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Lev Tolstoy strove for simplicity in his life at Yasnaya Polyana.
Leo Tolstoy walking at Yasnaya Polyana.

Yasnaya Polyana
A history in comparative translation

The texts written at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's former estate, are now recognized as classics of world literature. However, most non-Russians know them only in translation. This raises the question of whether what we are familiar with can be called strictly "Tolstoy's literature." Even the most careful literary translation will inevitably change a text because it removes it from its original medium; the syntax and word choice of the author's original language must be abandoned in favor of syntax and word choice chosen from the target language.

A translation, then, is an artwork as much created by the translator as the original author.

How do I find 
Yasnaya Polyana?

Birch trees lining a path at Yasnaya Polyana, former home of Leo Tolstoy.
Birch trees line a pathway at  Yasnaya Polyana in fall. Click
for more information on the museum.                       

The translator has many choices to make. Should the text be translated to read "naturally" in the target language (i.e. should the passive voice common in Russian be translated to the active voice preferred in English) or should the original be followed as closely as possible? What about humor? If the audience is unlikely to understand the cultural context of a joke, the audience will be unlikely to find the humor the original author intended them to find in the original text. Should the translator, then, add explanatory material? Can the translator alter the delivery of the joke to make it more accessible, or perhaps substitute the joke for a similar one that is less culturally-sensitive?

The official history of Yasnaya Polyana as presented on the Yasnaya Polyana Museum-Estate website presents an interesting case study for this difficult phenomenon. The official English version is a translation from the official Russian version. However, the translation has also taken certain liberties with the text. For example, subheadings and a larger introduction have been added, and several bits of information which play minor roles in the history have been cut.

This in no way makes the translation a bad one – in fact, if we assume that the site is trying to make the information accessible to a wide audience, it can be argued that the translation translates the information quite well, changing it from a text that appeals to what a Russian-speaker might expect to what a foreign English speaker might expect and thus making it overall more "readable" in translation.

The School of Russian and Asian Studies (SRAS), in partnership with the Yasnaya Polyana Museum-Estate, has used these histories to create the following lesson in comparative translation. We asked student Hannah Chapman, who at the time was participating in SRAS's Translate Abroad Program, to independently produce a translation that would be accessible to an English speaking audience but which closely followed the original text. The result is a very different translation of the same text.

As a student of translation, it is your task to decide which techniques are better – or if you would do things altogether differently. Read and compare the three texts with the following critical tasks in mind.



- Critical Thinking for Students of Translation -

  1. Identify what you would class as "errors" in either translation (at least five). Develop arguments for why you consider them to be errors. 
  2. The SRAS Translation uses footnotes to add additional information to the text while the Official English Version adds additional information directly to the text. What are the benefits and drawbacks of each technique? How does each technique change the feel of the text from the original? 
  3. The Official English Version adds subheadings to the text. Do you consider this helpful, needed and/or proper? Would you keep this formatting in the text if you were its editor? 
  4. Do you believe the information cut in the Official English Version lessens the value of the English text by decreasing the amount of information available to the reader or does it increase the value by making the text more readable?
  5. It is often said that a translator must consider a) the text, b) the client, and c) the audience when creating a translation. How do you think these three considerations might have affected the two translations? How do you think the relationship between the three factors might be change by exchanging, for example, this short history for a larger literary work?


Original Russian Close Translation  Official English Version
Превращение Ясной Поляны в музей было сложным и длительным процессом. The transformation of Yasnaya Polyana into a museum was a complex and lengthy process. Over a period of almost a hundred years, through two revolutions and occupation in World War II, Yasnaya Polyana has been transformed from Leo Tolstoy's private estate into a complex, world-class museum.
В 1911 г. Софья Андреевна Толстая дважды обращалась к Николаю II с просьбой принять Ясную Поляну под охрану государства, но получила отказ. Было решено назначить вдове писателя пенсию, которая отчасти шла на содержание усадьбы. С. А. Толстая всеми силами и средствами старалась хранить Ясную Поляну, оберегая неприкосновенность кабинета и спальни мужа, обстановки всего дома; ею были сделаны многочисленные записи на предметах быта и фотографиях, при ее участии началось описание личной библиотеки Л. Н. Толстого; она привела в систему хранившиеся в усадьбе письма и оказывала помощь исследователям, работавшим над биографией писателя. Активное участие в жизни усадьбы принимали дети Л. Н. Толстого: Сергей Львович (автор первого путеводителя по Ясной Поляне, 1914) и Александра Львовна.
In 1911, Sofia Andreevna Tolstaya, the widow of Leo Tolstoy, twice asked Tsar Nikolai II to declare Yasnaya Polyana a state preserve, but was refused. She was eventually granted a state pension intended, in part, to be used for the maintenance of the estate. Sofia Tolstoy tried to restore Yasnaya Polyana in every way possible, preserving her husband's office, bedroom, and the rest of the house as he had left them. She made inventories of the numerous objects and photographed the house and participated in the early cataloging of Tolstoy's personal library. She established an archive system for the letters stored at the estate and aided researchers who worked on biographies of the writer. Tolstoy's children, Alexandra Lvovna and Sergei Lvovich (the author of the first guidebook about Yasnaya Polyana, published in 1914), actively took part in life at the estate.

The Tsarist Period (1911-1917)

Following Tolstoy's death in 1910, his widow, Sophia Tolstaya, sought state support from Tsar Nicholas II. She was given a pension which was partly intended to fund the running of the estate. As the writer's widow, she did a great deal to preserve Yasnaya Polyana, ensuring that her husband's study and bedroom remained untouched, and that the furnishings, objects, and photographs throughout the house were inventoried. She participated in the initial cataloguing of Tolstoy's personal library; she systematized the letters that were kept at the estate, and lent her help to scholars working on biographies of the writer.

27 мая 1919 г. Народный комиссариат просвещения выдал Александре Львовне Толстой Охранную грамоту на Ясную Поляну, в которой удостоверялось, что усадьба и все находящиеся в доме Толстого вещи, имеющие «исключительную культурно-историческую ценность и являющиеся национальным достоянием, находятся под охраной государства». On May 27, 1919, The People's Commissariat of Education gave Alexandra Tolstoy documentation declaring that the Yasnaya Polyana estate and all of Tolstoy's possessions had exceptional cultural and historical value and, as national property, are under the protection of the state.

The Soviet Period (1917-1991)

In 1919, Tolstoy's daughter Alexandra received a deed from the government to Yasnaya Polyana which certified that the estate and all the belongings in Tolstoy's house have "a unique cultural and historical value and, as a national property, are to be under state guardianship." In 1921 Yasnaya Polyana became a museum which was to function as a cultural and educational center with a library and a school, offering lectures, performances, exhibitions, and tours.

В 1921 г. во многом стараниями Александры Львовны усадьба Л. Н. Толстого была превращена в музей. 10 июня 1921 г. вышло постановление ВЦИК о новом статусе Ясной Поляны. Хранитель музея должен был создать в Ясной Поляне культурно-просветительный центр с библиотекой, школой, организовывать чтение лекций, спектакли, выставки, экскурсии. «Комиссаром-хранителем» музея была назначена Александра Львовна Толстая. В 1921 г. музей посетили 3147 человек.
By 1921, Tolstoy's estate was transformed into a museum, largely due to the efforts of Alexandra Tolstoy. On June 10, 1921, the VTsIK (All Russian Central Executive Committee)[1] issued a resolution endowing Yasnaya Polyana with a new status. The museum's curator was given responsibility for creating a cultural and educational center with a library and school, and for organizing lectures, plays, exhibits, and tours. Alexandra Tolstoy was appointed as "commissioner-curator." In 1921, the museum was visited by 3,147 people.

(information combined
with paragraph above)

С 1925 г. шла напряженная подготовка к столетнему юбилею Л. Н. Толстого (1928). К юбилею во флигеле Кузминских открылась первая выставка («Толстой в Ясной Поляне»), начали выходить тома 90-томного собрания сочинений Л. Н. Толстого, в Ясной Поляне открылась школа имени Л. Н. Толстого. А. Л. Толстая сыграла огромную роль в создании музея и его развитии в 20-е годы. Но в 1929 г. она была вынуждена навсегда покинуть Советский Союз.
In 1925, intense preparation for the centenary of Tolstoy's birth (1928) was begun. By this anniversary, the first exhibition in the Kuzminsky Wing, "Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana," was opened. A 90-volume collected works was begun and a school named after Tolstoy was opened at Yasnaya Polyana. Alexandra Tolstoy played a large role in the creation of the museum and its development in the 1920s. But in 1929, she was forced to leave the Soviet Union forever.

1928 marked the centenary of Tolstoy's birth. To celebrate this centenary the first exhibit in the Kuzminsky House, "Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana," was opened, first volumes of a 90-volume collected works of Tolstoy began appearing, and a school named after Tolstoy was opened on the estate. Alexandra Tolstaya played an enormous role in creating the museum and developing it in the 1920s. But in 1929 she was forced to leave the Soviet Union for good.

В 30-е годы особое внимание уделялось восстановлению и сохранению Ясной Поляны в исторически неприкосновенном виде. Началось изучение истории Ясной Поляны по документам и опросам современников Толстого; была восстановлена пасека, приводились в порядок сады, производились посадки деревьев взамен вымерших… Работы велись под руководством Ботанического сада Академии наук СССР.
In the 1930s, special attention was paid to the restoration and preservation of Yasnaya Polyana in its historic form. The history of Yasnaya Polyana was researched, the beehives restored, the gardens brought into order, and new trees were planted to replace those that had died. This work was conducted under the guidance of the Botanical Gardens of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.

In the 1930s special attention was devoted to rehabilitating and preserving the historic fabric of Yasnaya Polyana. A history of Yasnaya Polyana was undertaken, using written documents and information provided directly from Tolstoy's contemporaries. Grazing lands were reintroduced, the orchards were restored, and new trees were planted to replace those that had died. This work was carried out under the guidance of the Botanical Garden of the USSR Academy of Sciences. In 1940 experts from the State Tretyakov Gallery restored paintings in the Tolstoy House (paintings by Repin, Ghe, Kramskoy, and others). Yasnaya Polyana came under the authority of the USSR Academy of Sciences as the museum was becoming a scholarly research center for the study of Tolstoy's legacy.

В 1940 г. Мастера Государственной Третьяковской галереи отреставрировали произведения живописи в доме Толстого (полотна работы Репина, Ге, Крамского…). Ясная Поляна была передана в ведение Академии наук СССР; музей стал превращаться в научно-исследовательский центр изучения наследия Л. Н. Толстого.
In 1940, experts from the State Tretyakov Gallery restored paintings by artists such as Repin, Ghe, and Kramskoy in the Tolstoy estate. Yasnaya Polyana was also placed under the authority of the USSR's Academy of Sciences and work was begun to convert the museum into a scholarly research center for the study of Tolstoy's legacy.

(information combined
with paragraph above)

 The Tolstoy Studies Journal  
The Tolstoy Studies Journal is an official publication of the Tolstoy Society of North America.

В 1941 г. над Ясной Поляной нависла угроза оккупации. Было решено эвакуировать вещи из дома Толстого. Эвакуацию организовала внучка Л. Н. Толстого Софья Андреевна Толстая-Есенина, которая в 1941 г. стала директором объединенных толстовских музеев. Подготовкой вещей к эвакуации занимался хранитель музея Сергей Иванович Щеголев. 13 октября 110 ящиков с экспонатами дома Толстого были отправлены в Москву, а затем в Томск. Ясная Поляна была оккупирована в течение 45 дней. При отступлении немцы подожгли дом Толстого. К счастью, пожар удалось потушить, и в усадьбе немедленно начались восстановительные работы. Первая реставрация была завершена к маю 1942 г. В мае 1945 г. экспонаты дома Толстого вернулись на свои прежние места. Но восстановление Ясной Поляны продолжалось еще долгое время.
In 1941, Yasnaya Polyana faced the threat of Nazi occupation. It was decided to evacuate items from the Tolstoy House. The evacuation was organized by Tolstoy's granddaughter, Sofia A. Tolstoy-Esenin, who in 1941 became the director of the consolidated Tolstoy museums. The curator of the museum, Sergei Ivanovich Shchegolev, helped prepare items for evacuation. On October 13th, 110 boxes with exhibits from Tolstoy's house were sent to Moscow and then to Tomsk. Yasnaya Polyana itself was occupied for 45 days. During their retreat, the Germans set fire to Tolstoy's house. Fortunately, the fire was extinguished and restoration was begun immediately. The first of the restorations was completed before May of 1942. In May of 1945 the exhibits were returned to their original locations. However, restoring Yasnaya Polyana would be a process that continued for a long time.

In 1941 during World War II, Yasnaya Polyana was threatened with Nazi occupation, so it was decided to evacuate the contents in the Tolstoy House. This evacuation was organized by Tolstoy's granddaughter Sophia Tolstaya-Esenina. On October 13 th, 110 boxes with exhibits from Tolstoy's house were sent to Moscow, and then on to Tomsk. Yasnaya Polyana itself was occupied for 45 days. Upon retreating the Germans set the Tolstoy House on fire. However, the fire was successfully extinguished and work on restoring the estate was soon afterward begun. The first restoration was completed by May, 1942. In May 1945 the exhibits were returned to their original locations. But the restoration of Yasnaya Polyana continued for a long time after.

В 1951 г. была проведена серьезная реставрация дома Толстого; был восстановлен яблоневый сад, вымерзший во время войны, по воспоминаниям жителей деревни и фотографиям - реконструированы хозяйственные постройки (кучерская изба, житня). В 1953 г. на реставрационные работы в музее было выделено 6 млн. рублей.
In 1951, a serious restoration of Tolstoy's home was begun: the apple orchard, abandoned during the war, was restored according to available photographs and the memories of the local villagers. Also restored were the coachman's cottage and the granary. In 1953, the museum was allocated six million rubles for restoration.[2]

In 1951 a serious restoration of Tolstoy's home was carried out: the apple orchard, neglected during the war, was rehabilitated and other buildings (e.g., the coachman's hut and the granary) were reconstructed according to recollections of the village inhabitants and from photographic documentation.

В те годы особое значение приобрела фондовая работа. На каждый из 37 мемориальных объектов усадьбы сотрудники музея разрабатывали паспорта, содержащие точное описание объекта, его размеры, место расположения, назначение, фотографии. С 50-х годов регулярно выходят в свет Яснополянские сборники научных статей; переиздаются путеводители по дому Толстого и заповеднику. В 1953 г. (к 125-летию  со  дня рождения Л. Н. Толстого)  был  подготовлен 1-й  том  научного  описания  личной  библиотеки Л. Н. Толстого. Эта работа  велась  научными  сотрудниками  музея под  руководством В. Ф. Булгакова.
In those years, work on documenting the estate gained special importance. Museum employees documented each of the estates' thirty seven major objects of preservation. The documentation included an exact description of the object, its size, location, purpose, and photographs of it. Starting in the 1950s, the museum has regularly published the collections of scientific articles on Yasnaya Polyana and guidebooks about Tolstoy's house and the nature reserve. In 1953, (on the 125th anniversary of Tolstoy's birth) the first volume of an annotated bibliography of Tolstoy's personal library was prepared. This work was carried out by the museum's researchers under the direction of V. F. Bulgakov.[3]

In the 1950s, work on archival materials took on special significance. For each of the estate's 37 memorial objects, museum workers developed documents containing an exact description of the object, its measurements, its placement, its purpose, and photographs. Since the 1950s Yasnaya Polyana has regularly put out collections of scholarly articles and issued a series of guides to Tolstoy's home and the nature reserve. In 1953 (the 125 th anniversary of Tolstoy's birth) a one-volume scholarly description of Tolstoy's personal library was prepared.

Начиная с 50-х годов расширяется экспозиционная деятельность музея, постоянно сменяют друг друга выставки во Флигеле Кузминских и выставочных залах Дома Волконского; музей организует передвижные выставки; расширяются его фонды; растет число посетителей.
Starting in the 1960s, constantly changing exhibitions have been offered in the Kuzminsky Wing and the showrooms of the Volkonsky House. The museum also organizes traveling exhibitions, its archives have been expanded, and the number of visitors has grown.

Beginning in the 1960s, the museum's curatorial activities have broadened: exhibits in the Kuzminsky House and the exhibition hall of the Volkonsky House are changing constantly; the museum organizes traveling exhibitions; its archival holdings have been widened in their scope; and the number of visitors has increased.

В 1971 г. (год 50-летия образования музея) «Ясная Поляна» приняла трехмиллионного посетителя. 150-летие Л. Н. Толстого (1978 г. ) ознаменовалось награждением музея орденом Ленина. К юбилею было полностью завершено издание библиографического описания книг на русском языке в библиотеке Толстого (в 2-х томах).
In 1971 (the 50th anniversary of the museum's foundation), Yasnaya Polyana welcomed its three-millionth visitor. The 150th anniversary of Tolstoy's birth was marked in 1978 by awarding the museum the Order of Lenin. By the time of that anniversary, a two-volume bibliography of the Russian-language books in Tolstoy's library had been completed.

In 1971 (the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the museum) "Yasnaya Polyana" welcomed its three millionth visitor. The 150th anniversary of Tolstoy's birth (1978) was commemorated by museum's being recognized by the Order of Lenin award. By the time of this jubilee, the publication of a two-volume bibliographical description of the Russian-language books in Tolstoy's library was completed.

Постепенно Ясная Поляна превратилась в крупнейший мемориальный и природный музей-заповедник мирового значения.
Gradually, Yasnaya Polyana has become recognized world-wide as a first-rate memorial, museum, and nature reserve.

(information combined with paragraph below)

Новый этап в истории музея начался в 90-е годы, когда его директором стал праправнук Л. Н. Толстого - В. И. Толстой. Сегодня, по-прежнему уделяя внимание традиционным направлениям деятельности музея, Ясная Поляна развивается в новых направлениях, например: разработка альтернативных туристических программ, развитие культурного туризма на базе Ясной Поляны, но с выходом за ее пределы; реализация мощного потенциала в области просвещения; возрождение народных традиций; расширение рекламной и издательской деятельности; внедрение новых технологий; сотрудничество с зарубежными странами. В структуру музея включается целый ряд филиалов.
A new stage in the history of the museum began in the 1990s, when Tolstoy's great-great-grandson, V. I. Tolstoy, became its director. Today, Yasnaya Polyana is developing in new directions while still maintaining the museum's traditional activities. For example, the museum is developing cultural tourist programs in Yasnaya Polyana and beyond its borders. It is realizing its powerful potential in the field of education. It is reviving folk traditions, expanding its advertising and publishing activities, introducing new technologies, and cooperating with foreign countries. It now includes a whole series of branch museums.

The Post-Soviet Period (1991-present)

Gradually Yasnaya Polyana has evolved into both a museum and a memorial of worldwide significance. The scope of the museum now includes a number of affiliated museums and historic sites. A new stage in the museum's history began in the 1990s, when the directorship was taken over by Leo Tolstoy's great-great-grandson, Vladimir Tolstoy. Today, as before, while devoting attention to the museum's traditional activities, Yasnaya Polyana is also developing in new directions. For example, it is creating alternative types of tourist programs, such as cultural tourism based in Yasnaya Polyana as well as beyond its borders; realizing its potential in the area of education; giving new life to folk traditions; broadening its advertising and publishing activities; introducing new technology; and undertaking joint efforts with foreign countries. 

[1] The All Russian Central Executive Committee was the highest legislative body in the USSR from 1917-1936.
[2] By comparison, the average worker's salary was about six hundred rubles a month and a loaf of bread could be bought for less than .25 rubles.
[3] Bulgakov had formerly served as Tolstoy's last personal secretary before becoming curator of the estate.

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