Polovetss and Ants.

I just ran across an article that combined so many of my interests (e.g., Russian history, translation comparisons, bad scholarship, proofreading) that I wanted to share it here: Donald Ostrowski’s “What Makes a Translation Bad? Gripes of an End User” (Harvard Ukrainian Studies 15.3/4 [December 1991]: 429-446; JSTOR), which compares reviews of the five volumes of Serge A. Zenkovsky’s The Nikonian Chronicle. I’ll excerpt some good bits, but anyone sufficiently intrigued will want to read the whole thing:

One would expect that such a major contribution and increase in the amount of Rus’ian material translated into English would be welcomed by the English-speaking scholarly community. As instructors, we are, after all, always looking for materials that can be used for introductory courses in early East Slavic history. Instead, the review literature indicates a rather chilly and negative reception to this translation of the Nikon Chronicle. Why? What are the criticisms? Is this chilly reception deserved? And, if so, can we learn from the criticisms to produce better translations, especially those that are on a similarly large scale?

First, let us take at look at the review literature. I will be using seven reviews of the Zenkovskys’ translation. […]

Of the reviewers, Michael Flier finds the most to praise. […] However, he does question a number of editorial decisions involving the translation. He notes that the Zenkovskys did not translate all the text, that they excluded “certain stories and theological discussions of Byzantine or South Slavic origin with no information on Russia per se.” […] Flier goes on to point out some inconsistencies in the rendering of proper names, a number of apparent typographical errors, as well as errors of information, and the infelicitous pluralizing of the names of certain Rus’ tribes: the Krivichs, Polovetss, and Ants (instead of Krivichi, Polovtsi, and Antes).

I love “Krivichs, Polovetss, and Ants”!

In contrast to Flier’s relatively positive review, Waugh’s is the most unrelentingly negative of the seven. Waugh criticizes Zenkovsky as editor for not understanding “the difference between text and copy and the necessity for establishing clearly which text he is translating” […] Waugh refers to the introduction as being “quite muddled” and finds some of the statements “alarming,” such as that Zenkovsky would substitute from a secondary redaction of the Nikon Chronicle, the Litsevoi svod, when “it was more detailed and seemed historically more interesting than the corresponding” earliest manuscripts. […]

Waugh finds the foreword to volume one to be “quirky.” He also questions a number of Zenkovsky’s assertions: the theory that the first bishops of Rus’ were Bulgarian, that Riurik was mythical while Askol’d and Dir were not, and the use of “Russia” and “Russian” to translate Рус~ and рус~скии. […]

Thomas Noonan, in his review, […] points to “certain features” that “could be improved significantly.” For example, Noonan says that, in the introduction to volume one, the “discussion of the origins of the Rus’ state is clearly inadequate” […] In addition, there is no discussion of the period between Vladimir’s conversion and 1132,” the last year translated in volume one. In the introduction to volume 2, which begins with the year 1133, there “[i]nexplicably” appears Zenkovsky’s discussion of the period from 1054 to 1132. […]

Norman Ingham also finds much to commend and much to condemn in these volumes. […] Then Ingham points to Zenkovsky’s rather remarkable statement in the preface to volume five: “Regrettably, the first three volumes of the first edition contain errata of a typographical nature, which were brought to the attention of the proofreader and were not the responsibility of the Editor” […] Usually, it is the responsibility of the proofreader to point out errors and the responsibility of the editor to make sure the errors are corrected. In the prefaces to volumes three and four, Zenkovsky acknowledges that as editor he bears responsibility for all errors. Is he saying here that he gave his approval to a final version he did not see? This statement comes across as a shabby attempt to blame an anonymous proofreader for the failure to carry out a task that was indeed a responsibility that traditionally belongs to the editor. […]

Furthermore, Ingham points to what he calls “an old-fashioned insensitivity to ethnic identifications” on Zenkovsky’s part. He is particularly critical of the introduction to volume three, in which, he says, Zenkovsky “puts up a gratuitous defense of the racial purity of Russians, in whose veins there is asserted to flow ‘practically no Asian blood.’” Ingham finds this assertion to be “astonishing as on the same page he [Zenkovsky] mentions that the Tatars took Russian women as concubines” (Ingham, p. 275). One could also factor in the numerous marriages between Rus’ princes and Tatar princesses.

Nancy Shields Kollmann, in her review of volume 5, calls the entire publication “very problematic.” After pointing out that the text being translated “is not precisely the ‘Nikon Chronicle’ ” (because of Zenkovsky’s editorial decisions, such as the inclusion of about ten pages from the Ioasaf Chronicle), she evaluates the translation itself and finds it “wanting.” Shields Kollmann […] goes on to question other aspects of the translation: the practice of transliterating Polish, Lithuanian, and Belorussian proper names into Russian; “the unfortunate use of ‘Russia’ for ‘Rus’ ’ ”; the omission of individuals and the inexactness of dates in the genealogical charts; and the repetitiveness of the footnotes. […]

In addition, even experts in the field may be taken in by some of Zenkovsky’s hyperbole and misstatements in his introductions. Hanak remarked on the anti-Mongol bias that Zenkovsky exhibits in his introduction to volume three. An example of how Zenkovsky’s bias leads him to misstate the case can be found in his discussion of the destruction the Mongols visited upon Rus’ cities during the invasion of 1237-1241. Zenkovsky writes: “According to reports of eyewitnesses, mostly incidental Western travellers, there remained in Kiev just some dozen households….” One easily obtains the impression that there are quite a few eyewitness accounts of Kiev after the sack of 1240 and that many of these — in fact most — are by Westerners travelling through Kiev at the time. The truth of the matter is we do not have many sources describing Kiev at the time; we have only one. And that source reports 200 houses in Kiev, not “some dozen.” Even that source may be suspect because the passage in question might not have been written by an eyewitness. In other words, we might have no extant eyewitness description of Kiev after the sack of 1240. Yet an unsuspecting scholar could come across Zenkovsky’s statement, think it authoritative, and inadvertently spread the error. This is one of the ways historiographical ghosts are created.

[…] All in all, the footnotes give the impression of having been hurriedly done, off the top of the head as it were.

To these criticisms of the ancillary matter, I would like to add a number of other problems that I have encountered with the translation itself. In previous translations that Serge Zenkovsky undertook, he tended to disregard the principle of explaining to the reader when his translation differed significantly from the literal meaning of the source text. […]

No one is claiming that a translator is not allowed to provide his or her own interpretation of the material, but it is incumbent upon translators to indicate when their interpretation leads them to postulate something significantly different from what is in the source text. In addition, specialists in other fields could be misled by anachronistic terminology. The term “Golden Horde” can be found in no source earlier than the end of the sixteenth century and then only in Muscovite sources. The Mongols never used it to designate their khanate with its capital at Sarai. Instead they called it the Khanate of Kipchak (desht-i-kipchak) or Ulus of Djuchi. The term “Golden Horde” does not appear in the Nikon Chronicle, which maintains the language of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries in this regard. When the word orda appears in the Nikon Chronicle […], the Zenkovskys, although sometimes translating it as “the Horde,” mostly translate it as “the Golden Horde” […] Thus, an unwary reader might think that the term “Golden Horde” was operative in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when it was not.

In addition, the indiscriminate use of “Russia” and “Russians” to apply to all East Slavic-speaking groups is not only confusing but could be seen to represent an implicit acceptance of the Pogodin-Solov’ev theory of the migration of the Great Russians from Kiev to the northeast during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It denies the early cultural heritage of Ukrainians and Belorussians and smacks of Great Russian chauvinism. We certainly do not need to perpetuate such antiquated and and prejudicial nationalist theories in the scholarly literature.

Another problem is one that Waugh brings up in his review but may be even more serious than he indicates. This is the problem of the substitution of text from derivative copies and redactions because that information is more detailed and more interesting. Not only is this stated editorial policy “alarming,” as Waugh points out, and not only does Zenkovsky in fact follow this policy, but it represents a deep-seated misunderstanding of textual criticism and the basic principles of editing a text for publication. To be fair, I should point out that Zenkovsky’s views reflect those of traditional Russian and Soviet text editing practice (textology), but that does not mean, thereby, they are less wrongheaded. […]

In sum, most of the criticisms directed at this English translation of the Nikon Chronicle are justified, but they have less to do with the Zenkovskys’ abilities as translators than with the editorial decisions surrounding the presentation of the translation […]. What is particularly disheartening is that so many of these problems could have been eliminated before publication. […]

The level of scholarship Zenkovsky displays here is indicative of a level that may have been acceptable at one time, but no longer is. For that reason, it is relatively easy to take a representative of the old school, like Serge Zenkovsky, to task for many of his editorial decisions and translations of particular words and phrases. But he and his wife cannot be criticized for two things: (1) for undertaking the translation of this valuable source and (2) for completing it. Those of us who have appointed ourselves the guardians of translation from Rus’ian to English (by virtue of the fact that we feel competent to criticize those who make such translations) should also walk in the tufli of the translators. Zenkovsky from the beyond can well say: “Some of your criticisms may be justified, but where is your contribution to the corpus of translated literature? Where is your equivalent to the five volumes we have done?” In that respect, the Zenkovskys’ translation stands as a reminder to the rest of us that it is easier to criticize than it is to do.

That last paragraph is very gracious, and I’m also impressed with this preface to the Errata section:

In volume 15, number 3/4, of Harvard Ukrainian Studies, I published a review article “What Makes a Translation Bad? Gripes of an End User,” in which I pointed out errors in Serge Zenkovsky’s translation of the Nikon Chronicle. It is my duty to report that there is such a thing as cosmic justice. My article contained some egregious errors in the presentation of Cyrillic passages. These errors were no one’s fault but my own. The editors of this journal have graciously consented to allow me to include in this volume an errata list for that article.

The first corrects an error that the attentive reader will have noticed in the text above:

p. 432, line 19: Рус~ and рус~скии [should read] Русь and русьскии

I wish this kind of detailed comparison were more common!


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    Not an implicit acceptance of the Pogodin-Solov’ev theory! Shock! Horror!

    I will say that while it is obviously a mistake to retroject more recent creations of “Great-Russian” nationalist thinking back into the Chronicle it’s also import to recall that the rival Ukrainian/Belarusian/etc. nationalisms which are notably sensitive any hint of such chauvinism are likewise themselves comparatively recent phenomena that are anachronistic when applied to the Chronicle and the world it purported to document. Only ethnocentric Bulgarian chauvinism is defensible as appropriate to the period!

  2. David Marjanović says

    It is my duty to report that there is such a thing as cosmic justice. My article contained some egregious errors

    The Bierce-Hartman-McKean-Skitt Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation states that any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror.

  3. cuchuflete says

    The Bierce-Hartman-McKean-Skitt Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation states that any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror. too error.

  4. Nobdy expects the Bierce-Hartman-McKean-Skitt Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation!

  5. David Marjanović says

    The Bierce-Hartman-McKean-Skitt-cuchuflete Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation states that…

  6. ktschwarz says

    The linked Wikipedia article on Zenkovsky contains this irresistibly alliterative sentence: “Zenkovsky spent a year shrubbing shrimp at Schrafft’s in New York City.” Shrubbing shrimp! Is that a technical term in seafood cookery? That would be awesome, but my bet is that it’s just a mistake for “scrubbing”, perhaps by interference from German schrubben, since the article’s creator is a native speaker of German. There’s a citation to an obituary, which JSTOR won’t show in full, but Googling “shrimp schrafft’s Serge A. Zenkovsky” gets a snippet from it: “Serge’s first year here was spent cleaning shrimp for Schrafft’s Restaurant in New York.” So “shrubbing” is the Wikipedia writer’s rephrasing.

    (The OED (1914) does record one citation for shrub, v. meaning ‘scrub’ from a1400, and there’s also a meaning ‘to lop, prune (a tree, a branch)’ — OED marks that sense obsolete, but Merriam-Webster Unabridged doesn’t. But I don’t think those are relevant here.)

  7. I guess it should be changed (back) to “cleaning,” but I don’t have the heart to do it.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    It’s not like “scrubbing shrimp” is a common locution in English, and indeed most of the google hits for the bi-gram are false positives in terms of not being the construction that the Zenvovsky/Schrafft’s sentence would seem to require. Whether “schrubben” is something you talk of being done to Garnelen in idiomatic German is a question on which I am happy to defer to others. It’s forty years this summer since my onetime duties as a minimum-wage dishwasher in a diner included odd kitchen tasks in the mid-afternoon when things were slow such as peeling large quantities of semi-thawed frozen shrimp, which was miserable work.

  9. JWB, I’m glad that you understand the line about “theory of the migration of the Great Russians from Kiev to the northeast”. I do not.

  10. ktschwarz says

    certain Rus’ tribes: the Krivichs, Polovetss, and Ants

    Rus’? Wikipedia has Krivichs (or Krivichians or Krivichi) and Antes on a List of early Slavic peoples, but Polovtsi (or Polovstians) is a redirect to Cumans, with the explanation that “They are referred to as Polovtsy in Rus’, Cumans in Western and Kipchaks in Eastern sources” — and they weren’t Rus’, they were Turkic nomads. That is, Polovtsy is a Russian exonym and Kipchak is an endonym, if I understand correctly. Other pages have varying opinions on whether the Cumans were synonymous with the Kipchaks or allied with them or one was a subset of the other, but all seem to agree they were Turkic nomads. (Some Cumans ended up in Hungary, resulting in a lot of Hungarian placenames.)

    I think this is the Bierce-Hartman-etc. Law coming to bite Ostrowski again. No one is safe! The Flier review that he cites just said “plurals of tribal names”, not “Rus’ tribal names”.

  11. “tufli”

    The expression used in Russian is literally “to-spend-some-time in one’s hide” (what I translated at to-spend-some-time is a short verb po-byt’ where po- means “for a while”:) A word usually applied to animal skin is used instead of the word for human skin).

    For futher information I refer everyone to Under the Skin – its Russian translation is titled “pobud’ in my hide”.

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    @drasvi: I don’t literally understand the theory referenced, but I can infer from context why it would inspire negative reactions from both Western defenders of mainstream/conventional historical theory and from Ukrainian-nationalist types. Whether the theory has enough of an evidentiary basis that people should be open-minded about it even if it seems to be congruent with the needs/desires of Great-Russian nationalism is something I don’t have a basis to opine on.

  13. JWB, but why?

    He wrote “Great Russians”. This must be some group of people.
    I don’t understand how a theory of a movement of a group of people from A to B can offend people in A and C. Say, a theory of Gothic migration to Spain would offend German and Finnish speakers.

    I think “Great Russians” is a typo (something the author typed absent-mindedly instead of what he was going to write).

  14. He wrote “Great Russians”. This must be some group of people.

    Have you really never encountered the term (=Великорусский)? It’s very common; it means basically “Russians as distinguished from Ukrainians and Belorussians.”

  15. ktschwarz says

    certain Rus’ tribes: the Krivichs, Polovetss, and Ants

    Wait, are *any* of those “Rus’ tribes”? Wikipedia has Krivichians and Antes on its “List of early Slavic peoples”, indicating (if I understand correctly) they were there before the Rus’. But Polovtsi is a redirect to Cumans, with the explanation that “They are referred to as Polovtsy in Rus’, Cumans in Western and Kipchaks in Eastern sources” — and they weren’t Rus’ or even Slavic, they were Turkic nomads. (That is, if I understand correctly, Kipchak is an endonym and Polovtsy is the Russian exonym for them.) Other sources have varying opinions on whether the Cumans were synonymous with the Kipchaks or a subset of them or just allied with them, but all seem to agree they were Turkic nomads. Some Cumans ended up in Hungary, where their name was noticed by Patrick Leigh Fermor in Hungarian placenames.

    I think this is the Bierce-Hartman-etc. Law coming to bite Ostrowski again. The Flier review that he cites just said “plurals of tribal names”, not “Rus’ tribal names”.

  16. Ha! Well noticed; I wondered about the “Rus’ tribes” thing myself but was too lazy to investigate.

  17. “Krivichs” and “Ants” are valid plurals, albeit anglicised; “Polovetss” is Just Plain Wrong.

  18. LH, I know the term, of course. But he can’t mean that the WHOLE population of Great Russia moved from Kiev (the city?) to the northest. That NE Rus was not empty in 11 century and before is a well known fact.
    Same for many other places in “Great Russia”. Then he means some subgroup.

    “Great Russia” is first attested in Greek some time later in the context of the metropolitan of Kiev and all Rus. I don’t think it designated any group of people any more than, say the Central Asian Metropolitan District does today – but I can’t be sure.

    “Great Russians” of 19th century are more or less the same selection of peoples that were referred to as “Russians” in Soviet times.

  19. Keith Ivey says

    Mollymooly, I thought “ch” was representing ч, in which case the English plural should be “Kriviches”. But I see the Wikipedia article is “Krivichs”, so for some reason people pronounce it with /k/?

  20. ktschwarz says

    My bet is that everyone who writes “Krivichs”, including on Wikipedia, is a non-native English speaker who’s shaky on English spelling and just mechanically replaces all Russian -и endings with -s. “Krivichi”, or “Krivichians”, is a perfectly good anglicized plural; that’s what’s in Wixman’s Peoples of the USSR and other academic sources.

  21. That NE Rus was not empty in 11 century and before is a well known fact.

    Solovyov was in fact fascinated by the tribal diversity of early peoples of the Russian Plain, both Slavic and Finnic, and by their cultural differences (ultimately resulting, in his hypotheses, in the despotism and fatalism being strongest among his contemporary Russians, making them the best conduit for the Pan-Slavic designs of their rulers). So, perhaps for all the wrong reasons, Solvyev didn’t deny ancient cultural peculiarities of the future Ukrainians and Belorussians, or the amalgamated origins of the future Russians. Not in the least.

    Of course it doesn’t make the things easier with potentially offending people when applying the word “Rus”, with all the luggage it accumulated in the recent centuries and years, to those Medieval epochs.

    The stronger criticism of Solovyev’s theory of Slavic colonization of the North-Eastern Europe may have emerged from the long-standing “pots, not people” paradigm, with its insistence that peoples themselves rarely moved (and what flowed was mostly ideas). That would imply that the Medieval heartlands of the future Russia were gradually Slavicized under the influence of their Kievan feudal lords, but without population movements. It remains a popular idea in some circles, that the ethnic Russians are not Slavs from the racial standpoint, and that their backwardness and despotism stem from their genetic roots. (It’s almost an upside-down Solovyev who also considered the same alleged national traits ancient, but cultural in origin – and highly desirable).

    But “pots, not people” is by now almost as outdated as all this nonsense talk about racial character traits, right? Why should anyone even worry about criticism from those who espoused such outdated / repugnant theories?

    And BTW why are they clashing about the XII / XIII c. Slavic migrations? In NE Russia, genetic data show that migrations of the Slavs into erstwhile Uralic territories, and population mixing, started much earlier, in VIII-IX centuries, kind of agreeing with what the Chronicles suggested all along…

  22. The wp Krivichs article’s talk page discusses the title and says “There is exactly the same problem with Radimichs and Dregovichs”

  23. My bet is that everyone who writes “Krivichs”, including on Wikipedia, is a non-native English speaker who’s shaky on English spelling and just mechanically replaces all Russian -и endings with -s.

    Exactly, and I can’t believe nobody’s changed it (and Radimichs and Dregovichs) on Wikipedia, just the same way other typos are routinely fixed. What’s the problem? (I know, I could go visit the talk page, but it’s hot and I don’t want to get hot and bothered over Wikistupidity.)

  24. “nobody changed it” – and no one has deleted the apostrophe in the article Lech, Czech and Rus’.

  25. It is a West Slavic medival legend about characters named so. I don’t know if “Rus” is treated as masc or fem (must be masc.) and if -s was palatalised in Old Polish, given that it was first attested in Latin.

    But in modern Polish and Czech and Russian “Rus” here is treated as masculine and hard and Rus’ < Русь /rusĭ/ is feminine and soft. Genitives are "Rusa" and "Rusi", I think.

  26. ktschwarz says

    I see that Languagehat has already fought and lost this battle at “Dregoviches” (somebody managed to move that article from “Dregovichs” to “Dregoviches” in 2017, but the spelling in the text remains chaotic). You did what you could, but evidently most of the fingers in these Wikipedia pies belong to people who don’t read English-language scholarship. The plurals with ‑iches do have a history of use in English books, but the preference seems to have shifted to ‑ichi in English since sometime in the 20th century.

  27. What “managed to move” means:

    Any autoconfirmed user can use the Move function to perform most moves (see Help:How to move a page). If you have no reason to expect a dispute concerning a move, be bold and move the page.

    (How to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:How_to_move_a_page)

    If you cannot move a page yourself because of a technical restriction, and you expect the move to be uncontroversial, you can list it at the technical section of requested moves. Otherwise, you can make your request at its section for controversial and potentially controversial moves.

    So just request a move especially if you want to see a discussion. Else just move.

  28. ktschwarz says

    You missed the point; Languagehat (who’s been contributing at Wikipedia for almost 20 years) and I don’t need you to tell us about its basic edit functions. The point was that Languagehat *did* change “Dregovichs” to “Dregovichi” in the article’s text, but somebody changed them all back, and probably would have done the same to the title — it’s not worth his time to deal with somebody like that. Perhaps you missed all the war stories that have been told here on this blog about this kind of thing. “Managed to move” was sarcastic, implying not that it was difficult to do, but that (a) it’s incredible that nobody had even tried before, and (b) that editor *got lucky* in not having his move undone.

    (Actually, the spelling isn’t chaotic in the text now — I was looking at the wrong version, sorry. The same editor also made it “Dregoviches” consistently in the text.)

  29. ktschwarz says

    As long as we’re scrutinizing every word, there are a couple of small mistakes in transcribing the Ostrowski article:

    In addition, there is no discussion of the period between Vladimir’s conversion and 1132,” (Unbalanced quotation marks. There should be open-quotes before “there.)

    antiquated and and prejudicial nationalist theories

  30. The point was that Languagehat *did* change “Dregovichs” to “Dregovichi” in the article’s text, but somebody changed them all back, and probably would have done the same to the title …

    No, I don’t think so. When the article is called “Dregovichs”, for some it can already be a reason to change some or all “Dregovichi” in the artcile to “-vichs”. Also an editor may consult the title when choosing the form to use when adding a new line.

    Besides, why not move the article to “Dregovichi” if one (LH) is already ready to edit it? It is easy. I forgot my password (because I prefer to edit articles when not logged in) so I can’t do it.

  31. This is something I consider a flaw actually.

    An article is meant to approach a state reflecting consensus within the collective mind (where specialists and people who know what they’re doing will have greater weight simply because most other people won’t insist).

    It is not meant to contain one single element which contains important information and whose content is determined by either one most stubborn editor or by admins.

    Sadly the title is not just URL (a technical detail that means nothing). It is one single element with enormous influence on the world chosen as said above:( Often the choice is horrible – which does not prevent authors (of books, later to be used as sources) from relying on the source of all knowlege in choosing the word they use in their publications. This effect is often visible.

  32. @ktschwarz, I will add that you can ask LH (why did not he move the article) or yourself (how often do you do that? why?) and myself (why I’ve never moved an artcile?). Maybe oneof us three will find an explanation.

  33. you can ask LH (why did not he move the article)

    I don’t know what you mean. Why should I move it? “Dregoviches” is fine; it’s “Dregovichs” that’s absurd and needed to be gotten rid of. However, I’m glad I took a look at the article, because I noticed that somebody had mislabeled Belorussian as Russian, and I fixed it.

  34. LH, yes, but back then it was “Dregovichs”. So you could just have renamed it.

  35. About absence of Asian blood. I don’t know why the reviewer is “astonished” by the mention of Russian slaves. Perhaps he thinks that the note about Asian blood implies racism and Russophily and that a Russophile would have never mentioned slaves.

    About racism I can say that I use very similar words (not “Asian”: in my head “Mongoloid”, “Eastern” etc exist as nemes for appearance, but perhaps because of variation I observe here I don’t really think of such a thing as “Eastern/Mongoloid” blood).

    I just don’t really care in what langauge I epxress my fascination with say, history of Maghreb and its people. The thing is that due to endogamy this region contains some groups which have so tiny a share of admixtures from neighbouring peoples over a millenium or millenia that it is difficult to believe (from Russian experience). Other groups (cities) are wonderfully mixed – and the complexity is also unusual from my Russian perspective. In my worst nightmare I won’t “prefer” one group to another. This just tells me somethign about history. Also it affects the visual impression you make. But I don’t prefer language of modern geneticist because “it is less racist”. Only sometimes with English speakers specifically. In English it is of course a shameful topic unless expressed in appropriate langauge.

    What I mean is that the line makes me feel nothing. It is something I could have said myself (apart of “Asian”) using same words if I knew anything about Russian genes (not terribly interested)

  36. I don’t know why the reviewer is “astonished” by the mention of Russian slaves.

    By “the reviewer” do you mean Ingham? I don’t see any mention of Russian slaves in that passage.

  37. Yes.
    A snippet from Google:

    “…practically no Asian blood in the veins of Russians. To the contrary, there is considerable Russian blood in the veins of Tatars because, when abducting Russian slaves – especially, women – the Tatars accepted these slaves into …”

  38. Ah, that’s not a reviewer, that’s Zenkovsky (the author being reviewed). As the reviews demonstrate, he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

  39. LH but

    He is particularly critical of the introduction to volume three, in which, he says, Zenkovsky “puts up a gratuitous defense of the racial purity of Russians, in whose veins there is asserted to flow ‘practically no Asian blood.’” Ingham finds this assertion to be “astonishing as on the same page he [Zenkovsky] mentions that the Tatars took Russian women as concubines” (Ingham, p. 275). One could also factor in the numerous marriages between Rus’ princes and Tatar princesses.

    So Ingham is astonished by the combination of the two claims and I don’t understand what is so strange about this combination.

    However “a gratuitous defense of the racial purity” is I think an error. I don’t give a shit about racial purity and I say very similar things. My reason is “why not?”.
    And you have an answer: “because it will LOOK as if you care about racial purity”. That is, find the shared fact terribly interesting from a very particular perspective of “spoiling” “white” people. In reality one does not need to be terribly interested in a fact to share it, and this particular perspective is exotic for me but not for you.

  40. If we preserved the plural Pechenezi, there would be Pechenezs.

    (But you can re-borrow the word from South Slavic).

  41. David Marjanović says

    I’ll try to derail this thread to point out that the Großrassen were “Mongolid, Europid, Negrid”; “mongoloid” referred to trisomy 21 because the good Dr. Down believed it was an atavism – a throwback to the “Mongolid stage of evolution”.

    (Still dimly remembered as an insult, Mongo “stupid person”, when I was little.)

  42. David Marjanović says

    (But you can re-borrow the word from South Slavic).

    Or from Polish to get the dz back! -dzs

  43. I wonder why Slavic has -g if the source has -k.

  44. Dmitry Pruss says

    Ingham finds this assertion to be “astonishing…

    I find this whole discussion astonishing. How did the authors of the pre-genomic era even approach the “blood” question? By asking old wives’ opinions? By guessing from the appearances of the people?

    DNA gives clear answers why Tatar groups share so much ancestry with their Russian neighbors, and it’s simply because they have the same Finno-Ugric ancestors. But ethnic Russians and the Tatars also have East Asian ancestors (not contributing all that much DNA to either group, but of course the East Asian DNA share is considerably lower among the ethnic Russians, who mostly got this share centuries before the Tatar ethnonym even emerged, in the times of Khazars and Bulgars).

  45. I think mostly the conclusion is based on history (and in part on appearance).
    1. Nomads are nomads, they are quite distinct from various peoples who pay tribute.
    2. they did not stay here
    3. Russian faces don’t look like Kazakh faces.

    I’m not sure what he means by “Tatars” though.

  46. David Marjanović says

    By guessing from the appearances of the people?

    Nonono – by guessing from measurements of their faces and their skulls. So much more scientific!

  47. Well, I only partly share this scepticism about guessing from appearances. (And if you need it to look more scientific call it “phenotype” and call genetics “guessing from …”)

    I think it is sceince but imprecise science.
    There are three stories here. One is how ordinary people guess from appearances. And well, if we define “Asian” as “has a face like those of Kazakhs” (and that is how we define Asian) then not having such a face indeed indicates that you’re not a Kazakh. Children of Kazakhs DO have recognisably Kazakh faces. And we can tell a man from Mongolia from a man from Ghana.

    Once I was watching al-Jazeera, they were talking about refugees and I saw a Tunisian face, and then they took an interview and the guy turned out to be a Tunisian hotel worker (I think I did take his haircutinto account, though). I’m afraid scientific measurements (unlike my subconscious assesments they’re reproducible) neevr reached this level of precision which my brain can provide. But this does not mean they can’t be more precise. No one is doing it because there is no need. (It is not clear how you can DATE contacts based on this).

    And then “guessing from appearance” is how biological taxonomy works. I mean, this is literally what DM is occupied with professionaly.
    (to be more scientific, not “appearances” but “morphological characters” – do you see “-logical” in “morphological”? That’s what makes it Science)

  48. Dmitry Pruss says

    Biological taxonomy works on an assumption that there are strong reproductive barriers between species, and therefore each species is fully, 100% derived from its one and only ancestor species. In such a hypothesized schema, phenotypes are highly relevant for actual ancestral relations. (Needless to say, hybridizations and incomplete reproductive barriers are actually not only common, but often vitally important for speciation, as I frequently write in other networks … but the phenotype-taxonomy correlation still holds reasonably well despite numerous exceptions)

    But human populations are not reproductively isolated and form multiple historical streams and gene flows, now separating, now converging again. Ancient peoples migrate and disappear and merge in all sorts of proportions. It’s at best unbelievably naive (for lack of a stronger word) to look for physical similarities of contemporary peoples to make conclusions about their ancestors centuries of millennia ago. Sure, one can make a good guess that ethnic Kazakhs weren’t among the common recent ancestors of the ethnic Russians just by looking at them, but one doesn’t even need to look there … it’s sufficient to know the history of the last two centuries to be sure that no such mixing of these two particular ethnic groups happened. But to make a jump of credulity into claiming, then, that the Slavs of today’s Russia didn’t have East Asian ancestors almost a millennium ago is unbelievable.

    Well, the origins are political and ideological, especially in aggressive regimes, and Putin’s pet scientists are working now, tirelessly, to “prove” that the Russians are full-blooded descendants of warlike Scythians. There are grants at stake, and much ideological pressure. And I fully expect these experts to “prove” what they are supposed to prove, by digging up the graves of lowly earth-tilling slaves of the Scythian period and showing that these subjugated farmers were closely related to the proto-Slavs. But I probably discussed it in the Avars thread already…

  49. @DP, I agree with your first point, of course.
    I don’t mean that you can obtain exactly as much information from appearances. I only mean that data is data.

    It would be a mistake to think that an attempt to learn something from data (and very rich data by the way) is “unscientific”.

  50. About “a millenium” I am not sure I understand you.
    I think you mean possibility of detecting traces of relatively limited contact.

    You can’t of course mean that people from South China could look like Swedes 1000 years ago (because of drift, selective pressure etc.). I also don’t think you’d expect a mixed population drift far from some imaginary axis “between Swedes and South Chinese people” (impressionistically, or actually drawn on a plot)

    So you must mean either population close to one of the two source populations (that any method based on phenotype will have low resolving power) or else the method’s ability to discern between multiple contacts.
    But i’m not entirely sure.

  51. I honeslty don’t know. I see only one principal problem, namely the number of independent variables we need to account for all variation in humans.

    Then there is a practical problem: phenotype is a function. We pass to this (old) function a new argument each time we make a baby. But the function is complicated (our understanding of it is fragmentary).

    So there are relatively transparent features (in their absence Mendel and Darwin would not achieve much) and also those that obscure actual relationship between two people. And until you learn how to extract information from these latter (which is an analytical obstacle but not insurmountable in principle. Yet it can be a very serious obstacle) you are limited to features of the former kind – and accordingly to some subset of our list of independent variables.

    Without having worked on this (and I don’t think anyone is seriously working on it) and even being a biologist I’ll abstain from estimating the resolution we can achive. Naïve or not, I just don’t know (M can still be large. Or not).

    Worse than what can be (agian in principle) achived with your methods, of course. Better than what we can do (based on phenotypes!) now. Again of course.
    And as I said, thereis onemore problem, namely dating.

  52. Wiktionary and Wikipedia’s entires for Tatars are horrible. Wiktionary in “Etymology” redirects you to WP. It is the first time I see something like this. I don’t understand how it is possible – there must be many people who would want to provide etymology….

    And WP is… a mess.
    (1) from Persian word tātār, “mounted messenger” (likely what is meant is that it is an intermediate stage but this might not be obvious to the reader. That the messenger sense is the merely a second[ary] meaning of the persian word too)
    (2) said by OED to be “said to be” from tata.
    (3) Siberian Tatars are not the Nine Tatars and “aquired the apellation later”
    is all that WP says.

    Other etymologies in WIktionary are also not very informative:
    …Borrowed from Czech, Slovak, Polish Tatar and Hungarian Tatár, an ethnic surname for a Tatar person.
    …From a Turkic language.
    …From the same Turkic source as tartare.
    …Derived from Turkic. Doublet of Tatarzyn.
    and weird:
    …Mongolic or Turkic name of a Khorezmian Turkic (Old Tatar) tribe.

    What? Khorezmian Turkic links WP article on a language intermediate between Karakhanid and Chagatai and Old Tatar – to the Volga variety of literary Turkic.

  53. David Marjanović says

    I saw a Tunisian face

    Seriously? My experience in Paris is that few people outside East Asia look like they couldn’t possibly be Tunisians.

    And then “guessing from appearance” is how biological taxonomy works. I mean, this is literally what DM is occupied with professionaly.

    It’s not guessing, though; it’s calculation. (And it still isn’t paid, except for half of the conferences.)

  54. ktschwarz says

    Polovtsi previously at Language Hat, in a comment from SFReader:

    Re: plava

    the word means light-yellow, blonde in all other Slavic languages. Meaning “blue” appears unique Croat development.

    The Kipchak/Cuman people were called Polovtsi by Russians. Perhaps these steppe nomads were also blonde and blue-eyed.

    There’s an OED entry for Polovtsy (and another for Polovtsian), which also mentions this etymology, although qualified with “perhaps”: the Russian word is “perhaps < polovyj yellowish-white, pale (< the same Indo-European base as fallow adj.1)”. But their definition is vague: “A nomadic Turkic people who inhabited the central Eurasian steppe between the 11th and 13th centuries.” Shouldn’t it cross-reference the entry on Kipchak? Generally OED entries for exonyms have some note on the people’s self-designation. (That is, is Polovtsi an exact synonym for Kipchaks? A lot of sources say that it is, and I haven’t yet seen any say that it isn’t.)

  55. This has more to do with things like anti-semitism and anti-Gepsy sentiments discussed in the other thread but anyway:

    I am quite impressed by how an illustration to the article Cumans (and to ennumerable articles related to Cumans in other Wikipedias (like Portuguese and Galician articles about war poetry)) by Bilibin represents racism very similar to that of Tolkien. It was drawn in 1941.

    Someone even subscribed the green guys “Tatars” and the shining golden ones “Russians” for daltonic users.
    (However I don’t think colours are represented accurately)

    Weirdly its title, as given on the image description page, refers to a bylina about “Khan Batyga” (Batu Khan?) and is related to Polovtsy only in that those fought alongside Russians against Batu:-(*

    I suppose not the one where in absence of Kiev’s most prominent heroes Batyga is defeated by some guy suffering from severe hangover (after he drinks 1.5 buckets of зелена вина, beer and mead, half a bucket each to gain control over his body, horse and saber) – the other one.
    And this way it makes more sense.

    * to quote Cumans
    “As the Mongols were approaching Russia, Khan Köten fled to the court of his son-in-law, Prince Mstislav the Bold of Galich, where he gave “numerous presents: horses, camels, buffaloes and girls. And he presented these gifts to them, and said the following, ‘Today the Mongols took away our land and tomorrow they will come and take away yours’.” The Cumans were ignored for almost a year, however, as the Rus’ had suffered from their raids for decades. But when news reached Kiev ….”

    Would you have listened to a guy who presents you numerous camels and girls? (same if you’re a girl yourself? Same if you’re a camel?)

  56. And no, I don’t mean of course that there is anything racist about Tolkien. Nor I do think that there is anything Nazi about comparative linguists who popularised Aryans.

    But it is unsurprising that as result of his work we’re looking at green ugly Huns and shining Goths (near the same river Dnieper)

  57. not the one where in absence of Kiev’s most prominent heroes” – which is by the way the bylina mentioned in Vasmer’s entry for tarakan.

  58. J.W. Brewer says

    Maybe Tolkien is understood otherwise by his Russian readers, but from the perspective of the Shire or Rohan I expect that both Russians and Tatars are perceived as simply slightly different subfactions of barbarous Easterlings, with any superficial differences between them of no interest to anyone except perhaps a few specialists with an odd hobby.

  59. Maybe Tolkien is understood otherwise by his Russian readers

    Very much so. It is both amusing and depressing to see the distortion he underwent behind the Formerly-Iron Curtain; this is a useful summary.

  60. /@J.W. Brewer: Definitely. Heck, Variag is actually a doublet with Varangian/!

  61. @JWB, LH, Brett I mean appearance of orcs.

    It were not Russians who portrayed them similar to the green men by Bilibin. But it were Russians who portrayed so steppe peoples.

  62. LH you are free to clarify if you feel like to, but presently I read your comment approximately as:

    “LotR in reality is about Russians but Russians (amusingly) distorted it and (sadly!) can’t realise that”.

    …and expect even greater shock and disappointment from the author if you learn that some (narrow-eyed, ugly) Mongols identify with (beutiful) elves.

    Well, I don’t expect it, you CAN’T mean that. But I don’t know what the fuck you mean. And I’m not going to read the link.

  63. «The portrait of Atilla exhibits the genuine deformity of a modern Calmuck; a large head, a swarthy complexion, small deep-seated eyes, a flat nose, a few hairs in the place of a beard, broad shoulders, and a short square body, of nervous strength, though of a disproportioned form».


  64. “LotR in reality is about Russians but Russians (amusingly) distorted it and (sadly!) can’t realise that”.

    No, of course it’s not about Russians.

    But I don’t know what the fuck you mean. And I’m not going to read the link.

    Well, if you’re not going to read the link you’re not going to know what the fuck I mean. I didn’t know you were one of those people who were afraid of reading links that might contain something you don’t agree with.

  65. J.W. Brewer says

    Meanwhile in Italy, the hobbit enthusiasts are now in control of the government, while the outside media dithers about the perhaps subtle distinction between neo-fascists and post-fascists. https://www.politico.eu/article/inside-giorgia-meloni-hobbit-fantasy-world-lord-of-the-rings-fratelli-italia-brothers-italy-politics/

  66. The Last Ringbearer is hardly Tolkien-standard, but it’s worth a read. It’s a bit reductionist to treat it as just a politicised distortion of the original, though there is that; I see it more as “what happens when LoTR is read as Pravda?”

  67. Well, then I know how I misundertood LH.

    I thought “the distortion he underwent behind…” refers to what JWB was speaking about (namely that (a) people oh Rohan view Russians negatively (b) do not see the difference between them and Tatars (c) Russians could read LotR differently) and what LH agreed with.

    It turns out the distortion here refers to a book.

    The cult following of LotR here is absolutely incredible. In think in the group “young intelligentsia” everyone was either a fan or adjacent to those. And people here likely don’t understand what “fan” means. A common mode of reading is just believing it. How do you combine it with the world you see around?

    This question is dealt with exactly the same way as discripancy between the holy scripture and what you rely upon outside of church (with obvious but important difference that most believers have no slightest intent to follow the ethics taught by religion, while a Russian Tolkien fan does need elves and woods).

    Cf. a conversation:
    A, addressing everyone: “do you think, that events of the LotR happened in our physical world – or elsewhere?”
    B: “I think I do think it is our world”
    A: “Aha!!! But how then you explain absence of geological formations ….”
    Etc. etc.
    No, it is not fans, just biology students.

  68. Yes, a good analysis. It’s a strange situation.

  69. @JWB, Brett, it never occured to me to compare our nations with those in LotR. And never anyone did that in my presence until this very day. Maybe we indeed read differently but I’m not sure whose reading is better.

    There are parallel with texts, particularly Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks mentioned above. Apparenly you haven’t followed the link (“…for instance, warriors similar to the Rohirrim…”). For Dnieper refer to “Battle of the Goths and the Huns” right under the first picture.

    One problem is that Tolkien’s depiction of orcs and the opposition of “beauriful-ugly” reminds the similar opposition in medieval texts about Huns, and makes one think of Mongoloid orcs even if one does not look at pictures. (I hope for Kazakhs they do not look Mongoloid). It is a problem: while other peoples don’t look like pointers at our peoples in this case there is one obvious candidate race:/

  70. Well, there is an exception: Russian orcs Ukrainian elves. The former is just the usual designation in Ukraine, the latter was popular for some time (and appeared in Russian anti-war press too).

    As for me both are мудаки but it were we who started the war and we’re fighting it in Ukraine.

  71. As for Russians… Back then somewhere there were Slavs. Or maybe there was a continuum of peoples speaking similar languages and speakers of Slavic were just a point in it. Or maybe as Florin Curta suggests Slavic is a koine developed along the Roman limes and Slavs were assorted peoples who shifted to it.
    Due to inertion most of course imagine them as a well-defined people, which can be the case.

    In any event, presumably some important components of Slavs were not only well known to Germanic peoples and in many ways similar to them (compared to say, the Chinese) but were in contact with some of them and exchanged a lot of things. Turkic speakers were much farther.
    You can of course say that “Russians” are Finno-Ugric peoples and not Slavs. So do say some Ukrainian nationalists and I won’t object. I like Finns.
    Or someone else. Someone else would be fine too. E.g. you can say that Russians are Scandinavians (that is Varangians) though I don’t see why Germanic peoples would call Varangians Easterlings. Because they are Russians?

  72. From the moral perspective Tolkien’s depiction of bad guys looks like a weakness. And this is why orcs lend themselves to interpretations (also this is why I compare western depiction of Iran to Mordor).

    The usual cliche from anime (very strange aliens devastated Earth, glorious warriors are fighting against them inside their mechas but after some 70 battels the stroy shifts towards attemts to understand aliens and communicate with them) is like 2-3 levels more sophisticated:)

  73. Here Tolkien approaches science fiction about strom troopers and insecto-reptiloids who look like fishes. Also i’m not sure that the idea of perfect evil that you can meet with a sword is so Christian.

    (Speaking of Russian Tolkien fans (Tolkienists) “The Professor got it wrong. It was not like that!” was considered a particularly advanced stage of Tolkienism)

    ((I think religious people usually don’t say anything similar about people who start new heresies and religions because the dominant church “distorted the message”:)).

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