банки из-под варенья

Что остаётся от сказки потом,
После того, как её рассказали?
What remains of the tale
After the tale was told?

Tamara asked, “Is there a way of saying «банка из-под варенья» in English? Or Spanish?”

No, there isn’t. (Yes, I checked with Spanish speakers.)

In Russian, «банка варенья» (without any preposition) means “a jar of jam” while «банка из-под варенья» means “an empty jar which formerly contained jam”. Here, из-под points to the former use of the jar as a container. (Yes, in Russian it is also possible to say «банка для варенья», that is, jam jar).

Of course, this is not only about jam jars. In English, an (empty) beer bottle (“a bottle designed as a container for beer”) is clearly different from a (full) bottle of beer; a wine glass (“a type of glass that is used to drink and taste wine”) is not the same as a glass of wine. The same story with their Russian equivalents: «пивная бутылка» vs «бутылка пива», «винный бокал» vs «бокал вина». In Russian, we use adjectives (пивная, винный) to indicate the purpose of a container. Likewise, in English, we use words beer and wine as adjectives by placing them before the nouns. This still doesn’t provide an elegant way to translate, say, the lines by Bulat Okudzhava:

В склянке тёмного стекла из-под импортного пива…
In a dark glass bottle of for which previously contained imported beer…
In a dark-glass imported-beer bottle…


Why did we talk about that in the first place? Because of a Russian meme: «Банки из-под варенья никогда не бывают пустыми». It could be roughly translated as “jam jars are never empty”.

Google it. In many cases, it is attributed to Lewis Carroll. In fact, it comes from Алиса в стране чудес, the Soviet-era musical adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, released in 1976 as a double LP. It was created by Oleg Gerasimov (1929—1997), actor and director of Moscow Art Theatre (МХАТ), and contained songs by Vladimir Vysotsky (1938—1980). Both Gerasimov and Vysotsky were among the voice actors in the play. I was introduced to it in 1977 by my cousin and, after a few listenings, knew it by heart (as, I’m sure, did millions of Soviet citizens). For me, it was also the first encounter with Carroll’s story.

Back to our meme: What did Carroll actually say about the jar?

She took down a jar from one of the shelves as she passed; it was labelled “ORANGE MARMALADE,” but to her great disappointment it was empty: she did not like to drop the jar for fear of killing somebody underneath, so managed to put it into one of the cupboards as she fell past it.

To my great disappointment, jars are never mentioned again. OK, I thought, maybe the theme of jars was further developed by Russian translators. The play was based on work by Nina Demurova. Here:

Пролетая мимо одной из полок, она прихватила с неё банку с вареньем. На банке было написано «АПЕЛЬСИНОВОЕ», но увы! она оказалась пустой. Алиса побоялась бросить банку вниз — как бы не убить кого-нибудь! На лету она умудрилась засунуть её в какой-то шкаф.

Well, this is quite faithful to the original. Just in case, I had a look at another Russian translation of Alice that was widely available in the USSR at the time, viz. that of Boris Zakhoder:

С одной из полок Алиса сумела на лету снять банку, на которой красовалась этикетка: «АПЕЛЬСИНОВОЕ ВАРЕНЬЕ». Банка, увы, была пуста, но, хотя Алиса и была сильно разочарована, она, опасаясь ушибить кого-нибудь, не бросила её, а ухитрилась опять поставить банку на какую-то полку.

Finally, I checked out the version by Vladimir Nabokov:

Она падала вниз так плавно, что успела мимоходом достать с одной из полок банку, на которой значилось: «Клубничное варенье». Но, к великому её сожалению, банка оказалась пустой. Ей не хотелось бросать её, из боязни убить кого-нибудь внизу, и потому она ухитрилась поставить её в один из открытых шкафчиков, мимо которых она падала.

Nabokov took the liberty to replace orange marmalade with strawberry jam, probably because he doubted that a seven-year-old girl (or any Russian reader) would fancy orange marmalade. Nevertheless, once again, this passage is the first and last time we hear about jars. We only can conclude that the maxim of never-empty jars was created by the play authors. Russian Wikipedia lists a number of other discrepancies with Demurova’s translation attribited to Gerasimov and Vysotsky.

What’s it all about? According to CliffsNotes (CliffsComplete Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland),

The jar in and of itself is only a jar. Placing a label on it that reads “ORANGE MARMALADE” might indicate that the object we call a jar contains a substance called marmalade. However, this jar contains nothing, rendering the label deceptive. The label would more accurately read “Empty.”

Yes, that would be more accurate but not 100% accurate. Now it is technically possible to clean and evacuate a jar (which formerly contained marmalade, jam etc. etc.), say using a vacuum pump. But it still won’t be completely empty, completely free of its past content, of its past story.

«Так что же остаётся, когда съедена банка варенья? Что останется, когда спета песня?»

So what remains when a jar of jam is eaten? What will remain when the song is sung?

Alice, you may recall, asks a lot of questions.


between our acting and our thinking

Think of the thousand nameless actions that fill the crevices of your day: modulating your voice to convey interest or disdain; tying your shoelaces; whipping up an omelette or flipping an accurate throw. These are the moves your body knows but would stumble over were you to try describing them. Yet it isn’t until these maneuvers make their way, however shyly, into speech that we can abstract from them and so bring them into the theater of thought.

Language falls between our acting and our thinking; but language itself has two layers, the spoken and the written. The permanence of writing has always made it the more valuable of the two for us, even at the cost of trading in slang for solemnity. Yet not quite always: the Greeks of that golden age had peculiar views, some of them based on the remarkable ability of their singers to know vast epics like the Iliad and the Odyssey by heart. Memory was often equated with knowledge, knowledge with wisdom — so that the external memory of texts (that repository of our culture, binding us to generations gone) must have been for them something like musical scores: you feel a bit let down when a concert pianist has to perform with one in front of him. Perhaps this was why Plato wrote dialogues: they were and were not to be taken at their word. Certainly he deliberately undermines his enterprise in one of them, for in the Phaedrus he has Socrates argue that writing will cause forgetfulness and give only the semblance of truth. This may also be why that earlier philosopher, Heraclitus, made his aphorisms short and perplexing, and why in fact the Greeks invented irony, where you mean only some of what you say but don’t say most of what you mean.

New words are always frisking about us like puppies — one month people go ‘ballistic’ and the next ‘postal’ — but few settle in companionably over the years and fewer still reach that venerable state where we can’t imagine never having been able to whistle them up, there at our bidding. And ideas, large and small: where was flower power fifty years ago — and where is it now? With what fear, fascination and loathing Freudian doctrine slowly took hold and became the canon — and how quickly it all fell apart: who now have complexes, or cathect their libidos onto father-figures?

Robert Kaplan, The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero

want harmony, go talk Sanskrit

Look at the English language. The words that express peaceful harmony are so few, so pale, so flaccid, while the words that express disgust, dismay, revulsion constitute a vast and delicious vocabulary. “You’ve got bubblegum for brains, you jackass, you douchenugget, you are so average, did you eat dumb flakes for breakfast? Go sit on your thumb, you feeb, you nincompoop, you fathead” — it goes on and on and on. Shakespeare is loaded with insult from our rich Anglo-Saxon heritage. It’s a language for people who don’t like each other. You want harmony, go talk Sanskrit.

Garrison Keillor, When it’s over, maybe Trump should move to Nebraska


reduplicated relations

In Mandarin Chinese, reduplication is a very common feature. Its function is to create an informal, less direct or more cute version of a word with the same meaning. For example, 謝謝 xièxie, “thanks”, is a reduplicated xiè. However, when it comes to naming your relations, it could well be that these apparently reduplicated words came first and then got shortened, just like English “ma” and ‎“pa” are short versions of ‎“mama” and ‎“papa”.

Now mama, papa, baba, dada etc. are babble words, something that babies all over the world tend to produce without thinking about their parents and other relatives. (How on earth Finns got to use äiti and isä, is anyone’s guess. Here’s my own guess: Finnish is derived from Elvish, not the other way round, and elvish babies never babble.)

What I find interesting about Mandarin is that there are different babble words for different kinds of brothers, sisters, uncles and grandparents. Which is logical, if you think of it. For example, an older brother and a younger brother often have nothing in common. Calling them simply “brothers” is just silly.

Han characters Pinyin Meaning Etymology
trad. 爸爸 bàba dad, papa ‎“dad”
trad. 媽媽 māma mom, mum, mama ‎“mum”
simpl. 妈妈
trad. 哥哥 gēge older brother ‎“elder brother”
trad. 弟弟 dìdi younger brother ‎“younger brother”
trad. 姐姐 jiějie older sister ‎“elder sister, young lady”
trad. 妹妹 mèimei younger sister ‎“younger sister”
trad. 舅舅 jiùjiu mother’s brother, uncle ‎“mother’s brother, uncle”
trad. 叔叔 shūshu father’s younger brother, uncle ‎“father’s younger brother, uncle”
trad. 奶奶 nǎinai paternal grandmother, gramma, granny ‎“milk; woman’s breasts”
trad. 爺爺 yéye father’s father, paternal grandfather, granddad ‎“father, grandfather”
simpl. 爷爷
trad. 寶寶 bǎobǎo baby ‎“treasure, precious”
simpl. 宝宝

es chino básico

When we hear or read something incomprehensible, we say “it’s all Greek to me”. Naturally, Greeks would use different expression. In Greek, German, Dutch, French, Portuguese and many other European languages, they say “it’s all Chinese to me”. Spanish go one step further: es chino básico, “it’s basic Chinese” (implying that you probably should forget about mastering intermediate-level Chinese). But you know what? We all know a bit of Chinese. Here are ten or twelve Chinese words that you should be familiar already, even if you didn’t realise that until now.

chá: tea. Turkish çay and Russian чай are the variation on this theme. In Min Nan, the same word is pronounced as ; thanks to the Dutch East India Company, this plant and drink is known in Europe as tea. 烏龍茶 / 乌龙茶, wūlóng chá, literally “black dragon tea”, is oolong tea.

dào: a word of many meanings, among them “word”, “method”, “path”, “road”, “way”. Tao (or Dao), “The Way”, is a central concept of Taoism.

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.


點心 / 点心 diǎnxīn (“to refresh one’s heart”, from / 点 “to light, to kindle” and “heart”): snack, light refreshment, better known in its Cantonese pronunciation, dim sum. It is customary to serve it with 茶.


風水 / 风水 fēngshuǐ (from fēng “wind” and shuǐ “water”): feng shui, the art and philosophical system of harmonising everyone with the surrounding environment.


功夫 gōngfu: another word with a variety of meanings, such as “time”, “effort”, “achievement”, “art”, “skill”. In the West, kung fu is mainly used to refer to Chinese martial arts, also called 武術 / 武术 wǔshù.


荔枝 lìzhī: lychee, Litchi chinensis. Once the delicacy at the Chinese Imperial Court, nowadays it is available in supermarkets all over the world.


麻將 / 麻将 májiàng (from 麻雀 máquè, “sparrow”): the game of mahjong, believed to be developed by nobody else but that bird lover, Confucius.


人參 / 人参 rénshēn (from “man” and / 参 “root”): ginseng, so called thanks to the human-like shape of its root.


颱風 / 台风 táifēng (“big wind”): typhoon.


太極拳 / 太极拳 tàijíquán (from 太極 / 太极 “Great Ultimate” and “fist”): the martial art and exercise system t’ai chi ch’uan. The symbol for tàijí, , is called 太極圖 / 太极图 tàijítú.


陰陽 / 阴阳 (from / 阴, yīn “dark” and / 阳, yáng “light”): yin and yang.

The Tao begot one.
One begot two.
Two begot three.
And three begot the ten thousand things.
The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang.
They achieve harmony by combining these forces.


chinese ceremonies for beginners

The Russian expression без китайских церемоний (literally, without Chinese ceremonies) can be translated as “without formalities”, “simply”, “casually”, or even “bluntly”. Chinese ceremonies in question can be expanded as “tedious and unnecessary conventions; excessive display of politeness; meaningless etiquette”. In his short story Китайская церемония (1924), Mikhail Zoshchenko humorously refers to the habit of shaking hands as a Chinese ceremony, even though Chinese have nothing to do with it.

Chinese, however, see nothing wrong in being excessively polite. The more excuse mes, can I asks and pleases, the better. Instead of rather blunt 你好吗 “How are you?” (literally “You good?”), you are more likely to hear 你吃饭了没, “Have you eaten rice yet?” — because if you did, things cannot be too bad. Interestingly, the polite response to 谢谢 🔊 “thank you” is 不客气 , literally “don’t be polite”. If you are at all interested in learning Chinese, you could do worse than start with a few polite expressions.

Han characters Pinyin Meaning Etymology
trad. qǐng Please
trad. 請問 qǐngwèn Excuse me 請 / 请 “please” + 問 / 问 “ask”
simpl. 请问
trad. 抱歉 bàoqiàn (I’m) sorry 抱 “to carry” + 歉 “apology”
trad. 謝謝 xièxie Thank you; thanks
simpl. 谢谢
trad. 不客氣 bù kèqi You’re welcome 不 “not” + 客氣 / 客气 “polite”; literally “don’t be (so) polite”
simpl. 不客气
trad. 您好 nín hǎo Hello (formal, said to a single person) 您 “you” (formal) + 好 “good”
trad. 你好 nǐ hǎo Hello (informal, said to a single person) 你 “you” (informal) + 好 “good”
trad. 你們好 nǐmen hǎo Hello (said to a group of people) 你們 / 你们 “you” (plural) + 好 “good”
simpl. 你们好
trad. 你好嗎? nǐ hǎo ma? How are you? 你 “you” (informal) + 好 “good” + 嗎 / 吗 (question tag); literally “you good?”
simpl. 你好吗?
trad. 你吃飯了沒? nǐ chīfàn le méi? How are you? 你 “you” (informal) + 吃 “to eat” + 飯 / 饭 “cooked rice” + 了 (perfective aspect tag) + 沒 / 沒 “have not”; literally “have you eaten cooked rice?”
simpl. 你吃饭了没?
trad. 早安 zǎo ān Good morning 早 “early” + 安 “peace”
trad. 晚安 wǎn ān Good evening; good night 晚 “late” + 安 “peace”
trad. 再見 zàijiàn Goodbye; see you later 再 “again” + 見 / 见 “to see / to meet”
simpl. 再见

the echoes of those first syllables

They were one of the oldest of the Disc’s religious sects, although even the gods themselves were divided as to whether Listening was really a proper religion, and all that prevented their temple being wiped out by a few well-aimed avalanches was the fact that even the gods were curious as to what it was that the Listeners might Hear. If there’s one thing that really annoys a god, it’s not knowing something.

The fact is that the Listeners are trying to work out precisely what it was that the Creator said when He made the universe.

The theory is quite straightforward.

Clearly, nothing that the Creator makes could ever be destroyed, which means that the echoes of those first syllables must still be around somewhere, bouncing and rebounding off all the matter in the cosmos but still audible to a really good listener.

Eons ago the Listeners had found that ice and chance had carved this one valley into the perfect acoustic opposite of an echo valley, and had built their multi-chambered temple in the exact position that the one comfy chair always occupies in the home of a rabid hi-fi fanatic. Complex baffles caught and amplified the sound that was funnelled up the chilly valley, steering it ever inwards to the central chamber where, at any hour of the day or night, three monks always sat.


There were certain problems caused by the fact that they didn’t hear only the subtle echoes of the first words, but every other sound made on the Disc. In order to recognise the sound of the Words, they had to learn to recognise all the other noises. This called for a certain talent, and a novice was only accepted for training if he could distinguish by sound alone, at a distance of a thousand yards, which side a dropped coin landed. He wasn’t actually accepted into the order until he could tell what colour it was.

And although the Holy Listeners were so remote, many people took the extremely long and dangerous path to their temple, travelling through frozen, troll-haunted lands, fording swift icy rivers, climbing forbidding mountains, trekking across inhospitable tundra, in order to climb the narrow stairway that led into the hidden valley and seek with an open heart the secrets of being.

And the monks would cry unto them, “Keep the bloody noise down!”