Translating Olaus Petri Into Russian | April 2015 | Translation Journal

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Translating Olaus Petri Into Russian

Translating Olaus Petri Into Russian

In this essay, the author shares his experience of translating the XVIth century chronicle, ‘En svensk krönika’, written by the Swedish reformer and historian Olaus Petri. The author tells about the difficulties he had to face, and the solutions he found.[1]

In my work as a student of history, translation and research have complemented each other. In the early 2000-s I accomplished a poetic Russian translation of ‘The Chronicle of Engelbrekt’ (Engelbrektskrönikan), a XVth century Swedish chronicle in verse.[2] Several years later I edited an anthology of medieval Swedish sources in Russian translation.[3] Then I carried out a translation of ‘The Swedish Chronicle’ (En svensk krönika) by the Swedish reformer, theologian and historian Olaus Petri (ca 1493 – 1552).[4]

The Swedish Chronicle covers the history of Sweden from primordial times to the Bloodbath of Stockholm (1520) and is based on a large number of sources. As a historian, Olaus borrowed material and ideas from other authors, but also introduced new sources and expressed own opinions. Some unique historical sources – in particular, “The Heathen law” (the early medieval Swedish law on combat) have survived only thanks to Olaus Petri’s Chronicle.

The Swedish Chronicle is especially respected for its ideas. Olaus considered truth to be a major goal for a historian, and preferred objectiveness to patriotic myths. He was bold enough to deliver indirect criticism against the king of Sweden, Gustav Vasa (1523 – 1560). As a consequence, the king prohibited printing the Chronicle and ordered to confiscate its manuscripts. Yet copies of the Chronicle spread over Sweden, Finland and Denmark.

The ‘Swedish Chronicle’ is also acknowledged for its literary merits. Written in clear and good Swedish, the Chronicle, despite the official prohibition, soon became popular with a fairly wide audience which included nobles, clergy, burghers and scholars.

My task of translating ‘The Swedish Chronicle’ into Russian was in certain respects unique. This chronicle had never been translated into a modern language before; I appeared to be a pioneer in this field. Also, the qualified editions of Olaus Petri’s Chronicle lack comments; I had to comment the Chronicle myself and to perform studies of its text.

These studies made it possible to comment on the text, and also helped to understand it correctly, which sometimes was not easy. Olaus Petri wrote at a time when the Swedish language was changing, and the Chronicle has both the  features of Old Swedish and New Swedish. Besides, some of Olaus Petri’s phrases are ambiguous or obscure. One more difficulty is that no autograph of the Swedish Chronicle has survived, and we have to base our knowledge of this work on copies which contain mistakes.

I used different ways of understanding the text. Consulting the multi-volume dictionary – Svenska Akademiens ordbok – helped to answer some of my questions, but certain problems remained. During the period that interested me – the first half of the XVIth century, there were not so many texts written in Swedish. Scholars who composed the dictionary, derived their knowledge from the same sources as I – in particular, from Olaus Petri’s works. Consequently, these scholars faced similar problems with interpreting the words, and some of their solutions seemed hypothetic to me.

A retrospective method proved to be useful. I compared Olaus Petri’s language with Modern Swedish which helped to interpret the XVIth century text. Yet I had to be cautious, because the meaning of some words in Olaus Petri’s language differs from their meaning in Modern Swedish. For example, when Olaus Petri uses the noun ‘rättelse’, the meaning is not ‘correction’, as now, but ‘a moral’, ‘an instruction’. Besides, some of Olaus Petri’s grammar is peculiar and does not have a counterpart in today’s Swedish. Thus it was important to understand the Chronicle “from within”, getting used to its language through diligent reading.

As a translator, I capitalized from working with different manuscripts of the Swedish Chronicle. The impact of this work on my translation can be described in the following way:

Pattern 1. Working with manuscripts helped me, in a direct and concrete way, to understand a difficult passage.

Pattern 2. Working with manuscripts did not provide an immediate solution of a translation problem, but extended my knowledge and provoked interesting ideas.

Here is an example illustrating “Pattern1”. In his Chronicle, Olaus Petri explains that Swedish currency initially had a high content of silver, but later, as copper was added, a difference between the old and the new money emerged:

Så med tijdhen begynte myntet förwerras ok settes kopar ther til med, Och bleeff så åtskild at i myntet [...][5]

The expression “åtskild at” in the manuscript which the publishers used, D 407 (The Royal Library, Stockholm) does not make sense. Other manuscripts convey a correct reading: “och blev så åtskilnad i myntet” (“and the money began to differ so”). I based my translation on this reading: «имонетасталанастолькоразличаться».

“Pattern 2” can be illustrated by the following example. Telling the story of events preceding the Bloodbath of Stockholm, Olaus Petri gives an account of relations between Swedish regent Sten Sture the younger (1512–1520) and Uppsala archbishop Gustav Trolle. According to manuscript D 407, the chronicle states: when the newly appointed archbishop got his confirmation from the Pope, the regent started, in a hurry (hasteliga), preparing to meet him. Yet some manuscripts offer a different reading: not hasteliga, but kosteliga. This changes the meaning: it appears that the regent began to prepare a magnificent meeting ceremony. This reading is more logical than the one in D 407. Yet we do not know which variant is correct. I based my interpretation on the variant in D 407, and expanded on the variation in my comments.

Another thing which was useful for my translation was my knowledge of the historical context. For instance, Olaus Petri mentions Erik Puke – a leader of the Swedish revolt against Erik of Pomerania, king of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Olaus calls Puke “en mechta hielte” – literally, “a great hero”.[6] Yet a verbal Russian translation – «великийгерой», would sound queer. It would hardly pass Erik Puke who was a rebel noble and a daring combatant, but not a man of perfect merits. “A brave man to seek” would fit the context better. «Смельчак, какихмало» was my Russian translation.

As a translator of The Swedish Chronicle, I had to create a text which modern Russians would read easily. Here is a curious fact: a thing which helped me greatly was a simple one. I divided the Chronicle into a larger number of paragraphs. Olaus Petri has very long paragraphs, often expanding on several pages. Dividing such paragraphs into smaller ones made the text more convenient for a modern audience.

Another problem was giving the reader an idea of the author’s style – especially the author’s parallel clauses with a repeating key word. In my translation, I preferred to retain Olaus Petri’s figures of speech, but not at any price; sometimes I sacrificed them for the natural flow of the flexible and plastic Russian language. Later, to my delight, I found out that Nora Gal, the celebrated Russian translator, implemented a similar approach in her masterly translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Le Petit Prince.

In my text, I also had to paraphrase some sentences. Historians sometimes think that translation of a historical text should always be verbal, which is not the case. A skillful remodeling of a phrase can make a translation of an old text not only plainer but also more exact.

Here is an instance illustrating the idea. In the preface to the Chronicle, Olaus remarks: “werlden är altijdh sich sielffuer lijck”.[7] Literally this means: “the world is always similar to itself”. But if we translate in such a way into Russian – «мирвсегдаподобенсамомусебе», the phrase would lose its idiomatic character. A translation like “The world is always the same” would pass better. I found a well-fitting Russian equivalent: «мирнеменяется», “the world does not change”.

Here are more examples. In the final part of the Chronicle, Olaus describes negotiations between archbishop Jakob Ulfsson and the Swedish peasants. The archbishop wanted the peasants to elect Sir Erik Trolle as regent of Sweden, but the peasants refused to do so, saying that Trolle’s kin had Danish roots. Olaus concludes: “Men ingen bättre swar fick Erchebischopen ther, än at the sadhe Ney til her Eric Trolle”. [8] (But the archbishop got no better answer there, than that they said no to Sir Erik Trolle). A verbal Russian translation of the passage would sound clumsy. Are-madesentence, onthecontrary, soundsgoodRussian: «Так или иначе, герру Эрику Тролле сказали “нет”: вот и все, чего добился архиепископ на той встрече».

Describing the Bloodbath of Stockholm, Olaus tells that many people who were hung, had come to the city on horseback. Olaus remarks: “så at vtaff hesten och i galgen, thet ganska gräselighit war”.[9] A verbal Russian translaion would lose much in pathos: «Так, слошадипрямонависелицу – этобылоужасно». I found a better solution: «Страшнаяучасть: слошади – прямонависелицу» (“A horrible fate: from the horse – right to the gallows”).

An interesting problem I had to solve was translating documents from earlier periods. Olaus Petri cites in his Chronicle several medieval texts whose Swedish is more archaic than his own. One of these texts, the medieval law on legacy after priests and bishops, is worth quoting here:

[...] Döör Swensker prester, taki barn hans arff och orff, är ey barn til, taki then arff och orff honom är nester och kyni kunnaster, Döör Vtlendzsker prester Ensker eller Dansker, taki biskoper arff och orff, Döör Swensker biscoper, taki barn hans arff och orff, ära ey barn til taki then arff och orff som honom är nester och kyni kunnaster, Döör Vtlendzsker biscoper stondi arff och orff vndir staff och stool [...][10]

It is tempting for a translator to give the reader an idea of the old-fashioned language in such a passage. At first, I tried to use old Slavonic words: «аще», «чада». Then I gave up this idea. Instead, I used modern Russian vocabulary:

Если свейский священник умрет, да получат наследство дети его; если нет детей, да получит наследство родич ближайший, ученейший; а умрет чужеземный священник – англичанин либо датчанин, да получит епископ наследство. Если свейский епископ умрет, да получат наследство дети его; если нет детей, да получит наследство родич ближайший, ученейший; а умрет чужеземный епископ – да причтется наследство престолу и посоху.[11]

As readers with a knowledge of Russian may see, the language of the translation is modern Russian, but the old-fashioned character of the Swedish passage is to some extent represented, due to the use of alliteration, inner rhyme, rhythmic prose, inversion and other figures of speech.

Generally, my experience as a translator of Olaus Petri’s Swedish Chronicle has confirmed that chronicles of the past have literary merits. Translating such chronicles, one has to study the methods used by qualified translators of literary fiction. A skillful use of such methods would help a translator of chronicles achieve a greater exactness of the translation.

Key words: Sweden, History, Sources, Language, Literature, Translation.


[1]Note to the editor: This is a short essay intended for a ‘miscellanea’ section of an academic magazine.

[2] Андрей Щеглов (перевод, послесловие, комментарии), Хроника Энгельбректа, Москва 2002.

[3] Андрей Щеглов и др., Швеция и шведы в средневековых источниках, Москва 2007.

[4] Андрей Щеглов (перевод, послесловие, комментарии), Олаус Петри. Шведская хроника, Москва 2012.

[5]OlausPetri, Samladeskrifter (OPSS), Uppsala 1914 – 1917, Vol. IV, p. 38.

[6]OPSS, Vol. IV, s. 151.

[7]OPSS, Vol. IV, p. 3.

[8]OPSS, Vol. IV, p. 270.

[9]OPSS, Vol. IV, p. 296.

[10]OPSS, Vol. IV, p. 63 – 64.

[11] Щеглов (2012), с. 52.

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