A People Passing Rude
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7. Russian Folk Tales for English Readers: Two Personalities and Two Strategies in British Translations of the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

Tatiana Bogrdanova


More than a century-long tradition of British translators’ creative efforts has resulted in Russian folk narratives becoming an integral part of European children’s literature and culture. But who were the main contributors to this process of cultural and textual communication? In the initial stages two personalities, with their own individual styles, were of key importance, but the full extent and significance of their contribution has not as yet been fully appreciated.

The role of William Ralston in the popularization of Russian folklore and literature has long been recognized in Russia, where his translations were indeed appreciated during his lifetime. The only biography of him was published in Russian, and due attention has been paid by Russian researchers to his works, for instance, in recent studies on the British reception of Krylov, Turgenev and other great Russians. However, Ralston’s collection of skazki (1873), published in London at a time when the ‘discovery’ of Russian literature was yet to be made, has been largely overlooked and no works have been specifically devoted to its study. Hence I offer here an analysis of his translation strategy and techniques in the context of the existing European translation tradition. These translations, part of a heated scholarly discussion of folklore issues at the time and accompanied by detailed commentaries of a specialized character, appealed to experts rather than the general reader. They were no doubt an excellent first introduction to the new and fascinating world of the Russian oral tradition, but the task of reaching the most receptive audience for the genre—British children—fell to Arthur Ransome, whose retelling of favourite skazki in Old Peter’s Russian Tales (1916) marked the beginning of his distinguished career as a children’s author. The style of this publication, which appeared in the heyday of Russian literature in Britain, was quite distinct from that of his major predecessor, chiefly because Ransome’s premises were of a different nature: in the golden age of folk narratives he had chosen to follow the popular style of Andrew Lang, famous for his adaptations of international folktales for British children.

William Ralston Shedden Ralston (1828–1889)

Given the important role Ralston played in the popularization of Russian folklore and literature in the West, it is only natural that he still attracts the attention of Russian scholars interested in Anglo-Russian literary and cultural interaction, especially in its early stages. In the only study devoted to Ralston and his works published in Russia, M.P. Alekseev and Iu.D. Levin assert that he was one of the most important mediators between the Russian and British literary worlds in the second half of the 19th century, his activity as ‘an indefatigable popularizer of the Russian language and literature in England’ (which lasted more than twenty years) attracting attention in Western Europe, America and Russia itself.1 There is also a recent instance of interest in Ralston in his homeland. It is for this reason that Professor W.F. Ryan devoted his presidential address before the Folklore Society (4 April 2008) to ‘the librarian William Ralston, an interesting and rather tragic figure’, the Society’s vice-president or a member of its Council for some twenty years until his death in 1889.2 Notably, Ralston’s name was mentioned among other founders of the Society, characterized by Ryan as ‘a mixed bag of enthusiasts’.

Both British and Russian authors point out that Ralston’s interest in the Russian language was first prompted by his duties as a librarian in the British Museum. He was unusual in that he was one of few Englishmen who had a good command of the Russian language, and of still fewer interested in Russian literature.3 His written work suggests that Ralston was ‘gifted linguistically and was widely read in many areas of literature and scholarship’.4 In fact, Ralston learnt the language by ‘memorising a Russian dictionary page by page’.5 His interest gradually turned into his most important field of expertise and creative effort; he became ‘known in a quiet way in literary, artistic and intellectual circles in London’. As Ryan notes, Ralston’s Russian interests were at first literary and political—he enjoyed translating and was of a liberal and philanthropic turn of mind: between 1865 and 1868 he wrote half-a-dozen pieces in periodicals on the poor in Russia, the wrongs suffered by the Poles and other liberal causes of the day.6

According to Ryan, it was during Ralston’s visit to Turgenev’s country estate in 1868 that his interest in Russian folklore seems to have been seriously aroused. In December 1868, immediately after his return from Russia, he published in the family journal Good Words several articles on Russia, including one entitled ‘Glimpses of Russian Village Life’. There followed a gradually increasing number of articles and reviews on Russian folklore, legends and folktales, and later, as his confidence grew, on folklore and folktales in general.7 Ralston met and made friends with many famous Russian folklore scholars of the day, whose works he studied and relied on in his translations. He had a lively correspondence with quite a number of Russians: Alekseev and Levin included in their study 158 letters by Ralston to Russian correspondents.

It seems no accident now that Ralston’s first success as a translator should be associated with the name of a famous Russian literary figure, the fabulist Krylov. Following the first edition (London, 1869) of 93 prose translations of fables, accompanied by a short biography of Krylov based on the works of Russian scholars of the day, three expanded editions appeared in 1869, 1871 and 1883. According to Alekseev and Levin the book, which in its final form included 148 of the most important fables with detailed commentaries, proved to be seminal in familiarizing the British reader with Russian literature and the Russian people.8 In his study of the Russian fabulist’s English translations Anthony Cross points out that Krylov became ‘firmly established in the English consciousness through the efforts of one of the first genuine scholars of Russian literature’,9 namely Ralston, who ‘opts for a ‘faithful prose rendering’. In fact, ‘Krylov makes his first significant impact in England, shorn of the form and poetry which are so essential a part of his work but which had been palely preserved by his earlier translators into verse’.10 One of the recent Russian studies devoted to the English tradition in question also pays due attention to Ralston’s work as the author points out that ‘thanks to their utmost accuracy and scrupulous faithfulness to the original, Ralston’s translations—amply provided with explanations of historical character and commentaries—turned into something like ‘a guidebook’ to the strange northern country’.11

Ralston’s work on Krylov marked the beginning of his career as a translator and scholar of Russian folklore. He gradually acquired a serious scholarly reputation and in 1871 he was invited to deliver the second series of Ilchester Lectures at the Taylorian Institution of the University of Oxford. The three lectures were given the overall title ‘On the Songs and Stories of the Russian People’, and along with other material gathered in their preparation became The Songs of the Russian People as Illustrative of Slavonic Mythology and Russian Social Life (1872). Later, using more of his lecture material, he published Russian Folk Tales (1873). The latter also appeared in several editions in the USA and in French translation as Contes populaires de la Russie in 1874.12 Alekseev and Levin assert that ‘responsibility, great industry, perseverance and scrupulous attention to every detail combined with readiness zealously to pursue any question of interest to him were characteristic of the translator in the highest degree’. They state that it was thanks to his efforts that the European reader became familiar with the riches of the Russian oral tradition, Western scholars for the first time being presented with detailed information about Russian folklore.13 Ryan also stresses the English enthusiast’s contribution to the study and popularization of Russian folklore, highlighting that, unlike the other publications of Russian folktales in English that would follow in the next few decades, ‘Ralston’s book was not really for the general reader or for children—it was a serious scholarly exercise’, being ‘the most extensive collection of Russian tales in English until the publication in New York in 1945 of the misnamed Russian Fairy Tales translated by Norbert Guterman’. He adds that ‘up to that time Ralston’s book was widely quoted in scholarly literature and was treated as authoritative; and it is still quoted with respect’.14 Moreover, as Ryan notes, Ralston employed all his talents to promote the cause. He was a very successful public storyteller with Russian folktales as part of his repertoire, and ‘he can fairly be said to have introduced the Russian dimension into western folktale studies, and in his own writing on the subject to have made a genuine contribution to the scientific study of folktales’.15 Thus, Ralston’s folklore translations marked an important stage in introducing the English (and European) reader to the Russian oral tradition, contributing to the growth of literary and cultural ties between the countries. They received a positive response in Russia, where critics highlighted the author’s sympathy with the Russian people and his genuine appreciation of Russian folklore.16 Ryan also points out that ‘Ralston’s scholarship was recognised in Russia and he was elected to a fellowship of the Imperial Russian Academy and to the Ethnographic Section of the Russian Geographical Society’.17

However, to my knowledge, Ralston’s book of Russian folktales has never been studied specifically in terms of its translation strategy and practice, though its relevance would seem obvious from what has been discussed above. The present work aims to contribute to filling the gap.

The English scholar and translator dedicated his book to the memory of Aleksandr Afanas’ev, whom he had met while on a visit to Russia and held in great esteem as a foremost folklore scholar. Most of the 51 stories Ralston translated in full came from Afanas’ev’s collection of skazki, together with short retellings of many others. The book includes extended commentaries which show the author’s sophisticated interest in the subject, for instance when he touches on the question of possible sources of some of the most popular plots and parallel texts found in both European and non-European countries. However, he avoids discussing in detail the controversial issue of the origin of the folktales, instead focusing his readers’ attention on their individual character. Thus he writes in his introduction: ‘For the present, we will deal with the Russian folktale as we find it, attempting to become acquainted with its principal characteristics to see in what respects it chiefly differs from the stories of the same class which are current among ourselves, or in those foreign lands with which we are more familiar than we are with Russia, rather than to explore its birthplace or to divine its original meaning’.18

He specifically stresses the importance of mythological folktales and devotes three out of six chapters to them as, in his opinion, this predominant category of Russian folktales is remarkably distinct from their Western European counterparts. These skazki give an idea of the unique character of mythological supernatural beings characteristic of the Russian (Slavic) wonderworld such as the Snake, Koshchei the Deathless, the Water King and the Baba Iaga. Some of them deal with such ‘singular beings’ as One-Eyed Likho, Woe, Friday, Wednesday and Saturday as female spirits, the Leshii (a forest spirit), Morozko (Frost) and even rivers. Others are associated with magic objects—such as dolls and magic water—that have either a unique character or characteristics not found elsewhere.

Ralston’s translation strategy, in general, can briefly be described in his own words. He writes that he rendered the 51 stories he translated at length ‘as literally as possible’, thus trying to produce a photograph of the Russian storyteller and not an idealized portrait.19

In fact, this translation philosophy conforms to his scholarly interests, as Ralston seems to have the folklore expert in mind rather than the general reader as his addressee. Besides, one should not exclude the influence of the European translation tradition, namely, that of German folklore scholars (for example, Bernhard Jülg, whom Ralston cites in his work on more than one occasion). Throughout the 19th century Germany was recognized as the leading translating country in Europe, and the general tendency of German translators was to follow the original as closely as possible, especially as far as folklore translations were concerned.20

Thus, as the first guide to the fascinating world of the Russian oral tradition, Ralston was at his best. In fact, one could hardly have found anyone more interested or knowledgeable in the subject than he. His collection of Russian folktales has been of great interest and importance for specialists in folklore and Slavic studies, but it is also the first serious effort in the field of Russian folklore translations; it established the tradition and paved the way for those who followed him.

Arthur Michell Ransome (1884–1967)

Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales (1916) marked the next important step in familiarizing the English reader, this time the young English reader, with Russian folklore. The book appeared in a different cultural situation, for it was published in the period before World War I, the heyday of Russian culture and literature on the British Isles.21 It also marked the turning point in the literary career of an author who was to become an outstanding children’s writer. Ransome’s first-hand knowledge of the country and its folklore tradition was acquired when he was the foreign correspondent of British newspapers in Russia during its most turbulent period, the October Revolution.

In a brief note to his book the author leaves no doubt as to his addressee, pointing out that it is not ‘for the learned, or indeed for grown-up people at all’, as it is ‘written far away in Russia, for English children’.22 Old Peter and his grandson and granddaughter, the audience for the 21 tales, are fictional characters introduced by the author both to narrate the stories in their most natural way and to introduce the necessary explanations about culturally specific words and concepts, avoiding commentaries of a more scholarly character. The difference in approach between Ralston with his appeal to the scholar and Ransome with the child as his audience is clearly marked. Ralston is selective in choosing stories for translation, trying to present the most interesting samples with the intention of rendering their distinct character, while Ransome’s guiding principle is his personal taste. Hence the difference in their translation strategies: Ralston follows the original as closely as possible, which is appropriate to a scholarly style of folklore translation, while Ransome transforms the tales to appeal to his young readers, conforming to the English tradition of folklore adaptations in the style of Andrew Lang (his favourite read as a child).

Lang was closely associated with the golden age of the folktale in Britain at the end of the 19th century, playing a crucial role in transforming folktales from all over the world into standard children’s literature. Lang—folklorist, classicist, romantic poet, literary scholar, journalist, historian, parapsychologist, author of 120 books and contributor to 150 more—is chiefly remembered today as the editor of a coloured series of folktales for children, a role that earned him the soubriquet ‘the Master of Fairyland’.23 In fact, Lang was one of the first specialists who promoted folktales, adapting them to the needs and interests of children, and was obliged to bear the criticism of his colleagues. ‘Lang’s scholarly reputation suffered from the connection with children’s literature, and despite the scholarly introductions available in limited editions for the Blue and Red Fairy Books where Lang motivates the enterprise, he drew a lot of fire’.24 Published between 1889 and 1910, the twelve anthologies of folktales collected from around the world were ‘enormously popular in their day and can be found gracing the shelves of better bookstores today’.25 The name of the editor and the uniform style of the stories were among the main factors contributing to the edition’s success.

With children as their target audience, the editing practice of the books was focused on transforming oral narratives from all over the world into a specific genre of English children’s literature. The stories were far from being literal, as they were adapted in many ways to conform to the strict tastes of the Victorian age. According to Sundmark, already in The Blue Fairy Book (1888) Lang established principles that over time became normative: the intended child audience, the eminence of the wonder tale, the international approach, the uniform language and style. The tales were chosen to please rather than to instruct or to convey a utopian, moralizing, or religious message. Thanks to the efforts of Lang and Leonora, his wife, who did most of the translations, the tales were ‘steeped in the same linguistic and cultural mold’.26 Thus, the canons of international folktales for children in the English language were largely established by Andrew Lang, a major influence on Ransome’s literary retellings of the Russian folklore. However, there was also an important difference, as the latter tried to preserve the culturally specific character of the original.27

The British tradition of Russian folktale translations was established by two different personalities living at different times (more favourable for British–Russian interactions in the case of Arthur Ransome) and professing different translation strategies in accordance with their aims, principles and cultural influences. To complete the picture let us now look at their translation practice, best illustrated with the help of a contrastive textual analysis of parallel English texts.

Ralston versus Ransome: Translation Strategies and Practices

Let us begin with an analysis of the translations of a short folktale that well illustrates the respective translation strategies and practices under discussion (the text on the left is Ralston’s, that on the right Ransome’s):


Volga and Vazuza had a long dispute as to which was the wiser, the stronger, and the more worthy of high respect. They wrangled and wrangled, but neither could gain the mastery in the dispute, so they decided upon the following course:-

‘Let us lie down together to sleep’, they said, ‘and whichever of us is the first to rise, and the quickest to reach the Caspian Sea, she shall be held to be the wiser of us two, and the stronger and the worthier of respect’.

So Volga lay down to sleep; down lay Vazuza also. But during the night Vazuza rose silently, fled away from Volga, chose the nearest and the straightest line, and flowed away.

When Volga awoke, she set off neither slowly nor hurriedly, but with just befitting speed. At Zubtsof she came up with Vazuza. So threatening was her mien, that Vazuza was frightened, declared herself to be Volga’s younger sister, and besought Volga to take her in her arms and bear her to the Caspian Sea. And so to this day Vazuza is the first to awake in the Spring, and then she arouses Volga from her wintry sleep.28

The Vazouza and the Volga
The Vazouza and the Volga flow for a long way side by side, and then they join and flow together. And the Vazouza is a little river; but the Volga is the mother of all Russia, and the greatest river in the world. And the little Vazouza was jealous of the Volga. ‘You are big and noisy’, she says to the Volga, ‘and terribly strong; but as for brains’, says she, ‘why, I have more brains in a single ripple than you in all that lump of water. ‘Of, course the Volga told her not to be so rude and said that little rivers should know their place and not argue with the great. But the Vazouza would not keep quiet, and at last she said to the Volga: ‘Look here, we will lie down and sleep, and we will agree that the one of us who wakes first and comes first to the sea is the wiser of the two’. And the Volga said, ‘Very well, if only you will stop talking’. So the little Vazouza and the big Volga lay and slept, white and still, all through the winter. And when the spring came, the little Vazouza woke first, brisk and laughing and hurrying, and rushed away as hard as she could go towards the sea. When the Volga woke the little Vazouza was already far ahead. But the Volga did not hurry. She woke slowly and shook the ice from herself, and then came roaring after the Vazouza, a huge foaming flood of angry water. And the little Vazouza listened as she ran, and she heard the Volga coming after her; and when the Volga caught her up—a tremendous foaming river, whirling along trees and blocks of ice—she was frightened, and she said,—’O Volga, let me be your little sister. I will never argue with you any more. You are wiser than I and stronger than I. Only take me by the hand and bring me with you to the sea’. And the Volga forgave the little Vazouza, and took her by the hand and brought her safely to the sea. And they have never quarrelled again. But all the same, it is always the little Vazouza that gets up first in the spring, and tugs at the white blankets of ice and snow, and wakes her big sister from her winter sleep.29

That the story is in fact about a dispute between rivers is explained by Ralston in a short introduction, though the absence of articles before their names in the title and text seems to be deliberate, as this better serves their personification and accords with the original. The effect is further enhanced by the choice of lexical items. For example: mien, defined in Merriam-Webster as ‘air or bearing especially as expressive of attitude or personality’.30 A contrastive textual analysis of the original story31 with Ralston’s translation has shown that it may serve as a substitute for the Russian folktale, its copy or photograph, so close is it to the original: it may therefore be further contrasted with the second English parallel text to continue our analysis.

In the chapter entitled ‘Christening in a Village’32 Ransome’s variant is preceded by a long introduction that describes for the reader village life in pre-revolutionary Russia. As Old Peter and his grandchildren return from the village, they have a discussion about rivers and about which of them is the first to wake up in spring, and so the grandfather tells the story about the Vazouza and the Volga. The beginning of the story contains an explanation that leaves no doubt that these are rivers which nevertheless, according to Ransome’s interpretation, behave like little children and grown-ups. The stereotypical situation of an argument is created with the help of appropriate lexis (marked above in bold). Thus, the story becomes more explicit but also somewhat trivial. In accordance with his adaptive strategy, Ransome transforms the original story, adding details and expanding on the themes that he thinks are important, mostly those that may educate as well as entertain. He never forgets his little reader, changing the linguistic features of the text according to their level of understanding and emotionality. One such characteristic marker of children’s speech is the word little, which is repeated several times throughout this short piece of narrative. Direct speech, used quite extensively, also helps to enliven the narrative, making it more emotional and expressive. Whereas Ralston, following the original as closely as possible, nevertheless fails to render such prominent stylistic characteristic of the original Russian tale as its rhythmical character and almost melodious tone based on numerous repetitions, Ransome employs them to the full. For example, one cannot fail to notice the frequency with which most sentences begin with the conjunction and, as well as the parallel use of syntactic constructions. The important feature of Ransome’s interpretation of the original story is that its events are rendered in a dramatic and emotional way, which is achieved by both syntactic and lexical features of the text as discussed above.

It may therefore be concluded that the difference in translation practices of both authors in question may be accounted for primarily by the difference in their translation strategies—which are, in their turn, to be understood within the framework of the cultural and translation traditions of their times.


  1   Mikhail P. Alekseev and Iurii D. Levin, Vil’iam Rol’ston—propagandist russkoi literatury i fol’klora. S prilozheniem pisem Ralstona k russkim korrespondentam (St Petersburg, 1994), p. 7.

  2   W.F. Ryan, ‘W.R.S. Ralston and the Russian Folktale: Presidential Address Given to the Folklore Society, 4 April 2008’, Folklore, CXX (August 2009), p. 123.

  3   Alekseev and Levin, p. 8.

  4   Ryan, p. 123.

  5   Ibid., p. 124.

  6   Ibid.

  7   Ibid.

  8   Alekseev and Levin, pp. 24-5.

  9   Anthony Cross, ‘The English and Krylov’, Oxford Slavonic Papers, NS XVI (1983), p. 104.

10   Ibid.

11   Nadezhda Kritskaia, ‘Ob osobennostiakh vosproizvedeniia basen Krylova V. Rol’stonom’, in Russkaia literatura v kontekste mirovoi kul’tury, I, 1 (St Petersburg, 2008), p. 36, http://sun.tsu.ru/mminfo/000349796/000349796.pdf [accessed 29.8.2012].

12   Ryan, pp. 125-6.

13   Alekseev and Levin, pp. 39, 42.

14   Ryan, p. 128.

15   Ibid., p. 129.

16   Alekseev and Levin, pp. 43-5.

17   Ryan, p. 125.

18   The Project Gutenberg EBook of Russian Fairy Tales, by W.R.S. Ralston, p. 18, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22373/22373-h/22373-h.htm [accessed 29.8.2012].

19   Ralston, p. 9.

20   Lev L. Nelyubin and Georgi T. Khukhuli, Nauka o perevode (istoriia i teoriia s drevneishikh vremen do nashikh dnei) (Moscow, 2008), p. 130; Bernhard Jülg, Mongolische Märchen Sammlung. Die neun Märchen des Siddhi-Kür nach der ausführlicheren Redaction and die Geschichte des Ardschi-Bordschi Chan. Mongolisch mit deutscher Uebersetzung und kritischen Anmerkungen herausgegeben von Bernhard Jülg (Innsbruck, 1868), p. xvi.

21   Tatiana Krasavchenko, ‘Zagadka, zavernutaia v tainu i pomeshennaia vnutr’ golovolomki’, Otechestvennye zapiski, V (37) (2007), http://strana-oz.ru/2007/5/zagadkazavernutaya-v-taynu-i-pomeshchennaya-vnutr-golovolomki [accessed 29.8.2012].

22   The Project Gutenberg EBook of Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome, p. vi, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16981/16981-h/16981-h.htm [accessed 29.8.2012].

23   J. David Black, David Andrew Lang: Master of Fairyland (Waterloo, Ontario), p. 25,. http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1038&context=nexus [accessed 29.8.2012].

24   Björn Sundmark, Andrew Lang and the Colour Fairy Books (2004-11-18), pp. 1-2, http://dspace.mah.se/dspace/bitstream/handle/2043/8228/Lang%20present.pdf [accessed 29.8. 2012].

25   Black, p. 27.

26   Sundmark, pp. 1-2.

27   Tatiana Bogrdanova, ‘Rol’ Andriu Langa v transformatsii folklornoi skazki dlya detei’, Nauchnaia mysl’ Kavkaza, no. 4, Part II (2010), p. 76.

28   Ralston, p. 215.

29   Ibid., pp. 322-3.

30   Merriam-Webster Online, http://www.merriam-webster.com [accessed 29.8. 2012].

31   ‘Vazuza i Volga’, in Narodnye russkie skazki A.N. Afanas’eva, I (Moscow, 1984), p. 112.

32   Ransome, pp. 316-34.