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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Amid the Dark Shadows of Obscurantism

Мракобесие: obscurantism, anti-Enlightenment, die-hard conservatism, reactionary politics

Knowledge of Russian word formation is a great tool for making sense of unfamiliar words — except when it doesn’t work. A prime example of formation analysis failure is the word мракобесие. Мрак — darkness, cheerlessness, something nightmarish or shadowy. Бес — a demon or devil, or perhaps a derivative of беситься (to go mad). The word sounds vividly evocative, but of what? Devilish darkness? Dreary demons? Shadowy madness? Insane darkness? Huh?

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Foreigners aren’t the only ones who have been puzzled by this word. According to linguist Viktor Vinogradov, мракобесие appeared in the early 19th century as a translation of the French phrase la manie des tenebres, an image of maniacal reveling in darkness. Мракобесие became one of the buzzwords of the liberal Russian intelligentsia, used to mean a political and social philosophy opposed to progress and science — a bacchanalia of scientific and philosophical darkness that opposed the principles of the Enlightenment. The noun derived from it, мракобес, is a person who is reactionary, dogmatic, hostile to science and freethinking.

Мракобесие is usually rendered as obscurantism, which isn’t always a satisfying translation. First, obscurantism has two meanings: opposition to the spread of knowledge (which fits) and an art or literary style characterized by vagueness (which doesn’t). Second, obscurantism isn’t a word we bandy around much. In contrast, мракобесие can be found fairly frequently in Russian newspapers, as well as in speech — particularly in rants.

This is not to say obscurantism can never be used to translate мракобесие. One of the greatest ranters in Russian history was literary critic Vissarion Belinsky. Just about every Russian knows his “Letter to Nikolai Gogol,” in which he castigated the writer after he published a work praising the monarchy and Russian Orthodox Church. Belinsky famously addressed him as “проповедник кнута, апостол невежества” (advocate of the whip, apostle of ignorance). He continued to rail at him, using two synonyms, one Russian word and one foreign loan word — a rhetorical flourish still practiced today. He called Gogol “поборник обскурантизма и мракобесия.” Considering the year the letter was written (1847) and the style, you might translate just one of the synonyms and render the phrase: “standard-bearer of obscurantism.” One translator of this letter deciphered мракобесие as “Stygian darkness.” The phrase, derived from the river Styx in Hades, is a rather clever rendering of the word’s component parts, although I’m not sure what exactly a “champion of Stygian darkness” would be. But if you were in a florid translating mood, the full phrase could be “standard-bearer of obscurantism and the dark forces of reaction.”

Translation is trickier with modern texts. In many cases, I’d go for a descriptive translation: В самых высших эшелонах власти начинают ощущать рост мракобесия в стране (At the highest levels of government, they’re starting to feel the growing ultra-conservative mood in the country).

Or you might want to emphasize the anti-science aspect. For example, a newspaper column called Мракобесие that examines medical scams and superstitions might be translated prosaically as “Scientific Fallacies” or expressively as “The Scientific Dark Ages.”

Мракобес is easier to translate. Depending on the context, this person might be a reactionary, arch-conservative, Neanderthal, traditionalist or flat-earther. You could call them backward, medieval or hostile to progress. And if this were in the U.S. context, translation would be easy. We have a word for our homegrown мракобес: wing nut.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.