A poem by Khlebnikov: preliminary notes on reflexive verbs

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January 26, 2017 by AK

I really want to go back to Khlebnikov and bobeobi – a coinage of his that not only gained a measure of international recognition but made it into the Urban Dictionary. “[T]he most powerfull [sic] undescribable force on the earth,” no arguing with that. But I have to dispose with the prolegomena first, and they keep dragging me down as if in a nightmare.

Still, first things first. That poem gets habitually mistranslated. To understand why, consider the difference between reflexive and non-reflexive verbs in Russian. A tricky business, actually: as one Russian professor notes, there’s a “Huge amount of literature, including several monographs” on the subject. This monograph gives an idea of the complexity of the subject.

However, things get simple once we move from generalities to specific examples. Consider the verb петь, “to sing,” and its reflexive sibling петься, literally “to sing itself” or, more commonly, “to be sung.” One can say певец поет, “a/the singer sings/is singing.” One can also say песня поется, literally “a/the song sings (is singing) itself,” plausibly “is (being) sung.” What you cannot say, under normal conditions, is певец поется, “the singer is singing himself” or “the singer is being sung.” He’s obviously not a piece of music to be performed.

Therefore, if the translator encounters a seemingly odd combination such as пелись губы – “the lips were sung” or “sang themselves” as if they were a song – she could (a) try to understand the poet’s intention behind this oddity or (b) dismiss the reflexivity of петься as merely a colloquial variant of петь. Just like стучать and стучаться are basically the same, and people often say играться instead of играть. Alas, it doesn’t work with петь and петься: (b) is the wrong choice. Even if you think -ся doesn’t quite fit there, don’t throw it away.


1 comment »

  1. […] I’ve said, it’s generally a bad idea to ignore the reflexive ending -ся as if it weren’t there, […]

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