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Here is an extract from a short story:

When Pushkin broke his legs, he started to go about on wheels. His friends used to enjoy teasing Pushkin and grabbing him by his wheels. Pushkin took this very badly and wrote abusive verses about his friends. He called these verses 'erpigarms'.

I guess the word "erpigarm" here is a pun, but I cannot really figure out the meaning. It clearly has something to do with "epigram". But what else?

Note 1: The word appears to be "эпиграммами" in the original Russian script.

Note 2: It's from Incidences of Daniil Kharms (translation by Neil Cornwell). The pun is translated into English as "erpigrams" in another translation by Matvei Yankelevich (Today I Wrote Nothing).

  • In your quotation you have it as "erpigARms," but in your own text you have it as "erpigRAm." First, clarify for us which one is correct. – John M. Landsberg Sep 21 '13 at 17:46
  • 1. Your quotation spells the word erpigarms. Is that a typo, or does the source material really use –garms? If so, that may be part of the joke. 2. The Russian transliterates to epigrammami. I don't know Russian well enough to say for certain, but I'm guessing that it's a pun or misspelling in the original language, which may have been emulated in the translation. – Bradd Szonye Sep 21 '13 at 17:46
  • Pushkin did write a lot of what are usually translated as epigrams. It would be good to know whether "эпиграммами" is a pun in the Russian. If it is, the translated pun in English is incomprehensible. – Peter Shor Sep 21 '13 at 18:06
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This is an intentional misspelling on Kharms' part, as canpolat has shown an hour ago, but is not nonsensical at that. Since I happen to be familiar with Kharms' stories, I can infer what he wanted to achieve by writing эпиграммамы [epigramami] instead of эпиграммы [epigrami] (which is the correct plural dative).

Мамы in Russian happens to mean moms (declensed for dative case, to moms, but cases are of no other importance here than to explain the particular suffix -ы/-и/-i). What do moms have to do with epigrams? Nothing, almost. But the notion of moms, with its childish, giddy irreverence, does create a nice, jarring contrast with the exalted, if waggish, notion of epigrams. What can be nice about jarring contrast? Well, Kharms is sort of like Bukowski and the Marx Brothers at a Captain Beefheart & Zappa double tour. His stories are the trip the South Park kids sporting Che Guevara t-shirts took to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 with Orwell's and Kafka's books in their backpacks. Of course jarring contrast is nice, in Kharm's off-beat and subversive world. He was the archetype of the black sheep, a maverick amidst mavericks, a non-conformist par excellence. Inane as inane can be, yet more incisive and socially aware than (list your favorite heretics) combined. Of course his misspelling isn't guileless. He is taking a stand against the socially sanctioned conceptions about what is of value, which constitute the framework of pretty much any epigram.

The translation is wonderful. The translator chose to juxtapose the majesty of an epigram with everything redneck, as evoked by the phonetic chain "erp" in erpigram. That's the good translation at play. You don't translate just the words, and not even just the isolated meaning; you translate the culture.

Edit: And, I'm sure, Kharms actually valued the notion of the epigram. His whole opus, made of short stories, some super short, is nothing if not the wittiest of the epigrams. But, then, he decides to piss even on that. That's how he was.

  • Wonderful explanation! – some user Sep 21 '13 at 23:46
  • What? Is the original эпиграммами, as canpolat says, or эпиграммамы? эпиграммам (epigrammami) is the (regular) instrumental plural of эпиграмма, hence meaning "by epigrams". The dative plural would be эпиграммам (epigrammam). The form you quote, эпиграммы, would be nom/acc plural. – Colin Fine Sep 22 '13 at 13:59
  • @ColinFine I quoted the original from lib.ru/HARMS/harms.txt There is also vestnik-samgu.samsu.ru/gum/1999web3/litr/199930604.html which uses "эрпигармами". I don't have the original text, so I'm not sure what is correct here. – some user Sep 22 '13 at 14:04
  • Thank you for that objection. It's been more than a decade since I read this story, and it wasn't the original anyway. Before answering the q, it just seemed like to me that the case was plural acc mashed with dat. – Talia Ford Sep 22 '13 at 14:21
  • Many people, including Russians, sometimes write -и instead of -ы. – Talia Ford Sep 22 '13 at 14:33
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I will try to give as little consolation as I can: native Russian speakers (including me) cannot figure out what this pun means and I start to suspect that there's no pun here at all. Kharms (Yuvachov) is famous for his nonsense stories, not for his puns.

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    In which case the translator replaced something that looks like it might be a pun in Russian (but isn't) with something that looks like it might be a pun in English (but isn't). That seems like a good translation. – Peter Shor Sep 21 '13 at 18:19
  • Exactly, Peter—that's a good translation. And I cannot but admire noble insanity of someone who has taken it upon himself to try to translate Kharms… – Mykola Sep 22 '13 at 16:53
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I finally found the "definitive" answer to my question. From the "Notes" section of Matvei Yankelevich's translation Today I Wrote Nothing:

"Anegdote" and "erpigarm" in this piece are intentionally misspelled. Kharms deliberately played with the spelling of certain words. In a diary dated November 22, 1937, Kharms wrote that when confronted with a "mistake" in one's writing, one should always answer, "That's how it always looks in my spelling." Alexander Kobrinskii has written an article that attempts to sort out Kharms's "intentional" mistakes and the problems of "correcting" Kharms for purposes of publication. (p. 272)

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