Translating from the Russian

While searching for mentions of the California condor in books about the history of California, I happened upon a book concerning the exploration and colonization of California by Russians. This book started me on a bit of an expedition. This post is a report on what I have learned so far.

James R. Gibson and Alexei A. Istomin compiled, edited, and translated reports of Russian activities in California. Their 2-volume product, Russian California, 1806-1860: A History in Documents, was published in 2014 by the Hakluyt Society.

One of those documents is  “Notes on the Russian-American Company’s Colonies in America. Part VI. Fort Ross on the Coast of New Albion”, attributed to K. T. Khlebnikov and dated 1827-1832. This includes a section headed “Natural products”. Below is the single paragraph devoted to birds:

Of birds, there are bald-headed eagles, various kinds of hawks, magpies, crows, woodpeckers, wild pigeons [rock doves?], condors, not a few sparrows (some of which [finches?] have very beautiful feathers), many black starlings [redwinged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus)] that the Spaniards call chanates (which frequent the ploughland and destroy the grain), ducks, many sandpipers of various kinds, geese that fly from the north to winter, swans [egrets?], cranes, herons, numerous grey [brown] and white pelicans, seagulls, sea ducks, guillemots, cormorants, albatrosses[?], and auklets.

I set “condors” in bold face. Otherwise, the text above is as in the book, including all the editorial comments.

A footnote indicates that the source document is in “Russian archives”. The footnote also refers to a previous translation but cautions that it contains inaccuracies.

That previous translation is Colonial Russian America: Kyrill T. Khlebnikov’s Reports, 1817-1832, translated by Basil Dmytryshyn and E. A. P. Crownhart-Vaughan, and published by the Oregon Historical Society in 1976. The organization of the text in the 2 translations is similar. However, in the 1976 transalation there is a subsection headed “Birds” within the section “Natural products”. Below is the 1st paragraph of the bird subsection (the other paragraphs concern migratory birds, hummingbirds, marine birds, and “bats and flying mice”).

Birds which are native to the cliffs and forests of northwest America are not small and delicate. If we exclude the birds who come up from the south to spend the summer, which beautify the forests, the water and the air, then the following forest birds can be considered native to this region: a medium sized white eagle which nests in high inaccessible places in mountain ravines, the crow and the small eagle-owl. The crow is found everywhere, and one can always hear its wild cawing. A few birds of the sparrow family and a few swallows appear in the spring. Black geese and ptarmigan are to be found in forests far from the sea. In very cold winters the black geese cannot find anything to eat on the snow-covered cliffs and come in close to shore, at which time they can be killed in great numbers.

There is nothing of condors or even vultures here.

So I found a third translation. The September 1940 issue of Pacific Historical Review includes “Memoirs of California” by K. T. Khlebnikov. Here is the paragraph devoted to birds:

From the north there come large flocks of geese which winter in the entire Upper California from October to March or April, then depart. Cranes and white and gray herons are found both in summer and winter, as well as various kinds of ducks and snipes. But the daintiest of wild game are the codornizes, little birds very much like the hazel grouse, about the size of a dove; and though that in translation means quail, the bird does not look at all like it. This bird is to be found throughout the entire province. Among the birds of prey there are bred eagles, hawks, various kinds of kites, which have a bald head covered with red flesh like that of the Indian chickens, common crows which live on refuse and carrion near settlements, and magpies with white beaks, somewhat smaller than the European variety. Of the sparrow type there are many varieties with beautiful feathers; there are whole flocks of little birds called chanates: some of them have red feathers under their wings which the Indians use to decorate their baskets woven of tree roots. These birds are of a size a little larger than swallows, breed near ploughed grain and fruit terribly. Humming birds appear in numbers. Of the domestic birds there are common chickens, and a few missions have Indian chickens. In various places a good many pigeons are owned, though wild pigeons are not seen.

The text that I have set in bold face is notable. “Codornizes” is a word that drew my attention but obviously has nothing to do with the California condor. “Among the birds of prey …”, however, is suggestive of a scavenger/raptor such as a condor or turkey vulture.

In an introduction to that 3rd translation, Anatole G. Mazour indicates that the original document he translated was published in Russia in 1829. I have not (yet) found this original. But I have found another version in Russian that is noted in all 3 of the translations above.

“Материалы для истории русских заселении по берегам Восточного океана” was published in the journal Морской Cборник in 1861, decades after Khlebnikov’s death. The article title translates as “Materials for the history of Russian settlement on the shores of the Eastern Ocean”. I have seen the journal title translated as “Sea Anthology”; it is focused on naval activities.

Drawing on my modest familiarity with the Cyrillic alphabet, I found a section in the Russian-language version headed “birds” (птицы) and carefully searched the next 2 paragraphs for species names. I found mentions of the eagle (орел), owl (филин), raven (ворон), and many other species. But I did not find condor (кондор) or vulture (стервятник, гриф, or хищник). Nor did I found any sign of a “bald head” (Лысая голова) or “Indian chickens” (Индийские куры).

All this is inconclusive. But it does illustrate the challenge of making sense of historical information about species (and time-consuming searches are too-often inconclusive).

If any reader can help me make sense of this, please Contact me.

For definitive information about California condors and the Russian explorers in North America, see Sanford Wilbur’s Nine Feet from Tip to Tip (one of the Essential books about the condor).