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Does anybody know when the mistranslation "Red Square" made its first recorded appearance? Have there been any noteworthy attempts at establishing the correct translation "Beautiful Square" at some point in history? Obviously, it's too late to change the name now, but I am interested in learning how fast its use gained momentum in English-speaking countries and when the point of no return was reached.

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Note that the mistranslation also occurred in other languages. In Portuguese, for example, the square is referred to as "praca vermelha" (red square). –  b.roth Aug 20 '10 at 12:31
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RegDwight, I think you should explain in your question that you are talking about the square in front of the Kremlin and that the Russian word for red can also mean "beautiful" (which would have been the correct translation here). –  b.roth Aug 20 '10 at 12:36
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@Bruno: good point, I'm adding a Wikipedia link and the correct translation. –  RegDwigнt Aug 20 '10 at 12:49
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@Reg Interesting: as an American, experience with the term, it had a reference not to the place itself but to the people and the government. Red Square, i would wager, may not have even registered to some during the Cold War as a particularly real place; but rather as an abstract place where communists talk communist-y things. Similarly, Washington DC is a very real place, but if someone says "'dem boys up in DC" you can be sure theyre referring to the place abstractly. ANYWAY, looking forward to someone who has a real answer on your question :) –  mfg Aug 20 '10 at 13:47
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Also in Italian we call the place Red Square; I always thought it was because the type of government present in the country. I find it interesting that the same "error" has been made in many countries. –  kiamlaluno Aug 20 '10 at 13:52

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Found this use from the The Scots Magazine, 1816 (check)

http://books.google.com/books?id=B14AAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=red%20square&f=false

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Using Google Books, I was able to antedate usage of “Red Square” to refer to the square in Moscow to 1844.

It is from an 1844 translation of The Heretic by Ivan Ivanovich Lazhechnikov, the first use being on page 30:

Google books image
Look out of the window towards the Kreml, you will see the cannon-yard, the Red Square, the shops, Várskaia Street and the Spass-v-Tchegaáskh beyond the Yaóuza.

There is also a second 1845 translation of the same book which also uses the translation Red Square.

Given the origin of the name, as discussed in the Wikipedia article, I'm willing to bet that “Red Square” is even how Russians think of the name. I don’t get the impression that Красная (krasnaya) means anything other than red in contemporary Russian. Further perusing the translation links on Wikipedia, it does appear that the translated name is universally “Red Square” (where Red refers to the color).

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As a native speaker of Russian myself, I don't take "Красная Площадь" to mean Red Square, and I don't know any native speaker who does. (Do note that I'm not saying that they don't exist, only that I don't know one personally.) But that's beside the point. The point is that while "красная" meaning beautiful is mostly archaic today, it wasn't archaic at the time the place was named. In fact, it still wasn't archaic in 1863 (when Dal's Explanatory Dictionary of the Live Great Russian Language was first published), and certainly not in 1844. –  RegDwigнt Aug 21 '10 at 21:50
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As to contemporary Russian, the word "красная" without any context certainly means red and nothing else. However, in contexts such as "красна девица" (beautiful girl) or "красный угол" (room corner decorated with icons or family photos) it is universally understood to mean beautiful. There are also many derived words such as "прекрасная" (gorgeous or excellent) and "красноречие" (eloquence), none of them archaic in the slightest. This is only to correct your impression of contemporary Russian; wrt original question all this is completely irrelevant, as I explained in my previous comment. –  RegDwigнt Aug 21 '10 at 21:58
    
@RegDwight, thank you for the explanation from a native speaker's viewpoint. –  nohat Aug 22 '10 at 5:28
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Searching Google Books for "Red Square" & Kremlin pre-1900 gives 174 results. Doing the same for "Beautiful Square" & Kremlin gives 8 results, some of which say that it is also known as "Red Square" –  Peter Shor Jul 2 '11 at 17:41

Q: Obviously, it's too late to change the name now, but I am interested in learning how fast its use gained momentum in English-speaking countries and when the point of no return was reached.

Google Ngram Viewer suggests the point of no-return was reached by the early 1900s:

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Both before and after Callithumpian's 1816 citation, there are examples of "Beautiful Square" such as this non-capitalised 1805 Characteristic anecdotes from the history of Russia, translated from the French of the consellor of state, Clausen, by B. Lambert:

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  • Krafnaja Plosehad before the Kreml.

From 1826's Travels in European Russia

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...

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And a footnote in 1847's Secret history of the court and government of Russia under the emperors ... by Jean-Henri Schnitzler gives both translations:

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However, 1834's Excursions in the north of Europe, ... in 1830 and 1833 by John Barrow gives the French name, Place Rouge:

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And 1838's Recollections of a tour in the north of Europe in 1836 - 1837, Volume 1 by Charles William Vane of Londonderry gives both possible names in French, the Place Rouge or La Belle Place:

enter image description here

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