A mystery of the Pinnated Grouse0

In the first, anonymous Russian translation of Wonderland (Sonia v tsarstve diva, Moscow, 1879, possibly by Ekaterina Boratynskaya, née Timiryazeva), the White Rabbit addressed Pat, instead of “you goose!”, by another, strange ornithological term, ​хохлатый тетерев / khokhlatyi teterev (Ch. IV, p. 45).

This added name, literally, means a ‘crested grouse’ but there is no such bird in Russia. ‘Teterev’ is the Black Grouse (Lyrurus tetrix), a well-known Russian game bird, but it is not in any way “crested; and the combination hardly can be seen as a nonsensical address.

The exact combination khokhlatyi teterev, however, appears in English-Russian dictionaries contemporary with Sonia (e.g. Tauschnitz’s pocket dictionary published in Leipzig in 1830s–1890s). There, it is listed as a Russian translation of “Heath-cock”. In Europe, this English name traditionally refers to the same Black Grouse. However, in North America, “Heath-cock” (or, more commonly “Heath-hen”) at this time referred to the now-extinct Pinnated Grouse, or Great Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido), males of which had a distinct double set of feathery crests (hence, “pinnated”).

However, why in the world would be Pat called a Pinnated Grouse, or a Heath-cock, in Russian context? The only possible solution I can suggest is a rather complex literary charade. A reader is supposed to insert the English term for khokhlatyi teterev as a Heath-hen; to recognize a Carroll-style phonetic pun as Heathen; and to decode Rabbit’s sentence as “Arm, you heathen!” This combination, in its turn, readdresses one to a scene from English classical literature, which is also full of puns.

Hamlet was read, translated many times, and staged in Russia widely by the 1870s. In its Act 5, Scene 1, we find the famous dialogue of two gravediggers:   

GRAVEDIGGER. <…> Come, my spade. There is no ancient gentleman but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers. They hold up Adam’s profession.

OTHER.  Was he a gentleman?

GRAVEDIGGER.  He was the first that ever bore arms.

OTHER.  Why, he had none.

GRAVEDIGGER.  What, art a heathen? How dost thou understand the Scripture? The Scripture says, Adam digged: could he dig without arms?

Pat, who in Wonderland is not a specified creature, in Sonia becomes a rooster (петух / petukh, from петь / pet’ ‘to sing’). He is named Петька/ Petʹka (diminutive of Пётр / Pёtr ‘Peter’), as roosters are traditionally called in Russian folklore. In Sonia, he is digging not for the “apples” but for asparagus in a dung heap; this could be a reference to Ivan Krylov’s fable Петух и жемчужное зерно / Petukh i zhemchuzhnoe zerno (‘The Rooster and a Pearl’, 1808), derived from La Fontaine’s fable Le Coq et la Perle (1668).

The Hamlet series of puns fits the Wonderland/Sonia imagery. Alice’s arm (“arrum”) is what the Rabbit and Pat (‘a heathen’) are discussing. Being a rooster (same bird family as heath-hen), Pat digs with his feet, i.e. “without arms”; and he is also fits the role of Rabbit’s gardener. Since Pat is a male, he is a heath-cock (teterev, masc.), not a heath-hen (tetёrka, fem.). One can see such scenes discussed (and maybe even enacted) by Hamlet- and Wonderland-reading young Russian readers of the 1870s, such as the Timiryazev family; complex literary charades were commonly played in educated households.

The ‘heath-hen/heathen’ pun is found in at least one historical anecdote, published by the Scottish-American poet and ornithologist Alexander Wilson (1766–1813), the “Father of the American Ornithology.” As early as 1791, a bill titled “An Act for the preservation of Heath-Hen, and other game” was introduced in the New York State legislature. Wilson wrote: “The honest Chairman of the Assembly—no sportsman, I suppose—read the title, ‘An Act for the preservation of Heathen, and other game’!” which seemed to astonish the northern members, who could not see the propriety of preserving Indians, or any other heathens.” This quote is found in Wilson’s American Ornithology, where the species is called a “Pinnated Grouse”, as early as 1829. I found the same story in an American children’s magazine that matches Sonia’s translation timeframe (Our Young Folks: An Illustrated Magazine for Boys and Girls, Boston, Vol. 7, No 1, January 1871, p. 676–680: “Prairie-Chickens” by F. M. Gray).  On p. 680, the anecdote is recounted, and on p. 676 one sees a nice image of a Pinnated Grouse. The story became known across the world since the New York 1791 act was one of the first ever to legislate wildlife protection. It is found even in modern Russian sources although today the extinct American species is called vostochnyi stepnoi teterev (“Eastern Steppe Grouse”), or lugovoi teterev (“Meadow Grouse”).

Of course, it is entirely possible to arrive to the ‘heath-hen/heathen’ pun independently from the American ornithological anecdote. For example, Sir Walter Scott, who was very widely read in Russia (and whose novels Vasily Arkadyevich Timiryazev, Ekaterina Boratynskaya’s uncle, translated into Russian!) mentions both “heath-cock” and “heath-hen”: “Fergus, all the while, with his myrmidons, striding stoutly by his side, or diverging to get a shot at a roe or a heath-cock.” (Waverley, 1814, Ch. 24); “On yonder mountain’s purple head / Have ptarmigan and heath-cock bled.” (The Lady of the Lake, 1810, 1:22); “… she would sit still as a heath-hen when the hawk is in the heavens.” (Anne of Geierstein, or The Maiden of the Mist, 1829, Ch. 36). In all these cases, however, the bird is the European Black Grouse. Therefore, Sonia translator would have applied the imprecise dictionary entry ‘khokhlatyi teterev’ (Pinnated Grouse), which in fact refers only to the American species.

Whatever is the origin of this pun, in Sonia’s text it appears very incongruent since it is not decoded: a Russian reader would not know what to make of khokhlatyi teterev without a back-translation into English. This is why I suggest that this unexplained riddle is a possible trace of a domestic charade (played by Sonia’s translator or in her household), which was not properly explained or edited in the published manuscript.

The same refers to the enigmatic, endearing Gneden'kaia (“Little Bay”) name, with which Iliushka (the Hatter) addresses Sonia (Ch. VII, p. 94), and possibly also to a strange version of Queen’s croquet ground. The text says (Ch. VIII, p. 123): “Ploshchadka vsia nerovnaia: gde doska gnilaia, gde torchit rebrom, a gde vovse provalilasʹ” (‘The court was all uneven: here, a board is rotten; here, a board sticks out with its side; and here, one completely fell through’). This added description is not Carroll’s croquet ground with its earthen ‘ridges and furrows’. Sonia’s text describes not an uneven lawn but a sort of a board-covered deck. It is possible that the translator described here a miniature table croquet (Russ. nastolnyi kroket), a Victorian parlor game familiar to Sonia’s readers; it nicely fits the scale of Wonderland characters. This game was popular in Russia in the 19th century, and is still played there.

Such incongruent additions seem to indicate an unfinished nature of Sonia’s text, which initially (and/or partially) might have been intended for a narrow, domestic audience. Indeed, Sonia has an appearance of a work that was not properly finished or/and edited. Its last chapters are heavily truncated; many difficult pun sequences are left out; and some added, unexplained expressions could represent traces of domestic charades that were not properly removed. It could be that the translator did not finish her work on the manuscript, and it was eventually published without being completed. This could also explain its anonymity and subsequent obscurity.


Victor Fet (b. 1955), poet, biologist, translator. Teaches biology at Marshall University, West Virginia. An expert on scorpions. Published numerous poems in Russian periodicals of the USA and Germany; and five books of poetry  in Russian; science fantasy (Alice and the Time Machine; Dolly's Follies) in both Russian and English. Translated 'The Hunting of the Snark' by Lewis Carroll in 1976 (first published in 2001). Published scholarly research on Lewis Carroll, Vladimir Nabokov, etc. 




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