Russian Words for ‘freedom’ Revisited

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The paper deals with the Russian words referring to ‘freedom’ ( svoboda , volia , and their derivatives svobodnyj , vol’nyi , vol’nost’ , etc.) in both synchronic and diachronic aspects. I seek to elaborate and to refine the analysis given in some earlier publications (by Anna Wierzbicka and by myself). The paper analyzes the spatial dimension of the semantics of the words under consideration, the contrast between svoboda and volia before the Revolution, their semantic development during Soviet times and their current semantic status. It also considers metalinguistic comments on their semantics by Russian speakers. I make special reference to the role of these words in The First Circle by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the problem of their translation into other languages. In addition, I briefly consider the use of the words in question in the translations of various texts into Russian (with reference to the parallel corpora of the Russian National Corpus). The starting point for such an analysis is the assumption that one may regard translation equivalents and paraphrases of a linguistic unit extracted from real translated texts as a source of information about its semantics. This approach is particularly efficient in case of language-specific words that defy translation. Translations into Russian may be even more revealing in this respect: when Russian is the source language, the choice of a paraphrase depends on the translator’s meta-linguistic reflection while an occurrence of a Russian language-specific expression in the target text, more often than not reflects a “naïve” choice of words as a part of “natural” linguistic activity.

About the authors

Alexei D Shmelev

Moscow Pedagogical State University

Author for correspondence.
1 Malaia Pirogovskaia St., Moscow 119991, Russia Professor of Russian Linguistics at Moscow Pedagogical State University, the head of the Department of Linguistic Standards of Russian at the Russian Language Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a Professor of Theoretical Linguistics at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University. His work spans a number of disciplines including cultural studies and linguistics. He is the author of numerous books, most recently, Russkaja aspektologija: v zashchitu vidovoj pary [Russian Aspectology: in Defense of the Aspectual Pair] (2015, co-authored with Anna Zalizniak and Irina Mikaelian).


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