brilliant man but he is not a linguist. He may have taken a course or two in linguistics as an undergraduate, but that does not make him a linguist. Around the time of the publication of The world is as sharp as a knife there was a very (probably overly) critical review of the book by Haida specialist John Enrico (see his work in the references to Wiki “Haida language”), and a reply by Bringhurst complaining that Enrico had never replied to his requests for help with the language (both articles appeared in the newsletter of SSILA, the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas).
    Most people studying “oral literature”, especially from several different languages, do so through studying translations which are more or less adequate, as in Swanton’s case.

  17. In his Acknowledgements at the beginning of Nine Visits to the Mythworld Bringhurst mentions Enrico’s ‘large number of instances in which he disagreed with my interpretation of a Haida word or phrase’ and agreed with ‘half a dozen’. Bringhurst adds ironically ‘I want to extend my thanks to John Enrico for his close attention to my work’.
    I have twice read Enrico’s retranslation of Swanton’s Skidegate Haida Myths and Histories and compared it with Enrico’s (it’s a bilingual edition) incredibly dense (in the sense of overgrown jungle) Haida script. What an ordeal! On the other hand, Bringhurst’s Haida script flows beautifully, in the eye and on the tongue, without phonetic distortion.
    I also have Enrico’s massive two-volume dictionary and plan more study. I’m glad I have Bringhurst’s three publications for comparison and refreshment.

  18. For ‘Bringhurst’s Haida script’ read ‘Bringhurst’s Haida transcription’.

  19. marie-lucie says

    iakon: Haida script/transcription:
    Swanton used the now very old-fashioned, more or less standardized transcription used in the works written or edited by Boas (eg Swanton’s “Haida”, a fairly short grammar in the 3-volume Handbook of American Indian languages, which contains grammars of a number of such languages, by many authors), while Bringhurst is using a practical orthography.
    The Boas type transcriptions were indeed cumbersome, because were intended to record as much detail as possible as the pronunciation, and they are still valuable for that purpose. In addition, there was still no generally accepted transcriptional system such as the IPA. A practical orthography intended to be used for a single language can be simpler as it only needs to be phonemic, not phonetic, and it can also make use of speakers’ literacy in English or other locally dominant language.
    Yes, RB is ironic in his reference to Enrico, and probably bitterly so, as Enrico did not pay attention to him until the work was published.

  20. marie-lucie says

    p.s. or do you mean that it is Enrico’s transcription that is incredibly dense? Not having seen it, I can’t comment.

  21. Here is a table contrasting two systems in common use and here is Bringhurst comparing his system to Enrico’s. Neither seems particularly dense; now Swanton was indeed.

  22. marie-lucie says

    Thank you, MMcM. The table actually gives three systems (differing in a few details), all of them fairly simple, designed by linguists but intended for practical, everyday use (this is one thing linguists do). The Swanton page looks much more complex if you are not used to the Boas system, but that system was intended for scholarly use, not practical use, and it can readily be transcribed into a more practical one (something Enrico did for his new edition of the texts recorded by Swanton). Retranslation of such texts is often necessary because the original linguists working with or for Boas usually did not spend enough time with a given language to understand all its subtleties, so that many of their translations are misleading or too literal, but persons with decades of experience with the language (especially if they have some literary gifts) are able to give a truer rendition. Nevertheless, the early transcriptions, awkward as they may seem, are still extremely valuable, especially with languages that have disappeared or are on the verge of extinction.

  23. My response didn’t ‘take’, so I’ll rewrite.
    Yes, I’m aware that Swanton’s phonetic transciption was dense. I recall seeing an incredibly long string of low centre allophones somewhere.
    Thanks MMcM, I’m aware of the table contrasting systems, and its source. I have it in my Favourites but haven’t gone to it for some time.
    Yes Marie-Lucie, I meant that Enrico’s orthography is dense, but I think now that much of the denseness may have been mine. I first read ‘Myths and Histories’ for the stories. The second time I compared the translation to the transcription while refering to the notes. There are still two bookmarks where I left off nearly two years ago out of weariness.
    Looking at the books again and thinking about it all, I feel I’d like to get back into it. Probably I should start with a thorough study of the orthogaphy.

  24. if you are not used to the Boas system
    Right. I suppose I should have been clearer that I do actually have a hundred year old copy of that book from the days before Google, but only a reprint of Boas’ intro. I meant just looking at it from a distance.

  25. marie-lucie says

    I don’t think that the transcriptional system is described in the introduction. In spite of the fact that basically the same system is used for all the languages in the HAIL, there are sometimes individual divergences, and each grammar has a separate pronunciation key. If you have the Enrico version, it is probably much more accurate in transcription and translation.

  26. I don’t think that the transcriptional system is described in the introduction.
    I meant this. Compare this.

  27. marie-lucie says

    MMcM, by “introduction” I meant Boas’s introduction to the HAIL. Of course Swanton’s contribution “Haida” has its own phonetics section. Or did I misunderstand what you wrote?

  28. There was also a reprint of Swanton’s Haida Grammar by Storey (I think) Books of Seattle, but I can’t find it by Googling. Alibris doesn’t have it,

  29. “Se non e vero, etc.” is used in the libretto to Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” (though not in Pushkin, I guess. It is worth noting that Tchaikovsky’s plot is set earlier than Pushkin’s (he puts the action in the 18th century).

  30. by “introduction” I meant Boas’s introduction to the HAIL
    As did I. Perhaps the disconnect is on what “the transcriptional system is described” would entail. I take the section Brief Description of Phonetics in the HAIL intro to be a general transcription scheme, of which Alphabet section in Haida Texts or the Phonetics subsection in the Haida section of the full HAIL are specific uses. To the extent that having seen it, one could be said to be “used to the Boas system.” Or at least could recognize the consonant tables I showed as common. Perhaps not the kind of description modern scholars would expect. And perhaps not the most thorough layout of Boas’s general scheme, though the reference from Table 4. Comparison of Phonetic Alphabets in HNAI vol. 17 is to Boas 1911, which is just that introduction and the bibliography specifically cites the UN reprint to which I linked.

  31. marie-lucie says

    MMcM, OK, I haven’t read the Introduction in ages and did not remember the phonetic description.
    By “used to the Boas system” I didn’t mean just having read that description, but actually having studied texts written with that transcription system. Linguists familiar with at least one of the languages described in the HAIL will have studied the grammar and probably some published texts, and in the process will have become familiar with the transcriptional system, but the layperson or native student can’t be expected to relate to the system just like that, which is why it is desirable to reproduce the texts using a practical orthography.
    Also, reprint or not (since the reprints are facsimiles), the text of Boas’s intro is the same whether the text is bound with the first few grammars (as in the original edition) or distributed as a separate unit. The intro does stand on its own.

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