(Cultural) politics


The French linguist, dialectologist and lexicologist Jules Gilliéron is reputed to have said, “chaque mot a son histoire,” each word has its own history Books are like words, as they too, follow the vicissitudes of history, politics, publishers’ guidelines, editorial recommendations, translator’s preferences, their owners’ quirks and habits. What follows are some annotations to Anatolij Nikolaevich Tomilin’s Как люди изучали свою Землю (Moscow: Raduga, translated into English as How people discovered the shape of the Earth and published  by the same publisher in 1984; the Slovak translation Ako l’udia objavovali tvar Zeme appeared in 1989). The book’s history will not be traced here, even though it would be instructive to follow the successes of the Soviet publisher Raduga (now Mir), whose books have reached young readers especially in India, the US, Canada, and the ex-Soviet satellites. Furthermore, Tomilin’s work in any language seems to be classified in the rare book category, and it is, in many rare book stores, sold out.

The book deals with an aspect of geography, that of the shape of the earth, from a perspective not usually used in explaining this science to young readers: Tomilin presents historical facts related to ancient philosophers’ ideas about the earth, attempting to  answer  the question Who decided that the Earth is round?  Starting with the description of early Neolithic cultures and explaining the need of people to live together, the narration passes through the ancient Greek city states, touching upon the Phoenicians, ancient Chinese empires, and India, mentioning the Egyptians’ and Carthaginians’ circumnavigations of Africa, and so the size and shape of the  Earth goes through various transformations. Aristotle, Eratosthenes, Ptolemy,  Ibn Khordabeh, Ibn Rustah, Ibn Idrisi are some of the ancient protogeographers mentioned. Sections of the book are devoted to the art and science of map making, specifically for the need of navigation on the seas, and globe shaping. A full chapter is devoted to the story of the Globe of Gottorf, now in the Leningrad’s Kunstkamera. The second last part deals with  the question Is the Earth like a pumpkin or an apple?  The conclusion offers concrete measurements of the Earth and a suggestion that the well being of the Earth depends wholly on people, and therefore it is the duty of everyone to defend it and try to make it even more beautiful and enjoyable.

The wealth of interesting illustrations done by Jurij Smol’nikov adds to the overall reading pleasure.

No information exists on the web regarding the translator from Russian to Slovak: Vlasta Ballova’, other than she translated some other books for young readers. The translation reads beautifully, and not having seen the original, I cannot comment on the actual choices of the translator. However, reading the Slovak version after more than 26 years after its publication is fascinating. The fall of the Soviet Union, the division of Czechoslovakia, the entry of Slovakia into the European Union and other political and cultural events put the content of the book in a different perspective.  The Soviet attempt at cultural policy and hegemony comes through so much more forcefully. In view of the length of the book (80 pages), a lot of space is dedicated to Russian and Soviet connection to the topic of the shape of the Earth. The translation could have mentioned the existence of at least one Slovak geographer, František Bokes, and his assiduous role in Slovak historical geography. Ironically, without this mention, Slovakia is “not even on the map” and the Soviet tendency to suppress the satellite’s accomplishments is obvious.




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