5

McWhorter, J. PhD Linguistics (Stanford). The Power of Babel (2003). p. 24 Middle.

  Russian is such a case, and it creates little ripples of semantic ambiguity in translations. In his translation of the short piece "Father's Butterflies" by his father, Vladimir Nabokov, Dmitri Nabokov has a neat little reference to "the terrible turtles who direct learned journals." [mine] Yet terrible as used in English rings a little weak here in itself; the soul of this phrase is Russian, in which the word strašnyj connotes "terrible" in the sense the word once had in English, "terrifying" like Maurice Sendak's "Wild Things." The Russian connotation is the nightmarish iniquity of mediocre thinkers holding considerable power over one's output and career path, whereas taken as "English," terrible, having been diluted into referring to things like slow traffic, has a less cosmic ring and sounds more like a passing disparagement of the editors' talents. Dmitri Nabokov's translation takes advantage of the contrast in the semantic evolutions of terrible and strašnyj to convey a feeling of Russian through English.

Googling nabokov "terrible turtles" yielded no explanations of the literary reference emboldened overhead.

7

Quote source

In his translation of the short piece "Father's Butterflies" by his father, Vladimir Nabokov, Dmitri Nabokov has a neat little reference to "the terrible turtles who direct learned journals."

As the quote says, the piece "Father's Butteflies" should have the quote. In the link Peter Shor kindly provided, which is to that work, in part 4, about 2/3rds of the way down the page (ctrl-F is particularly useful to find this):

I like to think he was not mistaken here, and that, in time, men will appear who are more alert than Murchison, more educated than I, more talented and lively than the terrible turtles who direct learned journals, and that the elaboration of my father's thoughts, jotted in the hasty hand of a testament in the night preceding a dubious departure, when holster, gloves, and compass intrude momentarily on the sedentary life of the desk, and pursued here in a haze of filial love, piety, inspiration, and mental helplessness, will create a worthy monument to him, visible from every corner of natural science.

(All bolding my own. Thanks to Peter Shor for finding the link.)

Meaning and context of essay

For the meaning, a wee bit of context. The essay is about butterflies and a classification for them that Nabokov proposed along with some other plans. While his writing is apparently very difficult to understand, Dmitri is suggesting that Vladimir was not mistaken that

a maximally accurate exposition of the principles of such a study would still allow minds that at last understood them a chance to consummate the plan outlined by the author.

In other words, Dmitri is suggesting that the plans he outlined could be done by someone who is "more educated than [himself]", "more alert than Murchison" (Murchison was the author of a 300-page explanation of Count Godunov's thirty-page treatise, and is referenced earlier in the treatise as someone "whose lepidopterological knowledge is very limited"), and finally "more talented and lively than the terrible turtles who direct learned journals".

We thus reach the meat of the matter. As the quote you quoted in your question points out

The Russian connotation is the nightmarish iniquity of mediocre thinkers holding considerable power over one's output and career path

which conveys the main point. I'll just add to it slightly by saying that this makes sense as it references the talents of the "turtles" implying that they are not very talented, and also that they are "terrible", one connotation of which can mean "having great, awful power". Since the quote you referenced in your question talks about the word "terrible" not fully conveying the awfulness in the original Russian, this meaning makes the most sense to me.

Finally, the turtles part - note this connects to the fact that Dmitri points out that the he is looking for men who are "more [...] lively" than the turtles. A turtle is sluggish, by definition has a lack of liveliness. This connects with the lack of talent (their brain is "sluggish") and also just their ineptitude - incapable people can be referred to as "slow".

After the paragraph in which the turtles appear, Dmitri laments the unfinished-ness of a life's work, saying

The bitterness of interrupted life is nothing compared to the bitterness of interrupted work: the probability that the former may continue beyond the grave seems infinite when compared to the inexorable incompletion of the latter.

  • Thanks. But can you please expound the bolded phrase? What does it mean in context? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Aug 2 '18 at 2:11
  • 1
    Isn't that explained by McWhorter? "The Russian connotation is the nightmarish iniquity of mediocre thinkers holding considerable power over one's output and career path." – Peter Shor Aug 2 '18 at 2:25
  • @Greek-Area51Proposal edited to update. – heather Aug 2 '18 at 2:32

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.