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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Art Treasures Lose Something in the Translation

Vast amounts of money have been channeled into Russia's major art galleries recently. In Moscow, the Tretyakov's renovation bill continues to soar as the roof continues to leak, while in St. Petersburg the restructuring of the Hermitage is going to cost an estimated $300 million. Why is it, then, that no one seems prepared to pay for someone to translate the names of art works correctly?


The Russian Museum in Petersburg boasts a sketch by Alexander Ivanov, entitled "Semi-Figure of the Old Man Raising," an unsuccessful attempt at literal translation with which we all sympathize. Less excusable is a Shishkin landscape condemned to be "In the Thickest." At times the translator seems to give up completely, unwittingly removing all social comment from Smirnov's painting "The Sale of the Estate" with a more simplified version of the title -- "Selling Things."


Yet the Russian Museum's minor mistakes are completely eclipsed by the Museum of Private Collections in Moscow. This exceedingly opulent and otherwise flawless gallery offers "Raff" as a description of two men floating down a river on a raft, confuses "Jous" with "Jews," and is the proud owner of "After the Raicing," a bronze statue of a horse and rider by Evgenii Lansere. A seascape by Bogoliubov commands you to "See Surf," while Benois apparently painted "Walk of Emperoress Elizavet along St. Petersburg Street," which is unlikely to have found favor with the imperial family.


In fact, nothing is sacred. The Bible adopts a new image-conscious role in Ermenev's sketch "The Nice Looking Samaritan." Pushkin turns in his grave as scores of English-speaking visitors giggle disrespectfully at Shukhaev's sketch for "Spades Madame." And mythology suffers a role reversal when "The Judgement of Paris" becomes "The Judges of Paris."


But we should not mock, as translation is without a doubt fiendishly difficult.


Getting names and dates right, on the other hand, should not be beyond a curator's capabilities. However, the artist Hippolyte Delaroche, who signed his paintings as Paul Delaroche, becomes two separate people in the Hermitage, dying in 1856 and 1857. Even more ingenious is the artist M.M. Ivanov, who painted "Milking the Cow" in 1722, even though he lived from 1748 to 1823.


The Tretyakov when it reopens -- which might happen next month -- will for the first time include English translations of all the labels. Regular gallery staff who are unfortunate enough to speak good English have been laboring into the small hours, agonizing over the differences between flea markets and street markets, ponds and lakes, youths and adolescents. One can only wish them luck.