English Translations of Russian Tales in the Long 19th century

The 19th century saw a huge interest in folklore evinced by the learned classes of the British society as part of their search for a mythic glorious past, as well as of their effort to rescue the idyll and story of the countryside in the face of industrialization and urbanization. The enthusiasm for collecting and thus preserving the relics of ancient traditions, including folktales (once the preoccupation mainly of lower classes) was instigated to a large extent by Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales, almost immediately translated into foreign languages (Zipes, 2012), including first of all Danish and English. Therefore, translation was not only the necessary part of this movement from its beginning but indeed contributed to the emergence of the literary genre of the international fairy tale itself (Dollerup, 1999). Of special importance in this respect were Andrew Lang’s anthologies of folktales from all over the world translated and edited for the British children at the turn of the 19th century, their success ascribed chiefly to the popularity with the young reader, now apparently the major target audience of the fairy tale.

Russia with its wealth of wonder tales was naturally of interest to scholars, as well as to authors in search of new folklore material for children. William Ralston (1828-1889), one of the founders of The Folklore Society, catered mostly to the tastes of the former, introducing his translations of Russian folktales as illustrations to scholarly discussions of the folkloric issues on the agenda of his day. The structure of his Russian Folk Tales (1873), comprising a preface, numerous notes, an index, a list of sources, was that of a scholarly work, while the full translations of 51 stories (mostly from A.N. Afanasyev’s Narodniye russkiye skazki) were ‘photographic’ reproductions of the original texts. Hence as a highly informative and accurate source it was widely quoted by specialists in the field up to the mid-20th century (Ryan 2009).

It was also a major influence on Arthur Ransome (1884-1967), now recognized as an author of classic children’s literature, who in 1913 went to Russia to study the language and write his own book of Russian folklore. Ransome’s translation strategy was quite different as he was guided by his literary tastes and followed Lang’s tradition of popular editions for children. His Old Peter’s Russian Tales (1916) is a collection of skazki with an appropriate framing story, which introduces the world of what is now old Russia to the young English reader in an easy and natural way. His fluent style and emotional, dramatic and vivid language, supported by Dmitry Mitrokhin’s brilliant illustrations, contributed to the long standing success of the book with the young English reader and finally established the Russian fairy tale as part of international children’s literature.

Tatiana Bogrdanova

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