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Shakespeare in Russian, part two: pre-revolutionary Shakespeares

2017 marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Kelsey Ridge tells us about the Trust's pre-revolutionary Russian editions of Shakespeare's works and their translators.

Kelsey Ridge
Pre-revolutionary Russian translations of Shakespeare's works
Pre-revolutionary Russian translations of Shakespeare's works

Shakespeare enjoyed a place of prominence in 19th-century Russian culture and underwent multiple translations, though Shakespeare’s complete works were not translated by a single author until 1841.  The Shakespeare Birthplace possesses multiple pre-Revolutionary Russian translations of the complete works: Nikolai Khristoforovich Ketcher’s of 1862, Nikolai Vasilyevich Gerbel’s of 1880, Alexander Lukivich Sokolovsky’s of 1894, and Semen Afanasyevich Vengerov’s of 1902.

Each of these texts is accessible in Russia, for example at the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg. However, if you wish to access one outside of Russia, one’s options are limited.  Vengerov’s text may be the most widely accessible, with WorldCat showing 26 other non-Russian libraries stocking the 1902 translation.  Although the University of California digitized their copy, a physical version of Ketcher’s 1862 edition appears available only at four other locations outside of Russia. Gerbel’s 1880 collected translations can be found in only 6 other non-Russian libraries.  Sokolovsky’s 1894 text seems only available in one other non-Russian library.


Ketcher, who was educated as a physician at the Medical and Surgical Academy, provided the first Complete Works translation in 1841.  Ketcher worked from the Payne Collier Folio of 1632. Perhaps because of his precise medical background, Ketcher favoured a word-for-word prose translation over endeavouring to translate Shakespeare’s poetry.  Russian commenters seem divided on whether that was a good idea.  Perhaps the most charitable interpretation is N. V. Zakharov’s, when he supposes that Ketcher so loved Shakespeare that he would not change a word, though perhaps a literal translation is more fitting for a scientific than an artistic pursuit.  Some, like Ivan Turgenev, felt that in his quest for accuracy, Ketcher had “trans-mangled” Shakespeare’s words. Others, like Anthony Wesolowski, held the view that a good prose translation was an important intermediate step before a good poetic translation could really be had.   Whatever deficiencies there may be in the translation, Zakharov suggests that Ketcher’s translations were staged and were influential on future Russian artists.

The text held at the Birthplace is the 2nd edition, printed in 1862 based on the 1841 translation.  It was approved for publication by government censors in Dec. 2 1861 and printed in Moscow. It cost 1 silver ruble.

Illustration accompanying Vengerov's translation
Illustration accompanying Vengerov's translation


This 1880 edition was edited by Nikolai Vasilyevich Gerbel to include translations by multiple Russian authors.  Gerbel was known both as a translator and an editor of translated works.  In addition to his work on Shakespeare, from 1857 to 1880, Gerbel also published editions of the complete works of other European writers, translated into Russian, as well, including Schiller, Byron, and Goethe.  In this endeavour, he was assisted by his wife, Olga Ivanovna.  In 1861, he also, apparently, published abroad Pushkin poems that had been banned by the censors.

The 1880 text appears to be the third edition of Gerbel’s collected works.  It was not identical to prior editions, though.  At the start, Gerbel makes reference to new translations of some of the plays, as well as the inclusion of previously absent poems, such as Venus and Adonis.  The first volume contains a lengthy biography of Shakespeare in early modern English history, and each play is preceded by a critical commentary.  The edition cost 12 rubles.


Sokolovsky began as a translator of individual works of Shakespeare.  Some of his individual translations were even included in collections by Gerbel.  However, as his individual translations began to be eclipsed by others, Sokolovsky turned to completing a translation of the complete works.

The work begins with a discussion of Shakespeare in literature and a biography of Shakespeare in early modern English history, and each play is preceded by a critical commentary.  Eventually, it would be Sokolovsky’s translation of Romeo and Juliet that would serve as the textual basis for Tchaikovsky’s planned opera, of which there remains a fifteen minute duet.

Sokolovsky’s feat of translation would eventually win Sokolovsky the Pushkin Prize in 1901.  This text bears the author’s autograph “with the author’s compliments” from Nov. 23, 1903 St. Petersburg.


Vengerov was a biographer, translator, and literary historian.  He produced editions of translations of Shakespeare, Moliere, Schiller, and Byron.

Like Gerbel’s edition, Vengerov’s is a compilation of the work of multiple translators, some old enough to suggest that many of the translations were not specifically commissioned for this edition. Indeed, some of the translators had already been published by Gerbel.  Each play is preceded by a critical commentary.  Furthermore, throughout the edition there are illustrations.  These are reflective of different paintings and reproductions of other historical details.  Again, some of them are a sufficient age to suggest that they were not commissioned illustrations but selected illustrations.

After his death in 1920, Vengerov was interred at the Literary Bridge Volkovsky cemetery in St. Petersburg.

Frontispiece 1902 translation by Vengerov

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