The Spleendrake.

I’m getting to the end of Bunin’s Деревня [The Village], which made him famous in Russia when it was published in 1910; I almost gave up on it because the first part, about the greedy, brutal Tikhon Krasov, was so depressing (it reminded me of Grigorovich’s 1847 Антон Горемыка [Unlucky Anton], another life-sucks-and-everybody-suffers story), but the second part, about his poetry-loving brother Kuzma, was a little less gloomy, so I kept going. It’s not easy reading, being full of specialized and dialectal words and expressions, so I have to keep checking Dahl and other references, and occasionally I’ll consult the 1923 translation by Hapgood. She can be helpful, but there’s a reason I called her “the hapless Isabel F. Hapgood” back in 2017, and I’ve come to a passage (beginning in the Russian text “Чтобы согреться, он выпил водки и посидел перед жарко пылающей печкой” [Hapgood: “With a view to warming himself up, Kuzma drank some vodka and seated himself in front of the hotly flaming oven”]) that contains two howlers in succession. The first amused me but didn’t drive me to post: the hut contains an image of продажа братьями Иосифа [the sale of Joseph by his brothers], which is translated “manufactured by the Josif Brothers.” But then a couple of sentences later Kuzma decides to go see Tikhon, and Bunin says his gelding ran quickly, екая селезенкой, which Hapgood renders “emitting roaring and quacking sounds, like a drake”! Now, the funny-sounding verb ёкать [yokat’] can mean several things, mainly ‘to emit abrupt hiccup-like sounds’ or (of a heart) ‘to skip a beat,’ but never “roaring and quacking,” and селезёнка [selezyonka], though it looks very similar to селезень [selezen’] ‘drake,’ is an entirely different word meaning ‘spleen’ (and is in fact probably a cognate of Greek σπλήν, from which we get spleen). Had she bothered to consult Dahl, Hapgood would have learned that у лошади селезенка бьется [the horse’s spleen is beating], of which this is clearly a variant, means “на бегу жидкость пахтается вслух в желудке” [while running, liquid is audibly churning in its stomach]. Translation is hard, and I don’t want to be too hard on Isabel, but you should realize that something has gone wrong when you find yourself writing about a horse emitting roaring and quacking sounds, like a drake.


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    Poor Miss Hapgood. (The funniest line the wiki bio of her may be that she remained single “[d]espite Count Tolstoy’s admonition that she should marry.”)

  2. Ha! Poor Miss Hapgood indeed.

  3. “I shall be staying at the Spleendrake Arms, and am looking forward to the pleasure of your visit. I remain etc.”

  4. Stu Clayton says

    you should realize that something has gone wrong when you find yourself writing about a horse emitting roaring and quacking sounds, like a drake.

    But that’s what you yourself have done in writing that. It seems harmless enough.

    The problem is that when someone writes what you take to be nonsense, you imagine yourself to be only fair in relaying it as nonsense. Translators generally like to imagine themselves as recounters, faithful raconteurs.

    When writers are not present, as they tend not to be when one reads what they wrote, there’s no way to ask them if they “really meant” their poppycock, or what they meant by it. So one gets into the habit of acquiescing in asininities.

    One way to combat this is to read less and get out more. Which lands you straight in the pseudodoxia epidemica of smalltalk. Second-hand fake news.

    You just can’t win, but you can hedge.

  5. But that’s what you yourself have done in writing that.

    You are mistaking the signifier for the signified.

  6. Stu Clayton says

    I too was mentioning use.

    My point was that it’s a good idea to defer judgement on both sense and nonsense. Ask around (Dahl), then sleep on it.

  7. *sleeps*

  8. Stu Clayton says

    The nightmare of reason produces sleep.

  9. David Marjanović says

    ^ That. I like that.

  10. In Miss Hapgood’s defense, I find Dahl’s gloss of the phrase almost as curious as a “quacking drake” if considerably less amusing. How did the spleen come to be associated with an audible digestive noise? And how to render the idea into comprehensible English? “The gelding ran quickly with rumbling guts”?

    This and related questions led me down a Google rabbit hole. Apparently, geldings and stallions often do emit unusual noises when they trot, but it has to do with a rather different part of the anatomy. Try searching “gelding sheath noise.”

  11. Obviously a horseman has no way of knowing for sure what organ inside the trotting horse made that quacking sound.

    why not spleen, as good guess as any

  12. Stu Clayton says
  13. Hapgood should have gone with “borborygmus.”

  14. Stu Clayton says

    Drake, shmake. It seems the whole issue is being ducked:

    # The quintessential duck’s quack is the sound of the female mallard. Females often give this call in a series of 2–10 quacks that begin loudly and get softer. When courting, she may give a paired form of this quack. The male does not quack; instead he gives a quieter, rasping, one- or two-noted call. Ducklings make soft, shrill whistles when alarmed. #

    Quintessential duck

  15. This thread is fantastic, I am in tears laughing with it, thanks, languagehat!

    Commentary; if any mammal’s spleen is making noise, something is very very wrong, it’s an odd abdominal organ to go for. Borborygmus is used in human medicine too, there’s nothing specifically equine about it. That said, I haven’t used the word in a while, will try to address that soon.

  16. George Meredith vs. Henry James:

    “Poor old Meredith, he writes these mysterious nonsenses and heaven alone knows what they all mean.”

    “Poor old James. He sets down on paper these mysterious rumblings in his bowels—but who could be expected to understand them?”

    Both of these remarks were addressed to Ford Madox Ford in his capacity as editor of the English Review, to which both James and Meredith were contributors.

  17. I believe you mean “Both of these remarks were said by the notoriously unreliable anecdotalist Ford Madox Ford to have been addressed to him.” I mean no disrespect to Ford (ci-devant Hueffer), a wonderful writer and doubtless boon companion; I suspect he would have laughed and agreed.

  18. Well, yes. I could have given the citation (to FMF’s autobiography) but decided not to bother. Still, the reference to borborygmi tickled me.

    By further association of ideas I am led to this anecdote:

    Emerson had visited England soon after the publication of Poems and Ballads. In an interview with a journalist he was reported to have said things about the volume which gave deep offence to Swinburne. Swinburne wrote a mild protest, saying he felt sure that Emerson could not have used the words attributed to him. No reply was received. Swinburne was incensed.

    Some time afterwards Gosse and Swinburne were resting in the Green Park and the conversation turned on Emerson. Gosse learnt for the first time that Swinburne had again written to him. He said, ‘I hope you said nothing rash.’

    ‘Oh, no.’

    ‘But what did you say?’

    ‘I kept my temper, I preserved my equanimity.’

    ‘Yes, but what did you say?’

    `I called him’, said Swinburne in his chanting voice, ‘a wrinkled and toothless baboon, who, first hoisted into notoriety on the shoulders of Carlyle, now spits and splutters on a filthier platform of his own finding and fouling.’ The letter like its predecessor received no answer.

  19. ci-devant Hueffer

    I have just discovered this name is pronounced “Wheffer.” For decades I’ve been saying “Heffer,” and now my world is shattered.

  20. It’s always amusing to see how frequently anglophones struggle with the name Houellebecq without realising that it’s simply pronounced Welbeck.

  21. I now realise that for the past forty years I’ve been confusing André Previn with Pierre Trudeau.

  22. Easy to do. His many wives probably had occasional doubts themselves.

  23. @AlexM: Huh, I’ve always imagined that as sounding like “Houlbecq” even though I should have known better.

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