Translating Quaker Texts into Russian

Translated Quaker books in Russian. Photo courtesy Friends House Moscow.

To what end do we translate?

“You can’t spread Quakerism with texts.” This was the opinion expressed 15 years ago by a distinguished, elderly, and highly experienced Friend, when at Friends House Moscow, we began to actively consider whether we should devote more attention to translating Quaker texts into the Russian language. This Friend put forth a perfectly reasonable question: “What’s the point, let’s say, of translating Chapter 16 in Britain Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, where it deals with purely English procedures for registering a marriage?” The discussion has been ongoing with us for nearly ten years, now blazing up, now dying down. It has helped us to gain insight into what formerly was felt more on the level of emotion. To what end do we translate Quaker texts into other languages? This question is still of vital importance for the Religious Society of Friends, which has long refrained from actual missionary work and whose aspiration to transmit outward its broad and largely unique experience is usually conveyed by the somewhat amorphous word “outreach,” a word that does not even have a suitable equivalent in the Russian language.

It is true: Quakerism, in its fullness, is something impossible to spread with texts only. Quakerism is not something of the letter; it is something of the spirit. But it is possible to tell a story about Quakerism: to show that there is a religious tradition, within whose framework there exists a practice of resolving spiritual problems. It is possible to impart something of what constitutes the foundation of this tradition. Due to a number of historical reasons, for a long time, people in Russia were far behind in receiving information of this sort. The development of our own religious and philosophical traditions (some akin to Quakerism) was cut short brutally in the 1920s. And so we can see that the present-day generation, when reading of Tolstoy’s philosophy—which was formerly largely forbidden—relate to it mostly as an historical oddity, not least because the religious language from that time has aged so badly. Contemporary Quakerism is naturally closer to them in culture and spirituality.

In general, we are certainly not ready to opine upon the global necessity of translating Quaker texts, but in Russia, it seems to us absolutely essential that such translations exist, if only to offer Russian people a broader base for their spiritual and social explorations. In this fashion, a deep wound may be more successfully closed, a wound that until now has been one of the reasons for the violent practices of our society.


friendshousemoscow.org website.

For whom do we translate?

Friends House Moscow’s limited resources lend particular importance to the question, “Who are the people who will be interested in translated Quaker texts?” To a great extent, the answer determines our priorities for translating books and articles.

Until recently in Russia, by and large, only a narrow group of intellectuals knew about Quakers. Members of this group were interested in academic history and religious studies; they were thoughtful readers of nineteenth-century American literature. The word “Kvaker” sounds comic to the Russian ear (Russian frogs croak, “Kva-kva!”). The youth community most frequently associates the word with the computer game Quake. For somewhat older people, Quakers are thought of as “members of some sort of Mormon cult who want to cheat us and take away our apartments.” Also peculiar to the Russian reader is a comparatively weak understanding of basic Christian texts. For example, in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, many Russians would have difficulty understanding the meaning of the names of places that Mark Twain borrowed from figures in the Bible.

If we are thinking of people on a spiritual search—the ones to whom we are largely oriented—it is important to understand that for very many the words “karma,” “meditation,” and “energy” are more understandable than the usual Christian vocabulary. Russia is a country with a very strong Orthodox tradition, and for many spiritual seekers, words from the biblical lexicon evoke unavoidable associations with traditional, and as a rule conservative, Orthodoxy. 

There comes to mind a selection from one of the popular British Quaker authors who speaks of the two foundational traditions of Christianity: Catholicism and Protestantism. At that point, the natural reaction of the Russian reader will be bewilderment or even indignation, due to the fact that there is no mention of the third foundational tradition of Christianity: the Orthodox one.

Despite the fact that Russian people certainly place themselves in the cultural landscape of the West, many of them are intrinsically wary of foreigners, both consciously and unconsciously, due to a series of historical and political reasons. They may even oppose themselves to a little-understood, “soulless” West. The very term “Liberal Quakers” may carry a stigma because, for many of them, the Russian word for “liberal” is associated with the less-than-successful post-Soviet economic reforms that led to the profound economic inequalities in our society.

And so, just who is this reader of Quaker texts translated into Russian? He is an Orthodox priest who finds it difficult to reconcile himself with the conservatism and intolerance of his denomination; a person from the LGBTQ community who feels rejected in traditional religious congregations; a political activist who does not accept force as a means of reaching the goal; a local historian who went into raptures upon learning that many years ago Quakers helped his ancestors during a famine; a university instructor from a city in Siberia who cannot call himself an atheist, nor yet a religious person; a middle-aged bookkeeper from one of the former Soviet republics (she speaks Russian fairly well but English quite badly); a member of a charismatic church who does not like the authoritarian way decisions are made in his religious organization; a former soldier who recognized that his problem is called PTSD, found the abbreviation on Google, and, straightaway, came upon an article about how Quakers work with such cases and why; a feminist who decided to read on Wikipedia about the history of the movement for equal rights for women.


Russian translation of A Minority Of One: A Journey With Friends by Harvey Gillman.

What do we translate?

What can we offer to all of these people? There are a large number of appropriate texts. Not all of them are interesting, informative, or timely.

Books are a special case. The translation of a long and complicated book can take some years. Therefore we choose them very carefully. Our deliberations can take a fairly long time, both in our organization’s publications committee and among other Friends who are interested in the translation of Quaker texts. Of course, before anything else, we concern ourselves with the translation of shorter Quaker books and pamphlets that, in simple language, tell about Quakerism in general. Quaker classics and books about prominent Quakers are our next priority.

As a genre, biographies and autobiographies are much in demand. Harvey Gillman’s A Minority of One attracted us, in part because it is the story of the spiritual search of a contemporary person who in his journey encountered problems that are easily understood by a contemporary reader. We had some concerns before publication that the book might be censored due to its LGBTQ content, but difficulties of another sort arose: it includes a beautiful poem about stars of different colors, the cloth stars worn by Jehovah’s Witnesses and the others imprisoned in fascist concentration camps. The publishing house categorically demanded that we put a warning on the book, because in the Russian Federation, Jehovah’s Witnesses is an outlawed organization. From the point of view of Russian law they were right, but all the same, the case was so absurd and immoral that it was exposed in some major Russian media outlets.

Sometimes there are requests. Many years ago, the director of a foundation that helps refugee children asked us where it was possible to read in more detail about the Quaker business methods that make use of consensus in reaching a decision. After several years had passed, it was very satisfying to present her with a Russian translation of the book Beyond Majority Rule by Michael J. Sheeran which treats the subject in detail. This book had been recommended to us by a number of Friends both in Britain and in the United States, both from Liberal and Evangelical branches.

One of the key points in choosing books on a topical contemporary issue—protecting the environment, antiwar actions, social activism—is whether or not the author brings to light the spiritual basis of what they do. For us it is important not only what and how something is done, but why.

In addition to the books and pamphlets, we try to translate different kinds of materials of interest: articles from Quaker magazines, letters, and blogs collected from multiple Quaker sites. Our basic criteria in choosing are diversity and, as much as possible, topicality. We strive to embrace the different areas of Quaker activities, to find material about Quakers from different countries, and to become acquainted with the practices of the meetings and churches in different Quaker traditions. It may happen that some topic arises at the meeting of Moscow Friends, and following the thread of these discussions, we try to find and translate corresponding materials.

We direct particular attention to translating and placing articles on Wikipedia. This is a very important source of information for Russian readers, and we want Quakerism to be presented on that web resource as fully as possible. And so, over the course of what has now been five years, every week, without fail, some sort of new, discussable material, preferably short in length, appears on the main Russian-language Quaker site, www.quakers.ru. And most of this has been translated by us.


Harvey Gillman (the author, right) and Sergei Nikitin (the translator) in York, 2009. Photo courtesy of quakers.ru.

Who is able to translate?

When comparatively few texts are being translated, the question of choosing a translator does not arise that often; we consult Russian Friends who know the English language well. But when we have a lot to translate, we invite people who are only slightly or not at all acquainted with the realities of Quakerism. At the beginning we were afraid that outside translators would not render the finer points of Quaker faith with precision. But our experience has shown that this approach has its pluses! Imprecise translations of Quaker terms improved the precision of Quaker editing! New people also helped us to find new variants for translating specific Quaker terms. 

There came a point in our work when we needed to work at the same time with several translators, none acquainted with the facts of Quakerism. We actually had the idea of collecting them all together and holding an exercise in the translation of Quaker terms. But in the end we didn’t need to do that. We simply worked individually and patiently with each person. In time, the best of these translators became our favorite specialist; she has done high-quality translations of several books and long articles.

It is also very useful when translators are people of erudition. Their scholarship strongly influences the quality of their work and makes them useful as an editor. Several times we have needed to invite editors who were not Quakers to verify the translations being done by Quakers. For example, this happened with the book Walking with Wolf by Kay Chornook and Wolf Guindon. The specifics of the book—protecting the Costa Rican wilderness—necessitated our turning to a specialist in biology. She was a participant in our Meditation of Friends group; working with us and with the translator (a Quaker human rights worker) on the memoir of a passionate advocate for the environment helped her to understand more about Friends work in the world.

Evaluation of our Quaker texts comes largely from our Russian-language group on Facebook. Among these readers are people who have been led to translate after encountering texts on English-language Quaker resources. Usually this is material of high quality, and we agree to edit their translations and explain what could have been done better. The concrete and shared work of translating and editing also helps to spread Quakerism.

There are some special cases: books that are very difficult to translate, for which only one or two specialists are qualified. We have learned to wait patiently until they are able to put the finishing touches on their work. For us, in this case, developing the relationship is more important than speed. Such is the situation with The Journal of George Fox. The exacting and exciting work on this translation has gone on for several years, and this despite the fact that we chose to publish only about a fifth of this massive text. For all of the historical texts, we bring in English-speaking consultants who help the translator or the editor to clarify parts that are not understood. This sort of thoughtful work took place with the selections from the anthology Hidden in Plain Sight: Quaker Women’s Writings, 1650–1700. Among the other books that were difficult to translate were William Penn’s Some Fruits of Solitude and Rex Ambler’s Truth of the Heart: An Anthology of George Fox. Such texts give our readers the possibility to become acquainted with the wellsprings of the Quaker movement.


Russian translation of Walking with Wolf by Kay Chornook and Wolf Guindon.

In what way do we translate?

Russian religious language is very strongly tied to Orthodoxy, which is rather archaic and full of borrowings from ancient Greek and Old Church Slavonic. Quaker English is also full of terms impossible to understand properly without knowledge of their historical and institutional context (“meeting for sufferings,” “recorded minister,” “the testimony of stewardship”). The translator must navigate through a mixture of archaisms, rare words, and slang expressions that run helter-skelter through the names of Quaker organizations and committees. To add to all of this, some organizations have changed their names several times in the course of their histories. Translation is further complicated by the tendency in English, especially British English, to avoid the direct statement. Sometimes what, for an English-speaking person, is intended to express his thought as politely as possible, will, in a direct translation, seem to a Russian reader like insincerity or an attempt to deceive by entangling him in needless “sweet nothings.”

When speaking of translating Quaker texts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we must take into account that some English words have changed their primary meaning since that time, or are now related to a different style of speech. In this case, it is very important to find the golden mean. We seek on the one hand to preserve the historical coloration of the text, and on the other to not overload it with incomprehensible, archaic words, which demand many footnotes and reduce a living text to an assignment from an academic textbook on linguistics.

As a rule, our experienced translators successfully deal with these difficulties, and we think that the average Russian person can fully understand the meaning of the Quaker texts we have translated and not find them artificial, abstract, or culturally alienating.

Sometimes the prevailing social experiences of Russian society prevent readers from believing in the meaning of what is written. We hear distrustful questions of this sort: “I just didn’t understand; who is in charge of your meetings?” “Why didn’t I find anything about the required membership dues?” “And all the same, what should I do at the time of meeting for worship?” Probably the two most popular are these: “What do the Quakers think about Jesus Christ?” and “What do I have to do to become a Quaker?”

But sometimes there are absolutely amazing reactions. Not long ago, a Muslim from Chechnya, having become acquainted with Quaker books and having seen several of the QuakerSpeak videos with our Russian subtitles, asked a series of very specific questions. For the most part, they were about what to do during our time of prayer, about “sacred texts” among Quakers, and about the relationship to the use of force. He shared his conclusion with us: “Your faith and ours are one faith but with different names for things.”

Several years ago a Quaker couple from the city of Kazan, who had lived together for many years, wrote to us, telling of their wish to hold a Quaker wedding ceremony; they felt that this would help them to strengthen their marriage. (In Russia the government registration of a marriage and a religious wedding are different things.) We sent them a translation of Chapter 16 from Britain Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, drawing their attention to the sections on declarations and Quaker certificates of marriage. They became acquainted with the text and came to an understanding of the spiritual basis of the procedure, which spoke to their needs. After a certain length of time, two visiting Friends went to see them, held a simple wedding ceremony, and gave them a Quaker marriage certificate in their native Russian language.

Natalia Zhuravenkova and Sergei Grushko

Natalia Zhuravenkova and Sergei Grushko, members of Moscow Meeting in Russia, are the coordinators for translation services for Friends House Moscow, an international Quaker organization. Their article has been translated from Russian by Patricia Stewart in consultation with the authors.

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