Fest und Feier.

Having finished the (superb) second volume of Kotkin’s Stalin biography (he leaves the reader hanging as the Germans are crossing the Soviet frontier in June 1941), I’ve started Soviet Mass Festivals, 1917–1991, by Malte Rolf. I’m still on the introduction, where he lays out his “concepts and research approaches,” and I thought I’d quote this passage from the “Celebrations” section (it’s probably worth mentioning that the book is translated from German):

The present work does not strictly distinguish “festivity” from “ceremony,” as Winfried Gebhardt suggests we should. Inspired by ideal types a la Weber, Gebhardt characterizes a festivity (German: Fest) as an emotional-affective means of socialization and a ceremony (German: Feier), as a value-rational means of collectivization. This view separates and conceptually fixates an ecstatic, escapist kind of celebrating from a solemn, value-stabilizing kind of celebrating. […]

In contrast, Ruth Koch has convincingly shown that while in the German language the terms Fest and Feier do not cover exactly the same ground, their meanings are not distinct enough for each to govern a semantic field of its own such that we might precisely determine an independent meaning for one or the other. If we return to the context of Soviet terminology at the time in question, we also do not find there any clear conceptual distinction between what is considered “festive” and what is considered “ceremonial.” The words prazdnik and prazdnestvo were commonly used, as was torzhestvo, a word being used predominantly to describe larger festive occasions. Nonetheless, the terms are for the most part interchangeable. There was also in use the word massovoe or narodnoe torzhestvo, which means the tumultuous crowd of the folk festival section of a Soviet celebration. Thus, for the most part, the Russian language, too, allows using words for “festivity” and “celebration” synonymously.

Since my German is only serviceable, I’m curious as to what my Germanophone readers think about the Fest/Feier distinction, and of course what Russian speakers think about the Russian words.

Addendum. Remember how I mentioned that the book is translated from German? I don’t like to dump on a hardworking translator, but Chapter 1 starts with the following quote:

“To save time, I had decided … to stay just five days in the Russian Capital; but unfortunately we arrived at the beginning of a long chain of … holidays and had only four of ten days to take care of our matters.”1 In 1885, George Kennan wrote these lines in his diary while traveling from St. Petersburg to Siberia.

The footnote says “Kennan, Und der Zar ist weit, 17-18.” What the what? Why on earth are you retranslating a citation from a German edition of Kennan? Here’s the English, from Kennan’s (very well known) Siberia and the Exile System (Vol. 1):

As the season was already advanced, and as it was important that we should reach Siberia in time to make the most of the summer weather and the good roads, I decided to remain in the Russian capital only five days; but we were unfortunate enough to arrive there just at the beginning of a long series of church holidays, and were able to utilize in the transaction of business only four days out of ten.

There’s just no excuse for that. (And a later footnote cites “Figes, Die Tragödie eines Volkes” — the German version of A People’s Tragedy — so it’s a general problem, not a one-off slip.)

To satisfy my curiosity, I checked the (contemporaneous) Russian translation, which renders the passage as follows:

По случаю поздняго времени года намъ было чрезвычайно важно достигнуть какъ можно скорѣе Сибири, чтобы воспользоваться еще лѣтней погодой и удобными дорогами. Поэтому я рѣшилъ остаться въ С.-Петербургѣ только на пять дней, но на наше горе въ это время начался цѣлый рядъ церковныхъ праздниковъ, и изъ десяти дней нашего пребыванія въ столицѣ царя мы воспользовались лишь четырьмя чтобы покончить наши дѣла.

Further addendum. OK, I’m going to dump on the hardworking translator after all. On page 20 the phrase “tsarist censure” occurs where “tsarist censorship” is clearly intended (the German word is Zensur). Come on, that’s a first-year student’s error.

Yet another addendum. I hate to keep banging this essentially irrelevant drum, but dammit, this stuff pisses me off. On page 34 we hear of a Nikolai Jewreinow. On page 37 a Nikolai Yevreinov shows up. These are, of course, the same person, in the first case still wearing his German frock-coat. “Jewreinow” is not only an example of the faulty transliteration transmission I complained about here (and in the earlier posts linked therein), it’s very distracting to the English-speaking reader, since the initial Jew- is hard to ignore. And of course the index has one entry (on p. 318) for Jewreinow, Nikolai, and another (on p. 324) for Yevreinov, Nikolai. Shame, shame on you, University of Pittsburgh Press!


  1. David Marjanović says:

    Koch is right from the descriptive side. The statistical distinction is large enough that the words can be reused as defined terms, however, and evidently that’s what the “ideal types à la Weber” did. That’s a very common occurrence, and this is part of what makes German philosophy (in a very wide sense of philosophy) so hard to read.

    Sometimes it happens in English, too, even with complete synonyms: probability and likelihood are distinct terms with distinct meanings in some branch of statistics and phylogenetics.

    “tsarist censure”

    Yeah, the translator should be censured for that. Like the many who translate from English to German and don’t know what freshwater is.

  2. Well, I’d never call a, say, birthday party with a dozen people present a prazdnestvo (only jokingly, possibly), let alone a torzhestvo. Torzhestvo really has to be a mass event, most probably an official one. Prazdnestvo is a mass event too, but less official.

    Of course, the meanings are overlapping, but they are quite distinct.

  3. My feeling for the German agrees with David Marjanović’s, but I figured I should leave it to him to answer first, as a native speaker. There is a lot of overlap in the meanings, but they are sufficiently different that it seems unremarkable to distinguish them as terms of art.

    And in German, if course, fresh water is male, and salt water is female.

  4. And when they meet, nature’s miracle happens…

  5. Matthew Roth says:

    I am taking translation this semester. I also have classes where the paper that I cite is in English but I deliver the work in French. Occasionally, it is vice-versa. I only paraphrase for now in French, but it iis a PITA to switch languages unless the specific citation is important. But, for French to English, I will do the translation myself and then quote and cite an official version when possible in the notes, while ldeally leaving the French in the body. This ensures accuracy and comprehension, as well as a place to say “Maybe this isn’t right.”

  6. feste feiern, schlapp erholen.

    [Note the small “f” in “fest(e)”]

  7. Does this mean an alternate English title could have been the unintentionally oxymoronic “Soviet Mass Ceremonies”?

  8. David Marjanović says:

    And in German, if course, fresh water is male, and salt water is female.

    …That’s a reasonable expectation from the rest of the gender system, but I don’t know what you mean…? Süßwasser, Salzwasser, Brackwasser… all neuter.

    French to English

    I find English to French horrible. It’s so easy to come up with something that looks about right but is totally wrong or misleading or at least really awkwardly unidiomatic.

    feste feiern, schlapp erholen.


  9. Ingenious.

    Can you explain, for us uninitiated ones?

  10. Ingenious.

    A pun: fest(e), Adv. resolutely, as well as Feste Noun pl. celebrations.

    So: celebrate celebrations resolutely, and recover limply

  11. Thanks!

  12. re: “feste feiern…”

    on first hearing, the first two words sound like the start of a banal N+V phrase corresponding to something like V+N “Celebrate festivals…” (=Feste) in English. Then after reading the second word pair (and going back & noticing the lack of capital letter on “feste”), you realize that “feste” isn’t a noun but an adverb, and the phrase reconfigures retroactively into something more like “Party hard, recover limply.” At least that’s the fun experience I had reading it for the first time here (as an English speaker who pretends he knows some German). Experts might have a lot more to say about it…?

  13. David Marjanović: I was just alluding to the word See.

  14. OK, this is almost unbelievably bad. In 1928-29, Stalin definitively ended the New Economic Policy and announced the policy of forced collectivization; he called this the Великий перелом. That resonant phrase is usually translated Great Break; it is also called the Great Turn, and doubtless other renditions have been used. What you absolutely cannot translate it as is “Great Purge,” which is what is used by the idiot translator throughout this book. WTF.

  15. Stu Clayton says:

    AG got it exactly as I intended: party hard, recover weakly – or weekly, depending on your modus vivendi.

    “feste feiern” in this sense is something I heard here in Cologne years ago, in a low-life ambience (well, nobody’s perfect). I thought up the second part only to make it a little easier to recognize the pun, as presented here without the original context.

  16. Stu Clayton says:

    I was just alluding to the word See

    There are two: der See (lake), die See (the sea). But an inland See is not necessarily full of freshwater – for geographical, not lexical reasons.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    fest(e), Adv. resolutely

    Cognate with fast, as you can still see in hold fast = (sich) festhalten.

    here in Cologne

    Thought so; that seems to be that central zone where there hasn’t been as much apocope as elsewhere, explaining why feste hasn’t become fest as it has elsewhere. Are Schichte and Stirne still in use?

  18. @languagehat: It seems like it would be extremely unlikely for a translator to settle upon “purge” in that context spontaneously. The translator almost certainly knew that the “great purge” was standard terminology for discussions of Stalinism, yet somehow failed to apprehend what it actually referred to. Which marks them as clearly unqualified to translate this book.

  19. @DM – while I’m familiar with feste as an adverbial form in colloquial use (and similar adverbial / predicative forms from a small number of adjectives, like sich dünne machen “run away, shirk” or dicke tun “boast, act in an arrogant manner”, I’ve only ever seen Stirne in poetry and Schichte never at all. And in general, Kölsch has more apocope than Standard German, e.g. -e in female nouns is generally lost (pief = Pfeife “pipe”, stuuf = Stube “living room”).

  20. To be clear, as far as I can see, forms like feste, dünne, dicke in the limited uses described are Standard (Northern?) Colloquial and have nothing to do with Kölsch. Kölsch final schwa seems to go back to former -en , e.g mädche = Mädchen “girl”.

  21. I tried to link to a witty Russian riff on those state-organized festivities, but spam filter ate my comment. Let me try again. First we planned festivities [torzhestva], then arrests, then we decided to combine. The whole dialog:
    Duke: What’s that?
    Field marshal: The arrestee.
    D: Why with the band?
    Fm: Your Grace, first we planned festivities, then arrests, then we decided to combine.

  22. Stu Clayton says:

    I mentioned being in Cologne merely to tout my source as genuwine. Otherwise, what do I know about dialectal doings ? As Hans says – those few adjectives with extra -e as adverbs *sometimes*, but never Stirne (“op dr Stirn”) or Schichte (“Schicht im Schacht!”).

    I took “feste feiern” to be motivated by meter as much as anything else – TUM-ti TUM-ti.

  23. I tried to link to a witty Russian riff on those state-organized festivities

    Here’s the clip from “Тот самый Мюнхгаузен.”

  24. David Marjanović says:

    Back to the topic. Page 76 of this thesis quotes the Hittite text KUB XIII 4 II 52 ff.:

    nu ma-a-an EZEN.M[EŠ] EZEN-aš me-e-ḫu-u-ni UL e-eš-ša-at-te-ni nu EZEN ḫa-me-eš-ḫ[a-an-da-aš] I-NA zé-e-ni i-ia-at-te-ni EZEN zé-e-na-an-da-aš-ma ḫa-me-eš-ḫi e-eš-ša-at-te-ni
    “If ye do not celebrate the festivals at the proper time appointed for (that) festival, if (for instance) ye celebrate the spring festival in the fall, but celebrate the fall festival in the spring,”

  25. Well, don’t leave us hanging — what happens if you do that dreadful thing??

  26. David Marjanović says:

    Alas, that isn’t quoted, at least not in anything closer than “Goetze 1951”. I do wonder if anyone ever really tried, though. 🙂

  27. Well, let’s try to do Halloween at Easter and Easter at Halloween, and see what the gods do… 😉

  28. J.W. Brewer says:

    If the minority of Christian groups which have thus far declined to calculate Easter according to the new-fangled innovation of the Gregorian calendar stick to their guns, their celebration of Easter will eventually (in approx another 20 millenia, depending on how you define “fall”) slip into what will appear to the secular world to be fall.

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