Perpetual Nabokov

Writer’s Change of Language: Nabokov and Others

In the journal of proceedings of the linguistic anthropology symposium in 2016 at UT, my first writing on Nabokov out there.

He is at the interception of identities, which coincides for the writer with the interception of languages and ways of writing: English as opposed to Russian but also as opposed to American (as opposed to French).

Gendered Speech

Certain ways of speaking, not only in terms of content but also prosodywise, are gendered as feminine, and, accordingly, stigmatized as degrading, condemned, castigated, censured, disapproved, publicly subjected to improvement and extermination, and reprimanded.

“Schoolgirl speech” in Japan, as Miyako uncoveres, was reconstructed as having a number of characteristics polluting the purity of educated Japanese speech: “From approximately 1887 through World War I, a surge of commentaries were written and circulated in the Japanese print media about the “strange” and “unpleasant” (mimizawarina) sounds issuing from the mouths of schoolgirls. Male intellectuals of various affiliations located the source of their dismay in utterance-endings such as teyo, noyo, and dawa which schoolgirls used. They called such speech forms “schoolgirl speech” (jogakusei kotoba). It was jarring to their ears; it sounded vulgar and low class; its prosodic features were described as “fast,” “contracting,” and “bouncing with a rising intonation”; and it was condemned as “sugary and shallow.”” (Miyako, 2006, 37).

Such telling examples do not belong solely to the pre-WW 1st Japanese past, they also mark the Western present. The discussion around “uptalk” bears remarkably misoginystic overtones. “Uptalk,” the employment of rising intonation in statements, supposedly transforming statements into questions, is intensely gendered as characteristic to women’s speech. Highly gendered public spheres of modernity intensely police feminized ways of speaking.

A brief overview of youtube videos regarding uptalk would yield to “The Weird Way Women Downplay Their Success” (, a nameless video about “degradation of English language” (, and multiple videos of young women “uptalking” (for example, with comments as follows (numbers below the comment indicate “likes”):

“Tavor Runner 274 months ago
If you are contemplating suicide, this vid may very well push you over the edge.

echolot1 month ago
as annoying as they talk, i’d still love to be the meat in that sandwich.

væmpaɪər Lestat2 weeks ago
makes me wanna cut their fucking throat”

Women, on one hand, are socialized into presenting their opinions as ready to be retracted any moment, but on the other hand women are ridiculed exactly for that. Language ideologies of modernity require women to employ cadences of speech reconstructed as men’s cadences, as well as men’s manner of talking, in order to be construed and recognized as a confident, “successful” speaker.


Miyako, Inoue. Vicarious language: Gender and linguistic modernity in Japan. University of California Press. 2006

Genre and Power

The question of genre is, I believe, extremely important.

The piece "Genre, Intertextuality, and Social Power" Bauman and Briggs begin with delineation of the history of ethnographic writing in order to arrive to understanding how genre plays out in power relations. Evoking Vladimir Propp, who discovered that the structure of fairy tail is preserved albeit the content may vary, and engaging with Boasian writing (produced by Boas and his students; for them, the genre of ethnographic writing was primarily the means of organizing gathered material), they identify the differences between approaches to genre, among which "The most significant dimension of contrast among formal perspectives on genre distinguishes those approaches that identify the formal organization of genre as an immanent, normative, structuring property of texts from those that view generic form as a conventionalized but flexible and open-ended set of expectations concerning the organization of formal means and structures in discursive practice." (144).

This division seems to not necessarily be so contrastive in nature. Genre might be a structuring property of texts and simultaneously a flexible set of expectations. The lack of clarity of the defining genre is telling, in the authors’ consideration, of the fat that it is the under-theorized problem in linguistic anthropology. (The article is written in 1991 but the clarity of the issue, I’d suggest, has only diminished, if anything, since then.) For Bakhtin, genre was an important subject of constant writing. With the shift from text to performance, the question of genre has only increased in its significance. Bringing the discussion to the discourse of intertextuality and dialogism of creative forms, the written work begins to exist on the "intersection of textual surfaces" (Kristeva), that is to say, within multiple intersecting (competing, interchanging, contesting each other and supporting each other) contexts. 

Therefore, "We would argue, similarly, that genre cannot fruitfully be characterized as a facet of the immanent properties of particular texts or performances. Like reported speech, genre is quintessentially intertextual" (147), that is to say, does not exist "objectively," as given, but depends on context.

"When viewed diachronically or vertically, the fit between a particular text and its generic model—as well as other tokens of the same genre—is never perfect; to paraphrase Sapir, we might say that all genres leak. Generic frameworks thus never provide sufficient means of producing and receiving discourse. Some elements of contextualization creep in, fashioning indexical connections to the ongoing discourse, social interaction, broader social relations, and the particular historical juncture(s) at which the discourse is produced and received. […] The process of linking particular utterances to generic models thus necessarily
produces an intertextual gap." (149)

Ultimately the question of genre is political: "Invocations of genre provide powerful strategies for building what Anderson (1991(1983]) terms "imagined communities." (150) For example, "As in the Weyewa case, the
speech genres that comprise the "talk of the elders of bygone days"
among Spanish speakers in New Mexico play a key role in this process" (150).

The question of power, therefore, is a question of powerful narratives the production of which is structured around the axis of genre. "Intertextual gaps" are widened, narrowed, erased, deepened, and downplayed depending on goals of the ruling classes.

"Naturalizing the connection between genre, gender, and emotional experience can in turn rationalize the subordinate status of particular social groups or categories of persons; Lutz’s (1990) discussion of the association between "emotionality" and the female in Western society provides a case in point." (158)


Briggs, Charles and Richard Bauman (1991) "Genre, Intertextuality, and Social Power." Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 2(2):131-172

Individual Acts of Language Creativity and Grammar

I think Voloshinov expressed the pathos of the philosophy of language in one phrase:

“We addressed ourselves to the philosophy of language, the philosophy of the word. But what is language, and what is word? We do not, of course, have in mind anything like a conclusive definition of these concepts.” (Voloshinov, 1973, 45)

He, of course, does not end here, but proceeds with outlining the four basic principles of language:

1 . Language is activity, an unceasing process of creation (energeia) realized in individual speech acts;
2. The laws of language creativity are the laws of individual psychology;
3. Creativity of language is meaningful creativity, analogous to creative art;
4. Language as a ready-made product (ergon), as astable system (lexicon, grammar, phonetics), is, so to speak, the inert crust, the hardened lava of language creativity, of which linguistics makes an abstract construct in the interests of the practical teaching of language as a ready-made instrument.” (48, cursive is the author’s here and further unless otherwise noted.)

I find the idea of Vossler, in regard to grammar, particularly appealing. In Voloshinov’s formulation, it sounds as follows:

Everything that becomes a fact of grammar had once been a fact of style.” (51)

That speaks to the notion of grammar with which Becker is occupied, in a somewhat opposing manner. If for Becker (1995) grammar precedes the utterance (which it does in any given respect), Vossler brings us to the realization that grammar categories are malleable, and the forms of expressions particularly economical, practical, and efficient, emerge and become day-to-day choices of speakers’ self-expression over other grammatical constructions. Thus the “individual creative acts of speech” all play out in the societal language production, influencing the norms and changing grammatical structures which are considered to be normative, over time.


Voloshinov, V.N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Harvard University Press, 1973.

Becker, Alton. Beyond Translation. 1995

Accented Speech

Agha Asif, by analyzing the emergence of a particularly privileged way of speaking British English, so-called “Received Pronunciation,” shows the close, indivisible relationship between the way language is performed and cultural value ascribed to this performance. Not only “received pronunciation” of the speaker marks her social, economic, and educational high status, but it also shapes discursive practices in which she participates.

The variety of versions of speaking English has always been my fascination, probably because it is a personal matter of an English speaker whose speech is marked with accent. My accent defines not only the way my interactions go in the English-speaking environments, but also the very content of these interactions, for instance requiring me to unfold a variation of a personal story providing my interlocutor with information he requests from a foreigner to define the character of emerging communication and to ascertain my identity.

Despite that Agha dismisses the term “accent” as a folk concept, accent marks the belonging of the speaker to “some other group” (a remarkably precise Agha’s formula); it organizes daily experiences in a variegated assortment of unprecedented ways within a continuity of discovering foreignness, otherness, and difference.

The accent is a heavily loaded marker of a social, national, cultural identity, and it comes with a system of assigned meanings “through the use of identifying labels” (Agha, 2007, 233). I would add, that the normality, or unaccented way of speaking, is unmarked in social imaginary, and therefore is taken as default. Speakers sharing the same accent (for example, in any class of second-language learners), would not construct hierarchy based on shared characteristic. The sorting property of any quality emerges in a group who do not share it. Among those who speak differently, some pronunciation would be marked as normal and some as deviating, accented, impaired.

The case of the British “Received Pronunciation” is unusual in this respect. It still marks the identity of the speaker, but in a favorable way. It marks her as different but belonging to a privileged class. RP is understood by everyone who lives in Britain, but “the competence to speak it” (Agha, 2007, 234, the cursive is the author’s) is a prerogative of a small powerful minority. The power of PR is evident not only in the fact that it is translated through media in Great Britain, but also that it is one of the best-studied accents.

As a marker of higher status, it is inevitably under the scrutiny of purification, of which the culmination is the doubt that the Queen herself could perform it properly, expressed rather funny in the quoted by Agha article which appeared in “The Independent” newspaper on 21 December, 2000:

“Her Majesty may not be so amused to find that a team of linguists has found her guilty of no longer speaking the Queen’s English. A group of Australian researchers analysed every Christmas message made by the Queen since 1952 and discovered that she now speaks with an intonation more Chelmsford than Windsor. . .” (226)
Agha, Asif. The Social Life of Cultural Value in “Language and Social Relations.” Cambridge University Press, 2007

Language as a System of Clichés

Becker provides us with a powerful description of language acquisition: “One learns these texts in action, by repetitions and corrections, starting with the simplest utterances of a baby. One learns to reshape these texts to new context, by imitation and by trial and error. One learns to interact with more and more people, in a greater and greater variety of environments.” (Becker, 1995, 144).

Grammar, therefore, is a set of rules not imposed on the speaker by books, but acquired as the structures of spoken, heard, and talked language.

The language is an intricately, infinitely complex system of clichés. To be understood, one has to rely on what has been already said billion times. There is a certain space for novelty but it is a regulated space.

Becker, Alton. Beyond Translation. 1995

All Communication Is Simultaneously a Miscommunication: Is That True?

The Spanish conquest of Tagalog society posed the questions, in Rafael’s rendition, of history and translation, memory and circulation, conversion and confession.

He starts with a curious observation on the poeticizing of colonialism which was so deeply ingrained into the mind of colonizers they never relinquished it: "The Real Academia’s Diccionario de la lengua española defines conquista not only as the forcible occupation of a territory but also as the act of winning someone’s voluntary submission and consequently attaining his or her love and affection." (Rafael, ix)

In this context, translation is a means of colonization and of establishing the power narrative. Catholicism, with its "ideas of indebtedness and hierarchy" (Rafael, x), seemed to be a perfect instrument of colonization. For it to be successful, the new language had to be invented, namely "the institution of the new vocabulary for the social comprehension of death" (Rafael, xi).

The parallel to Benedict Anderson’s "fatality of linguistic diversity": "The element of fatality is essential. For whatever superhuman feats capitalism was capable of, it found in death and languages two tenacious adversaries. Particular languages can die or be wiped out, but there was and is no possibility of humankind’s general linguistic unification." (Anderson, 1983, 56)

To juxtapose it with Rafael’s findings, one might paraphrase: "for whatever superhuman feats colonialism was capable of, it found in death and languages two tenacious adversaries."

However, inasmuch as languages made it a struggle for colonizers, to subjugate people and therefore territories and resources, languages also presented a redeemable challenge. 

"Natives" employ linguistic means of resistance: "A distinctive Tagalog strategy of decontexualizing the means by which colonial authority represents itself" (Rafael, 3). But their history, in turn, is written by the superseding power. And not only the history during the colonial rule, but also the history of colonialism, is written by the colonizers and their descendants, and not by the colonized.

The spirit of "natives" is unbroken, however, which is evident in the scene when the man recognizes the dead hero of resistance in a madman enclosed in the nearing cell.* 

What makes a translation successful? How spiritual texts of Catholicism could be translated? The tremendous difficulty of the Herculean task is afforded the glimpse if we recollect Laura Bohannan’s telling piece "Shakespear in the Bush" where she described the perils of explaining the vicissitudes of Hamlet to the Tiv people in West Africa (Bohannan, 1966). By any means, to explain the Bible to Tagalog, or any other people, was no easier, especially meaning that this explanation should ultimately lead to them fighting Spanish wars, paying tribute, building churches (some of the duties named by Rafael), and otherwise serving their overlords.

So how does translation emerges in this situation and how does it function? Not only its functions are to convert, but also to build the understanding. "Siegel claims that translation arises from the need to relate one’s interest to that of others and so to encode it appropriately. Translation in this case involves not simply the ability to speak in a language other than one’s own but the capacity to reshape one’s thoughts and actions in accordance with accepted forms." (Rafael, 210)

On this path, not so much translation as mistranslation is happening: "Christian conversion and colonial rule emerged through what appeared to be a series of mistranslations. But in fact, as I have tried to demonstrate, such mistranslations were ways to render the other understandable. Each group read into the other’s language and behavior possibilities that the original speaker had not intended or foreseen." (Rafael, 211)

I think unintendedness, or unforeseenness is relative in the situation of successful colonial subjugation, and should not be overstated. The miscommunications happened, but as Wilhelm von Humboldt famously claimed, "All understanding is at the same time a misunderstanding… and all agreement of feelings and thoughts is at the same time a means for growing apart." Similarly, all communication is at the same time simultaneously a miscommunication. But the Marxist thought requires to look closely at the practice, and ask, whether the translation/communication/understanding was practically effective, or not.  

*To digress, the trope of the undying hero, escaping either to lead a new, peaceful life, or impersonated by other people, is strangely evoking, given that we have many examples of its reenactment, such as a city legend of Michael Jackson, supposedly alive. Or, if we are seeking historic parallels, the figure of Yemelyan Pugachev in the Russian history and public imagination.


Anderson, Benedict. (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso. 

Rafael, Vicente. (1988) Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society Under Early Spanish Rule. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bohannan, Laura. (1966) "Shakespeare in the Bush." Natural History. August–Semptember.

Distorted Translations

“Scholars in the philosophy of language have understood incommensurability to refer to a state in which an undistorted translation cannot be produced between two or more denotational texts.” (Povinelli, 2001, 320)

So the question would be, why do scholars think that any “undistorted translation” could be produced? It seems pretty clear that that’s beyond the realm of possibility. It is feasible that some translation have more distortions that others, and that in some cases translation is altogether inaccessible, but the translation as such is a process that consists of selections of admissible distortions in order to combine them into the unity that would still be identifiable as a source text but anyone familiar with the language in question.

“How could the Hawaiians have understood James Cook, or Cook the Hawaiians, without producing serious distortions (Sahlins 1995, Obeyesekere 1997)?” (Povinelli, 2001, 321)

The dispute on Cook’s regrettable end involved the conversation about colonial discourse, the Western inevitable enthnocentrism, the researcher’s positionality, and glocal ecologies of language and communication. Whereas translation is impossible without distortions, it functions as a distorted reflection quite effectively. And as Foucault remarked that starting from a certain point, the question of authorship is not about the author’s romantic subjectivities, but about the contexts, intentions, power dynamics, contested discourses and such, in the discussion of which the author is not a point of departure, similarly in the circulation of translated communication the question of “distortions” is not of fatal significance. Perhaps the essence of communication is happening on a less linguistic-heavy level as we came to suggest. Perhaps sub-, overly-, nearly- and paralinguistic means of communication are the gist of it, which if not nullifies the problem of distortion, then at least makes it far less ominous.

The interpretational endeavors in which we engage, is the series of “passing theories” (Davidson quoted by Povinelli), which are generated, come to appear veritable, fade out and die as communication unfolds.

The perfect illustration of the inevitable ethnocentrism is the famous Quine’s example illustrating the inaccessibility of the true meaning of the utterances based on the sounds and the connection of said sounds with the established by the anthropologist meaning. How do we know that gavagai is a rabbit and not the rabbit’s sudden appearance?

“A rabbit scurries by, the native says “Gavagai,” and our jungle linguist notes down the sentence “Rabbit” (or “Lo, a rabbit”) as tentative translation.” (Quine, 2000, 94)

Of course native people would say “lo, a rabbit.” That is just what should be expected. They might also say “lo and behold, the rabbit.” That would be more like it.

Not so much the impossibility to establish the correspondence between rabbit and the word supposedly meaning it, is the case of difficulty, as the fact that properly established rabbit is woven into the text written by the anthropologist, in all the poetics and politics of the text, reaffirming the politics of subjugation by means of studying, or enlightenment, or educating.

To return to Cook’s end conundrum, Marshall Sahlins’s piece (Sahlins, 1985) opens up not only the question “What really happened to Cook?” as the question, akin to Quine’s wonder, “How do we ever know what has ever really happened?” And although Sahlins is extremely persuasive given the intricacies of his writing style, he indulges into Roman-style mythologies only Western mind is capable of producing, and in this divide I am rather on the side of Gannanath Obeyeskere who stated: “I doubt that the natives created their European god; the Europeans created him for them.” (Obeyeskere, 3). Not to suggest that something that might be described as “the natives creating the god” did not happen, but the way it was framed and became stitched into the political imaginary, was inescapably fraught with “distortions of translation.”



Marshall Sahlins. (1985) “Captain James Cook; or, The Dying God.” in Island of History. University of Chicago Press.

Obeyesekere, Ganannath. The Apotheosis of Captain Cook. Pp.3-22.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2001. “Radical Worlds: The Anthropology of Incommensurability and Inconceivability” Annual Review of Anthropology, 30: 319-334.

Quine, Willard V.O. (2000) “Meaning and Translation” in L. Venuti (editor) “The Translation Studies Reader”

Writer’s Change of Language: Nabokov and Others

In order to see how bilingual and multilingual writers choose language of their primal writing, I concentrate on three prominent Russia-born writers who switched to English late in life. These writers are of dramatically different fate and level of literary prominence in their second language, but all are undeniably of a great standing in the national literature. Vladimir Nabokov is the most well-known in this respect, as well as the example of the most successful linguistic transition (I propose this term to describe the change of language). Other two writers are Joseph Brodsky and Vassily Aksyonov.

My hypothesis is that all these three writers dressed Russian phrases in English attire. The structures of their English sentences are influenced by their primal language, Russian. For instance, you would not meet in Nabokov’s prose a phrase with a dangling participle. The classic in the Russian literature example of such phrase is Chekhov’s “Approaching the station and admiring the scenery, my hat blew off.” Chekhov specifically constructed this phrase in order to mock the absurd of such grammatical construction: the hat is admiring the scenery, the hat is approaching the station. The hat is the subject of the sentence. This is, arguably, an acceptable grammar form in contemporary English, albeit it has been argued that it is an example of bad writing (Pereltsvaig, 2011). In Russian the construction of this type is a rude stylistic mistake, and so there is no way Nabokov would commit it—in Russian, nor even in English. Same holds true in regard to Brodsky and Aksyonov.

I argue that for these writers the change of language was a politically motivated decision. It entailed a considerable change of identity, self-positionality, and cultural self-transmogrification.

In order to see how Nabokov’s English (not to mention his writing practices*) was influenced by T.S. Eliot, I compare the texts written on the pinnacles of the respective writing mastery of these authors, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” on one hand, and “Pale Fire,” on the other. I show that Nabokov creatively expropriates turns of phrases “unlocked” by T.S. Eliot, somewhat contradictorily to Nabokov’s professed dislike of T.S. Eliot.


*Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” and “Eugene Onegin,”** both, as is well-known, have (or partially consist of) the ample body of commentaries, incorporated into the novel and the translation, respectively. Commentary as a cultural form, circulating widely in, probably, the majority of known literatures, has a distinct source of inspiration in Nabokov’s case, namely T.S. Eliot’s multilingual commentaries to “The Waste Land.”


** I would argue that Nabokov’s “Eugene Onegin” should be seen as a single utterance, to use this term here in Bakhtian sense (1986). Nabokov’s “Eugene Onegin” is only ostensibly a translation of the classical Russian literary masterpiece. It encloses “Eugene Onegin” like professor Shade’s poem is enclosed into the body of “Pale Fire.” The genre of Nabokov’s “Eugene Onegin” is hard to define. It is a linguistic treatise, a literary last will, and, ultimately, what he believed is his most strong claim of immortality apart from “Lolita.”




Bakhtin, Mikhail. (1986) “The Problem of Speech Genres.” In Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press. 60-102.

Chekhov, Anton. “The Complaints Book” in The Comic Stories, translated by Harvey Pitcher.

Pereltsvaig, Asya. Dangling Participle: Grammatical Error Or Bad Writing Style? 12/11/2011, Retrieved 2/1/2016.

Baffling Disparity Between the Sound of the Word and its Surprising Meaning

“Stéphane Mallarmé, amazingly sensitive to the sound texture of language, observed in his essay Crise de vers that the word ombre is actually shady, but ténèbres (with its acute vowels) suggests no darkness, and he felt deeply deceived by the perverse attribution of the meanings ‘day’ to the word jour and ‘night’ to the word nuit in spite of the obscure timbre of the former and the light one of the latter.” (Jakobson, 1965, 34)
I surely did have this kind of wonder before, and articulated it.

Some Words

Some words mean just what
You would expect,
Like, onomatopoeia,
Struggle, breakthrough, dance, cooing,
Coconut, disguise, and latte.
They are transparent
In their look, sound, and the path of syllables alternating
Between stressed and unaccented
In an enduring rational succession;
On the chessboard of vowels and consonants
Former and latter
Measured in a reasonable balance.
Other words
Are just more elusive.
They seem to pretend to appear to be something
They are really not.
For instance, love*,
And dash`.
*evidently, «love» should mean «a sort of yellow stretchy marmalade,» based on the way it sounds and looks
°a screeching of the wheels on the sharp turn
^tin pipes of the old red-brick houses
`a small golden fish hiding under the green log in a gleaming round pond shadowed by a willow
How much this feeling is amplified when you study a language that is not your native, is hard to convey. When I started speaking English, it was a constant source of feeling deceived and cheated on. Clearly “itch,” “notch,” “luminosity,” and “glory” are on the right places; but what about “vanguard” (a heavy fog), “darkness” (whiskers), “agglomeration” (a gluten-free sweet of sorts) and other ridiculous things? One can imagine a text written in this manner, but for it to be read it should be supplied with an ample commentary produced by the author.

Saussurean guess of “arbitrariness” of assigning the meaning to sound is not of much help. How does this arbitrariness come to life? Who orchestrates it and how? Language is perfected by all its speakers day and night, now how can it have this vortexes of inexplicable disparity between the sound and its meaning?

Jakobson, Roman. (1965) “The Quest for the Essence of Language.” Diogenes. 13(51): 21-37.