Abat-jour

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che diffondi la luce blu

To protect against infection, washing hands is a critical gesture, and to do so properly, the washing should take as long as singing Happy Birthday twice.

I don’t like the Happy Birthday song at all.

That’s why I decided that every week I would choose one song among those I do like but have never looked up the lyrics, and would learn them by heart, to accompany my hand washing routine.

The first song is in Italian, chosen in honour of our Italian friends, although its name is French, abat-jour, from abbattre (to through down) and jour (daylight).

It is a song from the 1960s. In a film Ieri, oggi, domani (Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow), it accompanies the famous sensual scene with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. 

Abat-jour che soffondi la luce blu
di lassù tu sospiri chissà perchè
Abat-jour mentre spandi la luce blu
anche tu cerchi forse chi non c’è più

In some versions of the song, the verb soffondi (you suffuse) is replaced by diffondi (you diffuse). The two verbs are related, but different: soffondere means to suffuse, to spread in a manner of light or fluid, and derives from Latin suffundere, with the etymology of spreading upon (‘sub’ ). A more common diffondere, from diffundere, means to diffuse, to spread around, away (‘dis’).

You can watch the famous spogliarello scene here.

Confinement

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a view of Japanese summer

Confinement, lockdown, quarantine, clausura, карантин, couvre-feu. Our everyday vocabulary has been filled with these forgotten, military words.

I have just finished my third week of confinement, with restricted freedom of movement and quite a few big and little inconveniences. Still, I believe that when confinement conditions are not dangerous nor inhuman, the difficulties of dealing with confinement are greatly exaggerated.

I was pondering the issue when reading La storia del nuovo cognome, the second volume of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.

Elena, now a student in Pisa, describes how she wrote her first book. One morning, she bought a grid notebook and began writing down what had happened to her the previous summer, and kept writing for twenty days, not seeing anyone, only going out to get something to eat:

Una mattina comprai un quaderno a quadretti e cominciai a scrivere in terza persona di ciò mi era successo ….

Impiegai venti giorni a scrivere quella storia, un lasso di tempo in cui non vidi nessuno, uscivo solo per andare a mangiare. Alla fine rilessi qualche pagina, non mi piacque e lasciai perdere.

Writers, scientists, and creatives have lived periods of self-imposed isolation, and so have monks, astronauts, and submarine crew, to name but a few.  Whether voluntary or compulsory, people are able to live confined for extended periods of time, and often even profit from it.

I myself spent several weeks in splendid isolation during the final stages of my PhD thesis, and three months of going out only the strict minimum during the long, hot, and humid Japanese summer. Yes, it was inconvenient, but it was not particularly difficult.

Today’s situation is different.

The real difficulty is not confinement per se. The real difficulty is the uncertainty, the danger, and the battle against the virus.

Multilingual is normal

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Oh Lithuania, my fatherland

Today is the International Day of Multilingualism.

The date has not been chosen at random: 27 March, 196 BC, is the date mentioned on the famous multilingual Rosetta Stone. The stone is engraved with a decree in three scripts: hieroglyphic, Demotic, and Ancient Greek, and was instrumental in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs.

To celebrate the International Day of Multilingualism, I am starting a series under the hashtag #multilingualisnormal, in which I will talk about multilinguals, polyglots, and language learners, mentioned in books I am reading or encountered otherwise.

The first example comes from Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness (2004), which I read in a wonderful English translation by Nicholas de Lange.

That’s how Oz describes his family, which came to Israel from Eastern Europe.

Books filled our home. My father could read sixteen or seventeen languages and could speak eleven (all with a Russian accent). My mother spoke four or five languages and read seven or eight. They conversed in Russian or Polish when they did not want me to understand. (Which was most of the time. When my mother referred to a stallion in Hebrew in my hearing my father rebuked her furiously in Russian: Shto s toboi?! Vidish malchik ryadom s nami! – What’s the matter with you? You can see the boy’s right here!) Out of cultural considerations they mostly read books in German or English, and presumably they dreamed in Yiddish. But the only language they taught me was Hebrew. Maybe they feared that a knowledge of languages would expose me to the blandishments of Europe, that wonderful, murderous continent.

The picture above is taken in Vilnius, Lithuania, a place frequently mentioned in Oz’ novel, since his father’s family originated there. Speaking multiple languages was common in the region at the time. The monument to Adam Mickiewicz, a great Polish poet, who lived part of his life in Lithuania, reminds us of this linguistic diversity.

The enth of Marchember

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Набережная Неисцелимых, Pavement of the Incurables

Today is World Poetry Day, celebrated every year on 21 March.

My relationship with poetry is contradictory. On the one hand, I know hundreds of poems in Russian from school, when learning by heart was required, and dozens of poems in Latvian, French, Spanish, and German, from my language studies.

My big poetic gap is English. I keep telling myself that it would be immensely beneficial to get acquainted with English poetry. yet I cannot recite a single verse in English!

For many years, I have owned several bilingual English-Russian poetry books: T.S. Eliot with Russian translations, an anthology of American poetry, and a couple of others.

Until last year, I had not opened any of them. I did not want to read these poems in Russian, assuming that translations would pale compared to the originals, and I did not want to read them in English, as my English was not good enough to appreciate poetic sophistication.

Last year, however, I began reading one book on a whim, and enjoyed it immensely: both the English originals and the translations. What’s more, the book proved to be a treasure for a language student, as some poems had several translations by different authors, which I could compare and analyse. Still a long way to go before reaching any degree of familiarity with English verse, but a welcome first step.

Today, however, to mark the day, I found one of my favourite Russian poems, by Joseph Brodsky, in the original and in English translation, coauthored by the poet himself. I knew the Russian original for years, and was astonished how the English version matches the spirit, the rhythm, and even vocabulary .

Ниоткуда с любовью, надцатого мартобря,
дорогой, уважаемый, милая, но не важно
даже кто, ибо черт лица, говоря
откровенно, не вспомнить уже, не ваш, но
и ничей верный друг вас приветствует с одного
из пяти континентов, держащегося на ковбоях.
Я любил тебя больше, чем ангелов и самого,
и поэтому дальше теперь
от тебя, чем от них обоих.
Далеко, поздно ночью, в долине, на самом дне,
в городке, занесенном снегом по ручку двери,
извиваясь ночью на простыне,
как не сказано ниже, по крайней мере,
я взбиваю подушку мычащим «ты»,
за горами, которым конца и края,
в темноте всем телом твои черты
как безумное зеркало повторяя.

 

From nowhere with love the enth of Marchember
sir sweetie respected darling but in the end
it’s irrelevant who for memory won’t restore
features not yours and no one’s devoted friend
greets you from this fifth last part of earth
resting on whalelike backs of cowherding boys
I loved you better than angels and Him Himself
and am farther off due to that from you than I am from both
of them now late at night in the sleeping vale
in the little township up to its doorknobs in
snow writhing upon the stale
sheets for the whole matter’s skin –
deep I’m howling ”youuu” through my pillow dike
many seas aways that are milling nearer
with my limbs in the dark playing your double like
an insanity-stricken mirror.

The picture above, of a memorial plaque to Joseph Brodsky, was taken in Venice, on an embankment called historically Fondamenta degli Incurabili (‘Pavement of the Incurables’, named after the nearby hospital Ospedale degli Incurabili). In Russian, “Набережная неисцелимых” is a title of Brodsky’s autobiographical essay dedicated to Venice, that was among his favourite cities.

Books in the time of pandemic

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Venezia, Venedig, Venice

The world is fighting with the Covid-19 pandemic, and Europe has become its epicentre.

Intellectually, to make sense of how the disease has been spreading, one needs to understand the mathematical principle of exponential growth.

Psychologically, to cope with this uncertainty, one can read about previous disease epidemics.

Diseases, such as plague and cholera, have been striking humanity since time immemorial, and  are used as background and inspiration of many great books.

Here are my favourites:

El amor en los tiempos del cólera (“Love in the Time of Cholera”) by Gabriel García Márquez, 1985

La Peste (“The Plague”) by Albert Camus, 1947

Пир во время чумы (“A Feast in Time of Plague”) by Alexander Pushkin, 1830

You can read it in Russian here.

The play was written during the first Russian cholera epidemic of 1830. The plot is based on a play “The City of Plague” by a Scottish poet John Wilson, which was inspired by the Great Plague of London (1665 – 1666).

History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, 5th century BCE

Chapters 2.47–2.54 describe the Plague of Athens, a severe epidemic that devastated the city in 430 BCE, reemerging twice. This text is one of the earliest accounts of a disease epidemic.

Der Tod in Venedig (“Death in Venice”) by Thomas Mann, 1912

Here is an excerpt from chapter 5, describing the arrival of cholera in the city. The rumours, the denial by the authorities, then first visible signs, and suddenly it is everywhere.

Seit mehreren Jahren schon hatte die indische Cholera eine verstärkte Neigung zur Ausbreitung und Wanderung an den Tag gelegt. Erzeugt aus den warmen Morästen des Ganges-Deltas, aufgestiegen mit dem mephitischen Odem jener üppig-untauglichen, von Menschen gemiedenen Urwelt-und Inselwildnis, in deren Bambusdickichten der Tiger kauert, hatte die Seuche in ganz Hindustan andauernd und ungewöhnlich heftig gewütet, hatte östlich nach China, westlich nach Afghanistan und Persien übergegriffen und, den Hauptstraßen des Karawanenverkehrs folgend, ihre Schrecken bis Astrachan, ja selbst bis Moskau getragen.

Aber während Europa zitterte, das Gespenst möchte von dort aus und zu Lande seinen Einzug halten, war es, von syrischen Kauffahrern übers Meer verschleppt, fast gleichzeitig in mehreren Mittelmeerhäfen aufgetaucht, hatte in Toulon und Malaga sein Haupt erhoben, in Palermo und Neapel mehrfach seine Maske gezeigt und schien aus ganz Calabrien und Apulien nicht mehr weichen zu wollen.

Der Norden der Halbinsel war verschont geblieben. Jedoch Mitte Mai dieses Jahres fand man zu Venedig an ein und demselben Tage die furchtbaren Vibrionen in den ausgemergelten, schwärzlichen Leichnamen eines Schifferknechtes und einer Grünwarenhändlerin. Die Fälle wurden verheimlicht. Aber nach einer Woche waren es deren zehn, waren es zwanzig, dreißig und zwar in verschiedenen Quartieren.

Ein Mann aus der österreichischen Provinz, der sich zu seinem Vergnügen einige Tage in Venedig aufgehalten, starb, in sein Heimatstädtchen zurückgekehrt, unter unzweideutigen Anzeichen, und so kam es, daß die ersten Gerüchte von der Heimsuchung der Lagunenstadt in deutsche Tagesblätter gelangten.

Venedigs Obrigkeit ließ antworten, daß die Gesundheitsverhältnisse der Stadt nie besser gewesen seien und traf die notwendigsten Maßregeln zur Bekämpfung.

You can read the book in German on the Project Gutenberg website.

There is also a great film  Morte a Venezia by Luchino Visconti, made in 1971, which captures admirably well the atmosphere when everything still seems normal yet is no longer.

Ferrantomania and language

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Latin, Italian

Ferrantomania, or Ferrante fever. After several years wondering what was this fuss about, I have at last caught the Ferrantomania bug.

I picked the first volume on a business trip to Brussels last November. Going back to the train station, I entered a bookshop to get something to read on my way back, and was delighted to discover a foreign language section.

L’amica geniale was there, and I bought it thinking that at least I should give it a try. But I did not read it until this January, when I decided to brush up my Italian in anticipation of two trips to Italy.

My Ferrante fever symptoms were the same as described by millions of readers worldwide: you buy this Ferrante book because you have heard that you should definitely read it. You read a couple of pages, and when you finally put the book down, it is after midnight, the book is over, and you desperately want to read the other three titles of the “Neapolitan Novels”.

When I started the first volume, I was not aware that language plays such a crucial role in the story. Much has been written about the use of Neapolitan dialect in the book, about sociolinguistic mechanisms, and about some enigmatic language-related metaphors, such as ‘il suo italiano che assomigliava un poco a quello dell’Iliade’ (‘Italian that slightly resembled that of the Iliad’).

Not only languages, but Classical languages specifically, play such a crucial role in the story. Thanks to private Latin lessons, Lena is able to continue her education; then, Latin and Greek (and their teachers) become her favourites, and eventually she goes on to study them at university.

A passage in the first volume struck me.

Elena is struggling with her Latin, and when she tells Lila (who has stopped the school because her parents could not afford it), Lila recommends the change of approach:

“Leggiti prima la frase in latino, poi va’ a vedere dov’è  il verbo. A seconda della persona del verbo capisci qual è il soggetto. Una volta che hai il soggetto ti cerchi i complementi: il complemento oggetto se il verbo è transitivo, o se no altri complementi. Prova così.”

Provai. Tradurre all’improvviso mi sembrò facile.

In language learning, we have moments when suddenly something clicks and we finally get it. I have experienced it myself multiple times, and now I am really looking forward to reading about Lena’s linguistic (and other) discoveries.

Last week, I went to the local library knowing that it held the entire trilogy, and indeed, volumes 1,3, and 4 were there. The volume 2, exactly the one I was eager to read, was on loan. I made a recall and am impatiently waiting for the book to become available.

Kaheksa, üheksa

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üks, kaks …

These are not incantations, but words ‘eight’ and ‘nine’ in Estonian, a language I am learning.

While learning numbers, I had a huge difficulty remembering the words for ‘eight’ and ‘nine’: which was which?

Then it dawned on me that inside kaheksa hides kaks, ‘two’, in its form kahe, and inside üheksa hides üks, ‘one’, in its form ühe. Clearly, kaheksa (8), was constructed as ‘2 (kahe) out of 10′, and üheksa (9) as ‘1 (ühe) out of 10′.

But ‘ten’ in Estonian is kümme, where does this mysterious -ksa come from?

It took me some time and effort to find reliable sources of information, given that my Estonian is basic and I have only faded memories of Hungarian, another Finno-Ugric language on my list.

Estonian etymological dictionary gives etymology for kaheksa and üheksa, and proposes two explanations: -ksa derives from *detsa, a proto-Iranian (hence Indoeuropean) word for ten (compare word for ‘ten’ in other Indo-European languages). Alternatively, –ksa is interpreted as an old negation form.

Curiously, it is believed that seitse ‘seven’ might be a loanword from Baltic or Slavic languages, which are of the Indo-European family (compare Russian семь, Czech sedm, and Latvian septiņi), whereas numbers one to six are of of Finno-Ugric  or Uralic origin.

This heterogeneity of construction and origins of the first ten numbers is sometimes interpreted to suggest a base-6 system among ancestors of Finno-Ugric people — apparently, a heated linguistic debate.

When in Rome

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the Colosseum was not built in a day

Last week, I spent several days in Rome, hence this post. It recalls three common English expressions about Rome and their equivalents in French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Russian.

The first expression is All roads lead to Rome.

Its Italian version is Tutte le strade portano a Roma.
French, Tous les chemins mènent à Rome.
Spanish, Todos los caminos llevan a Roma.
German, Alle Wege führen nach Rom.
Russian, Все дороги ведут в Рим.

100% correspondence.

The second expression is When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In French, the expression is equivalent, À Rome, fais comme les Romains.

Other languages express the same idea differently. The Italians say, Paese che vai, usanza che trovi. The Spanish, Donde fueres, haz lo que vieres. The Germans, Andere Länder, andere Sitten.

And the Russians in similar context use a a picturesque expression В чужой монастырь со своим уставом не ходят (‘one doesn’t go to the foreign monastery with own statute’).

The third expression is Rome wasn’t built in a day. In Italian, it is Roma non è stata costruita in un giorno. In German, Rom wurde nicht an einem Tag erbaut.

In Spanish, two versions coexist: Roma no se hizo en un día, and No se ganó Zamora en una hora, which refers to a long siege of a town of Zamora in the 11th century.

In French the usage is similar, two versions coexist: Rome ne s’est pas faite en un jour and Paris ne s’est pas fait en un jour, the second version referring, bien évidemment, to the French capital.

Finally, in Russian, the similar expression Москва не сразу строилась features only Moscow, which also was not built in a day.

Fish memories

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memorable fishes

Continuing the fish theme from the last post, in some languages – English, French, Italian, and Spanish, to my knowledge – fish is attributed with short memory.

So, today’s list contains memory-related expressions in English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Russian.

It looks like some expressions, such as ‘memory of a goldfish’, ‘memory like a sieve’, ‘memory like an elephant’, ‘in one ear and out the other’, ‘refresh the memory’,  exist in multiple languages, whereas others, such as tener memoria de grillo (have a memory like a cricket ) or девичья память (memory of a young girl), unique to one language.

English.

have a perfect memory

have a memory like an elephant

an elephant never forgets

to have a short memory

memory like a sieve

memory (or attention span) of a goldfish

in one ear and out the other

refresh the memory

jog someone’s memory

trip down memory lane

if my memory serves me right

mind/ memory goes blank

memory gaps / lapses

More English expressions about memory are here.

 

French

avoir une mémoire d’éléphant

avoir une mémoire de poisson rouge

avoir la tête comme une passoire (head like a sieve)

avoir la mémoire courte

rafraîchir la mémoire à (de) quelqu’un

faire la sourde oreille

entrer par une oreille et sortir par l’autre (in one ear and out the other)

en souvenir de

trou de mémoire

si ma mémoire est bonne / sauf erreur

 

Italian

smemorato (forgetful)

avere una memoria da elefante

avere la memoria di un pesce rosso

rinfrescare la memoria

ti entra da un orecchio e ti esca dall’altro (in one ear and out the other)

ci entrino da un orecchio per uscire dall’altro

fare un viaggio indietro nella memoria / nel passato

se la memoria non m’inganna

vuoto di memoria

avere la memoria corta

avere la memoria lunga

 

Spanish

tener memoria de elefante

tener memoria de gallo/grillo

tener memoria de pez

refrescar la memoria

entrar por un oído y salir por el otro (in one ear and out the other)

si no me falla la memoria

quedarse en blanco

 

German

ein Gedächtnis wie ein Elefant haben

Elefanten-Gedächtnis

ein Gedächtnis wie ein Sieb haben (memory like a sieve)

jemandes Gedächtnis ein wenig auf die Sprünge helfen (to jog someone’s memory)

den Faden verlieren (lose the thread)

sich etwas in Erinnerung rufen

etwas geht zum einen Ohr rein, zum anderen Ohr wieder raus (in one ear and out the other)

zum einen Ohr rein und zum anderen wieder raus

 

Russian

обладать огромной памятью

обладать феноменальной памятью

девичья память

короткая памать

дырявая память

освежить память

в одно ухо влетает, из другого вылетает (in one ear and out the other)

если память не изменяет

вызывать в своей памяти

перебирать в памяти

выпадать из памяти

More Russian expressions about memory are here.

 

Like a fish in water

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happy as a fish in venice

Today’s post is inspired by a recent trip to Venice. A famous book Venezia è un pesce (‘Venice is a fish’) by Tiziano Scarpra compares the city to a fish, and recommends getting lost to fully enjoy it.

I did not manage to read the book before my trip, but I did manage to get lost immediately on arrival. Then, my phone kept shutting down, and a colleague mentioned he almost fell off to the water thanks to his phone recommendations. So, I ignored the phone and the map and walked, feeling, like in a French expression, comme un poisson dans l’eau, and thinking about its equivalents in different languages.

In English, an expression to be like a fish in water can be used, but its opposite, to be like a fish out of water, is more common.

In Italian, you can use both:  sentirsi come un pesce nell’acqua and its opposite come un pesce fuor d’acqua.

The same goes for Spanish: sentirse como pez en el agua and como pez fuera del agua.

In German, you say sich fühlen / sein wie ein Fisch im Wasser. You can also be jolly, fit, healthy, etc munter / fit / gesund sein wie ein Fisch im Wasser.  To express the opposite, you say sich fühlen / sein wie ein Fisch auf dem Trockenen.

Back to French. One also uses an expression heureux comme un poisson dans l’eau, which is similar to the English happy as a clam (at high tide).

Although an expression comme un poisson hors de l’eau exists, it is not that common. One would rather say ne pas être dans son élément or ne pas être dans son assiette.

In Russian, one says быть /  чувствовать себя как рыба в воде, but to express the opposite, one uses an expression быть не в своей тарелке,  ‘not to be in one’s plate’, borrowed from the French ne pas être dans son assiette.

The history of the borrowing is funny. The French assiette, from the verb asseoir, ‘to sit’, used to have several meanings, including ‘position’, for example on a horse, and ‘place’, for example at the table. Somewhere and somehow, the two meanings got confused by translating into Russian.