How to Research Without Knowing the Language

By Paul Wickenden of Thanet

So, you're rummaging through a book store and you find a dusty old book written in a language that looks suspiciously like Polish or Russian or Urdmut, and you think to yourself: "Hey! Is this that hard-to-find book of period Urdmut costumes I've been looking for? Or is it Baba Yaga's Fantasy Costuming Book for Dummies? Oy! If only I could read Urdmut (or Russian or Polish)!" Well, even if you don't read the language, you can still evaluate a book and figure out if it's the one you need or one of the many you should avoid.

Some Basic Hints

While I have the advantage of reading Russian, I have often had to operate in languages that I did not know at all. In the process, I've found a few tricks that help me quickly determine if a book will be useful to me and, if so, for what. None of these tricks is foolproof, but they will help you to eliminate a lot of duds:

Learn your A-B-Vs. Know the alphabet of your language. It's not much to ask. Most languages have 35 or fewer letters in their alphabet. And even if your chosen language uses Cyrillic letters, any student of Russian can tell you that the alphabet is the least of your worries.... But seriously, great mileage can be achieved simply by being able to sound out a title.

Kak skazat' "gold-leaf illumination" po-russki? Learn some basic vocabulary words. When I'm looking for Hungarian name books, I focus on the word nevek, when hunting in Polish, I look for nazw. I'm not going to bother to learn these languages fully, but I do learn a dozen words that will help me find my books faster.

Easy enough! However, be aware that most of these languages are subject to "declension," meaning that their endings sometime mutate when they take on other parts of speech besides the subject of a sentence. Unless you want to learn all the grammar of the language, a good rule of thumb is just learn to ignore the endings of words. Focus instead on the basic root. Like most languages, most related words have a common root. So, following this advice in English, "nam-" gives me "name," "names," "naming," "named," and so on.

"V" is for century. One of the neat little things about Slavic languages is that they share a lot of cognates. One of those commonalities is the word for "century" -- vek. Now, it can complicate things a bit that the Poles spell it wek, and it is spelled BEK in Cyrillic alphabets, but this is one powerful word you should look for. Often abbreviated as just "V" (or "W" or "B") in the title of books, you can quickly check if your book that depicts a bunch of women's headdresses covers the "16 v" or the "19 v." And, while we're on the subject, the use of two v's conveys the plural (i.e., centuries), so "15-17 BB" means "15th-17th centuries." Note: in Hungarian, the word is szazad, so look for S's if you're a Magyar!

When in Prague do as the Romans do. On a related note, bone up on your Roman numerals. Almost all Eastern European countries maintain the habit of using Roman numerals to convey centuries ("XII-XV vv"). When I want to scan really quickly, I frequently just look for the Roman numerals. If I see lots of "XII" and "XIV" then I know I have a good book. If I see "XIX" and "XX" then I put it back.

Judging the Reliable Book

Having survived a cursory examination to determine that the book covers useful material, how do you know it is reliable? Like everywhere else, there is plenty of junk out there:

Akademia dilemmias. Most Continental European countries have an active flourishing scientific society called an "Academy of Science." In Budapest they're called "Akademiai Kiado," in Poland they are "Akademiia nauk." While these are official state-run organizations historically full of political apple polishers (see below), they are include the best academics that most of these countries have to offer. And they produce serious books with serious reputations. Not that everything that bears the Academy's imprint on its cover is worth reading, but they have a better track record than any other publisher. At the very least, the work has likely been reviewed by peers.

Those who forgot their history are doomed to forget others' as well. History is written by the conquerors and nowhere is that more true than in Central Europe. Know the recent history of your chosen nation-state, as well as its period one. Be aware of when the book was published and understand that it will have probably have been written to please the ruling regime of the moment. Sometimes this is due to blatant censorship. But often enough, authors are making an effort to please their readers (or the authorities that bestow useful things like food, apartments, and pensions). That means that inconvenient facts are likely to be overlooked in favor of data that please those on the throne. Hey, if nothing else, it's a very period thing to do!

Objectivity is in the eye of the beholder. Objectivity is largely a Western academic concept. Eastern European scholars, while no less rigorous and hardworking than their Western counterparts generally see no particular problem with inserting their own contemporary political agendas into their works. Understand this fact and read accordingly.

Lingua Russica. I am sometimes quite thankful that the Soviet Union had such a wide expansive embrace on the region we research, because it means that all of the "fraternal" members of the Eastern Bloc were forced to make their works accessible to the Russians, by often providing abstracts (and even full indexes) in Russian, even if the book was written, let's say, in Slovak. Thus, while I can't read Slovak, I can take my much better command of Russian and use it to determine if the book covers material I want to know more about. And now that Russia's star has been eclipsed, you will find that recent scholarship obliges you with abstracts in English, German, or French instead. So, just because the book is written in Latvian, it doesn't mean that the entire book is written in Latvian.

How to Read Slavic Books

Finally, there is the basic question of finding your way through the tome itself. Eastern European books are not organized like Western books and some basic orientation is in order:

Kindergarten documentation for grownups. Most historical works from the 20th century rely on drawn illustrations rather than photographs. In many cases, this is a blessing as the quality of Soviet-era photographs leaves a great deal to be desired, but you need to remember that the line drawings are impressions. Oftentimes, they are maddeningly inaccurate too.

Front is back. In most Eastern European books, the first page of the book after the title page is the first page of actual text. The table of contents and the copyright page are stuffed at the back of the book. So, when you open a book, be sure to jump to the end first to know if it is worth reading cover to cover.

Citation by number, 1-2-3. Most contemporary academic works in Eastern Europe rely upon a numeric citation system, where the cites is portrayed as a number (236a) within the text. You then go to the back of the book, to its bibliography, and find book #236a in the list and that is the source of the information.

So, for example, if I find an interesting passage that seems to be talking about birch bark shoes and I want to know more, I jump back to that numbered source and find out...and Lo! The source the author used is entitled "<something I can't read> shoes <something else I can't read> XVIII v," which means it is probably something about 18th century shoes, so I probably can't use the material. Got the hang of this yet?

You can't buy it at a Barnes & Noble. Finally, bear in mind that finding the right book is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Eastern European books generally only have one printing and go out of print immediately. Buy it when you see it, because you will never find it again.

Hopefully, some of this advice can help you in your search for sources. And for those with experience in searching, feel free to send in your additional suggestions and we'll publish them here.


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