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Sociolinguistic Aspects of the First Translations of the Bible into the Russian Language

Alexander G. Kravetsky


The first translations of the New Testament into the Russian language, which were carried out at the beginning of the 19th century, are usually regarded as a missionary project. But the language of these translations may prove that they were addressed to a rather narrow audience. As is known, the Russian Bible Society established in 1812 began its activities not with translations into Russian but with the mass edition of the Church Slavonic text of the Bible. In other words, it was the Church Slavonic Bible that was initially taken as the “Russian” Bible. Such a perception correlated with the sociolinguistic situation of that period, when, among the literate country and town dwellers, people learned grammar according to practices dating back to Medieval Rus’, which meant learning by heart the Church Slavonic alphabet, the Book of Hours, and the Book of Psalms; these readers were in the majority, and they could understand the Church Slavonic Bible much better than they could a Russian-language version. That is why the main audience for the “Russian” Bible was the educated classes who read the Bible in European languages, not in Russian. The numbers of targeted readers for the Russian-language translation of the Bible were significantly lower than those for the Church Slavonic version. The ideas of the “language innovators” (who favored using Russian as a basis for a new national language) thus appeared to be closer to the approach taken by the Bible translators than the ideas of “the upholders of the archaic tradition” (who favored using the vocabulary and forms of Church Slavonic as their basis). The language into which the New Testament was translated moved ahead of the literary standard of that period, and that was one of the reasons why the work on the translation of the Bible into the Russian language was halted.


literary language; state of language; translations of Bible; the Russian language; the Church Slavonic language


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