Gerasim Lebedev (or Herasim Lebedeff).

Anu Kumar reports for on a remarkable Russian:

In 1795, Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev (or Herasim Lebedeff), a Russian musician and newly turned linguistic translator did something unique in Calcutta. For the first time, a play written in English, Richard Paul Jodrell’s The Disguise, a comedy in three acts, was translated into Bengali and performed on a proscenium stage – a new innovation that came with scene settings and arches, as seen in European theatres of the time.

The music that served as accompaniment, and played on western instruments, was composed by Lebedev himself. The verses were written by Bharatchandra Ray, who had also written Annadamangal in the early 1750s. The stage was decorated in traditional ways and not the least unusual thing was the presence of female actors.

Sherry Simon’s Cities in Translation describes Calcutta as a renaissance city of the nineteenth century, which brought together different languages, and cultures, with mediators or go-betweens to facilitate interaction, all in a creative amalgam. But Lebedev’s attitudes as a linguist and translator were interesting. He had a keen ear for language, and was particularly interested in “contact forms” – mediation in language and performance that brought people together. […]

[Lebedev] ambitiously envisaged his plays (The Disguise was followed by Moliere’s Love is the Best Doctor) as containing in them all the languages then spoken in Calcutta, to make for a truly people’s theatre. The first act in The Disguise was written in Bengali and the first scene in the second act was in bazaar Hindustani. Lebedev wrote later that his intention was to write scenes of the third act in English to truly reflect the multi-lingual city Calcutta was then.

You can read about his adventurous life at the link (he went from St. Petersburg to England to Madras to Calcutta); when he got back to Russia, Tsar Alexander appointed him professor of eastern languages and a member of the Academy of Sciences. And they’re still discovering more about him:

In 2005, a research project conducted under the aegis of a group of St Petersburg Indologists unearthed a number of manuscripts; some of these believed to be written by Lebedev himself. These include his draft for a grammar of the Bengali language and also his attempts to translate texts from the Old Testament into some Indian languages. Some of his attempted translations from the Bhagavad Gita into Russian also appeared in his Mathematical Manuscript. Lebedev apparently also wrote a short work, Arithmetic Tables, to familiarise future Russian businessmen and travellers with rules of Indian counting and the monetary systems then in vogue.

Quite a guy!

Addendum. I took that link from Greg Afinogenov’s Facebook feed, and he’s since posted a follow-up reference to Sándor Kőrösi Csoma, a Hungarian (Szekler) philologist and Orientalist, author of the first Tibetan-English dictionary and grammar book, who “is considered as the founder of Tibetology” and “was said to have been able to read in seventeen languages.” I love these multiculti characters from bygone days of yore.


  1. What is a “linguistic translator”?

  2. SFReader says

    Someone who translates linguistics books, I suppose!

  3. As opposed to a musical translator, who converts Indian classical music into equivalent Western music.

  4. Fascinating! And interestingly, it was apparently Khruschev who rescued him from oblivion, mentioning Lebedev’s work in a speech during his 1955 visit to India.

  5. I had no idea that there existed an eighteenth-century play with scenes written in Bazaar Hindustani. Does anybody out there know whether this early written specimen of Bazaar Hindustani has been studied linguistically?

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