Mosskaw / Moskva: Sumarokov's Translations of Fleming's Sonnets (1)

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Although Michael Henry Heim has pointed out that "translation was ... no more than a sideline for [Aleksandr Petrovich] Sumarokov" (2) (1717-77), and Harold B. Segel has established that Sumarokov has "virtually nothing in common with the baroque," (3) this Russian literary pioneer, whom Segel has called "the first truly modern writer in the history of Russian literature," (4) provided the Russian reading public in 1755 with its first translations of three sonnets by the German Baroque poet Paul Fleming (1609-40)--translations which are significant both for Russian literary history (5) and for the history of the international reception of German Baroque literature. Sumarokov's selection of these three poems--"an die grosse Stadt Mosskaw / als er schiede," "An den Fluss Mosskaw / als er schiede," and "Er redet die Stadt Mosskaw an / Als er ihre verguldeten Thurme von fernen sahe"--was for obvious reasons a natural one; Fleming had three times visited Moscow (1634, 1636 and 1639) with Adam Olearius on the Holstein trade mission sent by Duke Friedrich III, and had written the poems while there, glorifying the Russian capital.

Sumarokov, along with Mikhail Vasil'evich Lomonosov (1711-65) and Vasilii Kirillovich Trediakovskii (1703-69), was instrumental in establishing the norms for the foundation of modern Russian literature. He had learned German (along with French, of course) and had become acquainted with contemporary European literatures at the Corps of Cadets (Sukhoputnyi shliakhetnyi korpus) in St. Petersburg, an academy for the sons of the nobility. He worked at introducing into Russian literature the various poetic and dramatic genres then current in western Europe, and although the sonnet was not one of the fashionable genres of the eighteenth century, Sumarokov tried his hand at it, producing, however, only nine, including the three Fleming translations.

Sumarokov was naturally familiar with the major European literary movements of the preceding century, and particularly with Fleming's poetry; the noted Russian literary historian Mikhail Pavlovich Alekseev specifically points this out in his article on Fleming in the USSR Academy of Sciences' Istoriia nemetskoi literatury v piati tomakh. (6) Sumarokov would have been able to read Fleming's sonnets in one of the many reprints of the German poet's works that had appeared since his death. That he was also familiar with other writers of the Baroque is clear; in his "Epistola II" of 1747 (his two-verse "Epistles"--one on the Russian language, the other on versification--are important works in the history of Russian poetry) he includes the Hollander Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679) and the German poet of the late Baroque Johann Christian Gunther (1695-1723) among models worthy of imitation. (7) Incidentally, according to the editor of Sumarokov's Izbrannye proiz-vedeniia, P. N. Berkov, Sumarokov compiled the first Russian biographical lexicon of Russian and foreign writers, although a brief one, for his two "Epistles." (8) Entitled "Primechaniia na upotreblennye v sikh epistolakh stikhotvortsev imena" ("Notes on the names of poets used in these epistles"), this list included the following note on Gunther: "a recent German poet whose carefully composed and polished verses, though far fewer than those of others, merit the highest praise." (9)

Sumarokov's translations of Fleming's sonnets appeared in 1755 in a prestigious publication--Ezhemesiachnye Sochineniia k pol'ze i uveseleniiu sluzhashchie ("Monthly compositions serving to benefit and entertain"), published by the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, the first scholarly literary journal in Russian literary history, which had begun publication that same year, with the purpose of raising the cultural level of the literate public. Since only the aristocracy was literate, the readership would have been limited, and the fact that the journal was printed in 2,000 copies (10) attests its significance, as does the fact that it numbered all three of the giants of early Russian literary history--Sumarokov, Lomonosov, and Trediakovskii--among its contributors. …