The politics of name transcription

1

August 28, 2016 by AK

For whatever reasons – ideological or scholarly or both – Noam Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar was not accepted into the mainstream of Soviet linguistics. On the other hand, the professor’s criticisms of US policies were a welcome addition to the trove of prominent Americans’ quotes on the badness of America, an indispensable propaganda tool.

People in the know say that two different Chomskys appeared in the Soviet press. One was styled Naum Khomskiy, as if its bearer were a Jewish resident of the former Russian Empire rather than a Philadelphia-born American of Ashkenazic ancestry. That was the unacceptable Chomsky, the linguist. The other avatar was “the progressive American scholar Noam Chomsky,” rendered phonetically, as most contemporary US names were at that time.

Mikhail L. Gasparov, the Russian literary scholar and translator, wrote in his Notes and Extracts:

When [Roman O.] Jakobson visited MGU [Moscow University; probably in 1966], [Prof. Olga S.] Akhmanova introduced him, out of apprehensive cautiousness, as “the American professor R. Jakobson [Jeh-kup-son].” Jakobson began with, “Actually, my name is Roman Osipovich Yakobson [Yah-kop-sòn] but my American cooking lady, that much is true, calls me Mr. Jakobson.”

Roman Jakobson, the linguist and literary scholar, was born in Moscow to upper-class Jewish parents in 1897. Although his mother probably spoke German natively, Roman grew up a native Russian speaker and a polyglot in a highly cultured stratum of the old capital. He befriended Mayakovsky, who mentioned Jakobson in one of his poems (“To comrade Nette, the man and the steamboat”) and made his name familiar to countless Russian schoolchildren. Perhaps more importantly, the young Jakobson came to know Khlebnikov, “a genius and a man of great insights” according to Mikhail Kuzmin. Also, Jakobson and Alexei Kruchonykh (Kruchenykh), the prominent Russian Futurist of dyr-bul-schyl fame, published a joint book of poetry in 1914.

Which is to say, when one refers to the great linguist in Russian, there is every reason to call him by the original, Russian version of his name, following his own example.

Why did Akhmanova, a senior member of the scholarly nomenklatura, avoid using the native form of her guest’s name? That would have emphasized the fact that Jakobson was an émigré, formerly a fugitive from the Soviets, a man who grew up and was educated in imperial Russia. Moscow was trying to make peace with surviving Russian émigrés after Stalin’s death as long as they were not too obviously anti-Soviet. (Stravinsky visited in 1962, although he was a special case since he had left Russia before the Revolution.) But an émigré on the podium was still potentially more dangerous, politically, than merely an American professor.

To complicate things for the risk-fearing academic bureaucrat, Jakobson was a survivor from the golden age of Russian avant-garde, and at seventy years old, far from a fossilized specimen. While in Moscow, he visited Kruchenykh, his erstwhile co-author and another veteran of Russian Futurism, and found him as interested as ever in avant-garde poetry even at eighty. Jakobson himself was a living voice from that glorious creative period, unmediated by half-literate (by comparison) Soviet literary “scholars” and amplified by his reputation as a linguist. All the greats from that era were safely dead, or reduced to oblivion, or had agreed to cooperate, so would not say a word against Soviet literary orthodoxy. Jakobson, in contrast, was totally unpredictable.

And then there was envy, I’ve no doubt. A native-born American professor was a creature from another planet: to envy his achievement or status simply wouldn’t have occurred to most Soviet linguists. But a graduate of the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages and of Moscow University, now visiting from Harvard and MIT? Too much to bear.


1 comment »

  1. […] (it should have been a prequel), I’m linking to three short audio clips. This is Roman Jakobson reading poetry by Khlebnikov in 1954, more than 40 years after first meeting the […]

Leave a Reply

Archives

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 10 other subscribers

%d bloggers like this: