The Corpus of Russian Translations of Social and Political Works

It is in the eighteenth century that Russian political language was born. The digital project “The Corpus of Russian Translations of Social and Political Works of the Eighteenth Century” coordinated by the German Historical Institute in Moscow explores the process of the transfer, adaptation and reception of key European political ideas and concepts in Russia during that time period. The starting point of the project was the assumption that Russian political terminology was invented in the process of translation, when political concepts acquired their precise meaning in specific social and political contexts. The protagonists of this process were translators, commissioners of translations and readers who used and interpreted the new political vocabulary that transformed the semantic field of the Russian language.

The database presents samples of original texts alongside their Russian translations. The comparison helps not only to see the translator’s methods and principles, but also to get an idea of how Russian readers understood and interpreted European political treatises throughout the “long” eighteenth century. The database will provide scholars with a basis for further research in the history of language and political thought in Russia and will help to expand the understanding of the political discourse of eighteenth-century Russia.

We talked to the two coordinators of the project, Sergey Polskoy and Vladislav Rjéoutski about the database.

“The Corpus of Russian Translations of Social and Political Works of the Eighteenth Century” seems to be quite an extensive database: From the first idea of the project to the launch of the public website, how long did it take and what were major milestones in the process? Do you consider the project complete or is the database still being filled?

VR: It took us about four years to complete the task, which included several steps. First, we identified the diversity of sources which are subsumed under the term ‘political’ in the eighteenth century: both published and manuscript material, of course, not only political treaties, but geographical and statistical descriptions of various states, essays on the history, political and social structure of countries, moral and political instructions for the noble, educational literature, political novels, etc. We excluded periodicals which would have overloaded the project, but of course many ‘political’ texts were published in periodicals at the time; this could be one of our future tasks. We elaborated a structure for the project website and worked for a rather long time with the IT company ‘Make’ based in Russia. This way, we built a functional user-friendly website which would enable the user to navigate easily between the texts and their descriptions, the lexicon of political concepts, and the biographies of the authors and the translators, in order to view the concepts in various contexts. This facilitates the understanding of the changes which occurred in Russian political language. The major step was the preparation of  text samples and their descriptions, which was done with the help of more than twenty researchers from Russia and Ukraine. We could not possibly describe and publish samples of all the texts we identified as ‘political literature’; this would have been an enormous task far exceeding our capacities, but we have described and published samples from nearly 200 translations of major political texts by Bielfeld, Blackstone, D’Alembert, Diderot, Donato, Hobbes, Mably, Montesquieu, Pufendorf, Rousseau, Voltaire, etc. Very importantly, we published excerpts from several dozen manuscript translations which have never been published before. We continue working on the database and on the website and we will publish more texts in the coming months. Since the beginning of this year we also have been working on the visualization of the results of our database, which will add a quantitative dimension to our project whose core is of course in a qualitative approach to the history of concepts and the history of translation. In this new development we are greatly helped by Vadim Popov, who is responsible for digital humanities at the German Historical Institute Moscow. Soon, we will publish a series of graphs and charts on the website, representing the place occupied by translated political literature in eighteenth-century Russia among the other genres of translated book production, the importance of each original language in our corpus, and the evolution of political translation in Russia over the century, etc. We believe that this data will be in many ways ground-breaking for understanding the history of book production and of translation not only in eighteenth-century Russia, but in Europe as a whole.

A view into the datebase: A text by Samuel von Pufendorf

How is this database linked to your own research? Did your previous research projects shape the way the database was conceptualized or do your current research projects use the database in a direct way?

SP: During the last ten years the history of concepts has become one of the main axes of my research. Work on the political history of Russia in the eighteenth century made clear to me that, without understanding the historical meaning of the terms used in various political projects and treaties compiled or authored by Russian statesmen at the time, it is hardly possible to grasp their intentions and the meaning they gave to their texts. In this respect, the study of Russian translations of political works opened a vast perspective by allowing us to compare European and Russian political terminology in order to see their common and specific features. Analyzing Russian political translations is a key to the understanding of the original Russian texts. Our database will help historians of Russian political thought and, more broadly, of European political culture, to avoid anachronisms while working with the concepts of the past and exploring the circulation of ideas in the European space. So I was enthusiastic about the proposal made by Vladislav to build such a project, because I understood its importance for the advancement of research in the field.

VR: Sergey Polskoy’s expertise was essential for setting up the project and for the choice of political works for the database. Since 2012 I have been working on the social and cultural history of languages in Russia, and especially on the history of the French language as a particular social phenomenon, so my interest in this research was by no means accidental. The place occupied by French book production in our corpus is fundamental; in fact the vast majority of the texts which can be qualified as political in the broad sense we have applied, were translated into Russian from French, either from original works or from translations of political texts written originally in other European languages. So eighteenth-century France is pivotal for our understanding of the genesis of Russian political culture. I also had some experience in coordinating large research teams, and this experience turned out to be a key element in such a vast project including all in all about thirty collaborators.

What were the biggest challenges for this database? And what are potential features that in an ideal world, the database would provide, but currently does not (yet)?

SP: Probably the most time-consuming task was the preparation of the descriptions of the manuscript translations. In fact, each of them is a unique scholarly study, including the study of the material features of the manuscript (e.g. paper, watermarks, binding, etc.), as well as the text itself, its handwriting, lexical features, various signs and marginal notes and specific details of the work done by the translator. In this regard, the colleagues who prepared these descriptions accomplished a huge piece of research work. We have not prepared as many descriptions of manuscript translations as we wished to, but this work is ongoing. One goal that we have not achieved yet, or at least not entirely, is to provide information about all the versions of manuscript translations of political texts kept in libraries or archives either in Russia or abroad. There are many of them and this is a very time-consuming job. In an ideal world our database would present all the richness of manuscript political translations, as it does for published translated works. Indeed, manuscript political translations were of great importance for the spread of political ideas in Russia, particularly in the first half of the eighteenth century, due to the high cost of printed books and to censorship. It would be even better if researchers could have access to the digitized copies of these manuscripts through our website, but that task was far beyond our capacities. For researchers, providing full-text and indexed versions of the original and translated texts is of course of great value, but again it was not possible to carry out this work within the current project.

VR: I would add that this drawback can be seen as an advantage as well. If our database may not seem to equal the scale of our imagination, it provides text samples in which political terminology is highly concentrated, making them easily accessible for the general user and for a student of political thought in eighteenth-century Russia.

What types of projects benefit from this database; do you have any examples of research projects that come to your mind?

VR: This project will be valuable for any research on the history of concepts in Europe. In spite of the development of this field of research in recent decades, to the best of our knowledge, we still do not have any other example of such a corpus of translated political texts for any other language in Europe. Therefore we hope that our project will show the way and be followed by researchers from other countries. The project “Economic E-translations from and into European languages”, which offers an impressive bibliography of translations of economic texts in Europe, does not allow its users to access the economic terminology used in original and translated texts in all the variety of its contexts. But our project is by no means limited to the history of concepts. Translation studies will of course benefit greatly from our database because the number of samples of translated texts provided by our website is very large and will continue to grow. Of course, there are different ways to explore translations in the early modern period. For example, if our project shares an interest in the role of translators as cultural intermediaries with a large-scale German-based project in translation studies, “Übersetzungskulturen der Frühen Neuzeit”, our approach is substantially different. One concrete project which could benefit from our database is the Russian National Corpus. This is a reference system based on an electronic collection of texts composed in Russian, whose main goal is to facilitate academic research on the lexicon and grammar of the Russian language. However, for the period before the twentieth century, the proportion of fiction is very important in this corpus. Our database can thus be beneficial for this project by enriching it with hundreds of translated texts and particularly for the early-modern period which is rather poorly represented in the Russian National Corpus. 


Sergey Polskoy is an Associate Professor at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Institute of World History, Russian Academy of Sciences.

Vladislav Rjéoutski is a Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute in Moscow.


Citation: Sergey Polskoy and Vladislav Rjéoutski, The Corpus of Russian Translations of Social and Political Works, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 24.09.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24971.


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