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  • Translation and the Emergence of History as an Academic Discipline in 18th-Century Russia
  • Wim Coudenys (bio)

The Russian 18th century is usually presented as an era of “modernization,” “Westernization,” or “Europeanization.” Notwithstanding the epistemological, methodological, and even moral questions these concepts raise, modernization was indeed the paradigm that guided the policies of the Russian rulers and defined the manner in which their subjects were perceived—positive as well as negative.1 Translation played a crucial role in that process.2 Translation, however, was not merely a catalyst for the transfer of scientific and technological knowledge.3 It was at the center of a cultural transfer that had been going on since at least the 17th century and laid the foundations of scientific and educational institutions in Russia, such as the Academy of Sciences (1724), the University of Moscow (1755), or the Russian Academy (1783).4 [End Page 721]

Translation was also a key factor in the creation of knowledge and led, in the second half of the 18th century, to Russia’s integration into the Enlightened “world of knowledge,” characterized by the “circulation of knowledge.” This was the case with regard to political, economic, social, geographical, cultural, and historical information about Russia, which was in great demand both in Russia and Western Europe and needed to be “extracted” from hitherto unknown, inaccessible, or unused sources.5 The concept of “circulation of knowledge” allows us to describe complex and interactive models of cultural transfer and to present “translation” as an intricate and invasive activity that affects modernization as a whole.

Translation as “transfer” and “circulation” also affected Russian history. In the 18th century “history” was an integral part of the modernization that began under Peter the Great. By the middle of the 19th century, history had become a scientific discipline in its own right—fostered by a host of institutions such as archives, university chairs in history, and historical seminars and by a body of professional historians whose role it was to shape and safeguard the historical consciousness of the Russian state.6 This process was not unique to Russia but had a lot in common with developments in Western Europe. There history ceased to be a tool in theological debates and the pastime of wealthy, amateur antiquaries and became a professional field, preoccupied with national interests and methodological debates.7 [End Page 722]

Already in 1714, Fedor S. Saltykov implored Peter the Great to use history as a means to strengthen the international position of Russia and its ruler. He wrote that it was necessary to document Russian history by collating sources, turn them into a narrative that placed Russia and the imperial state in a positive light, disseminate historical works through translation, and refute critical remarks about Russia’s glorious past and present.8 Russia, however, lacked the historiographical and intellectual tradition to accomplish this at the desired speed and turned to foreigners and/or translators for help. For the duration of the 18th century, history and translation were closely related, although over time this relationship changed.

It suffices to compare the recent Katalog lichnykh arkhivnykh fondov otechestvennykh istorikov: XVIII vek (Catalogue of Personal Archival Collections of National Historians: 18th Century) with its successor for the first part of the 19th century to see that the number of historians who also functioned as translators radically declined after 1800.9 Moreover, there is a strong correlation between the activities of historians and the existence of translation services within the Academy of Sciences, such as Rossiiskoe sobranie (1735–43) or Sobranie staraiushcheesia o perevode inostrannykh knig (1768–83). Many of the translators employed by the Academy were also historians in their own right: Semen S. Bashilov, Ivan G. Dolinskii, Aleksei L. Leont´ev, Aleksei Ia. Polenov, Vasilii G. Ruban, Dmitrii Semenov-Rudnev (Damaskin), Vasilii K. Trediakovskii, and Vasilii F. Zuev. As of 1790, a Translation Department operated within the Russian Academy, but it did not engage in history.10

In the present article, I argue that translation played a crucial role in the 18th century, the formative years of Russian history writing. Once the [End Page 723] discipline reached maturity in the 19th century, translation was reduced to a mere...


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