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Chairmen and officers

August 2, 2021

I see several people have been following along with “The Meeting”—thanks for reading! This seems like a good time to reiterate that I welcome any feedback you might have, about English stylistic issues, typos in either language, or translation problems proper.

So far there are two places and one recurring word where I’m uncertain about my initial translation, in addition, no doubt, to many mistakes I haven’t noticed and tricky passages I thought were simple.

First, from installment 14: Папенька был председателем (137), which I translated as “Papa was chairman.” But what was he chairman/president of? It doesn’t work for me to take it that he was the metaphorical chairman of the household, so I suspect he was he the chairman of something specific that was clear from context for contemporary readers.

My best guess is that he was the predsedatel’ (grazhdanskoi) palaty for the town of N., the office held by Ivan Grigor’evich in Dead Souls (Мертвые души, 1842) and by Krivosudov in Kapnist’s Chicanery (Ябеда, between 1791 and 1798; that play has a helpful note by D. S. Babkin about this kind of predsedatel’). Isabel Hapgood translates predsedatel’ palaty as “president of the court,” C. J. Hogarth as “President of the Local Council,” Pevear and Volokhonsky as “head magistrate,” Donald Rayfield as “chief judge,” Susanne Fusso as “Chairman of the Administrative Offices.” Two conceivably relevant kinds of chairman in Fedosiuk seem less likely: predsedatel’ zemskoi upravy (the zemstvo didn’t yet exist) or presedatel’ voinskogo prisutstviia (why would Alexandra Sergeyevna mention this then?).

I don’t want to fall into the trap of explaining too much. Even if something particular is implied, it may be best to leave the English sentence a bit clipped and enigmatic-sounding, but I’d like to understand the Russian myself so I can decide how much should be made explicit.

Then, from installment 15: Он вызвал из мужиков охотников в ополчение, пошел сам (138). Okhotnik has two distinct meanings that fit logically here, but I suspect an 1879 native speaker, and probably one today too, would instantly know which is meant. I first went with “He called up hunters from among the peasants into his reserve unit and went himself.” This takes okhotniki as “hunters,” as in Turgenev’s Zapiski okhotnika ‘Notes of a Hunter.’ But okhotnik can also mean someone willing or eager to do something. So did Alexandra Sergeyevna’s brother get hunters to go to war with him (since they had guns and knew how to shoot), or did he take the peasant men who were willing to go (since the idealistic brother wouldn’t want to take people reluctant to go to war away from their families)? I started with the “hunters” interpretation, but I’m increasingly partial to the “willing” reading.

And the recurring word. So far I’ve been translating ополченец as “army reserve officer” and ополчение as “(army) reserve (unit)” (see installments 12 and 15). I’m a bit hemmed in here, since the word is going to come up later in the story in a slightly different context, but I’m not confident that I’ve exactly captured what an opolchenie was in the Crimean War–era Russian Empire.

Native and non-native speakers, I’d be very grateful for your opinions!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    August 3, 2021 7:18 am

    That’s a tough one. In Russian, you can say “Папенька был председателем” without specifying and the reader or listener will simply assume he had the position of председатель in some committee or organization without necessarily needing further specification, but in English “he was chairman” immediately raises the question “of what?” I’m not at all sure that the contemporary reader would have known what the specifics were, but I don’t think it mattered in the way it does in English, because of the different ways the words are used. Definitely not “metaphorical chairman of the household,” though!

    • August 3, 2021 1:20 pm

      Thanks! That’s interesting—in Russian I also immediately wonder председателем чего?, but maybe that’s just English interfering.

  2. August 4, 2021 4:23 am

    Judging by the context – the Crimean War – the охотники were volunteers, and the ополчение was akin to a volunteer force, although it’s complicated as usual.

    While the regular army was busy fighting in the Crimea and the Caucasus, the Russians feared a naval attack elsewhere. (I still don’t quite understand why it didn’t happen, since the British could have avoided much of the bloodshed by destroying the Russian fleet in the Baltics and threatening to capture St. Petersburg.) More men were needed to guard the exposed areas, so early in 1855, Nicholas I called an ополчение.

    The nobility were supposed to provide a certain number of officers (selected by vote) while the lower ranks would be volunteers from the peasantry and other non-noble classes. I understand that serfs volunteered in great numbers, expecting to be freed from bondage in return for the military service. However, the landowners were not as happy to lose able-bodied men so peasants could only enlist with their owners’ approval.

    Ополченец isn’t necessary an officer, generally speaking, but a nobleman would surely be a commissioned officer (unlike in the 18th century) so “reserve officer” probably works OK if it’s clear what kind of reserve you’re talking about. One is tempted to use “militia” but perhaps its connotations are too broad.

    • August 4, 2021 10:44 am

      Thank you! These explanations are extremely helpful. “Volunteers” is just the word I need for охотники.

      I had similar thoughts about “militia”—in some ways it’s perfect, but it leaves room for misinterpretation. I did use “militiaman” for ратник in Shcherbina’s title Песня ратникам Московского ополчения, but otherwise I went with “reserve” in all the ополчение contexts. I’ll have to check which words Anglophone historians use when they’re talking about the decision by Nicholas I in 1855 that you refer to.

      • August 5, 2021 11:56 am

        The first “militia” in that war, “морское ополчение,” was raised for the Navy in 1854 in four northeastern governorates and only numbered about 1,500 men (but more than 7,000 applied). The 1855 one was called “подвижное ополчение” and ended up a pretty large force – over 200,000 men according to one estimate. Nicholas died weeks after summoning it so the militiamen mostly served under Alexander II.

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