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Is “the dust of chancery forms” what makes 1830s Russian seem hard?

May 9, 2013

One of the writers everyone read at the time but no one reads anymore is Osip Senkovskii, who isn’t quite as despised as his acquaintances Bulgarin and Grech, but often ends up on the wrong side of a story where Pushkin and Gogol are the geniuses, and lesser writers had to influence or at least appreciate them to be remembered with affection. I’m part of the “no one,” never having read Senkovskii, but Languagehat is not, and his first and second posts on The Fantastic Journeys of Baron Brambeus (Фантастические путешествия барона Брамбеуса, 1833) are the most detailed and inspiring of the favorable descriptions of Senkovskii-Brambeus that I’ve read.

I was especially taken with LH quoting Senkovskii’s narrator railing against the bookish demonstratives сей ‘this’ and оный ‘that,’ which he felt obliged to write whenever it was natural to say этот, ‘this/that.’ (If you like, you can reserve ‘that’ for the word тот, but I find that этот is broad enough to swallow up all of ‘this’ as well as a good part of ‘that,’ and Senkovskii’s willingness to use either archaic demonstrative in place of этот suggests that was already true in 1833.) First it made me think how easy Russians in the 1830s had it compared to Chinese or Arabic writers. Then I started thinking about why, for me at least, 1850s or 1860s Russian is so much easier to translate than 1830s Russian.


1) In the 1830s, written Russian (as Senkovskii complained) was farther from the spoken language than it would be a few decades later. Therefore writers felt writing was unnatural, and somehow this makes it harder to understand them even now.

2) Difficulty increases steadily as you move backward in time, and there’s nothing surprising if the 1830s are harder than the 1850s.

3) The 1830s language isn’t any harder for modern readers in general, but I personally have trouble because I’ve spent more time with writers from slightly later. Turgenev and Pisemskii take more effort to translate than Pushkin and Gogol, if you’re a Pushkin or Gogol scholar.

4) Gogol is linguistically more difficult than Dostoevskii and Tolstoi (and for that matter Pushkin), not because of the period but for idiosyncratic reasons. He distorts my idea of the 1830s. Or, conversely, a higher percentage of the 1850s Russian I’ve read is non-literary prose, and that makes the 1850s seem easier than they really are.

5) Apart from chronology, everything written is more transparent when the reigning ideas are ultrarational and relatively cosmopolitan, and/or the aesthetics are “realist.”

6) Major nonlinguistic changes in and around the 1840s (in technology, social attitudes, the economics of publishing, etc.) caused fairly sudden changes in the language and in the range of subjects writers considered fair game.

Or can several of these be true at once? I’m convincing myself of one thing after another, but after it all I find it surprising how much the subjective difficulty falls off between the time before Dead Souls and the time after Poor Folk.

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