Unable to sleep last night, I pulled out a little collection of Alexander Kushner (a wonderful St. Petersburg poet; here’s a pdf file of his 2002 speech “Poetry and Freedom”) and opened it at random to a poem whose first stanza is:

Skuchno, Gogol’, zhit’ na etom svete!
No poveet medom inogda
Ot pushistykh zontichnykh sotsvetii!
Chudno zhit’ na svete, gospoda!

[It’s tiresome, Gogol, to live in this world!
But sometimes there’s a honeyed breeze
from the fluffy zontichnye sotsvetiya!
It’s wonderful to live in the world, gentlemen!]

I didn’t know the words I’ve left in italics, but it was clear from their roots they had something to do with umbrellas (zontik) and flowers (tsvet), and I was too sleepy to bother going downstairs to look them up. So today I did, and it turns out zontichnyi is ‘umbelliferous’ and sotsvetiye is ‘inflorescence.’ Neither meant anything to me, so I looked them up; an inflorescence is a characteristic pattern of flowers on a stem, and one of the several varieties is an umbrella-shaped form called umbelliferous.
So how do you translate that? In Russian, both are perfectly ordinary-sounding words, and even if the average Russian doesn’t know exactly what a sotsvetiye is (I hope my Russian readers will enlighten me about this), it doesn’t carry any of the forbidding “incomprehensible technical term” air of its English equivalent. Nabokov, of course, would have rendered the line “From the fluffy umbelliferous inflorescences,” and quivered with pedantic joy as he did so; for the rest of us, that would risk clubbing the poem over the head with a hundred-ton hammer. But if you don’t, how do you keep it from losing all specificity and becoming a banal reference to sweet-smelling flowers? Ah, the endless troubles of translation…


  1. Easy, Watson.
    You’re blessed with having a gardener at hand. I’m sure the minute you mention umbrella family, such rare plants like dill or carrot will surface.
    As to the Importance of Understanding Plants’ names,
    …Members of the Umbelliferae, or carrot family, share umbrella-shaped flower clusters, like the dill heads you use in pickling. Other members of the family, including parsley, cilantro, and celery, have the same flower form…
    Incidentally, this is not necessarily non-native Russian speaker problem…

  2. msg/vernaculo says

    Queen Anne’s Lace.
    Poison hemlock.
    Where did the “r” in umbrella come from?
    That umbelliferous vade mecum for inclement moments which redirects precipitous downpour and drizzle.

    Gratuitous Brazilian Opossum

  3. That’s an advantage of knowing no Latin or Greek:I can always hide behind an authority.
    I dinnt doit! it’s all cut’n’paste!

  4. Damn! that little thing was gratuitous!

  5. > and even if the average Russian doesn’t know exactly what a sotsvetiye is (I hope my Russian readers will enlighten me about this)
    The average Russian is supposed not only to know what a sotsvetiye is, but also to be able to write down formula zvetka (floral formula) for the most important families. All this was (maybe still is) a part of curriculum for botany class, which was obligatory for all school children in 5 and 6 grades. Ok, of course nobody in their sane mind actually remember these formulas. 🙂
    > it doesn’t carry any of the forbidding “incomprehensible technical term” air of its English equivalent.
    It definitely does for me (except for “incomprehensible” part), thanks to aforementioned botany class. But this can vary from one reader to another; we need more opinions here…

  6. Why not keep part of the technical stuff, cutting down on botany terms a little? If I interpret this correctly, the tranlation of umbelliferous inflorescence into less technical English is simply umbel. So translating clustered umbels or fluffy clusters of umbels, or something along these lines may be technically a pleonasm, but who would know, botanists exculded?

  7. chris: Excellent idea! See, I didn’t say it couldn’t be done, just that it would take a little work, which you’ve done admirably.
    Map: Thanks for the very enlightening comment. As for the term, I had assumed that since it followed a common Russian-based pattern (sozvezdie, sozvuchie, soznanie, &c) it wouldn’t sound as arcane/technical as a Latinate English word, but that just shows the danger of making assumptions.

  8. Oh, and that’s a great opossum, msg! We welcome the gratuitous here at LH.

  9. Indeed, a sad world, Mr Gogol’!
    But if mellifluous breezes passed a
    Linnaean name to make a linguist boggle:
    It’s a glad, mad world, my master!

  10. What hat said about Nabakov reminded me of Peter Boodberg, a Russian emigre at Berkeley who exerted tremendous influence on American Sinology. Since there were no perfect equivalents for most key Chinese words, he invented (often-Latinate) equivalents.
    In Ch. 1 of the Tao Te Ching “Tao” comes out “lodehead” “name” comes out “namecall”, “beginning” comes out “fetation”, etc.
    You can trace his influence through the use of his jargon, sort of like a secret handshake. There was a spat between him and Rexroth during the 50’s or 60’s, the outcome of which is the Sinological dogma, of which Edward Schafer is the best-known advocate, that scholarly translations should be unreadable and readable translations are all unscholarly.
    Rexroth was a leftist and Boodberg a White Russian, and that may have had something to do with it.

  11. > LH: I had assumed that since it followed a common Russian-based pattern (sozvezdie, sozvuchie, soznanie, &c) it wouldn’t sound as arcane/technical as a Latinate English word, but that just shows the danger of making assumptions.
    I went to bed last night with a vague feeling that I did something wrong. 🙂 This morning I had an epiphany: sotsvetiye by itself doesn’t sound like a botany term, it’s “zontichnye sotsvetiya” that gives me this feeling. And I should add that we had a very strict botany teacher, so I remember lots of stuff that normal kids should forget the next day after class. 🙂 We still need other Russians testimonies… Also, Kushner was born in 1936, and I am not sure he went through the same school curriculum (I will ask my parents, who were born around this time, what they remember). Sotsvetiye is a perfect word for poetry (I would guess it’s a far more frequent word in Russian than “inflorescence” in English), and “zontichnye sotsvetiya” could be simply a metaphor for him — they do remind umbrella, after all.

  12. I would guess it’s a far more frequent word in Russian than “inflorescence” in English
    Whew — then I’m not such an idiot!

  13. Well, sometimes puzzling at the aporia is the fun part.
    The entire discussion reminds me (vaguely) of the moment I discovered the French word pédonculé, first in the dictionary, then a day later on a gardening show, where a gardening buff kept going on about a plants pédoncules with a totally straight face. I still can’t help grinning.

  14. Take 2 on a more serious translation attempt tackling “inflorescence” head on (for what little it’s worth):
    Yes, Gogol’, this world’s tedious in its essence
    but if a whiff of honey, a mere scent
    comes floating from some mundane inflorescence…
    Why, then, my friends, the world’s magnificent!

  15. He is far smaller and more pointy-nosed than his Okeefenokish cousin.

  16. Sotsvetie is both a botanical term and a commonly used word, indeed parallel to sozvezdie and sozvuchie. Too bad there is no confloration is English — it would nicely border on constellation and conflagration. Zontichnye sotsvetiya may be a valid botanical term — botany was the subject I hated the most at school (list’ya byvayut chereshkovye i sidyachie) — but it doesn’t sound too lofty or specialized.
    Thanks for quoting Kushner, LH — on good days, I rank him the best living Russian poet. What the first line alludes to should be pretty obvious but are there any other allusions within these four lines?

  17. What the first line alludes to should be pretty obvious
    As the excellent Map reminded me, it refers to the last line of Gogol’s famous story Повесть о том, как поссорился Иван Иванович с Иваном Никифоровичем (The story of how Ivan Ivanovich quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich).
    And I’m glad you share my high opinion of Kushner!

  18. By the way, I’ve just thought of another poem by Kushner, one replete with zoological terms from school (that’d be junior high in America I guess) — Pobud’ sred’ odnokletochnykh, // Prosteyshih vodyanyh… It may be an even mightier challenge for the translator!

  19. Here‘s the poem (in transcription).

  20. A cool thing about the English word “Umbelliferous” is that it makes the reader think immediately of “belliferous” without there being (I think) any etymological relationship between “umbra” and “bellum”. So if writers of English poetry want to use the word they get a nice leap from umbrella to war. (Obviously such a leap is not present in the Kushner and I think it would make “umbelliferous” be a misleading translation.)

  21. Or rather: from botany to war.

  22. it makes the reader think immediately of “belliferous”
    Except that it’s a rare reader who will have heard of that rare word — I certainly hadn’t.

  23. Well truth be told I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the word “belliferous” before — but this morning I read the word “umbelliferous”, sounded it out in my mind, and thought, “that must mean something like ‘warlike'” before I went on to read the rest of your post and discover I was wrong. So I looked up “belliferous” and found that it did indeed mean something like “warlike” — am I just (in this respect) an oddity, or might such a train of thought occur to other English speakers?

  24. Sure. I had immediate mental reference to casus belli.
    I think the last line alludes to Gogol also, to (http://miresperanto.[insert narod-dot-ru, I couldn’t-your filter forbids me-TE]/tradukoj/gogol.htm – )
    Vechera na khutore bliz Dikan’ki”Nights in a countryside[farm?] near Dikanka”
    Accidentally, that linked quote contain translation from Russian to..esperanto?

  25. OK, I deleted from the MT-Blacklist — thanks for letting me know!

  26. Hat,
    That’s a great essay by Kushner; I’m going to blog an excerpt, thanks to you. I’ve never read him (or heard of him) before. Can you recommend a first collection of his to read, preferably available bilingually?

  27. I’ve only got him in Russian, but an Amazon search reveals this collection, available for a few bucks — I assume it’s translations only (because it doesn’t say “bilingual edition” or anything), and I have no idea how the translations are, but it’s probably worth picking up. I may get one myself.

  28. It just occurred to me that I never thanked LH for Kushner’s essay, which I enjoyed greatly (essay, not no-thanking LH 🙂 Kushner is one of my favorite Russian poets, but I would never find this text of him…
    Possibly related: I think all translated poetry should always be printed in both languages.

  29. Just a thought: Do we know exactly which sweet-smelling member of the carrot family would likely have it’s scent carried on the breeze in St. Petersberg? Is there a common or representative wildflower or garden plant that would match that description?
    I’m thinking that if I were writing about life in Savannah Georgia (US), I might write, “shrubs in full extravagance drizzle the heavy air with syrup,” and everyone would know, since this is the US South, I’m referring to the magnolias.
    If you could identify Kushner’s specific plant, maybe you could loosely translate this so the reference would be more relevant to non-St. Petersbergers.

  30. Just googled out a couple of Kushner’s poems (no idea how good/bad translations are: here and here.

  31. HP — Kushner’s plants are probably among those identified in the first two comments.
    What I didn’t realize — neither in the South in general nor in the charming Savannah in particular — that the scent came from magnolias. I thought it was just “something in the air,” a mix of floral aromas.

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