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  • Translation of Political Concepts in 18th-Century RussiaStrategies and Practices
  • Sergey Polskoy (bio)

In the words of Peter Burke, "If the past is a foreign country, it follows that even the most monoglot of historians is a translator. Historians mediate between the past and the present and face the same dilemmas as other translators, serving two masters and attempting to reconcile fidelity to the original with intelligibility to their readers."1 This metaphor also reveals why the historian's and translator's task is so complicated: language is a means to establish cultural equivalence, whereas translation always exceeds the boundaries of the culture, not only performing the obvious functions of intercultural exchange but also overcoming differences in the Weltanschauung and "mental tools" of participants in this exchange.

Developing Burke's metaphor, one might suggest that a historian seeking to reconstruct the worldview of someone from the past should restore and describe that person's conceptual apparatus so as to comprehend the meaning behind his or her words and actions. Attempts to match elements of the historian's conceptual apparatus to those of the past, however, give rise to anachronisms. Only if we accentuate the dissonance of meanings and distinguish between concepts represented by the same word can we comprehend the behavior of a historical person. In particular, we need to watch for distorted interpretations of historical terms. Perhaps the most striking example of such dissonance in Russian history is the word "state." Since the mid-19th century, historians have become accustomed to applying this term in its modern meaning and have imposed this modern understanding of the [End Page 235] state on historical figures of the past—most notably, Peter I. Historians have thus read 18th-century texts through their own lens rather than translating them. In this way, their interpretation has transposed the attitudes of 19th-and 20th-century political science to the past.

In this article, I explore the language of the 18th century to understand what the Russian people of the period had in mind when they spoke of "society" and "state." I consider translations of European political treatises as a key to their political views. The conceptual dissonance that emerged when Russians read books in foreign languages is especially striking when considering translations of political treatises. These writings manifest how complicated was the search for equivalents for the new, mostly abstract political vocabulary. Departing from translation as a metaphor for the historian's work, I direct attention to the translations themselves, as evidence of a clash and interaction of different cultures and regimes of political thought. The purpose of this article is to reveal how new political concepts penetrated Russia and how they were adapted in the Russian translations from 1700 to the 1760s. In particular, translation and adaptation of the concepts of state and society—interconnected and yet hard for early modern Russians to distinguish—provide evidence of how the translators constructed Russian equivalents of the key concepts of European political thought, such as res publica, status, stato, état, societas, société, society, and so on. I suggest that misunderstanding of the new lexica made the translators switch from transliteration to loan translation (calques). Only later, while searching for equivalent political concepts, did they begin to use customary Russian words, endowing them with new political meanings. Hence the crucial shifts in translation practices were the transition from recontextualization, which often led to a loss of the text's inherent original meaning, to decontextualization, which indicated the appropriation of the strange or new through its "domestication" or adaptation to existing social reality.2

The framework of the article reflects the stages of development that translation practices went through in 18th-century Russia. The study starts with the Petrine era (the 1700s) when, compared to the Old Russian tradition, the volume of secular literature in translation, both printed and handwritten, increased sharply. The share of manuscript books was especially high among translations of political treatises at this time. The article ends in the 1760s, when the volume of printed political literature began to exceed handwritten translations. In the same period, the political vocabulary developed: new concepts borrowed in the Petrine era passed through a series of...


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