The article below is reprinted from the most recent SlavFile. The full issue is available here.
Tracking Down Russian Historical Terminology: A Tale of Two Terms and Two Resources
By Nora Seligman Favorov
In the introduction to Yuri Aleksandrovich Fedosiuk’s book «Что непонятно у классиков или Энциклопедия русского быта XIX века» (What is Unclear in the Classics or An Encyclopedia of 19th-Century Russian Daily Life; Moscow: Flinta, 2017), the author’s son explains the book’s origins by quoting a 1959 letter-to-the-editor his father wrote to the journal «Вопросы литературы» (Questions of Literature):
For an ever-expanding subset of contemporary readers, hundreds of expressions encountered in the writings of the Russian classics and reflecting social relationships and the everyday features of prerevolutionary Russia are becoming stumbling blocks, being either utterly baffling or misunderstood. […] As someone acquainted with only the metric system, it is unclear to me whether a nobleman possessing two hundred десятина of land is rich or poor, whether a merchant who has consumed a пол штоф of vodka is very drunk, and whether an official who gives a tip of a синенькая, a красенкая, or a семитка is being generous. Which character in a story holds a higher position when one is addressed as ваше благородие, another as ваше сиятельство, and a third as ваше превосходительство? (All translations of Fedosiuk are my own.)
Reading this gave me a warm, fuzzy “I’m not alone!” sort of feeling.
Fedosiuk ends his letter by urging philologists and historians to undertake the task of creating reference works that elucidate the terminology of prerevolutionary daily life in order to help a wide range of readers (first and foremost literature teachers, students, and schoolchildren) to “more deeply penetrate the works of the classics, reinvigorating many lines that have faded since the concepts they deal with have, in our era, been relegated to archives.”
Literary translators are not listed among those needing to “more deeply penetrate” the Russian classics, but we might be the ones with the most desperate practical need. Of course, Fedosiuk wrote his letter before the internet, where explanations of most if not all of the puzzling terms he names can be easily found. And since 1959, Fedosiuk himself has produced the valuable resource cited above (available in physical form through Amazon, kniga.com or for download through LitRes.com).
I first heard of this book from Erik McDonald, professor of Russian literature, literary translator, and blogger. At the time, we were both translating works by the prolific, popular, and currently almost-unheard-of nineteenth-century writer Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya (~1822–1889), who published under the pseudonym V. Krestovsky. He was working on her 1879 novella «Свидание» (The Meeting, 2022), and I was working on «Братец» (The Brother; the original was published in 1858 and the translation will soon be pitched to a publisher). Both these works had rather puzzling references to билеты. Erik had already discovered Fedosiuk’s book and found the explanation we needed in the chapter on Ценные бумаги (loosely, financial instruments): билет was the term commonly used for the piece of paper representing ownership of a sum of money that had been deposited with a financial institution. This fit the context in both our novellas nicely.
But the story behind the билет appearing in my novella involved another puzzle Erik and Fedosiuk helped me solve. In The Brother, before any билет is mentioned, we learn that one of the sisters had inherited 5,000 rubles from a godmother and that sum had been “положенная в N-ском приказе”—deposited in a “приказ” in the town of N (the seat of the province in which the story takes place). Toward the novella’s conclusion the sister “взяла билет приказа и понесла его брату” (retrieved the приказ билет and brought it to her brother). Приказ? I knew by then that the term приказ had long since gone out of use as a term for agencies/offices of the Russian government, with one exception: the Приказ общественного призрения.
This term brings me to another usually invaluable resource for R>E translators dealing with the prerevolutionary period: Dictionary of Russian Historical Terms from the Eleventh Century to 1917, compiled by Sergei G. Pushkarev and edited by George Vernadsky and Ralph T. Fisher, Jr. (Yale University Press, 1970). Several years ago I had trouble finding this book for any reasonable price, but I see that it is now easily and affordably available on, for example, AbeBooks. (As a side note, I was thrilled when I did finally receive a copy I ordered from Amazon and found a lovely cursive inscription inside the front cover: “Susan C. Brownsberger, 1976.” Brownsberger [1935–2021] is my idol; her brilliant translation of Iskander’s Sandro of Chegem is what first inspired me to pursue literary translation.)
Pushkarev offers the following entry for Приказ общественного призрения:
Distinct from the Muscovite приказы, these departments were established in each ГУБЕРНИЯ capital by the statutes on губерния administration of 1775. They dealt with health, welfare, and primary education. After the introduction of the ЗЕМСТВО in 1864, these functions were transferred to the земство institutions, and the приказы общественного призрения remained only in those губерния that did not have the земство organization.
Pushkarev has helped me solve many terminological riddles, but this entry wasn’t helpful at all. This приказ didn’t sound like the sort of institution in which money would be deposited. At least one historian, John P. LeDonne, translates the name of this institution as Board of Public Welfare. “Board” is more appropriate than, say, “Office,” since it apparently “consisted of six assessors from the intermediate courts representing the nobility, the townsmen, and the peasants of the treasury, but it met under the chairmanship of the governor only during the winter months” (John P. LeDonne, Absolutism and Ruling Class: The Formation of the Russian Political Order, 1700-1825, Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 254).
Again, Erik guided me to a passage about this приказ in Fedosiuk’s chapter on “Губернские власти” (provincial government).
The приказ общественного призрения, which was responsible for local vocational schools and all manner of medical and charitable institutions, came directly under the authority of governors. This приказ had the right to engage in financial operations for the purpose of augmenting its meager budget. Knowing this sheds light on Dobchinsky’s response to Khlestakov’s request for a loan of “about a thousand rubles”: “My money, I regret to inform you, is deposited with the приказ общественного призрения.”
Indeed, this приказ does come up in Gogol’s Inspector General, as Fedosiuk points out. The two translations of the play I was able to find on Google Books render this institution as “the State Savings Bank” (Thomas Seltzer) or “the state bank” (Fruma Gottschalk). This is understandable. It would distract and confuse readers of Gogol’s brilliant play if Dobchinsky had for some unknown reason deposited his money with the Board of Public Welfare. The only version of The Inspector General I have on my shelves, published in the National Textbook Company’s “Annotated Reader for Students of Russian” series in 1993, glosses all the vocabulary except for this tricky term, leaving it to the imagination of struggling students of Russian.
Some readers of SlavFile may recall a presentation I made at the 2020 ATA Annual Conference about translating historical terminology, in which I discussed the challenges I faced translating the 1863 novel City Folk and Country Folk. This novel was by Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya’s younger sister, Sofia. The Khvoshchinskaya sisters grew up in a close-knit, well-educated, and poor noble family. When Sofia and Nadezhda were children, the family was financially ruined after their father was falsely accused of misappropriating government funds. They lost their estate and he was disqualified from government service. During the eleven years that passed until he was exonerated, both daughters, but especially Nadezhda, helped their father as he struggled to support the family through copy work—reproducing calligraphic versions of government documents and topographic maps. The daughters’ detailed knowledge of the bureaucratic workings of Russia’s provincial governments in the mid-nineteenth century is reflected in their work, and this makes them both exceptionally hard to translate. Their fiction is filled with passing mentions of phenomena that would have been immediately familiar to their educated contemporaries but require hours of research by translators diligent enough to burrow down the necessary investigatory rabbit holes.
I am grateful to Erik McDonald for introducing me to Fedosiuk’s book and to Yuri Alexandrovich for writing it. One drawback for people wishing to use it as a reference is that it is not designed for quick searches. The eBook is not searchable, so when you want to look something up you have to go the TOC at the end and read through the chapters potentially related to your term. Pushkarev’s Dictionary is organized as such (with the Russian words in Latin rather than Cyrillic letters and alphabetized A-Z rather than А-Я). Its primary drawback is that it was published in 1970 and has never been updated or expanded.
There are surely many other resources and tricks for translators of prerevolutionary Russian texts. Beside the obvious approach of perusing Russian-language material that comes up in response to internet searches, I often plug the puzzling term into Yandex and/or Google in transliterated form to see if Anglophone historians have written about the given phenomenon. That is how I found the LeDonne text cited above. I’d love to hear what tricks and texts my colleagues use to research Russian historical terminology: contact me, or write an article of your own. Tales of terminological searches are yawn-inducing for ordinary mortals, but if you’ve made it to the end of this article, you’re no ordinary mortal.
Nora Seligman Favorov is a Russian-to-English translator specializing in Russian literature and history. Her translation of Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s 1863 novel City Folk and Country Folk (Columbia, 2017) was recognized by the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and Eastern European Languages as “Best Literary Translation into English” for 2018. Her translation of Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator by Oleg Khlevniuk (Yale, 2015) was selected as Pushkin House UK’s “best Russian book in translation” for 2016. She serves as translation editor for Russian Life magazine and took over as chief editor of SlavFile in 2021 after Lydia Razran Stone’s retirement. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.