In the 1st Chapter, Part I of Dostoevsky's The Idiot (Eva Martin's translation) you can find the following passage:

These men generally have about a hundred pounds a year to live on (...)

In this book, when talking about money, "roubles" is normally used, so the use of "pounds" confused me. What's happening here?

  • 3
    originally it's roubles - 17 rub a month. Are you asking about translation?
    – Andra
    Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 17:20
  • 1
    I didn't know the original used "roubles". :) I can't find much about the translator, but this article mentions that she was brought up in the UK, although I can't find the original source for that. If true, she might have translated it to "pounds" by mistake because it was the currency she was used to deal with?
    – LLCampos
    Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 22:21
  • In "The Gambler" Dostoevsky refers to many different types of German and Russian currency, which suggests readers might have been expected to be familiar with the value of these at the time. The pound was probably considered a solid (reliable, strong) currency. Dostoevsky had financial difficulties and references to money pepper much of his work.
    – Buck Thorn
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 10:14

2 Answers 2


According to Wikipedia, Eva Martin's translation was published in 1915. At this period, it is likely that few British readers would have a reason to know the value (in Sterling) of the Russian Rouble (they couldn't just Google the exchange rate!)

This statement very clearly places these individuals in society, in a way that saying X roubles would not. Remember that pre-WWI Britain (and even more 19th century Russia) were very unequal societies so a person's position on the income scale was even more important than it is today.

Why are other sums of money not converted to Sterling? Presumably, the translator felt that the colour added by using the local currency outweighed the benefit added by giving the reader a better clue to the values involved.

  • 2
    Thanks! But note that in the rest of the book "roubles" is used. The answer doesn't explain why in this specific situation "pounds" is used, although all the characters involved are Russian.
    – LLCampos
    Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 22:12
  • 9
    @LLCampos - This answer addresses that question, for audience comprehension.
    – Valorum
    Commented Aug 23, 2021 at 6:37
  • @LLCampos pounds for overall income "places these individuals in society", but in general and for day-to-day transactions the translator preferred the "colour added by using the local currency" of roubles. This answer is very reasonable and does address every part of your question.
    – minseong
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 8:54

It looks like this translation isn't quite consistent in its usage of Russian vs British currency units. There are a few cases where farthing is used in a single sentence with rouble:

“I have not got a ten-rouble note,” said the prince; “but here is a twenty-five. Change it and give me back the fifteen, or I shall be left without a farthing myself.”

Now, farthing in this context doesn't mean a specific amount of money, but rather is used as an idiom for a tiny sum. However, in a few other places the translator uses copeck to express the same concept:

I certainly shall require both clothes and coat very soon. As for money, I have hardly a copeck about me at this moment.

And sometimes a penny, or its derivatives:

“You are a good fellow, but very silly. One gives you a halfpenny, and you are as grateful as though one had saved your life.

He came up to me and said, ‘Buy my silver cross, sir! You shall have it for fourpence — it’s real silver.’

There seems to be no system behind these inconsistencies. So the answer is plain sloppiness on part of the translator and editor(s), if any existed.

  • 7
    In fact, the Russian currency was itself "inconsistent" during most of the 19th century. Uncontrolled issue of paper notes and coins by different authorities meant that there was not even a fixed conversion between copper and silver coinage, let alone paper money. "The Idiot" was written between the Crimean and Russio-Turkish Wars both of which destabilized the currency further. An effective currency reform did not take place until 1897 and the introduction of gold coinage. Any attempt to translate all this into a "consistent system" for Western readers would have been impossible
    – alephzero
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 2:08

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