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Translated Literature of the Eleventh to Early Thirteenth Centuries


We shall begin our examination of Old Russian literature of the early period with a survey of translated literature. And not without good reason. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries translations often preceded the creation of original works in a given genre. Generally speaking Russians read foreign works before writing their own. This should not be interpreted as a sign of the cultural “inferiority” of the Eastern Slavs. All European mediaeval states learned from the countries that inherited the culture of Ancient Greece and Rome. For Russia a most important role in this respect was played by Bulgaria and Byzantium. We would also emphasise that in the case of the Eastern Slavs the absorbing of this foreign culture with its long traditions was an active, creative process in keeping with the internal requirements of the Old Russian state, and that it stimulated the emergence of an original literature.

Byzantine and Bulgarian Books in Old Russia. The Trans­plantation Phenomenon. Before considering which works and genres of translated literature became known in Old Russia in the two centuries following the creation of the written language, let us first examine the activity of the Old Russian translators.

Many of the books, particularly liturgical ones, were brought from Bulgaria in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The Old Slavonic (Old Bulgarian) and Old Russian languages were so close that Russia was able to make use of the Old Slavonic Cyrillic alphabet created by the great Bulgarian enlighteners Cyril and Methodius4 in the ninth century, and Bulgarian books, although formally in a foreign tongue, did not actually need to be translated. Some features of the Bulgarian morphological system and some of the vocabulary (the so-called Old Slavonicisms) were absorbed into the Old Russian literary language.

At the same time translations were made directly from the Greek, and the Old Russian translators not only produced accurate renderings of the original, but also preserved its style and rhythm. Translation from other languages was rarer.5

The interaction of the Old Slavonic literatures and their relations with the literature of Byzantium have sometimes been interpreted as the process of one literature influencing another. In this interpretation Old Russian literature, which was young compared with the literature of Bulgaria and even more so with that of Byzantium, appears as the passive object of such influence. It would be more correct, however, to speak not of influence but of the transplantation of the literature of one country into another. Before the adoption of Christianity there was no literature in Old Russia and, consequently, there was nothing for Byzantine literature to influence. Therefore, in the early years after the adoption of Christianity, Byzantine literature was transplanted, as it were, to Russia either directly or through Bulgarian literature.6 It was not a mechanical transplantation, however. Works were not only translated or copied. They continued their literary history on new soil. This means that new redactions were made of works, their subject matter was changed, the original text of the translation became russified in the subsequent copyings or redactions, and new compilative works were created on the basis of translated works.7 This applied, in particular, to secular and historical works; liturgical writings, patristics and the works of the Holy Scriptures retained their canonical text to a greater extent.

Consequently, the division of Old Russian literature into original and translated is significant only if we are referring to the origin of a work and not to its place in Old Russian litera­ture.

The transplantation phenomenon was extremely progressive: in a relatively short time Russia obtained a literature with a ramified system of genres, a literature represented by scores, even hundreds of works. Only a few decades after the beginning of this process original works began to appear in Russia modelled on translations: vitae, rhetorical and homiletic discourses, tales, etc.