Unless.

In my reading of The Russian Origins of the First World War, by Sean McMeekin, I’ve gotten to Chapter 5 (“The Russians and Gallipoli”), which starts with the following epigraph:

All solutions [to the Straits question] must remain precarious and incomplete, unless Constantinople, the western bank of the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles, along with the Thracian plain as far as the Enos-Median lines, are not permanently incorporated into the Russian Empire.

—Ambassador Maurice Paléologue, March 1915, passing on the views of [Russian Foreign Minister] Sazonov and Tsar Nicholas II.

Now, that makes no sense, and the obvious solution is to remove the word “not.” Sure enough, the original French says:

Toute solution serait insuffisante et précaire si la ville de Constantinople, la rive occidentale du Bosphore, de la mer de Marmara et des Dardanelles ainsi que la Thrace méridionale jusqu’à la ligne Enos-Midia n’étaient désormais incorporées à l’Empire de Russie.

French si … ne “unless” (like Russian если не) incorporates a negative that must be discarded in English unless you want to render it “if … not.” Here, the translator has fallen between two stools and reversed the sense. (There are other problems with this version as well: in the French, unlike the translation, it is clear that “the western bank” applies to the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles as well as to the Bosphorus, and “the Enos-Median lines” should be “the Enos-Midia line,” Midia [Turkish Midye] being the older name of modern Kıyıköy on the Black Sea. Quite a sloppy job.)

Update: I just found this similar example later in the chapter: “Sazonov told the generals it would be ‘undesirable that the historic task of banishing the Turks from Tsargrad not occur without our participation.’” The footnote references this to a document in a Russian archive, so I think we have to assume the superfluous and confusing “not” was retained in translation here (and presumptively in the epigraph as well) by McMeekin himself. Bad dog!

Comments

  1. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    What worries me about this example is not so much that the author was uncertain about the niceties of French grammar (I’ve been known to be confused by the same sort of sentences myself), but by the fact that he was apparently unable to see that that his version made no sense. Did not he, or his editor, stop to ask “that doesn’t seem right — shouldn’t we find out what was meant?”.

  2. The meaning is still completely clear, to anyone who knows a little bit about the history. A translator ought to be double-checking such things, but errors like this frequently creep into ordinary writing.

    An interesting question to me is whether the translator was better versed in the English or the French. That is, did the translator misunderstand the original French and then put that incorrect meaning into English; or did the translator understand the French perfectly but fail to recognize that a parallel construction would not work in English? Since the correct meaning of the passage is fairly obvious, I think the latter possibility is more likely. However, there is also the third possibility of the translator simply not caring enough to even thing about the meaning, which may be the right one in this instance.

  3. John Cowan says:

    Particularly if he was paid by the word, as is not unlikely.

  4. And was it some kind of helpful software that changed “Midia line” to “Median lines”? I find it hard to imagine how a translator would make that particular error.

  5. Brett: I would like to offer a fourth possibility. Namely, that this looks like a computer translation, where the choice as to how something is to be translated is based on statistics derived from bilingual corpora. The meaninglessness of the English output points in the same direction.

    Thus, “Toute solution” should be rendered as “Any solution”, not as “All solutions”, although in a majority of instances “tout” is indeed translated as “all”. The “ne” should indeed not be translated as a negator, in this instance, but in a majority of instances “ne” is indeed a negator.

    Same problem with “…de la mer de Marmara et des Dardanelles”, which indeed should have been rendered as “of” in English. But the problem is that “de” (+ singular definite article) could be the preposition meaning “of” or “from”, or it could be the French partitive article, which is normally translated as zero in English (“De l’eau et du vin” = “Water and Wine”) . “Des” could be the preposition + definite plural article, or the indefinite plural article; the latter is also normally rendered as zero in English (“Des biscuits” = “Cookies”).

    Since partitive and indefinite plural articles are more frequent in any normal French text than the preposition “de” followed by a a definite article, I think the computer translation system again simply “chose” the more common translation equivalent (zero, in this instance).

    In the words of my favorite science-fiction writer, Stanislaw Lem, “We trust our computers. But sometimes, we pay a heavy price because of that trust”.

  6. John Cowan says:

    “Media” is not that unlikely as a transliteration of Μήδεια, after which “Median” would be the adjective, particularly if you don’t notice the collision with English media and median. See my previous comment about Greek iotacism.

  7. John,
    Particularly if he was paid by the word, as is not unlikely.
    They almost certainly were, it is, after all, the standard practice. Alas, couple of hundred words here and there doesn’t make much difference.

    Etienne,
    Namely, that this looks like a computer translation,
    It almost certainly isn’t. For example, both Google and Bing get “Toute solution” right, but not the “unless” construction, which is exactly the type of structure I would expect an MT system to fail at. And so I hereby establish a corollary to Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute an error to a computer when it can be adequately explained by human incompetence.”

  8. “Media” is not that unlikely as a transliteration of Μήδεια

    Maybe not in the abstract, but why on earth would anybody transliterate the Greek name of this obscure village (which was and is Turkish, not Greek)? It is known to history exclusively in connection with this Line, and the line was universally known as Enos-Midia (in fact, if you enter Enos- into Google it will suggest Enos-Midia).

  9. Brett,
    did the translator understand the French perfectly but fail to recognize that a parallel construction would not work in English?
    I also favor this explanation, mainly because I have been guilty of the same error a number of times. Truth is, translators often switch to autopilot and that’s when this kind of thing happens.

    Which makes Etienne’s theory even stranger: it kindof assumes that all human translation has always been good and accurate and (as the phrase goes in the localization business) of highest quality. It never has. It rarely is.

  10. John Cowan says:

    Bulbul’s Corollary it is!

    Etienne: Specifically, Google says “Any solution would be insufficient and precarious if the city of Constantinople, the western shore of the Bosporus, the Sea of ​​Marmara and the Dardanelles and the southern Thrace up to the Enos-Midia line were now incorporated into the Russian Empire”, which is significantly worse than the printed translation. Bing is the same except for “up to southern Thrace” instead of “and the southern Thrace”. Systran says “Any solution would be insufficient and precarious if the town of Constantinople, the Western bank of the Bosphorus, of the Marmara Sea and Dardanelles as well as southernmost Thrace to the Enos-Midia line from now on were not incorporated in the Empire of Russia”, which has the same problems as the others and some of its own: it is translating phrases literally rather than idiomatically.

  11. I’m particularly impressed by “the town of Constantinople.”

  12. John Cowan says:

    Yes, by “by the word” I really mean “without regard to quality”.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    It took me some thinking to realize what was going on in those sentences.

    French original:

    Toute solution serait insuffisante et précaire SI la ville de Constantinople, la rive occidentale du Bosphore, de la mer de Marmara et des Dardanelles ainsi que la Thrace méridionale jusqu’à la ligne Enos-Midia N’ÉTAIENT désormais incorporées à l’Empire de Russie.

    I think that this means in English:

    Any solution would be insufficient … IF the city … as well as Southern Thrace … WERE NOT from now on incorporated into …

    There is no need for unless, which would literally translate French à moins que which does not occur in the original. Both sentences above state a hypothesis, the conditions for which are denied: Russia has already seized those territories, which are from now on (de facto if not de jure) incorporated … Any proposed solutions which do not recognize this fact would be insufficient, etc.

    I think that my English translation above is OK, but a better translation would be:

    Any solution would be insufficient … WERE IT NOT THAT the city ….. and South Thrace … are from now on incorporated into Russia’s Empire.

    There are some rare cases where ne occurs without negative meaning, but this is not one: si … ne … does indeed imply negative meaning, and the sentence would mean the same with the addition of pas after the verb. The lack of pas here is an archaism, common in formal speech or writing, especially in past centuries . I think that my suggestion were it not that better fits the formal register and the negative meaning.

    The translator’s major error was using unless, which was not called for at all, and he compounded it by translating the French ne as ‘not’ without realizing that it made no sense in the context of his whole sentence.

  14. Russia has already seized those territories

    No, Russia wanted badly to seize them but never got the chance. And I don’t see why “unless” is any worse than your solution (as long as the extra “not” isn’t put in, of course): “Any solution will be insufficient … unless the city ….. and South Thrace … are henceforth incorporated into Russia’s Empire.”

  15. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks LH for the correction. I was not entirely sure of the situation, but rereading the French sentence with si … n’étaient désormais made me think that Russia had already invaded (or whatever the right word would be) those territories, although that had not been settled with the other powers (who of course would not stand for it). Maybe I should withdraw my comment altogether.

  16. the other powers (who of course would not stand for it).

    Yes, the main thesis of the book (so far, anyway) is that Russia was eager for the war — not in order to fight Germany, which it didn’t really care about (hence the careless and undermanned approach to East Prussia that led to the disastrous Battle of Tannenberg), but rather Turkey, whose possession of the Straits allowed it to cut off Russia’s vital grain exports at any time (which it had done just a few years earlier, causing a 30% drop in Russia’s trade income, something I hadn’t realized); without a war, it was impossible to get other powers to agree to let Russia seize the Straits, but once a war started, you could have whatever you could conquer.

  17. Is McMeekin the source of the translation of the epigraph? And if he didn’t translate it, odd that he didn’t notice the mangled syntax.

  18. Never mind the translation, what about the history? It makes me wonder whether, had Kerensky remained in power, Russia would have got the Straits. It’s rather easy to see why the other Powers wouldn’t be too keen on Lenin getting them.

    (Would it have been too punctilious to have written “Lenin’s getting them”?)

  19. Is McMeekin the source of the translation of the epigraph?

    See my Update at the bottom of the post; it would appear that he was.

    It makes me wonder whether, had Kerensky remained in power, Russia would have got the Straits. It’s rather easy to see why the other Powers wouldn’t be too keen on Lenin getting them.

    No, it wasn’t about Lenin — Britain fought the Crimean War basically to prevent Russia from getting them. Which makes it doubly strange (as McMeekin points out) that in 1915 they were ready and willing to fight the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in order to make it possible for Russia to have them. War does strange things.

    (Would it have been too punctilious to have written “Lenin’s getting them”?)

    Not for me, but then I am an old codger.

  20. Trond Engen says:

    In wartime it was important to keep the lines of supply open (between you and your allies) and closed (between your enemies). I don’t think anyone wanted Russia to have the Straits for keeps, no matter which government, and no matter what promises had been given. There’s a famous disconnect between territorial expansion in wartime and gains at the peace conference afterwards. If I were to venture into alternative history, I’d say that if the Russians had held Stambul at the end of the war, it would have been Greek today. Or maybe a city state surrounded by Bulgaria, if there was a way to keep it from becoming a Russian puppet state and fleet base.

  21. There’s a famous disconnect between territorial expansion in wartime and gains at the peace conference afterwards.

    Yes, but WWI was not like, say, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 (which left Russia so embittered because she did not reap the rewards of her victory). Back then the English had nothing better to do with their time and energy than meddle in Eastern European affairs; at the end of WWI they were so broke and exhausted they could not afford to keep fighting the Bolsheviks, whom they regarded as the embodiment of Satanic evil — I seriously doubt they would have been willing to keep a lot of men in uniform and borrow a lot of money to keep (say) Kerensky out of Constantinople. And the Greeks, of course, did not have the power to impose their will.

  22. J. W. Brewer says:

    “We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do,
    We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too,
    We’ve fought the Bear before, and while we’re Britons true,
    The Russians shall not have Constantinople.”

    It turned out that the Allies as a whole did not have the full power to impose their will on the Turks they thought they had defeated – thus the rather substantial differences between the terms imposed on the Ottomans at Sevres and those obtained by the new Kemalist regime at Lausanne only three years later.

  23. It’s often struck me as odd that the Western powers were so determined to keep the Russians (fellow Christians, if of a different branch) out of Constantine’s city and allow the (Muslim) Ottomans to keep it.

  24. The Russians had long wanted to control Constantinople, and the British and French definitely did not want to see that happen. (Thus these two ancient enemies had been willing to band together to defend the Ottoman empire against Russian aggression in the Crimean war, the first major phase of which occurred in the Balkans, before action moved farther east.) However, the were willing to promise the city to the Russians in order to ensure their entrance into the war. I believe this is discussed in detail in The Guns of August, but I don’t think Tuchman addresses the obvious question of whether the western democracies really expected the straits to go to Russia after the war.

    Of course, after the actual war was over, there was no question of the Soviets being given Constantinople. Having capitulated to the Germans, Lenin’s government was in no position to press territorial claims, and the new Soviet state was an international pariah. In any case, Lenin stated that he didn’t want Constantinople. The given reason was that he was opposed to such imperialism, but it has been suggested that he might have felt differently if there had actually been a chance to get ahold of the territory in question.

  25. I believe this is discussed in detail in The Guns of August, but I don’t think Tuchman addresses the obvious question of whether the western democracies really expected the straits to go to Russia after the war.

    The Guns of August
    is a delightful book but thoroughly out of date; Tuchman didn’t have access to many of the records McMeekin uses, and his account supersedes all previous ones as far as this topic is concerned.

  26. J. W. Brewer says:

    I’m just now noting/appreciating the irony of notes being taken on the plans for the reconquista of Tsarigrad by a fellow named Paleologue. (Although wikipedia says the claimed descent of the ambassador’s Romanian ancestors from the actual Palaiologoi is of dubious historicity.)

  27. @hat: Given the success that the British and French were having carving up the Ottoman empire for themselves, I don’t think it’s too surprising. That kind of imperial intervention was less likely to happen if areas became Russian possessions. Even though both Russian and Ottoman empires (among others) collapsed after the First World War, the cohesiveness of the Russian empire was sufficient to keep most of it together as the Soviet Union, whereas the Turkish possessions split into a large number of successor states.

  28. Given the success that the British and French were having carving up the Ottoman empire for themselves, I don’t think it’s too surprising. That kind of imperial intervention was less likely to happen if areas became Russian possessions.

    But Russia had no designs on the areas they wanted (Egypt for Britain, the Levant for France); Russia was perfectly happy to let them have those areas in exchange for the Straits and the City. And I don’t really understand what they were so worried about; why would it be so much worse for Russia to control the Straits than the Turks?

  29. “And I don’t really understand what they were so worried about; why would it be so much worse for Russia to control the Straits than the Turks?”

    Turkey posed no threat to Britain, but wouldn’t a Russian presence in the eastern Mediterranean pose a potential threat to Britain’s sea route to India, which Britain had reason to be concerned about in light of Russia’s expansion into Central Asia suring the latter part of the 19th Century posing a land-based threat to Britain’s most lucrative imperial possession? Brett mentions the Crimean War, in which France and Britain both sought to contain Russia, probably because they perceived a threat to their colonies in Asia.

  30. Sorry about the incoherence of my previous post.

    Turkey posed no threat to Britain, but wouldn’t a Russian presence in the eastern Mediterranean pose a potential threat to Britain’s sea route to India? Britain had reason to be concerned about possible Russian designs on Britain’s most lucrative imperial possessioin in light of Russia’s expansion into Central Asia during the latter part of the 19th Century, which potentially offered Russia a land-based route to India–one not exposed to the hazards of navigation.

    Brett mentions the Crimean War, in which France and Britain both sought to contain Russia, probably because they saw a Russian threat to their colonies in Asia.

  31. Yes, but that just pushes the question back a step: why was Britain so paranoid about Russia and India? The Persian thing I understand, Russia was absolutely involved in Persia and had been for over a century, but Russia had no interest in India and no conceivable reason to try to dislodge Britain from it. And in any case, a potential Russian ability to send ships into the Mediterranean would not seem to pose a direct threat to India.

  32. “Russia had no interest in India and no conceivable reason to try to dislodge Britain from it.”

    Maybe not so.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Game

  33. John Cowan says:

    With a resurgent Soviet empire in control of the straits, not only would the Black Sea become a Russian lake, but the whole of the eastern Mediterranean would return to pre-Lepanto conditions soon enough. That would expose Britain to a possible choke-off of the India trade, the only thing that made India worth keeping at all. Russia may have lost the war and lost its government, but there was never any question of its ceasing to be an empire, whether Bolshevik or liberal democratic, unlike the Habsburgs and the Ottomans.

    What’s more, the Great Game actually did heat up again in 1919, after the Germans were out of the picture in Central Asia, and continued until 1941. It was mostly a standoff, but it might have been quite another story without the Suez Canal.

  34. “a potential Russian ability to send ships into the Mediterranean would not seem to pose a direct threat to India.”

    Britain’s most expeditious route to India lay through the eastern Mediterranean. In the event of a Russian land-based initiative against India, Russia could threaten Britain’s ability to defend India.

  35. Maybe not so.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Game

    Here’s what that link has to say about India:

    The British were greatly concerned at the prospect of a Russian invasion of the Crown colony of India, though Russia – badly defeated by Japan in the Russo-Japanese war and weakened by internal rebellion – could not realistically afford a military conflict against Britain.

    In other words, the Brits were paranoid, just as I said.

    Britain’s most expeditious route to India lay through the eastern Mediterranean. In the event of a Russian land-based initiative against India, Russia could threaten Britain’s ability to defend India.

    Yes, “most expeditious” and “In the event of a Russian land-based initiative against India” and “could threaten”: like I said, no direct threat to India. Of course if you’re paranoid enough, everybody’s an enemy and every situation is fraught with peril. Hell, just think what the French could do to Britain’s supply lines if they got mad!

  36. With a resurgent Soviet empire in control of the straits

    Who’s talking about a Soviet empire? At the period we’re talking about, the only soviets were workers’ organizations in a few cities, and Bolshevik rule was a mad fantasy in Lenin’s fevered brain way off in Zurich. We’re talking about the Romanovs in control of the Straits, and they were, after all, cousins and allies.

  37. John Cowan says:

    I was referring to the post-WWI settlement, not the Crimean War.

  38. Without the hindsight of WWI, even though Russia was in no shape to invade India in the immediate pre-war period, Britain saw it as in her interests to forestall the possibliity that a resurgent Russian empire could threaten British lines to India, not only for military but also for commercial reasons. There was no assurance that Russia would remain supine for ever. Keeping control of the route to India, and forestalling any possiblity whatsoever that another power could challenge that control, was the dominant goal of British policy in the Mediterranean. That seems to me like self-evident Realpolitik, not like paranoia at all. In WWII, protecting the route to India was the motivation behind the British defense of Greece and Crete, Allied operations in North Africa, and Churchill’s insistence on an invasion of Italy that delayed and complicated D-Day.

  39. I was referring to the post-WWI settlement, not the Crimean War.

    And I was referring to the situation just after WWI started, not the Crimean War.

  40. Well, if Russian Empire survived and Austria-Hungarians and Ottomans went belly up, Russia might have had a full clientele of Slavic and Orthodox states in Eastern Europe. Or so it might have been seen from the river Thames. In reality, of course, Russian Empire was weak, full of internal discontent, both national and social, and utterly incapable to enlarge its sphere of influence even more. But things might have looked differently then and there. Ottomans, on the other hand, were obviously weak, losing their influence in the Balkans, and in bad need of Western support. If I were Asquith or Lloyd George I would have given the city and the straits to the Turks without a second thought (that is, assuming they were mine to give).

  41. Apart from the specific question of India, there was the more general matter of the British fleet’s freedom to operate throughout the world. The fleet was the guarantor of British world supremacy, and having the eastern Mediterranean fall under the control of a true great power like Russia could potentially interfere with the defense of British interests around the globe.

  42. Trond Engen says:

    Realpolitik, indeed. Religion or ideology had no part in it, except for propaganda (and insofar as a new regime could be trusted to have fully incorporated the rules of the game). The British could count on the Russians as “cousins and allies” for exactly as long as containing the Germans, or the Hapsburgs, or whoever, was more pressing than a showdown over Asian interests. The Osman Empire was allowed to linger on as a convenient buffer keeping that showdown from taking place. So was Iran. And Afghanistan owes it very existence to it.

    Greetings from 2014!

  43. The fleet was the guarantor of British world supremacy

    True for a long time, but from early in the 20th century requiring petroleum to fuel it. And since the Russians had the best pickings at Baku, that meant working to get at what lay under Arab and Persian lands.

  44. Trond Engen says:

    petroleum

    Important point.

  45. I’d actually quite like to read something (else) on the subject. Is the McMeekin otherwise unobjectionable?

  46. No, it’s an excellent book, but far from unobjectionable. It’s maddening, in fact. The core of the book, a detailed investigation of Russia’s planning, strategy, and actions with regard to Turkey and their effects on the larger war, is brilliantly done and absolutely necessary for an understanding of the war beyond the Western Front. Unfortunately, he has chosen to wrap it all in a mantle of sarcasm and hostility worthy of a college sophomore or a small-town lawyer; he points at any breach of the Marquess of Queensbury rules on the part of Russia with manufactured horror as if every imperial power did not behave exactly the same way. Oh, heavens, Russia wanted to get the Dardanelles without having to fight for them, by convincing Britain and France to do the dirty work! Well, of course; is it even conceivable that Britain wouldn’t have grabbed a chunk of the world somebody else had shed blood for if it had the chance? Dear me, the Russians used the Armenians as cat’s-paws against Turkey, arming them and promising them the moon but not following through! … exactly the way the U.S., say, used the Montagnards in Vietnam in the ’60s and the Kurds in Iraq in 1991 (not to mention cynically encouraging the Hungarians to revolt in the ’50s). For some reason, McMeekin is not content with making a vital contribution to understanding Russia’s part in WWI, he wants to make you believe that they were responsible for starting the war, that they acted throughout with unique malignity, in short that they are bad and should feel bad. That is to me a shocking lapse of professional behavior for a historian. All that being said, however, if you keep a reservoir of salt around for his ex parte judgments it’s well worth reading, providing as it does an important perspective you can’t (so far as I’m aware) get any other way.

  47. Heh. You should really write for the LRB, you know that? Will certainly pick it up then. Cheers.

  48. You should really write for the LRB, you know that?

    Don’t tell me, tell them!

  49. Review of a number of recent books on this topic by R.J.W. Evans in the latest New York Review of Books, including two by McMeekin.

  50. A very useful resource — thanks!

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