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Famous Russian translators

Translation played a huge part in Russian history. It all started in 864 AD when the two Byzantine Greek brothers Cyril and Methodius were sent as Christian missionaries to the Slavs. They were the authors of Cyrillic system that is now considered one of the most used writing systems of the world (this is not my opinion, that's what Wikipedia says). And then they translated the New Testament, the Psalms and some more religious books.  So our nation, our Orthodox church and our mentality now are to a great extent based on what those two brothers did, including their translation work.
Later in history, a lot of famous Russian writers and poets were also brilliant translators. They opened a whole new world of prose and poetry to the Russian people. And I am sure you have heard at least some of these names I am going to share with you today!

First of all, let's speak about Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky. He was born in 1783 and by 1814 he was already acknowledged as the best Russian poet. I find his poems fantastic. He taught the Russian language to the Russian nobility and he also was Pushkin's teacher. Thanks to him the Russian people were able to read the masterpieces of Goethe, Friedrich von Schiller, George Gordon Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Ovid, and Virgil. But the main work of his life was the translation of Homer's "Odyssey".

Johann Wolfgang Goethe "Erlkoenig" 

Wer reitet so spaet durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er fasst ihn sicher, er haelt ihn warm.

"Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?"
"Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkoenig nicht?
Den Erlenkoenig mit Kron` und Schweif?"
"Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif."

"Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!
Gar schoene Spiele spiel` ich mit dir;
Manch bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand;
Meine Mutter hat manch guelden Gewand."

"Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hoerest du nicht,
Was Erlenkoenig mir leise verspricht?"
"Sei ruhig, bleib ruhig, mein Kind!
In duerren Blaettern saeuselt der Wind."

"Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehn?
Meine Toechter sollen dich warten schoen;
Meine Toechter fuehren den naechtlichen Reihn
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein."

"Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
Erlkoenigs Toechter am duestern Ort?"
"Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh` es genau,
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau."

"Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schoene Gestalt;
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch` ich Gewalt."
"Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt fasst er mich an!
Erlkoenig hat mir ein Leids getan!"

Dem Vater grauset`s, er reitet geschwind,
Er haelt in den Armen das aechzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Muh` und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

1782 г.
Лесной Царь
И. Гете (перевод В. А. Жуковского)

Кто скачет, кто мчится под хладною мглой?
Ездок запоздалый, с ним сын молодой.
К отцу, весь издрогнув, малютка приник;
Обняв, его держит и греет старик.

"Дитя, что ко мне ты так робко прильнул?"
- "Родимый, лесной царь в глаза мне сверкнул:
Он в темной короне, с густой бородой". -
"О нет, то белеет туман над водой".

"Дитя, оглянися; младенец, ко мне;
Веселого много в моей стороне:
Цветы бирюзовы, жемчужны струи;
Из золота слиты чертоги мои".

"Родимый, лесной царь со мной говорит:
Он золото, перлы и радость сулит". -
"О нет, мой младенец, ослышался ты:
То ветер, проснувшись, колыхнул листы".

"Ко мне, мой младенец; в дуброве моей
Узнаешь прекрасных моих дочерей:
При месяце будут играть и летать,
Играя, летая, тебя усыплять".

"Родимый, лесной царь созвал дочерей:
Мне, вижу, кивают из темных ветвей". -
"О нет, все спокойно в ночной глубине:
То ветлы седые стоят в стороне".

"Дитя, я пленился твоей красотой:
Неволей иль волей, а будешь ты мой". -
"Родимый, лесной царь нас хочет догнать;
Уж вот он: мне душно, мне тяжко дышать".

Ездок оробелый не скачет, летит;
Младенец тоскует, младенец кричит;
Ездок погоняет, ездок доскакал...
В руках его мертвый младенец лежал.

1818 г.

You can read more about Zhukovsky in Wikipedia. And here are some of his poems translated into English (the original is there, too).

Писатели переводчики: И. Бунин Ivan Bunin (1870 - 1953) was the first Russian writer to win the Nobel prize for Literature. He was noted for the strict artistry with which he carried on the classical Russian traditions in the writing of prose and poetry. The texture of his poems and stories, sometimes referred to as "Bunin brocade", is considered to be one of the richest in the language (source). He was the one who gave us the translation of Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha" which is still considered unparalleled. He also translated poems by George Gordon Byron, Alfred Tennyson, Adam Mickiewicz and other great poets.
by Lord Alfred Tennyson
Перевод Ивана Бунина
I waited for the train at Coventry;
I hung with grooms and porters on the bridge,
To watch the three tall spires; and there I shaped
The city's ancient legend into this
 Я в Ковентри ждал поезда, толкаясь
В толпе народа по мосту, смотрел
На три высоких башни - и в поэму
Облек одну из древних местных былей.

These are just the first lines of Tennyson's Godiva, but I am sure you see the picture ;)

Писатели переводчики: К. Чуковский Perhaps one of the most popular Russian poets among children is Korney Chukovsky. Kids just love his poems and often know many of them by heart. He was also a brilliant linguist, literature critic, and a wonderful translator. He was the one who let the Russian readers enjoy the works of Rudyard Kipling, O'Henry, William Shakespeare, Mark Twain and other famous writers and poets. In the 1960-s Chukovsky started a wonderful project - the children's Bible. It was an especially hard project, given the fact that in the Soviet Russia people weren't allowed to believe in God. Chukovsky was told not to use the words God/Lord and Jews/Israelites in his translation. So you can imagine how hard the work actually was. Thankfully, he wasn't doing it alone, but he also invited other linguists and writers to cooperate. The first edition was completely destroyed by the Russian authorities. It was not until 1990 when the book was finally published. It was named "The Babel Tower and Other Ancient Legends".
As an example, here's Chukovsky's translation of Kipling's "The Cat that Walked by Himself". You can read the whole translation here. And the original can be found here.

You can find more information (in Russian) in these resources:
История переводческой деятельности в России
Проблема художественного перевода. Переводы в творчестве русских писателей.

Did you find the info interesting? I'd love to hear your comments!


  1. Thank you Olga for this post, I didn't realize that Chuykovskiy and Zhukovsky were gifted translators, though I should have :)

  2. Hi Mike! You'd be amazed to know just how many well-known writers and poets were/are actually fabulous translators, too! I also knew a couple names before I started my research, but couldn't expect that their number is really so huge. At the point when this post was written I didn't want to make it a series of articles. Now I am really thinking about it. If the subject is interesting for my readers I'll probably go ahead and make more posts about it.


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