The Charts of Reper.

I’m reading Goncharov’s Фрегат “Паллада,” toggling back and forth between the Russian text and the translation, The Frigate Pallada, done by one Klaus Goetze, who says in the Preface “I was born in Berlin in Germany, and at the age of eighteen I didn’t know a word of Russian.” He studied with Baron von der Osten-Sacken at Berlin University and Maria Yulievna Azarova at Cambridge, and I regret to report they might have been embarrassed for their student if they read his work here. Of course we all make mistakes, and it’s quite a long book, and I’m indulgent about the occasional slip, but when they become too glaring and frequent I take notice, and if it becomes too much to bear I post. Mind you, this isn’t as bad as the work of Isidor Schneider (see here, here, and here), but I hope never to see such dreadful translation as that again. At any rate, I began putting exclamation marks in the margin on page 46, where one sentence refers to the English ship “Kemperdown” and the next to the “Excelenta.” This isn’t even a matter of knowing Russian: how could anyone think that those ridiculous collections of letters are the names of English ships? I’m no naval specialist, but even I could tell they had to be the Camperdown and the Excellent. On the next page, the name Мотыгин [Motygin] was repeatedly rendered “Motuitin”; that’s just a misreading (to which is added the silly use of “ui” for ы), but it’s evidence of a worrisome sloppiness.

I didn’t get seriously bent out of shape until Chapter 3, where I found on the second page the sentence “There is one thing, however, that the charts of Reper cannot show, that cannot be reduced to figures, a thing nobody can put on a map.” The charts of Reper?! The Russian is “Реперовы таблицы”; I suppose Goetze was led astray by the (inexplicable) capital letter, but this means (as the notes to the Russian edition say) “tables for navigational calculations”; репер [reper] is simply the French word repère ‘marker, indicator; landmark’ (familiar to me mainly from the phrase point de repère) in Cyrillic disguise. [Actually, it turns out this probably refers to “Raper’s Tables”; see DCA’s comment below.] But the straw that forced the camel to post came a couple of pages later, when the helmsman says they’ve passed the Tropic of Cancer (heading south) and Goncharov remarks that he was cold during the night. “How’s that?” [Как так?] asks the helmsman, and he responds “Так, взял да и озяб: видно, кто-нибудь из нас охладел, или я, или тропики. Я лежал легко одетый под самым люком, а ‘ночной зефир струил эфир’ прямо на меня.” [Nothing special, I just suddenly got chilly: evidently one of us cooled off, either me or the tropics. I was lying lightly dressed right under the hatch, and “the night’s zephyr poured ether” right onto me.] The bit about the night’s zephyr is an allusion to a Pushkin poem, and is quoted within the quoted line of dialogue; Goetze seriously impairs intelligibility by putting only that part in quotes, and leaving the rest as narrative rather than dialogue:

It came over me, and I shivered: clearly, someone got cold, either I or the tropic. I lay, lightly dressed, under the hatch, and the “zephyr of the night poured ether onto me.”

There are various problems there, including the omission of the opening “Так” and of “самым” in “под самым люком” as well as the inclusion of “onto me” in the Pushkin quote, but the killer is the rendition of “взял да и озяб” as “It came over me, and I shivered”; Goetze was clearly unfamiliar with the idiom “взять да (и),” used in reference to doing something suddenly: он взял да убежал ‘he up and ran.’ That one is worthy of Isidor Schneider himself.


  1. One wonders at what age, if any, our translator learned English.

  2. Apparently he came to the US at nineteen, so maybe then?

  3. That’s the only thing I read by Goncharov, because at age of 12, I found Oblomov too boring, compared to, well, frigates and stuff…

  4. The translator was misled by the capital R (agreed) and by the -ov- suffix typically used with proper nouns to form a possessive (or whatever it’s called): стеллерова корова, (не)евклидова геометрия. It’s as if Goncharov himself had been unsure of the word’s provenance. But I’m pretty sure that every Soviet edition has a footnote clearing that up.

  5. Common Slavic /y/ could be have been pronounced /ui/ at some stage in history, this is one explanation of the strange digraph /ы/, but I doubt the translator had that in mind :))

  6. In the Freising manuscripts (Slovenia, 10/11th century), /y/ is rendered “ui” after labials, e.g. bui “by”, mui “my” on this page , from which Slavists have concluded that it had some initial lip rounding in that position, as in contemporary Russian. But that’s of course too early to explain Motuitin. 😉 That looks like perhaps a wrong reading from a hand-written document? As I don’t know anything about publishing, is it even conceivable that in the 1980s, a translator would have handed in a hand-written translation and not one typed on a typewriter?

  7. marie-lucie says

    le repère > Repère

    Perhaps at the time of writing le point de repère was known as a technical/scientific phrase and commonly interpreted as le point de Repère, as in le principe d’Archimède, le nombre d’Avogadro and other attributions.

    Un repère is a sign, either natural or artificial, used as a help for orienting oneself. In nature or in a city it could be a prominent tree, a landmark, signpost, etc; in a text it could be a number or other means of helping the reader find their way. Un point de repère means almost the same thing: by looking for un repère of any kind you hope to discover a reliable point de repère.

    There is a verb repérer meaning ‘to notice or discover (a mark, sign, specific location, etc)’ which you intend to keep in mind for future reference. This verb has a pronominal avatar se repérer ‘to discover a means of orienting oneself’ (for instance by locating one’s position on a map).

    Le repère is homophonous with le repaire ‘lair, den’ (of an animal or a gang of evildoers).

  8. David Marjanović says

    the Freising manuscripts

    Finally I get to see them! 🙂 In the second half there are accents, apparently mostly on stressed vowels! I wonder if v́ze (vse = all) means that the yers, though unwritten, had not yet fallen.

  9. Hans, David: there is at least one Slavic scholar who believes that the language of the Freising manuscripts is not a direct ancestor of any Slovenian variety, but instead is a Slavic variety once spoken in…Austria.

  10. David Marjanović says

    Where in Austria? Slovene is still spoken on its southern fringes… 🙂 I know that our own bulbul has identified West Slavic features, though he hasn’t said what they are.

    That wouldn’t say much about the accents, however. The manuscripts are from the 10th/11th century, right? That may be before any Slavic languages (all of them West Slavic except for Macedonian) developed predictable stress.

  11. @marie-lucie: “Perhaps at the time of writing le point de repère was… commonly interpreted as le point de Repère, as in le principe d’Archimède, le nombre d’Avogadro and other attributions.”

    It would explain Goncharov’s capitalization and use of the -ov- suffix. If the translator chose to stick to Goncharov’s odd version on purpose rather than by mistake, he should have added a footnote to avoid confusing the reader.

  12. There are no footnotes, and there are enough other mistakes (I just found a reference to the star “Konopus”) that I’m not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

  13. I have no idea if this is relevant, but there was a Royal Navy officer, Henry Raper, who in the 1840’s wrote

    The Practice of Navigation and Nautical Astronomy


    Nautical Tables Requisite for the Practice of Navigation

    both of which had reached 21st editions by 1920 and were usually referred to as “Raper’s Navigation” and “Raper’s Tables”. He also wrote

    Sailing Directions for the Western Coast of Africa (1849)

    which also went through many editions and was translated into Italian in 1866. But no charts.

  14. Good lord, I’m sure that is relevant — a very likely source of confusion! In fact, now that I think of it, I’ll bet the Soviet annotations are wrong, and it should actually be “Raper’s Tables” (Raper in Cyrillic guise would be Репер). Thanks very much for that!

  15. До настоящаго времени наши мореплаватели, при исчиcленiи пути корабля и вычисленiи астрономическихъ наблюдений, употребляли различныя таблицы, за верность которыхъ нельзя было поручиться, особенно техъ немногихъ, который изданы на русскомъ языке; даже самый употребительный теперь между моряками таблицы Репера Nautical tables by Henry Raper, 8-th edition 1864) не избавились этого недостатка.
    Морской сборник, 1871

    I think you are right, Goncharov was referring to Nautical tables of Henry Raper.

    And notes to Soviet edition are wrong.

  16. marie-lucie says

    Yes, “Raper” and his navigation tables sound right. Forget about “Repère”.

  17. Plenty of tables in Raper’s book. The translator was right, it turns out, to trust Goncharov rather than his Soviet commenters, although not diligent enough to change “Reper” to Raper.

    “Реперные таблицы” are actually used in a field somewhat similar to navigation – in geodesy. Also see “repère géodesique.”

  18. What do “вычисленiи” and “различныя” mean? Even correcting the former to “вычислении” gets me no forwarder.

  19. Вычисление (in an oblique case in the quote) is ‘calculation, computation’ (from число ‘number’); различный is ‘different; various.’

  20. the strange digraph /ы/

    ы began life as ъi, which makes more sense, since it is preceded by a hard consonant. The way it’s written today is just a graphic simplification.

  21. David Marjanović says

    which makes more sense, since it is preceded by a hard consonant

    Also, it comes from a time when ъ was a vowel somewhere around [ə]; and indeed, ы is today often pronounced as a diphthong somewhere around [ɨɪ̯] in stressed positions.

    (In modern Bulgarian, in the positions where it hasn’t dropped altogether, ъ is said to be [ɤ] when stressed and [ɐ] when unstressed.)

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