Saturday, November 16, 2019

'How Shall I Spell the Name of Each Cossacque?'

As a sophomore I took a class called “The Russian Novel in Translation.” By that point I didn’t even care about graduating. I would drop out after my junior year and earn my B.A. thirty years later. All I wanted was an excuse to read books. If the books were good I attended class religiously. If not, I went somewhere else to read. You can guess the novels we were assigned, all from the nineteenth century, many of Tolstoyan/Dostoevskian dimensions.

One day, a young woman seated in front of me had a tantrum about Russian names -- their length and unpronouncability, all those patronymics (-ovich, -evich and –ich) and diminutives (Volodya, Fyedya, Vanya). “Why can’t they just have regular names like everybody else?” she asked. Not to mention in the mysteries of Russian-to-English transliteration, where you can get Чехов spelled Chekhov, Čechov, Čehov, Tchekhov, Tschechow and Tchekoff. Lord Byron shared some of my classmate’s frustration but turned it not into whining but comedy. In Section XIV of Canto the Seventh of Don Juan he writes:

“The Russians now were ready to attack:
     But oh, ye goddesses of war and glory!
How shall I spell the name of each Cossacque
     Who were immortal, could one tell their story?
Alas! what to their memory can lack?
     Achilles’ self was not more grim and gory
Than thousands of this new and polish’d nation,
Whose names want nothing but -- pronunciation.”

Imagine Tolstoy’s 1863 novel The Cossacques or Isaac Babel riding with Budyonny’s Cossacques. Too French. Byron continues in Sections XV, XVI and XVII, and works in some good scatological gags:

“Still I’ll record a few, if but to increase
     Our euphony: there was Strongenoff, and Strokonoff,
Meknop, Serge Lwow, Arséniew of modern Greece,
     And Tschitsshakoff, and Roguenoff, and Chokenoff,
And others of twelve consonants apiece;
     And more might be found out, if I could poke enough
Into gazettes; but Fame (capricious strumpet),
It seems, has got an ear as well as trumpet,

“And cannot tune those discords of narration,
     Which may be names at Moscow, into rhyme;
Yet there were several worth commemoration,
     As e’er was virgin of a nuptial chime;
Soft words, too, fitted for the peroration
     Of Londonderry drawling against time,
Ending in ‘ischskin,’ ‘ousckin,’ ‘iffskchy," ‘ouski’:
Of whom we can insert but Rousamouski,

"Scherematoff and Chrematoff, Koklophti,
     Koclobski, Kourakin, and Mouskin Pouskin,
All proper men of weapons, as e’er scoff’d high
     Against a foe, or ran a sabre through skin:
Little cared they for Mahomet or Mufti,
     Unless to make their kettle-drums a new skin
Out of their hides, if parchment had grown dear,
And no more handy substitute been near.”

[A musical reader passed this along.]

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