Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0020715, Sat, 11 Sep 2010 14:51:17 -0600

Re: Alfin, Shade: Swift and a correction
A few notes on natural history.

On Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 10:56 PM, Jansy Berndt de Souza Mello <
jansy@aetern.us> wrote:

> Sybil's maiden surname, Hirondelle, could be translated as "Swallow" but
> also as "Swift".* A coincidence...

More or less, I think. Apparently the edible-nest swiftlet of southeast
Asia is miscalled "hirondelle esculente" or "hirondelle comestible" in
French, although it should be called "salangane soyeuse" (another silky
bird?). The French word for the temperate-zone swifts is "martinet" (hey,
there's Pnin). But swifts and swallows resemble each other, so we can see a
connection if we want.

> * From the scientific name of the Barn Swallow ("Hirundo rustica") I
> suppose that Sybil Shade, née Hirondelle,

Actually Irondell, which comes from "hirondelle", Kinbote tells us.

> would be closer to the white-bellied swallows than to the dark
> under-bellied swifts. However, Sybil's connection to the swifts might be
> borne out from Nabokov's translation of the poem he describes in SO (p.14)
> with "swallows skimming by". If I'm not mistaken, its title in the
> finished English translation indicates the swift.
> from internet sources, I conclude that there doesn't seem to be a
> general agreement in relation to swifts and swallows.

There's general agreement among ornithologists and people interested in
birds. Swallows are part of the songbird order, Passeriformes (despite
their unmusical voices), while swifts are in the same order as hummingbirds
(Apodiformes), as one of your sources noted.

Some confusion comes from the fact that Britain has only one species of
swift and one species of swallow,* which are the original referents of those
English words. Thus British people may refer to them as "the swift" and
"the swallow", making you think that their comments apply to all swifts and
all swallows. In fact, some swallows have dark bellies and some swifts have
pale ones.

Certainly the change to "swift" in *The Gift* is striking, as Nabokov
certainly knew the difference. Maybe it's for metrical reasons. Around
here, swallows are likely to fly by as you stand on a bridge and swifts
aren't, but I don't know about Russia.

On the subject of bot-flies, I don't think it's common at all to call them
"bluebottles". That refers to a kind of fly that's common in Europe.

The bot-fly whose larva you saw on the cattle ranch was the only species
that infests people. I'm glad you weren't unlucky that way! I hadn't known
till you mentioned it that the female lays her eggs on a mosquito or other
biting fly (more parasitism). The eggs' hatching is triggered by the body
heat of a person or animal when the mosquito bites it, and then the larvae
can try to enter the skin through the bite if no other way is available.

Jerry Friedman

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