Lost in translation: dealing with scholarship in other languages

As I would like to use this platform to broadcast the methodological issues encountered by junior researchers, this post will be devoted to that of the language barrier often encountered when reading previous scholarship on one’s research subject.

Although the logical introduction would be to mention the obvious dominance of English in current scholarship – at all levels and disciplines – I would like to address my struggles in dealing with another language, and maybe less accessible for Western researchers: Russian. I’m currently working on the scientific exchanges and networks between the Academies of Saint-Petersburg and Berlin in the 18th century.

Although the letters I’m editing,  exchanged between the two secretaries of the Academies, Jean-Albert Euler (1734-1800, son of the mathematician Leonard Euler) in Saint-Petersburg and Jean-Henri Samuel Formey (1711-1797) in Berlin, are written in French, most of the protagonists of this correspondence belong to Russia’s national Pantheon. Subsequently, most of the information – although not necessarily the most relevant – is written in Russian. Indeed, the scientists quoted in the letters are well-known by Russian historians and scientists, less so by Western ones.

Biographical entry on Vladimir Orlov, Director of the Academy of Sciences in Saint-Petersburg, in a “Who’s Who in 18th Century Russia” volume (Сухарева, О. В. Кто был кто в России.-М,АСТ.-2005.- ISBN 5-17-023261-6, p361). © E. Chaze

When I encounter a new name in a letter, I begin by searching it within the traditional instances used in such cases: biographies repositories, previous scholarship on the subject, or any other relevant primary or secondary source. But when the DNB (Deutsche National Bibliothek) is almost silent, and when a famous search engine’s only results viciously  brings you back to your own editorial work, instead of leading you towards a nicely prepared Wikipedia page ideally well researched and full of footnotes leading to book references, which strategy to adopt? The obvious way seems to…

Learn a new language: Russian for beginners?

…in order to see the broader picture and have access to all the scholarship I need. As I intend to further research this field, this would make sense and I am indeed in the process of learning the language, but am in no way yet able to decipher texts written about these Russian scientists. One another note, I also have to write my PhD in the meantime and don’t have much time to devote to a new language just right now. Ideally, historians are multilingual. Realistically, they also have to somehow earn a living when they don’t hold a secure position in academia, and sadly learning new languages is seldom remunerated.

Hence the inherent dilemma: should I attempt to describe the scientific networks between Saint-Petersburg and Berlin based on the sole primary and secondary sources written in languages I understand? Most of Western researchers interested in the subject would still find the information I unveil relevant – as they would be original ones. I could begin by doing just that, alternatively I could also attempt to

Build my own research circle

When working to become a historian, one doesn’t learn about collaboration. On the contrary, the academic field is quite a competitive and ruthless one. So it doesn’t necessarily come to mind to look out for a (preferably nice) colleague who might have just the skill you’re lacking, here Russian language.  However, while studying networks, one is bound to think about building up one’s own collaborative research circle.

And here being resourceful and reaching out, something one certainly doesn’t learn as a book nerd buried in the archives or when attending a seminar, is paramount. This is just what I’m in the process of learning and, having found a Russian speaking colleague equally eager to work on scientific networks, I’m much looking forward to share my ideas and collaborate, in order to write better documented papers on the subject and build up comprehensive and encompassing scholarship on these networks.


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