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Review

The First Russian Voyage Around the World: The Journal of Hermann Ludwig von Lowenstern (1803-1806)

By Victoria Joan Moessner, Hermann Ludwig von Lowenstern

November 4, 2013

Review By James Gibson

THE RUSSIAN VOYAGE around the world (1803-06) recounted in this journal by the fourth officer and cartographer of the expedition’s flagship, the Nadezhda (Hope), is noteworthy on several counts. It was the country’s maiden circumnavigation (which raises the interesting question of why it occurred so late, almost three centuries after Magellan’s). It was thoroughly multipurpose: economic, diplomatic, strategic, logistical, and scientific. It anatagonized both Japan and China by trying (unsuccessfully) to establish commercial relations with the shogu-nate and to open Canton to Russian merchants. It succeeded in saving new Archangel (Sitka), Russian America’s capital, from starvation by launching trade with Spanish California. It probed and charted new lands and waters, and collected and preserved exotic artifacts and specimens. It trained Russian sailors in pelagic seafaring, and it strengthened Russia’s position in the European circle of maritime powers in general and in the North Pacific sphere of international rivalry in particular. All of this has been well documented in half a dozen accounts of the expedition by a variety of participants with divergent views – the commander of the two ships, a Russian ambassador, a Russian-American Company agent, a hieromonk (i.e., a monk who is also a priest), a naturalist, and others. 

Von Lôwenstern’s account has been labouriously translated from the colloquial German (interspersed with French, German, Russian, and English) used in a typescript of an uncensored diary (collated with the original manuscript) intended only for family members. As such it is refreshingly candid, particularly with respect to individual personalities, mainly the seemingly conceited, arrogant, and coarse ambassador, Imperial Chamberlain Nikolay Resanov. Von Lowenstern constantly villifies Resanov, frequently referring to him as the “Grote Herr” and calling him a “snake” (306) and a “Judas” (322). In contrast, he speaks well of the steady, lenient Captain Krusenstern, a fellow officer and a Baltic German compatriot (both Resanov and Krusenstern claimed leadership of the expedition). Indeed, Von Lowenstern spends far too much ink on personal clashes and, with the exception of a stopover at Canton, far too little on the places and the peoples he visited. Unfortunately, not a little of his querulous narrative degenerates into tiresome name-calling and gossip. And once Rezanov leaves the Nadezhda in Kamchatka after the abortive embassy to Japan (and proceeds to romantic fame in Alta California with Dona Conception), on the homeward voyage the author soon finds a new bette noir in Lisiansky, the captain of the Neva, the Nadezhda’s sister ship. 

The translation of this work has obviously been a huge task, and the translator, a professor of German, merits our thanks. I am unable to judge the rendering from German into English, but I can point out that the latter is severely marred. There are far too many lapses in grammar, punctuation (overused comma), and vocabulary (“reminisces” instead of “reminiscences” [xxiii], “enthused” instead of “enthusiastic” [xxii], “healthy” instead of “healthful” [183], “attest” instead of “attestation,” “onboard” instead of “aboard,” etc.). There are scrambled sentences, unnecessary “sics,” and non-standard transliterations. Mistranslations from the Russian abound: “agents for transport” should be “company workers” (4); “forthwith” is incorrectly translated as “at that time” (7); the word translated as “niggard” actually means “bribe-taker” or “mercenary,” which in any case would be better rendered as “pennypincher” (7, 8); the phrase “for the embassy” should be “for taking away” (124). There are unexplained phrases (to be “put on the drift” [14], to “toll out” [no]) and places that are not discussed (Skaggerak [14], Doggers Bank [14]). More careful editing would have spotted such things. Also, foreign (mostly Russian) terms are sometimes scrambled, and there are a number of bad transliterations (“Schellichoff” instead of “Shelikhov” [6], “prikaschtschiks” instead of “prikazchiks” [“supercargoes”]) as well as the repeated use of archaic English words (“pickthank” [“toady”] [138], “subchiru-rius” [“paramedic”?]). I understand that much of this has to do with the translator’s desire to retain the flavour of the original manuscript, but I find such renderings more intrusive than anything else (especially when the Cyrillic script is printed in small capitals). Her “Introduction” has far too much detail on the author s family background, and the list of “Selected Contemporary Events during the Nadezhda’s Voyage around the World” is largely irrelevant. I noticed one howler: the invasion of “eastern Alaska” by Tsar Alexander I in 1803 (xxix). The numerous illustrations in colour and black and white are helpful, although some of the latter are too sketchy to be of much use.