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Words new to me: головня

August 1, 2014

Tom’s readalong was months ago, and I’m still struggling through Chernyshevskii’s What Is to Be Done? (Что делать?, 1863). I don’t think I’m even to the part that readalonger Scott G. F. Bailey called “a mess,” but the 77% my e-reader says I’ve completed feels hard-won.

The word головня (end-stressed throughout) isn’t rare. A quick search on shows that it was used by about every famous writer from Fonvizin to the twenty-first century. But it’s one of those words it’s good, as a non–native speaker, to know to watch out for — I’m sure I’ve been guilty of skipping past it without understanding it, assuming it was connected to голова ‘head.’ In fact it isn’t the same thing, any more than беседка ‘pavilion, gazebo’ is a diminutive of беседа ‘conversation.’ The primary meaning of головня is ‘firebrand, charred log, ember, cinder,’ with another, possibly regional, sense of ‘corn smut.’ The etymology is somewhat obscure but the best guess appears to be that it does start as an extension of the root meaning ‘head’ in some Slavic language, perhaps meaning ‘the front of a burning log.’

Here it is in Chernyshevskii:

I remember that when I was a boy, twelve years old, I who had never seen fire was frightened by being wakened by the loud noise of a fire alarm. The whole sky became red and fiery; over all the city, which was a large provincial town, flew great burning cinders [golovni]. Over all the city there was a great tumult, running to and fro, shrieks. I breathed as though I had been in a fever. (p. 357 of Nathan Haskell Dole’s and S. S. Skidelsky’s 1886 translation)

Я помню, как испугался я, двенадцатилетний ребенок, когда меня, никогда еще не видавшего пожаров, разбудил слишком сильный шум пожарной тревоги. Все небо пламенело, раскаленное; по всему городу, большому провинциальному городу, летели головни, по всему городу страшный гвалт, беготня, крик. Я дрожал, как в лихорадке. (part 4, chapter 11)

The narrator then gets out of bed and learns how to use his hands, like the Indigo Girls song without the hammer or the nail.

I don’t think this passage is anything special, aesthetically speaking, but I found it frightening to think of things larger than sparks flying. Chernyshevskii’s fire and childhood illnesses in Dickens have me in a mood of believing in progress.

Score a point against Benjamin Tucker’s 1886 translation, by the way. He skips this whole paragraph. Earlier I had the impression that Dole and Skidelsky (who seem to cut everything even a little risqué) left out more than Tucker, but maybe that’s not right. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Michael R. Katz’s translation. Also, I just realized that Katz published a thorough comparison of Tucker’s, Dole/Skidelsky’s, and Laura Beraha’s versions of the novel in 1987. His attacks on Beraha’s translation (Moscow, 1983) are ruthless. Katz says there is no evidence Tucker knew any Russian, which explains why he lets quotations of Nekrasov’s poetry appear in French (!).

6 Comments leave one →
  1. between4walls permalink
    August 2, 2014 8:50 pm

    Good to see you back!

    • August 2, 2014 10:05 pm

      Thanks! I was distracted by some non-Russian books and travel, but I hope to be around more again.

      • between4walls permalink
        August 3, 2014 10:45 am

        Ooh, what non-Russian books?

      • August 3, 2014 11:09 am

        Let’s see – mostly Dickens (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dombey and Son), Trollope (The Last Chronicle of Barset), and Flaubert (Bouvard et Pécuchet). I’ve been enjoying all of them, though the Flaubert one is slow going in a different way than Chernyshevskii – there’s so much obsolete jargon from so many fields, and it’s all lost on me except for the general pattern of the way Bouvard and Pécuchet get interested in things temporarily.

  2. August 4, 2014 8:49 am

    Godard (one of my favorite directors) has a hilarious Bouvard et Pécuchet scene in 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle.

    • August 5, 2014 1:08 am

      In college I tried to watch as much Godard as I could, but it’s been a long time, and I never made it to that movie. I’ll be sure to check it out when I’m done with Bouvard et Pécuchet!

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