Tag Archives: translation

Weöres translation workshop, 22 May

On Wednesday 22 May, UCL-SSEES is hosting a one-day knowledge exchange workshop to mark the centenary of Sándor Weöres’s birth, entitled Translation in the light (or shadow?) of language, culture and politics [poster pdf]. The event is co-organised by the Centre for Language-Based Area Studies at UCL-SSEES, the Balassi Institute Hungarian Cultural Centre London, and the University of Glasgow Centre for Russian, Central and East European Studies.

weöres tollalVenue: Masaryk Senior Common Room, 4th floor, 16 Taviton Street, London WC1H 0BW

Time: 10 am – 5 pm (registration from 9.30 am)

The work and legacy of Sándor Weöres (1913-1989), one of Hungary’s most influential twentieth-century poets, provide an exceptionally intriguing starting point for discussing the possibilities of translation in its most challenging form, the translation of poetic texts, which, in turn, also challenges the notion and the possibility of translation itself.

Labelled ‘formalist’ in Socialist Hungary, Weöres was banned from publication in the 1950s. Like many similarly sidelined poets, the only way he could see his work appear in print was through translations of literary works during these years of relative silence. He not only translated from Russian, French, Italian, English, and Chinese – often taking a rough translation of the source text as a starting point – but in his poetry he also explored such diverse areas as Eastern philosophy, Polynesian and classical European myths, early modern Hungarian literature, and children’s nursery rhymes. Following his Europe-wide recognition, which included two public readings in London (1966 and 1980) and in New York and Washington, D.C. in 1977, his works have been translated into a variety of languages, including English, French, and Russian.

The first part of the workshop will address Weöres’s work and legacy, as well as broader issues related to the difficulty of translating poetry.

10.15-11.45 Discussing Weöres in translation: George Gömöri, Zsuzsa Varga and Eszter Tarsoly.

12.00-13.30 Discussing translation in Weöres: Ádám Nádasdy, Daniel Abondolo, Philip Barker and Ágnes Lehóczky.

The afternoon will feature a panel discussion between publishers on the commercial, cultural and political considerations that play a part in the commissioning of translations, followed by a translation workshop.

14.30-16.00 Joana Zgadzaj (Stork Press), Susan Kojakovic-Curtis (Istros Books), Clive Boutle (Francis Boutle), and Mike Tate (Jantar Publishing).

16.15-16.45 Hands-on translation workshop

JAK literary translators’ workshop, 2012 (II)

(Continued from the earlier post here.)

The first texts we translated with Péter Rácz at the 2012 JAK literary translators’ workshop were entries from the 2009 Szép magyar szótár by Szilárd Podmaniczky (b. 1963). The ‘dictionary’ is an anthology of aphorisms and reflections, none of which is longer than a handful of sentences, and first published in the weekly Élet és irodalom. Its title translates literally as ‘Beautiful Hungarian Dictionary’ which says approximately nothing to the English reader; I chose to translate it as ‘Hungarian Handbook of Life’, which seemed to me to convey the author’s ironic intention, although we also toyed with the idea of ‘A Hungarian Dictionary for the Edification of its Readers’, which seemed rather wordy. The entries we translated were the following: jelenség, jellem, mamlasz, manó, uzsgyi, válik and zuháré, most of which were relatively straightforward to work with. Questions of social and cultural resonance were discussed, with reference to tropes and concerns in Hungarian literature that may not be so prominent elsewhere, and this was particularly relevant for natives of the wetter parts of the UK when translating the entry entitled ‘Zuháré’, a cloudburst. Where heavy rainfall is common, a sudden downpour is unlikely to merit reflection, and thus the uncommon word ‘zuháré’ might even be translated for UK readers as ‘heatwave’ or ‘scorcher’, and the entry rewritten accordingly if the translator had full licence to translate freely.

The second text was by Mihály Kornis (b. 1949), the first chapter of Végre élsz (1980), entitled ‘Kérvény’, an official application. The format was easily recognisable as turbo bureaucrat-ese, an exercise in exaggerating the clunky language and thinking of red tape to render it even more absurd. The application in question is a request from one István Tábori concerning the length of his life span and major events, including nominations of family members, education and work, surviving the Holocaust, expropriation of family property after 1948, and his moral opposition to the 1956 ‘counter-revolution’. In other words, the applicant is requesting advance permission to submit to the Party-state. Even the applicant’s name, Tábori, is important, although the translator may choose to leave it as it is: tábor is Hungarian for camp, and the -i adjectival suffix at the end of a family name can also denote Jewish heritage (many Magyarizing Jews chose aristocratic names in the nineteenth century).

Problematic phrases included ‘törvényerejű rendelet’, a government decree issued with the full force of law (and a favourite Socialist legislative tool), and ‘összhasználati idő’, a meaningless construct indicating the total amount of time foreseen. Here is an example of one of the euphemisms used:

(d) 1949-ben szeretnék megismerkedni a fiammal. Jó lenne azonban, ha még ebben az évben végérvényesen megszabadítanának az autómtól, üzletemtől és a párttagságomtól.

The applicant is recommending he be ‘definitively liberated’ from his car, business and Party membership in 1949, the first year of the Hungarian Workers’ Party dictatorship and the era of high Stalinism. Discussion of the text turned to depictions of the Holocaust in national literatures, and ways in which translators might explain certain items to the reader without intervening too much or resorting to footnotes.

The final texts we translated with Péter were by Ödön Palasovszky (1899-1980), a neglected Dadaist author, poet and theatre director, whose works were often banned and pulped in the 1920s. Some of Palasovszky’s poems are available in this article on the apostles of the Hungarian avant-garde from the online edition of Irodalmi Jelen, and which includes some of his ‘Punalua’ poems from the mid-1920s. Punalua is a polyamorous tradition of inter-group marriage among Sandwich Islanders, Hawaii and clearly, this was not one of the ‘Christian and national’ activities promoted during Horthy’s regency; even Lajos Kassák regarded Palasovszky as an anarchist.

We were given the choice of translating either the ‘Invokáció’ or ‘A zrí – punalua’, both written in 1926. I opted for the latter, which combines pseudo-religious oratory with revolutionary zeal and the promise of violence. The Hungarian ‘zrí’ may be translated into English as rumpus, ruckus, hubbub, brouhaha, or hullabaloo, all of which sound like splendid Dadist pastimes, as well as frenzy, which my colleague chose as it evokes the sound of the original. There’s no greater challenge for the translator than made-up words, and Palasovszky describes the hordes of ‘zrí’ as brothers-in-arms, children thronging through the streets of Budapest, who must kill him because they love him:

Fölismerték magukat bennem és mindennek homálytalanság ami van, mert ez az ő igazi természetük.

‘They recognised in me themselves and the [homálytalanság] of everything that is, because this is their true nature.’ Homálytalanság resembles komolytalanság (serious-lack of-ness), meaning flippancy or frivolity, but homály means obscurity, darkness or dimness. Here, the English translator needs to invent an equally suggestive neologism that won’t stand out as being invented, but which at the same time makes the reader stop and think, hm, excellent new word.

Once again, we worked with a series of texts that were progressively more taxing, but no less enjoyable for that. It is my understanding that many participants were particularly glad to read relatively unknown, or rather neglected authors for the first time, particularly when their writings seem so fresh and exciting almost a century after publication. Many thanks are due to Péter for his thoughtful and exacting workshops; the official diary of the week’s literary events is available in Hungarian on the literature pages of prae.hu.

Hard-boiled translation

– Megvan a kés!
– Hol?
– A hátamban.

Jenő Rejtő, Piszkos Fred, a kapitány

We discussed ways in which a literary language might grow through translation, with reference to translations of hard-boiled fiction by Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, Chuck Palahniuk and others. Unsentimental narratives of violence and sleuthing can pose many an enjoyable problem for the translator. This excerpt is from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929):

While we were talking about it, plain-clothes men brought in the red-faced bird who had stopped the slug I had missed Whisper with.

Translated into Hungarian almost fifty years later by László Szíjgyártó as Véres aratás (diluting ‘red’ into ‘bloody’ harvest), the passage reads as follows:

Még erről beszélgettünk, amikor két civil ruhás zsaru behozta a vörös képű fickót, akiben megakadt a Suttogónak szánt golyóm.

The translator’s way of dealing with a subject who had stopped a bullet intended for someone else was rather neat. Elements of the poetic came into play elsewhere:

If he was my man, it was a fair bet he wasn’t armed. I played it that way, moving straight up the slimy middle of the alley, looking into shadows with eyes, ears and nose.

The translator makes best of use of the tools available, and will stretch the language where s/he can:

Fogadni mertem volna, hogy ha csak ugyan az én emberem, akkor nincs nála fegyver. Ezért aztán habozás nélkül a csúszós mellékutca közepén rohantam előre, belelesve, belefülelve, beleszimatolva a sötétségbe.

Similarly, Ross Macdonald’s 1956 novel The Barbarous Coast, translated in 1990 as A barbár part by Károly Ross, throws up a number of cultural references which may require explanation, or be ignored:

We climbed the steps to Mrs Lamb’s back porch, and I knocked on the rusty screen door. A heavy-bodied old woman in a wrapper opened the inside door. She had a pleasantly ugly bulldog face and a hennaed head, brash orange in the sun. An anti-wrinkle patch between her eyebrows gave her an air of calm eccentricity.

Ross translates:

Fölmentünk Mrs Lamb hátsó verandájára, s bekopogtam a rozsdásodó zsaluajtón. Egy pongyolát viselő, termetes, idős asszony nyitotta ki a belső ajtót. Kellemesen csúnya a buldogarca s vörösre festett haja volt, amely inkább narancsszínűnek látszott a napsütésben. A szemöldöke között lévő ráncosdás elleni tapasz egyfajta szolid különcséget kölcsönzött az arcának.

In translation, metaphor may become simile. The Barbarous Coast again:

He lay exhausted by his incredible leap from nowhere into the sun.

Úgy hevert, mint aki kimerített a hatalmas ugrás a semmiből a fénybe.

Excerpts from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996) revealed a combination of experimentation with straightforward error:

The moment Marla is out the door, Tyler appears back in the room. Fast as a magic trick. My parents did this magic act for five years.

From Attila Varró’s 2000 translation Harcosok klubja:

Amint Maria kiteszi a lábát, Tyler felbukkan a konyhaajtóban. A Nagy Illuzionista. Akár az apám, életem első hat évében.

Aside from the choices all translators must make, which are open to discussion, error usually comes about, we concluded, when the translator is tired.

We ended the discussion looking at György Dragomán’s masterful 2005 translation of Samuel Beckett’s Watt (1953), on which Dragomán is writing his doctoral thesis:

Form and content are not easily separated, each can and must be explained away in terms of the other, but the circularity of the argument will be closer to the insane attitude of endless investigation celebrated in the novel than to the ordinary world of logic and reason.

The full article is available in English, the Hungarian afterword to his translation is here.

Translation seminar with Len Rix

On Thursday 27 March, we once again had the pleasure of Len Rix’s company, this time discussing his translations of Antal Szerb, Utas és holdvilág, 1937 (Journey by Moonlight, Pushkin, 2000), Magda Szabó, Az ajtó, 1987 (The Door, Vintage, 2005), and his article ‘In Praise of Translation’, recently published in the Hungarian Quarterly.

Len described the two novels as personal, quasi-autobiographical works, both dealing with an exploration of the religious mentality, where core personal tragedy is sublimated. Szerb’s brutal self-dissection relies on form and parallelism but, in contrast to Szabó, is somewhat tempered by his heterodox Catholicism. The novel moves between different perspectives using narrative voice to scrutinise bourgeois conformity and façades. Szabó, however, puts her Protestant guilt ‘out there’ for all to examine, and is far more puritanical and judgemental, to the extent that the text is over-charged, and occasionally vulgar. There are very few shades of grace here.

Both texts condense the whole novel in the first chapter, which we read and discussed in the original, draft and final translation. Particular challenges for the translator included the ubiquitous ‘még’ and ‘már’, the countless roles played by ‘is’, rhythm and syntax, and rhetoric.

Regarding the faithfulness and the translation of Hungarian literature, while an older generation of Hungarians in the West see it as their duty to ‘protect’ Hungarian literature from translation and publishers continue to observe a cautious parochialism, successful translations have ‘lifted’ the literal text and made it accessible to an international audience. Here, sales figures speak for themselves.

It was a great pleasure to welcome Len as a guest, in particular for final-year BA students interested in pursuing translation as a career.

Roundtable discussion and exhibition at the centenary of Nyugat

On 11 December 2008, the Friday Circle convened a roundtable discussion and exhibition celebrating the centenary of literary journal Nyugat (West, 1908-41). Anniversary events in Hungary included a year-long exhibition at the Petőfi Literary Museum, numerous talks, lectures and public events, a Nyugat 100 bus that toured the country for six months with a mobile exhibition, and a number of important archive resources being made available online, from audio recordings of Nyugat authors reading their works, texts and graphics, to personal correspondence.

Our contribution was intended as a reflection on Hungarian literature, culture and translation at Nyugat’s centenary. To this end, we invited speakers and guests to a roundtable discussion at the University College London Wilkins Refectory, to discuss the anniversary and broader questions of Hungary’s contentious relationship to ‘the West’, over coffee and Hungarian patisserie.

Following a welcome from Dr Daniel Abondolo in the chair, Tim Wilkinson, translator (Imre Kertész, Péter Zilahy, a number of academic monographs on history and culture) and essayist, opened the roundtable. Noting that Nyugat was by no means a representative cross-section of Hungarian literature at the time, Tim introduced the notion of the literary canon in order to address its scope and validity. If a major writer such as Dezső Szomory had dropped out of Hungarian literary life, then the construction of the canon should be the subject of critical attention. Tim then presented figures from the Nyugat era and from the past fifteen years, on the number of translations of Hungarian literature published, their authors (living or dead) and translators, observing that no great progress had been made in terms of quantity. Although the ‘free adaptations’ of Mór Jókai’s novels had a contemporary equivalent in popular translations of questionable quality, the translator can today choose from a wide range of excellent authors and works.

Len Rix, translator of Antal Szerb, Magda Szabó, and others, continued with the theme of difficulty in finding and navigating Hungarian literature in translation. He stated his aim as a translator, to acquaint English-speaking readers with Hungarian literature, and then introduced a discussion of the foibles of the publishing industry. Publishers are timid, translators do not receive royalties, and editors might insist on ‘no adverbs’. For Hungarian literature to move from the margins into the mainstream, it needs translations that will catch on, and intelligent marketing expertise. In conclusion, Len rephrased Tim’s observation that the books would then have no difficulty selling themselves.

Dr Zsuzsanna Varga of the Centre for Russian, Central and East European Studies at the University of Glasgow, presented her work in progress: a searchable database of Hungarian Literature in English translation, 1969-2007. The database lists works of fiction, drama, and lyrical poetry, the best known and most widely translated genre of Hungarian literature, and focuses mainly on texts published in the UK and in Hungary. It includes monograph-length translations of Hungarian fiction, individual poets’ volumes, the contents of historical and thematic anthologies of poetry and short fiction, as well as many periodical items. The database included, at the time of Zsuzsa’s presentation, almost 3,500 titles.

Informal discussion broadened out to include Hungary’s view of ‘the West’ as superego, Nyugat as a ‘rainbow coalition’ of writers who didn’t agree on much, translation anthologies, the establishment of an East European film network at Sheffield Hallam University, and a selection of photographs and images from Nyugat.

The accompanying exhibition held in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies Library presented a selection of original journals, first editions and newspapers from the Library’s rich collection. Original and facsimile issues of Nyugat from 1908 to 1939 were on display, together with accompanying notes highlighting the early Secession aesthetic, the breadth of subjects addressed by contributors, and the diverse authors and works discussed in ‘Figyelő’, the reviews section, the austerity and pacifist controversies of First World War issues, as well as personality clashes, and changing editorial styles and staff, such as that imposed by the Second anti-Jewish Law in 1939, towards the end of the journal’s existence. Debates on aesthetics and ethics could be followed in the context of social and political upheavals over the first half of the twentieth century. Visitors could peruse newspapers from the first years of the twentieth century, Nyugat’s peer and rival journals, and a small number of first editions. We highlighted graphics and illustrations throughout, from portrait photographs, caricatures and illustrations, for instance of a ‘modern’ bookshop in England in 1934, to maps, advertisements for shoe cream and personals. The exhibition notes can be viewed or downloaded in pdf format here.

A reception followed at the SSEES Masaryk Senior Common Room.

The co-convenors, Dr Gwen Jones and Eszter Tarsoly, would like to extend warm thanks to all those who took part, in particular SSEES library staff who suggested and organized the exhibition, and Jenny Rasell, for her assistance and enthusiasm on the day.

Translating Magda Szabó, Disznótor, 1960

Madga Szabó’s 1960 novel Disznótor is a remarkable exercise in minimal reference tracking. Reference tracking – who is being referred to – can cause problems for many students (and translators) of Hungarian. Because Hungarian lacks gender-specific personal pronouns and grammatical gender, the student might, for years, encounter trouble deciphering whether the person being spoken about is male or female. Translators from Hungarian can also fall into a switch reference trap: a switch reference is a clarification of which third person is being referred to. In a conversation between a man and a woman, for instance, a sudden reference to ‘a férfi’ should be translated as ‘he’, not ‘the man’.

Disznótor brought Virginia Woolf to mind, in terms of the purposely difficult text in which everything is shown and nothing is told. The density of the text is partly due to the novel’s structure: events over the course of one day are narrated by means of seventeen interior monologues. The 1965 translation by Kathleen Szasz, Night of the Pig-killing, tackles the problem of whether and how to translate given names in a rather uneven way, by assigning acceptable (Sándor becomes Alex, Geréné is Mrs Gere) or frankly weird (János becomes Jonas, Anti becomes Tóni, and Imre becomes, inexplicably, Péter) ‘equivalents’. Where reference tracking occurs at a much later stage in the original, however, the translator clarifies identity and gender as early as possible; moreover, the identities of the narrator and subject are frequently, and, one assumes, deliberately unknown. Szabó very occasionally assists the reader by highlighting emphasis one would pick up from speech:

Paula felhívta az iskolában, bejelentette, hogy valami gyűlés van, tovább bent kell maradnia. Ha éhes, kérje el Andreától a vacsoráját, és Szalayt okvetlenül meg kell hívni a disznótorra, ő szóljon neki.

The translator must use his/her knowledge of the entire text, not to mention his/her wits, to clarify who has to stay, and who is hungry, whereas who must invite Szalay to the pig-killing is marked by the author.

Paula telephoned him at school, saying she had to attend some sort of meeting and would have to stay late. If he got hungry he could ask Andrea to give him his dinner. Yes, Szalay had still to be invited to the pig-killing, he had better speak to him.

From the opening lines of the chapter entitled ‘Sándor’, the translator pads out the sparse text and provides no less than three masculine personal pronouns for a sentence that contains none in the original:

Délutános volt, de felkelt jókor, nem szeretett heverni.

He worked the afternoon shift but he got up early, because he didn’t like to idle in bed.

An English-language translation will require reference tracking by means of personal pronouns, but also references to events alluded to elsewhere in the text. Szabó can switch the subject from sentence to sentence:

Hát sose lesz már nyugalom odabenn?
Először hol sír, hol nevet a néni, aztán ajtócsapkodás, szaladgálás, beveszi magát a fürdőbe, hányik. Kiment a hátsó szobába, hogy ne hallja a hangot, nem mintha ő is felémelyednék tőle, csak hát jó az ilyet még hallani sem.

Will she never be quiet in there?
First the old woman laughs and cries, then doors slam, running footsteps sound, and she shuts herself up in the bathroom and vomits. Mrs Gere drew back into the inner room so as not to hear her; not that it affected her in any way.

It is up to the translator how much s/he leaves the reader in the dark, to do the work themselves. Disznótor, a goldmine of stylised ambiguity, and a challenge to the most ambitious translator, is, at present, best enjoyed in the original.

Further reading: a short article marking Szabó’s 88th birthday, in which János Háy describes Szabó as ‘like rock ’n’ roll: intense, radical and smashing’, and Szabó’s (1917-2007) obituary in the Guardian.

Translating Grendel, Tömegsír, 1999

As part of our translation series, we discussed an excerpt from the novel Tömegsír (Mass Grave, Kalligram, 1999) by one of our favourite authors, Lajos Grendel (b. 1948), with a view to thinking about untranslatability. The premise of Tömegsír is simple: following post-1989 property restitution, an academic moves back to his family home in a small town referred to only as ‘T’. In the course of digging a well, a mass grave is discovered underneath the narrator’s property.

‘T’ is the prototype Central European small town, and the site of an ensuing farce. It never becomes clear who the bones belonged to, or how they ended up under the house. In this excerpt the town’s mayor explains the intricacies of post-communist identity to the narrator, who has been offered (threatened with?) honorary citizenship of T.:

 — Mi nem vagyunk azok – mondta. – Akik azok voltak, ma már nem azok. Nagyot fordult a világ – mondta – kereke. Én azelőtt is az voltam. Most is az vagyok, de a mostani azom nem ugyanaz az az, ami a régi azom volt. Azelőtt mi ellenségként állhattunk volna szemben egymással, de most ez megfordult. Most barátok vagyunk, segítünk egymásnak és egymáson. Közös a vektorunk – mondta még. – Az azunk többé nem ugyanaz az az. Tudja, én  másvalaki voltam tegnap, noha ugyanaz vagyok, az orrom például nem lesz se nagyobb, se kisebb, de ez mind nem számít.

Grendel, Tömegsír, second edition, 2006, p. 21

Both the mayor’s confusion, and translation difficulty, hinge on ‘az’; no one English word would work for each and every instance of ‘az’ (the, that, them, those). Rather, the translator would have to render the mayor’s difficulty in expressing his muddled thoughts into nonsense, and somehow replicate linguistic clumsiness for the play on ‘az’. For instance, ‘az azunk nem ugyanaz az az’ could be ‘we are not the we that we were’. However, it is the ‘az’ to which the speaker refers that has changed, not him or his surroundings, and it is the ‘az’ that remains constant in the text, it is not ugyanaz az az! Ultimately, the text is so deeply embedded in Hungarian that any attempt to lift it out would ‘kill the patient’ in the process.

I would be interested to check against the Slovak translation, Masový hrob.

A good Hungarian-language article on Grendel’s prose works is Sándor Olasz, ‘A megtörténtek paródiája. Grendel Lajos regényei’, in Új Forrás.

Translating János Háy, ‘Petőfi híd’, 2007

János Háy’s short prose piece ‘Petőfi híd’ (Petőfi bridge) is one of seven short stories named after Budapest bridges, published together in Házasságon innen és túl (Budapest, Palatinus, 2007). BA student Malcolm Lesley translated ‘Petőfi híd’ as part of a finalists’ language project on translation and translation criticism. Reading the original with Malcolm’s translation, we discussed questions of equivalence, the problematic notions of fidelity and transparency, and difficulties specific to the text. To begin with:

Csak a felszín locsogott, minden fület eltömített a hangja.

Malcolm translated Háy’s first sentence last, not least because of the nod to the opening stanzas of Attila József’s 1936 poem ‘A Dunánál’:

A rakodópart alsó kövén ültem,
néztem, hogy úszik el a dinnyehéj.
Alig hallottam, sorsomba merülten,
hogy fecseg a felszin, hallgat a mély.

All further allusions to ‘surface din’ in the translated Háy text then had to refer back to the opening sentence.

An old lady, overdressed on a warm spring day because neither her neighbour Mariska nor her children would be able to look after her if she fell ill, makes her way to the Danube. She engages in a mild bout of competitive morbidity with a woman ten years her junior and, having thought about how the noise might cover her pain, decides to make her way over to Buda. Going at her own pace, neither fast nor slow, she notices the handiwork of ‘delinquents’ (as they are called on TV), economics students she believes to be bankers, and sociology students she believes to be beggars, while traffic whizzes past. She is unable to see details on the other side of the river until she reaches the top of the Buda steps. Worried about the wind on bridges, she wonders how many people who passed her by, which reminds her of the time she lied to her husband about his terminal cancer. The old lady reaches the steps, takes in the scene, and slowly turns around, ‘like a lorry in a tight space’, to face the Pest side again:

Majd elmesélem, gondolta magában, majd elmesélem a Mariskának, hogy láttam ma Budát.

Malcolm’s translation:

I’ll tell her, she thought to herself, I’ll tell Mariska: today I saw Buda.

Malcolm felt that humour needed to be prominent in the English translation, otherwise the mortality, if not morbidity, of the original might threaten to overwhelm.

Ob-Ugric 12: Khanty (Tsingala)

The final class was spent looking at a text in a southern dialect of Khanty, Tsingala, on the heavenly origins of the bear. Western dialects of Khanty divide into North and South; Tsingala is related to Demjanka, Konda, and Krasnojarsk. These forms are probably no longer used.

The text was noted down in 1899 by Vasilii Yakovlevich from ‘two old folks’ in a village on the Irtysh, reproduced from E. Vértes (ed.), K. F. Karjalainens Südostjakische Textsammlungen I, Helsinki, Suomalais-Ugralainen Seura, MSFOu 157, pp. 113-5, and translated as ‘A medve égi származásárol’ in E. Vértes (ed.), Hadmenet, nászmenet. Irtisi osztják mesék és mondák, Budapest, Európa, 1975, pp. 5-6.

FlailingpawMan and TjaperwomanMother have a child, a bearcub whose bear-ness and sex are circumlocuted. The bear is let down from heaven on a metal chain by the Sevenridgebacked one, and looks for food in all seven lands (seven being sacred). Hungry, he raises his paws to Sanke father and asks for food; Sanke replies he should eat a brown horse, so he does. He digs himself a cave and goes into hibernation, and in spring his lair is discovered by a hunter’s dog. The hunter tells the bear: eat me if Sanke has intructed you to do so, but if not, I shall kill you, although of course killing a bear is the most taboo expression of all: ‘nuŋət ītə pājəŋ xǎttəŋ tūrəm pāɣəttam’, translated by Vertes into German as ‘so töte ich Dich’, and into Hungarian as ‘leszállítalak a véres alsó világba’.

The amount of repetition and parallelism (R&P) would suggest that the text is particularly archaic. Tsingala’s word order was pretty similar to Hungarian, while a number of lexical items were also familiar, including jāŋx (to go), which is also found in the Ómagyar Mária Siralom, and kət kittət (two hands), Cf. HU két kezet. The present tense marker, however, was -λ- (similar to the ‘ll’ in Welsh), while the past marker was -ø-.

The classes were fantastically rewarding and, having also served as an introduction to historical and comparative linguistics, enabled one to refute crackpot linguistic theories. On a broader cultural note, the origins of the Hungarian language will always be tied in with ideas of the origins (and therefore belonging) of the Hungarian people, to the extent that fantastic visions of the latter will inform the former. While the premises of the nineteenth-cenutry ugor-török háború may not have survived in tact, the desire and search for anchorage most certainly have. Nor might it might  do Russianists any harm either to acknowledge languages and cultures native to Russian territory.

Ob-Ugric 11: Khanty (Pim)

The second Khanty dialect we studied was an Eastern variant, Pim. The text is from László Honti, Chrestomathia Ostiacica, Budapest, 1984, pp. 166-7. It is the tale of a wife-hunt, one of the favourite activities in Uralic folk tales. Three women sing while they fish:

ěj kimλem räp-räp-räp, pä kimλem räp-räp-räp
egyik ruhaalj-am, rep-rep-rep, másik ruhaalj-am rep-rep-rep

They are noticed by a man:

ěj-λätnə måńť-konə ťě wär ŏjəγti
egy-kor-ban férfi-tól ez dolog észrevétetett

Like in the Mansi tale of the mouse, the object becomes seen to the viewer. The women return home to cook, and put death-cap mushrooms in the pot. The man watches as they become inebriated from eating the poisoned fish. The largest woman (ěnəλ păr-ne), a shoe-mender, sings:

pįkəm ńįrət jånttə ne, jånttə ne, jånttə ne
čăkəm ńįrət jånttə ne, jånttə ne, jånttə ne

szétrohadt cipő-k foltoz-ő nő,
tönkrement cipő-k foltoz-ó nő

The middle woman (kötəp păr-ne), a wood gatherer, sings:

jukəŋ äwi, jukəŋ ne,
jukəŋ äwi, jukəŋ ne

fá=s (= fából való) lány, fá=s nő

The third woman (koλəmət păr-ne), a roofer, sings:

jom-juγ tŏjnə λåjəγtam wuλəm,
pěťar-juγ tŏjnə λåjəγtam wuλəm

zelnice-fa tető-n lóg-vá-m lát-om [sc. magamat],
berkenye-fa tető-n lóg-vá-m lát-om

A storm lifts up the house and the women in it; the large woman ends up in the middle of the river, the middle woman ends up in a tree, and third woman is stuck to the roof by her plaits. Once the storm dies down, the man appears, and brings the large woman to the shore, sits the middle woman next to him, and extracts the third woman and her plaits from the roof. They take him into the house, where he marries the third woman, takes the middle woman as his seamstress, and the large woman as his wood-carrier.

The present tense marker is λ, whereas the past is unmarked, e.g.:

wĕ(j) (to take):

wĕ-ø-λ-ət vitték 1 direct object, 3rd person plural
wĕj-ø-təɣ-ø vitte 1 direct object, 3rd person singular
wĕj-ø-ø vitt 1 direct object, 3rd person singular


or wu (to see, find): wu-λ-λ-el (HU: látja); wu-λ-ø-əm (HU: látok).

måńť-ko-nə ťě wär ŏjəγt-i férfi-tól ez dolog észrevétetett by man this thing was noticed
pom-ət köt-nə tŏγə-jăγr-i hínár köz-ben bele-gabalyod-tat-ott by mid-reed-s she was entangled

Ob-Ugric 10: Khanty (Kazym)

Khanty (also known as Ostyak) is a complex chain of dialects spoken by people who live in a vast, roughly L-shaped area along the Ob, the lower Irtysh, and tributaries. According to the most recent fitures (1989 census), there are some 22,000 speakers of Khanty; of these, 62.9 per cent were native speakers (i.e. c. 14,000). Khanty speakers make up about 1 per cent of the population of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug.

On both historic-phonological and syntactic-typological grounds, these may be broken into two major groupings, East v. West. The East group further subdivides into (1) the Far Eastern dialects Vach and Vasjugan, and (2) the Surgut group, which includes Jugan, Malij Jugan, Pim, Likrisovskoe, Tremjugan and Tromagan […]. The West group subdivides into North and South subgroups. Clearly southern are the Demjanka dialects and Konda, Cingali, and Krasnojarsk. Clearly northern are the Obdorsk dialect and the Berjozov subgroup, consisting of the Synja, Muzhi, and Shurikshar dialects, and, to the South, Kazym.

Daniel Abondolo, ‘Khanty’, in Abondolo (ed.), The Uralic Languages, Routledge, 2006, pp. 358-86 (358-9).

Photo: Janno Sim

Khanty consists of three main dialects, Northern, Southern and Eastern, each of which have many sub-dialects; the northern dialect is closer to northern Mansi than it is to other dialects of Khanty. Khanty-speakers are spread over a considerably larger area than Mansi, whose dialects are largely mutually intelligible. Because the Khanty are also much greater in number, and their dialects so different from each other one could, as Wolfgang Steinitz  (1905-67) did, dedicate oneself to Ostyakology and collect Khanty bear-feast songs; whereas the dearth of Mansi materials and speakers means that we cannot really speak of an -ology, although introducing oneself as a Vogulologist would be fun. Steinitz used Marij (also known as Cheremis, a Finno-Volgaic language spoken in today’s Mari Republic and along the Vjatka river basin as well as in Tatarstan, Udmurtia and Perm) and Ostyak in order to reconstruct Proto-Ugric, while the Fennic school focussed, as one would expect, on the reconstruction of Proto-Finnish. Together with Selkup and Estonian, Khanty is one of the most dialectically fragmented Uralic languages.

We studied Khanty texts from the three main dialects, each of which required their own grammar. Northern Khanty dialects have two or three cases, while Eastern variants can have up to sixteen, as well as some other unique linguistic features, such as ergativity. The voiceless lateral fricative λ, similar to the ll in Welsh, is found in northern and southern regions, but not in the central areas. Because the dialects are so disparate, no standardised version has ever emerged, and it seems that Russian is the lingua franca of Khanty speakers. Once again, transcription problems are myriad.

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Ob-Ugric 9: Mansi (Tavda, cont.)

Our final Mansi sessions were spent studying a folktale in Tavda, a southern dialect which, before it died out in the 1920s, was probably the closest to Hungarian. Reflecting on his visit to the lower Tavda river area in 1894, Munkácsi initially assumed that Tavda was a separate language:

A Tavda folyó alvidékén csekély számban fönmaradt vogulok nyelve a vogul nyelvterület lenönállóbb s legsajátosabb része, mely első tekintetre olyan benyomással hat a figyelőre, mintha benne nem is egy tájbeszédnek, hanem az uráli ugor nyelvek egyik külön tagjának őriződött volna meg végső maradványa.

Bernát Munkácsi, A vogul nyelvjárások szóragozásukban ismertetve, Budapest, MTA, 1894, p. 244.

A mere forty pages of Tavda exist: texts collected by Munkácsi from the late 1880s onwards and, later, by Artturi Kannisto in the early 1900s (see Kannisto, ed. Matti Liimola, Wogulische Volksdichtung, 6 vols., Helsinki, 1951-63), which are collated (and treated as one dialect) by László Honti in System der paradigmatischen Suffixmorpheme des Wogulischen Dialektes an der Tawda, Budapest, 1975.

Although stress nearly always fell on the second syllable, Tavda had an accusative marker (-mee/-mii), and vowel harmony where front and back vowels largely corresponded with those in Hungarian:

Tavda N. Vogul Hungarian English
äämp āmp eb dog
käät kāt kéz/keze- hand


Its other cases are: lative, locative, ablative, instrumental, comitative, and translative. Tavda is paratactic, which means that there is no subordination in sentence formation, where words can be placed in any order. Some relics of parataxis (in other words, where there is no accusativity) still exist in Hungarian, such as háztűznézni, könyvolvasás, kézmosás. In terms of the text we studied, the verb system has a passive marker inserted before the durative or the past marker; an indicative and imperative mood (the latter only in the second person); and momentaneous and durative present tenses and one past tense. Like Hungarian, there is no definite/indefinite disctinction in the past tense. There are no definite forms in the passive, or in intransitive verb forms. Personal possessive suffixes may be familiar to speakers of Hungarian:

s1 -(ə)m/-aam p1 -(ə)w
s2 -(ə)n p2 -((ə))n)ää/-((ə)n)aa
s3 -iit’ii/-eet’ii p3 -ään/-aan


Some examples, in which the sequence of morphemes is the same in Tavda and Hungarian include: niim (HU: nőm); käätəmən (kezembe); torəm (torkom). Of course, Hungarian has long since developed European features on top of the Uralic characteristics, such as the definite article, and agreement between definite noun phrases and verb forms.

The text is the story of a hunter who, having killed and skinned a reindeer and put it in the pot, is astonished when a wind blows up, the pot tips over and the reindeer jumps out and flees. He goes to the nearest village and tells a man there he has seen a miracle, and recounts the tale. The listener, a ploughman, invites him to stand with him on the plough, while he relates an even more fantastic story: he once came home to find his wife in bed with another man, and when the woman hit him and commanded him to turn into a black dog, he turned into a black dog. The dog came across some ploughmen who, believing Torem had sent them a guard dog, gave him food while he guarded their dwellings for a week. The dog then guarded the dwelling of the landowner, whose wife bore him a son. The baby was stolen. She had another son, who was also stolen. When the third son was born, the dog stopped the thief by biting his leg, and was rewarded with bread and sugar, even a ribbon around his neck. One day, he set off hunting for rabbits with the landowner, but instead returned home to find his wife in bed with another man. She beat him, and commanded him to turn into a sparrow, which he did. He flew off and started eating oats with horses in a field, where he was caught by two children and taken to their home. Their father, the baby thief, whips him and commands him to become a man. He becomes a man. They feed him and, when he leaves, the old man presses a whip into his hand and tells him to go home, whip his wife and turn her into a mare, and to whip her lover and turn him into a stallion. He does just this. The narrator harnesses the mare and stallion to his plough, on which narrator and hunter are standing. The hunter says, now that is a miracle!

Lexical items of interest: the words for black dog (śarnəšk), sugar (sääkäär), bed (krawāť) and miracle (t’iwa) are from Russian (чорнышка, сахр, кровать, диво), while Tatar borrowings include tüs (hunting), pajtəl (mare), and sol (oats).

Although it would be misleading to say that Tavda is ‘easy’ or even remotely intelligible for Hungarian speakers, the text provided numerous ‘whoah!’ moments. Having studied Mansi now for a few months, this was plain sailing. The Hungarian morpheme-by-morpheme crib sheet provided was immediately understandable. The following original and Hungarian crib, in which the ploughman begins his story, will illustrate the beauties of Tavda (transcription simplified in the interest of legibility).

tü kom länt: “tiťi ńokor ťiwa?! äm ťiwa wāsəm. āləs äm niim,” länt. “äšnäl jisəm, niim māt kom jōrtəl krawāť ašt šänəwtäktiim koji. nii noƞläkətəs, ńärəmtəs tupiinək, šäwräpəwsəm päntä, läws: ālsən näw kom, iń sown šiiməl ämp!” äm sowsəm šiiməl ämpəw, künpāšəwsəm. äm kajtsəm.

Ez ember mond: “Emez milyen csoda?! ÉN csoda láttam. Volt én nőm,” mond, “munkából haza jöttem, nőm más férfival együtt ágyon ölelkezve fekszik. Nő felugrott, vett dorong, vágott féjjen, mondott: “Voltál most(ig) férfi, most válj fekete eb!” Én váltam fekete ebbé, kiűzettem. én futkároztam.

Ob-Ugric 8: Bears (cont.)

The Mūnkēsiŋ uj-ēriɣ (‘Song of the Creature of the Village of Munkes’), collected by Munkácsi in 1889, recounts the foraging activities, capture and death of a bear, followed by a bear feast. The narrator is the bear, who frequently refers to himself in the third person, Vojle-ōnle, ‘animal-majestic’. During summer, he gathers pine cones and berries in the forest, eating as he goes, to make fat for his back and belly so he can sleep through the winter. Noting that his Heavenly Father has descended (in other words, autumn has arrived), he finds a large mound of earth at the banks of the noble river, where he decides he will hibernate. He scoops out the earth with both paws (see below), lines the earthen house with moss, and enters, where he rests his plaited and beautiful head. His sleep is disturbed by men with dogs. The men hold axes and ice-breaking poles, and make an arrowslit in the roof of his lair. When the bear pokes his head out, his head is ‘run through’, he is bound with rope and dragged out. His five buttons are undone (he is skinned), the fat of his back and belly is placed on a sledge and taken to the village, where the hunting party is greeted by men and women whooping and throwing snow. The bear is placed on a dais inside the house, and sits in his splendid nest while fish is brought to eat. The men disguise themselves and performs songs and plays for five nights, then a blood sacrifice of reindeer is placed before the bear. His head and paws are cut off, cooked in a pot and shared out; the bear then gets up and, in the form of a mole, slips away with the blood sacrifice. He looks up (prays) to his Heavenly Father, who lets down the iron ladder from heaven, which the bear ascends with his blood sacrifice. He attaches the blood sacrifices to the iron pillar, enters the gold roofbeamed house where his Heavenly Father sits, and asks “whither will you direct me?” Numi-Torem replies he should hurry to the berry-laden, cone-laden grove, whereupon the bear, in his joy, jumps forward with a three-jump jump and a four-swing bound.

Archaica, Russians, animals in folklore

Bear narrators frequently recount their deaths by knife, lance or bow and arrow, while heroic songs feature warriors in armour using swords, despite the fact that automatic weapons had already been commonplace in the region for centuries. It seems that rifles have some taboo attached to them, described perhaps as a firing ‘noisy, loud-noised thing’, but in any case the animal’s death will be quickly passed over, and only referred to in an exceedingly circumlocutory way.

I say that the animal’s death is glossed over using ornate language because the bear describes ‘losing consciousness’ or falling into a deep sleep, and goes on to narrate the ensuing bear feast and performances, the ‘hand-turning, leg-turning’ plays. A bear feast for a male bear lasts five days, corresponding to the number of buttons the animals is said to have, four for a female bear, and three for a bear cub. The technology (tools) with which the bear was killed is sometimes blamed on the Russians, who provided tips for the spears and suchlike, but at any rate, the hunters go to great lengths to absolve themselves of guilt, for killing a bear is not something taken lightly. The supernatural abilities of the bear include an imputed ability to conceal its scent from men and dogs; performers of the plays often disguise their faces, bodies and voices so that the dead bear being entertained will not recognise them. Taboo words are discussed further in Marianne Bakró-Nagy, Die Sprache des Bärenkultes im Obugrischen, Budapest, Akadémiai, 1979.

Furred animals provided a form of currency, as well as a unit of measurement. G. F. Cushing’s article on the bear in Ob-Ugrian folklore cites a poem in which squirrel furs represent kopecks: the cunning Vogul offers to repay the Russian his 100-squirrel-fur debt with ‘hidden treasure’, a buried corpse. As they dig, the corpse moves and the Russian collapses in terror. The narrator declares to the corpse, ‘whether you come to life or not, it’s all the same to me’. (See G. F. Cushing, ‘The Bear in Ob-Ugrian Folklore’, Folklore, 88, 1977, 2, pp. 146-59.)

In the Mūnkēsiŋ uj-ēriɣ the bear, while preparing his hibernation place, fills five pine marten skins with soil with his right paw, and then six with his left (here, in Munkácsi’s transcription):

jḁmes-pāl ḁlnė kātläp-pālėm


at ńoɣs ḁsmäń ɣuri’

kwon ti patilāli;

vorti-pāl ḁlnė kātläp-pālėm


ɣḁt ḁsmäń ɣuri’

kwon ti patilāli.

Gyula Illyés translates this as:

Jobb felőli fél kezecském


öt nyusztbőrből varrt cihába

férő föld omol ki,

bal oldali fél kezecském


hat nyusztbőrből varrt cihába

férő föld bomol ki.

Illyés, ‘Medveének’, in Péter Domokos (ed.), Medveének. A keleti finnugor népek irodalmának kistükre, Budapest, Európa, 1975, pp. 39-46 (41).

One of the tasks of the translator is to render the repetition and parallelism (R&P) of the original. To the Western reader, R&P may seem cumbersome: no new information is given, but synonyms are employed to vary the repetition (see above, lines 1 & 5, and 2 & 6). It is crucial that the reader recognise the forms and role of R&P, not least because repetition aids reading. Illyés makes full use of his skills as a poet, and exploits the resources of Hungarian, balancing the literal with the creative. He recreates participial phrases (which participate in both noun and verb systems) immediately recognisable to the reader, thus kinsəlėnėm xaltə, during the course of my search, lit. ‘in my seeking’, becomes keresgéltemben, while ūnlėnėm xaltə, while sitting, ‘in my sitting’, is rendered ültömben.

Last, but not least, the raw materials for comparative Finno-Ugric morphology are contained within the poem: āmp/eb (dog); at/öt (five); ɣḁt/hat (six); xōs/húgy (star, here taboo for the bear’s eyes); xåsä/hosszú (long); ūləm/álom (dream); jåməs/jó (good); ńēlm/nyelv (tongue); lowint/(meg)olvas (to read), an instance of metathesis where, here, consonant and vowel exchange places. The past marker here is -m- (Cf. HU -t-). Such correspondences are central to the comparative method in historical linguistics, evidence-based internal reconstruction of language(s).

Ob-Ugric 7: Mansi (Sygva) numbers, bears and bear poems

In the last class, we took a look at the noun system in the northern Sygva dialect of Mansi, and started reading a bear poem.

The order of noun suffixes works as follows: plural + possession + case. As I’ve already mentioned, Sygva Mansi is elaborate in marking number: it has separate sets of endings for dual, and for three or more subjects and objects. Case endings may be instrumental (e.g. I hit him with an axe) or comitative (e.g. I hit him together with my friend, i.e. my friend and I hit him); ablative; locative; lative; or translative (without plural or possessive endings). Where two full vowels (but NOT ə) appear next to each other, a -j- is inserted between them.

For instance, where sāli is reindeer, sālijanəl (sāli-j-anəl: reindeer-1-their (3 or more possessors)) means 1 reindeer belonging to 3 or more people; while sālijaɣamēn (sāli-j-aɣ-amēn: reindeer-2-our (2 possessors)) means 2 reindeer owned by two people.

Or, where kol is house:

kol-əm-t in my house

kol-aɣ-ən-t in your (1 possessor) two houses

kol-an-ə-t in their (3-or-more possessors) houses

kol-ət-t in 3-or-more houses

Further examples can be found in Béla Kálmán, Wogulische Texte mit einem Glossar, Budapest, Akadémiai, 1976.

Now onto bears.

The bear song, Mūnkēsiŋ uj-ēriɣ (‘Song of the Creature of the Village of Munkes’, HU: ‘Múnkeszfalvi állat-ének’), was collected by Munkácsi on 8 March 1889 in Berjozovo, and was first printed in his Vogul Népköltési Gyűjtemény, III/2, pp. 260-5. This song was translated by Gyula Illyés (1902-83) as ‘Medveének’, a masterful translation that exploits those elements of rhythm, syntax and word formation shared by Hungarian and Vogul. Illyés created a verbal art form that is unmistakably modern Hungarian, but which transcends the strictures of that language’s verse conventions to have the reader hear an echo of the Mansi language and pre-modern oral culture, transforming the basic structure of Uralic folk poetry, that of repetition and parallelism, into an exceptionally skillful translation. His translation is available in: Péter Domokos (ed.), Medveének. A keleti finnugor népek irodalmának kistükre, Budapest, Európa, 1975, pp. 39-46; and Béla Kálmán (ed.), Leszállt a medve az égből. Vogul népköltészet, Budapest, Európa, 1980, pp. 224-31.

Before a discussion of the poem and its translation, some notes on bear mythology.

In Ob-Ugric mythology, the bear is the most sacred and the most feared creature. Tales of the bear’s origin are perhaps reminiscent of the fall of Adam: the bear’s father is Numi-Torem, Mansi God of the heavens. She (for it is usually a she) disobeys the Heavenly Father’s commands to stay in his house of gold and silver, and descends to Earth, where her life becomes full of difficulty. She must gather enough berries and sustenance to last the winter hibernation.

[The bear] is the guardian of justice and takes note of the most solemn oaths. It appears as a higher power who may take revenge for broken promises and as such plays a central role in the thought-world of the Ob-Ugrians.

G. F. Cushing, ‘The Bear in Ob-Ugrian Folklore’, Folklore, 88, 1977, 2, pp. 146-59 (p. 147)

Taboo words are used to refer to the bear: a male is the one with five buttons, a female bear has four, while a bearcub has three buttons. Bears may also be referred to as ‘the old one of the forest’, ‘the little idol’, ‘the holy beast’ and ‘the strong beast’. Its eyes are ‘stars’ (xōs) or ‘currants’, while its front paws are ‘hands’ (kāt), its back paws ‘boots’, and it skin a ‘cloak’. When a bear is killed and skinned, the skinning process is referred to as āŋxwəlawət: ‘undressing’, removal of the cloak (HU: kibont, levetkőztet). Words for the bear’s stomach include xurəɣ (sack), såut (birch-bark basket, a word of Tatar origin), and pajp (birch-bark butt, HU: puttony), while its back is pūtjiw, the two struts from which a cooking pot is suspended over the fire. The name for the sledge on which the bear’s corpse is transported, ťāťä, also comes from Tatar. It is not so important where the word for an object comes from, then, what is important is that we should not say what it is.

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Ob-Ugric 6: Mansi, Munkácsi, Nagy and sleep

I mentioned that Munkácsi’s collections of Mansi song and verse (Bernát Munkácsi, Vogul Népköltési Gyűjtemény, 4 vols., Budapest, MTA, 1892-1963) had inspired a number of twentieth-century poets, and referred to the imagery of a particular kind of deep sleep, the sort so deep that the sleeper would not wake up, even if their head/torso were cut off.

This motif of the deep sleep might, for instance, refer to the shaman’s loss of consciousness after performing his rites.

Here’s an example of the Mansi neck-/head-/trunk-cut, firm/rooted sleep image:

slot 1 slot 2 slot 3 slot 4
puŋkä jäktim tāriŋ ūləm
its head cuts/chops rooted sleep

Slot 4 is always occupied by the same word for ‘sleep’, ūləm, which will be familiar to Hungarian speakers as álom, dream. The preceding slots may be filled as follows:

1. puŋk-ä (head-3rd person possessive), sip-ä (neck-3rd person possessive), or porx-ä (shoulder/trunk-3rd person possessive);

2. Slot 2 might contain jäktim (cuts/chops) or ńawlənə (pursues/chases);

3. Slot 3 might contain tār-iŋ (root-ed), vaɣ-in (strong, lit: strength-ed), porx-iŋ (shoulder-ed/ trunk-ed), sari (true/genuine), ńaŋrä (powerful/firm/hard), xosä (long, C.f. HU hosszú), or usi (powerful/strong)

Such forms were explicated by Munkácsi (nyaklevágott álom, neck-cut-off dream), and read by, amongst others, the poets László Nagy (1925-78, below left) and Ferenc Juhász (b. 1928).

Nagy transforms the nyaklevágott álom in his poem ‘Medvezsoltár’ (Bear-psalm) into a fejlevágható, szív-kiszakítható álom, in which the dream becomes rather ‘head-cut-off-able’, and the new attribute is ‘heart-tear-out-able’ (szív-kiszakítható). Note that the -ható is not there in the original. Translated into English as ‘Bear Psalm’ in Tony Connor and Kenneth McRobbie (trans.), Love of the Scorching Wind: Selected Poems 1953-1971, Budapest, Corvina, 1973, pp. 61-3, this line is translated as ‘the dream can be beheaded, my sleeping heart torn out’.

See László Nagy, ‘Medvezsoltár’ in Versek és versfordítások, Vol. I, Budapest, Magvető, 1975, pp. 444-6, or at the Digitális Irodalmi Akadémia.

Further reading: Robert Austerlitz, Ob-Ugric Metrics: the metrical structure of Ostyak and Vogul folk poetry, Helsinki, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1958; and Peter Sherwood, ‘Ob-Ugrian Sleep’, in L. Jakab, L. Keresztes, A. Kiss and S. Maticsák (eds), Congressus Septimus Internationalis Fenno-Ugristarum. Sessiones Sectionum. Dissertationes Linguistica, Debrecen, Debrecen University Press, 1990, pp. 308-13.

Ob-Ugric 4: Mansi vocabulary, Song of Conversion (cont.)

At around the same time as Europeans were colonising the Americas and decimating the native populations there, Russians were pushing eastward. Siberia was colonised during the reign of Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible, 1530-84) and, by the end of the sixteenth century, the Mansi had been pushed from ‘European Russia’ to the other side of the Urals. Incidentally, the word ‘Ural’ itself comes from Mansi: ur (mountain) + ala (roof).

While the Mansi religion is polytheistic and shamanistic, images of worldly deities (tsars, Lenin) were gradually added to sacred places in Mansi dwellings over the centuries. Leonid Trauberg and Grigori Kozintsev’s 1931 film Одна (Alone), for which Shostakovich wrote the score, was filmed in the Altai mountains. Although shamans were to be liquidated together with the kulaks under collectivisation, the film includes footage of a surviving shaman, and the entire crew were reportedly terrified of him. Their awe is almost tangible, if not contagious, in the scene in which he dances and sings by a fire.

A few notes on borrowed words in the northern (Sygva) dialect of Mansi we’ve been studying. Some words for ‘modern’ things come from Russian: ārkeri (архиереи, bishop), aťēl (отдел, carriage), xōsax (казак, Cossack), konkrēs (конгресс, congress), rūt (род, kin), sāprańi (собрание, meeting), tēsis (тезис, thesis), and also pil(i), the word for car, which comes from автомобиль.

Others come from Komi (also known as Zyrian), another Uralic language, but one spoken on the western side of the Urals: nēpak (nipik – paper, letter, book, writing), and tujt (tūjt – horsedrawn sledge). The Sygva Mansi words for Russian, cross (as in crucifix), and bread (as in naan bread) also come from Komi. We can see how Russian, and other more western-ly items are imported via other Uralic languages that exist in closer proximity to Russian(s).

Oddly enough, however, the Sygva word for silk (japak), comes from Tatar, which means that it must have travelled a great distance. The word for cow, too, comes from the south, where livelihoods depend on herds, rather than on reindeer and fish.

Mansi is, as one would expect, particularly rich in river vocabulary. So far, we’ve come across words for the flat piece of land next to the riverbank (pōx), downriver (lui), and the part of a river between two bends (wōľ). There’s also reindeer vocabulary, such as kot, the skin on a reindeer’s leg; mańśək, a reindeer’s tail; and xār-ōjka, a reindeer bull, where xār is reindeer, and ōjka is the same as the Hungarian bácsi, uncle or older man.

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Ob-Ugric 3: Mansi (Tavda), Song of Conversion

Before languages die out, they go mad. This means that agreements fail, phonologic differences may fade away, there is syntactic loss: the language’s systems fall apart. We need to bear in mind this kind of craziness when looking at dialects of Mansi that have died out, because samples collected from Tavda in the late 1800s, for instance, a southern dialect that was probably the closest to Hungarian, may well contradict each other.

Mansi belongs to the Ob-Ugrian sub-group of the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic languages, and its speakers mostly live along tributaries of the river Ob, while a few live along the river Konda. There are, or were, three distinct Mansi branches. The Northern Mansi speakers live(d) along the banks of the rivers Sosva, Sygva and Upper Lozva. Speakers of Eastern Mansi lived along the Konda valley, while Southern (including Tavda) and Western Mansi no longer speak Mansi.

Tavda had vowel harmony, and displayed some fascinating Ugric ideas that speakers of Hungarian will be familiar with. In Hungarian, definiteness might be expressed in one of four ways. Here are the ways in which distinctions between conjugations are made:

1. látok / látom – I see something, vs. I see it. Here, the difference is in the consonant used.

2. -unk, -ünk / -juk, -jük: these are first person plural endings, in which the sequence of letters is jumbled up, the ‘n’ disappears and a ‘j’ appears at the beginning.

3. -t-ak / -t-ák: here, the vowel is lengthened to denote definiteness in the third person plural.

4. néz-tek / néz-i-tek where something (here, ‘i’) is inserted for the second conjugation (you [informal plural] look vs. you look at it).

Tavda used the fourth principle, in which a slot for a definite marker appears before personal endings. However, all pronouns are definite in Mansi and Khanty, not just the 3rd person.

Tavda had an accusative marker, and two sorts of instrumental, for when an instrument is used (e.g. I hit him with an axe) and a comitative (I hit him [together] with my friend), as well as an equivalent to the Hungarian translative -vá/-vé, which denotes something becoming something else, e.g. vérré vált ez a sör (I’ve just drunk this beer and it has become blood in my body).

Tavda died out in the 1920s, at around the same time written forms of Mansi and Khanty were introduced, using the Cyrillic alphabet.

After looking at the grammar, we moved on to a poem collected by Bernát Munkácsi (1860-1937) in 1888, but which dates from the early 1700s, when the Russians decided to convert the ‘heathens’ of Siberia to Christianity. Munkácsi’s original family name was Munk, and his family were so poor he grew up in a cave in Nagyvárad (today Oradea in Romania). He travelled to the Urals in the 1880s, and his collections of Ugric song and verse, first published by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1892, delighted and inspired a number of twentieth-century poets. Ferenc Juhász and László Nagy both borrowed imagery from Khanty and Mansi verbal art forms and motifs, such as the ‘nyaklevágható álom’, literally, neck-cut-off-able dream, a sleep so deep your head could be severed and you wouldn’t wake up, rendered as ‘fejlevágható álom’ in László Nagy’s poem Medvezsoltár (Bear psalm).

The poem we read has been translated as the Song of Conversion, and is one of the most powerful, sparse poems I have ever read.

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Ob-Ugric 2: Mansi (Sygva), the mouse tale

In the second class, we read a folk tale in the northern dialect of Mansi (also called Vogul), Sygva, about a mouse. Here are the first few lines of the text, and I’m using the Latin script for ease of recognisability (Cyrillic was introduced in the late 1930s). There’s no upper case:

mātāpriś ōli. χottaľ minuŋk noməlmātas. āmpńēlum tūpsup wārəs, ponalťēr χāpsup wārəs, χāpťēte nāluw(*) nariɣtaste, tūpťēte wis(**), tāləs. ta towi, te ērɣi: āmpńēlum tūpsuptem, pol, pol, pol, ponalťēr χāpsuptem, χaľ, χaľ, χaľ … χosa minas, wāti minas, ēlaľ sunsi: ak pāweln nēɣləs …

The above can be translated into Hungarian with ease (source: Béla Kálmán, Wogulische Texte mit einem Glossar, Budapest, 1976, pp. 180-2):

Egér van. Valahová menni gondolt. Ebnyelv evezőcskét csinált, kendermaghej hajócskát csinált, hajócskáját vízre(*) taszította, evezőcskéjét vette(**), beszállt. Evezett, énekelt: ebnyelv evezőcském, pól, pól, pól, kendermaghej hajócskám, sáv, sáv, sáv … Hosszú ment, rövid ment, előre lát: egy falutól látszott.

It’s really tricky in English. Here’s my best shot:

There is a mouse. He thought of going somewhere. He made dog-tongue oars, he made a hemp-husk boat, led his boat to the river bank, took his oars, sat down in the boat. He rowed, he sang: my little dog-tongue oars, pol, pol, pol, my little hemp-husk boat, shav, shav, shav … He went a long time, he went a short time, he looked ahead: the mouse appeared to a village.

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Ob-Ugric 1: Mansi (Sygva)

Hungarian belongs to the Uralic family of languages, which is split between Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic subfamilies. A detailed map of the Uralic languages is available here.

The major languages of the Finno-Ugric are Finnish, Estonian (Balto-Finnic) and Hungarian (Ugric). The closest living relatives to Hungarian are Khanty (also known as Ostyak) and Mansi (also known as Vogul), both of which are indigenous languages of Russia that have many dialects. According to the Russian Federation census of 1990, Khanty has around 15,000 native speakers, while Mansi has only 3,000.

We began the Ob-Ugric classes with Peter Sherwood in 2007, and the first text we studied was in the northern (Sygva) dialect of Mansi, in which a Mansi woman, Evdokija I. Rombandeeva (b. 1928), recounted her trip to Helsinki to attend a conference in 1965.

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