One of the many Latin tags floating around the Western world is Feci quod potui, faciant meliora potentes: “I have done what I could; let those who can do more.” It seems to have been well known in Russia a century and more ago; Michael Shapiro of Language Lore has a post on it, citing Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Stanislavsky’s My Life in Art and going on to this interesting observation:
This interpolation of Latin material in an otherwise straightforward Russian discourse is clearly a cultural feature of Russian speech. It mimics and continues the pan-European practice of quoting Latin locutions in order to give one’s utterances a special punch, not necessarily connected with the aim of parading one’s erudition. In this respect, modern Russian resembles older forms of English learned discourse that have largely become extinct. There can even be an interesting interplay in Russian between Latin and Church Slavonic (the liturgical language of Eastern Slavic Orthodoxy), for example with reference to the Latin phrase vox clamantis in deserto ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’, which derives from Isaiah 40.3 (“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”) via John 1:23 (“He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,”’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”). The Church Slavonic version is glas vopiiuscshego v pustyne (глас вопиющего в пустыне). The latter is much more frequent today, but someone speaking Russian can also recur to the Latin for extra paroemic force.
Now, according to Wikipedia the saying goes no farther back than Henry Baerlein’s 1908 translation of the Diwan of Abul ʿAla (page 7), but that (unsurprisingly) is far from true; Boswell quotes it on page 10 of his Account of Corsica (1768), calling it “a simple beautiful inscription on the front of Palazzo Tolomei at Siena” (and translating it “I’ve done my best; let abler men do more”). But what I found interesting is that Baerlein, in his dedication to E. J. Dillon, quotes it in connection with Russia:
When you receive this book, presuming that the Russian Censor does not shield you from it, I have some idea what you will do. The string, of course, must not be cut, and you will seriously set about the disentangling of it. One hand assists by holding up, now near the nose now farther off, your glasses; the other hand pecks at the string. After, say, twenty minutes there will enter the admirable Miss Fox—oh! the tea she used to make for us when we were freezing on the mountains of Bulgaria, what time our Chicagoan millionaire was ruffled and Milyukov, the adventurous professor, standing now not far from Russia’s helm, would always drive ahead of us and say, with princely gesture, that if we suffered from the dust it was advisable that he should be the one to meet the fury of the local lions. But do not let us lose the scent: Miss Fox, that woman of resource, will cut the string. And later on, while to her you are dictating things political while your other secretary is discoursing music, mournful Russian music, then with many wrinkles on your brow you will hold the book at arm’s length.
“The Serbonian Bog,” says Miss Fox, repeating the last lines of the dictation.
Your face is held sideways with what is called, I believe, a quizzical expression.
“Morocco,” says she, “viewed from the banks of the Seine, is becoming more and more like the Serbonian Bog.” Then she waits, discreet as always, while you think. Miss Fox, his thoughts are on the Adriatic!
There his boat, eleven years ago, was sailing underneath a net of stars and he was talking to a fellow-traveller. They had been joined at first by common suffering,—and how shall mortals find a stronger link? On board that boat there was an elderly American, the widow of a senator’s brother-in-law, whose mission was, she took it, to convert those two. What specially attracted her to them was not, perhaps, that they excelled the other passengers in luridness, but that they had the privilege of understanding, more or less, her language.
“Feci quod potui,” said Dr Dillon, “faciant meliora potentes.”
Coincidence? Or did the dedicatee—who was Russian correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, professor of Comparative Philology at the University of Kharkov, and a friend and associate of Sergei Witte, and who married a Russian woman—use it because he’d learned it from the Russians?