Megan Barickman

The Tale of Prince Dracula: A Translation from Old Russian


ISSUE 52 | FUN GAMES | MAY 2015

The following is a translation of a late-15th-century account of the deeds and history of Vlad III, who ruled Wallachia (located in modern day Romania) intermittently from 1448 to 1476. The prince’s reputation for outrageous cruelty and his peculiar fondness for displaying his victims on stakes earned him the names by which he is better known, Vlad the Impaler and Dracula. The latter was actually Vlad’s patronymic, but it gained currency as an independent epithet amongst foreigners who mistakenly thought it meant “Devil” in Romanian.

Many accounts of Vlad III were written in the years following his death, mostly in German, and mostly dwelling on his penchant for gratuitous, lurid violence. This Old Russian text, of which numerous copies have been discovered, is the only Slavic account of Dracula, but it paints a more nuanced, if more ambiguous, portrait of the prince of Wallachia. Here, Dracula is at once a talented leader, a murderous lunatic, and a lover of riddles and puns. This last attribute is the most striking. Ever concerned with demonstrating his wit, the Dracula of the Russian text takes pleasure in entrapping his victims in verbal snares. While these linguistic whims have made the text a challenge to translate, they are also its best feature, and I have retained as much of Dracula’s word play as possible.

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The source of this translation.

 

There was in the Wallachian land a Christian of the Greek faith, a prince by the name of Dracula in the Wallachian language, which means Devil. He was greatly malicious: as he was in name, so also was his life.

At one time, emissaries came to him from the Turkish sultan, and as they went before him they bowed according to their custom, without taking their caps from their heads, and he asked them “Why do you do this? You come before a great lord and act disgracefully toward me.” And they answered, “Such is the custom, Lord, in our land.” So he said to them, “And I shall uphold your law, so that you adhere to it firmly.” And he ordered that their hats be fastened to their heads with little iron nails, then he dismissed them, having said to them. “Go, say to your lord: he is accustomed to tolerating this disgracefulness from you, but we are not accustomed, so let him not send his customs to other lords, who don’t want them, but let him keep them himself.”

The sultan was greatly angered by this, set out to attack Dracula, and marched against him with many troops. And Dracula, having gathered together such troops as he had, attacked the Turks in the night and slaughtered many of them. But it is not possible to engage in war against a great army with few people. And Dracula himself began to look over those who had returned with him from that battle: to the man who was wounded in the chest he would give great honor and accolades, but the man who was wounded in the back, that man he would have impaled on a stake through the anus, saying, “You’re not a man, but a woman.” And then, when he marched against the Turks, he said thusly to all of his troops: “Whoever wants to think about death, let him not go with me but stay here.” And the sultan, having heard this, proceeded afterward with great disgrace; countless of his men died and he was unable to march against Dracula.

So the sultan sent an emissary to Dracula, in order that Dracula pay tribute to him. Dracula greatly honored this emissary and showed him all of his estate, and said to him, “Not only shall I to pay tribute to the sultan, but I will go and serve him with all of my troops and all of my treasury, and as he commands me, so shall I serve him. And you will report to the sultan that I am coming to him, so that he will not command any kind of evil to be committed against me or my retinue on his land, and I shall go to the sultan shortly after you, and I will bring the tribute and go before him myself.” And the sultan, having heard from his emissary that Dracula would serve him, honored the emissary and presented him with many gifts. And the sultan was greatly pleased because at that time he was fighting with others in the east. And he quickly made known throughout all the cities and all the land, that when Dracula should set out, no one should commit any kind of evil against him, but that they should render honor unto him instead. So Dracula set out with the sultan’s officers, having gathered his entire army, and they rendered great honor unto him. And Dracula traveled for about five days into the sultan’s land, and all of a sudden turned back, and began to take captive the cities and the villages, and he captured and butchered a great multitude of people; some of the Turks they impaled on stakes, while the others, even unto the nursing babes, they flayed and burnt on the fields. Nothing remained, the whole land was made empty, and Dracula drove others, who were Christian, onto his land and settled them there. And having taken a vast multitude of conquests, he returned. And having honored the sultan’s officers, he dismissed them, having said, “Go, you will tell your sultan what you have seen; I have served him, as far as I was able. And if my service is pleasing to him, I will serve him still, as much as is in my power.” And the sultan was unable to do anything to him, but was defeated in shame.

And so much did Dracula despise wickedness in his land, that whosoever should commit any kind of evil deed, thievery, or banditry, or any kind of lie or untruth, would in no way live. Whether he be a grand noble, or a priest, or a monk, or a simple man, or whether he be one who owned great wealth, he would not be able to redeem himself from death, so terrible was Dracula. His spring and well were in one place, and many travelers from many lands came to that well and spring, and many people came and drank water from the well and the spring, for it was cold and sweet. And Dracula set a goblet, magnificent and wonderfully gold on an empty spot by the well, and he set it on that spot, so that whoever desired to drink water could drink by means of that goblet, and for however long it was there, no one dared to take that goblet.


Image by Rob Modini

Once, Dracula issued a proclamation throughout the entire land that whoever was old, or infirm, or ill in some way, or poor, all should come to him. And a countless multitude of poor people and strangers gathered, expecting great mercy from him. And he ordered that they all be assembled in a great hall, built for that purpose, and ordered that they be given enough to eat and drink, and having eaten, they were joyful. And he came to them himself and said to them “What more do you need?” And they all answered him “God and your majesty know, my Lord, as God instructs you.” So he said to them, “Would you like me to take away your sorrow in this world, so that you want for nothing?” And expecting from him something grand, they all said, “We do, oh Lord.” And he ordered that the hall be shut up and that a fire be set, and everyone there was burnt up. And he said to his boyars, “Know that I have done this: first, so that the poor would not bother people and so that no one would be poor in my land, but all would be rich; second, I freed them, so that none of them would suffer from poverty or from sickness in this world.”

Once, two Catholic monks from Hungary came to Dracula for alms. And he ordered that they be brought in separately, and summoned one of them to him, and showed him the countless multitude of people around the court on stakes and on the wheel, and asked him, “Is what I have done good, and what manner of people are on the stakes?” And the monk answered “No, my Lord, you commit evil and punish without mercy; it befits a lord to be merciful. And these people on the stakes are martyrs.” Having summoned the other, Dracula asked him the same. And the second monk answered, “You, lord, have been established by God to punish those who do evil, and to have mercy on those who do good. And these did evil and suffered according to their deeds.” And Dracula summoned the first and said to him, “Why do you leave your monastery and your cell to visit great lords, not knowing anything? And you yourself said they are martyrs. I will make a martyr of you, so that you will be a martyr with them.” And Dracula ordered that the first monk be impaled on a stake through the anus, but he ordered that the other be given 50 ducats of gold, and said to him, “You are a wise man.” And Dracula ordered that he be driven with honor on a cart even unto the Hungarian land.

And once a certain foreign merchant arrived in his city from the Hungarian land. And according to Dracula’s order he left his cart on the street of the city before an inn and his goods he left in the cart, and he himself slept in the inn. And someone, having come, stole from the cart 160 ducats of gold. So the merchant went to Dracula, and told him about the loss of the gold. Dracula said to him “Go, this night you will find the gold.” And he ordered that the whole city be searched for the thief, saying, “If the thief is not found, I will destroy the whole city.” And Dracula ordered that his own gold be taken and placed in the merchant’s cart in the night, and he added an extra piece of gold. And the merchant, having got up, found the gold, and having counted once, twice, he found the extra piece of gold, and, having gone to Dracula, said, “My Lord, I have found the gold, but this piece of gold is not mine, it is extra.” Then they brought in the thief and with him the gold. And Dracula said to the merchant “Go in peace; if you had not told me about the gold, I would have been ready to impale you on a stake along with this thief.”

If any woman committed adultery, Dracula would order that her shame be cut out, and her skin torn off, and that she be bound naked and that her skin be hung on a pillar in the middle of the city and the market. They would cut off the nipples of virgins who did not preserve their virginity, and widows likewise, or, having torn the skin from her shame and having heated an iron stave, they would thrust it into her shame and it would come out of her mouth. And thus she would be bound to a pillar standing naked, until her flesh and bones would fall apart, or become food for birds.

Once, while he was traveling, Dracula saw a tattered, shoddy shirt on a certain peasant and he asked him, “Do you have a wife?” And he answered, “I do, my Lord”. So Dracula said “Take me to your house, so that I may see.” And he saw that his wife was young and healthy and he asked her husband, “Have you not sown flax?” And he answered, “Lord, I have a great deal of flax.” And the peasant showed Dracula a great deal of flax. And Dracula said to his wife, “Why are you neglectful of your husband? He is obliged to sow and plough and protect you, and you are obliged to make radiant and beautiful clothing for your husband, but you don’t even want to make a shirt for him, although you are healthy of body. You are to blame, and not your husband; if your husband had not sown flax, then your husband would be to blame.” And he ordered that her hands be cut off and her corpse impaled on a stake.

At one time, Dracula was dining under the corpses of the dead people who were impaled on stakes, for a multitude of them surrounded his table; he ate amongst them and enjoyed this. But a servant of his, who set food before him, could not bear the stench of this and stopped up his nose and bent his head to the side. Dracula asked him, “Why are you doing this?” And he answered, “My Lord, I cannot bear this stench.” So Dracula ordered that he be impaled on a stake on the spot, saying, “You will live high there, so the stench will not reach you.”

And another time an emissary, who was a nobleman of Polish decent, came to him from the Hungarian king Matthias. And Dracula ordered that he sit down to dinner with him amongst those corpses. And in front of Dracula lay a single stake of great girth and height, entirely gilded, and Dracula asked the emissary “Why have I made this stake so? Tell me.” And the emissary was greatly frightened and said, “My Lord, it appears to me that a certain great person has sinned against you and you wish to give him a more honorable death than others.” So Dracula said “You have spoken truly; you are the royal emissary of a great lord, I have made this stake for you.” And the emissary answered “My lord, if I have done something worthy of death, do as you will: you are a righteous judge. You are not to blame for my death, but I myself am.” And Dracula began to laugh and said, “If you had not answered me in this way, truly, you would be on this stake.” And Dracula honored him greatly, and, having given him gifts, dismissed him, saying “You have the right to travel as an emissary from great lords to great lords because you have learned how to talk with great lords; others should not dare to do so, but should first learn how it befits them to converse with great lords.” Dracula had such a custom: when an unrefined emissary visited him, from a tsar or from a king, and was unable to respond to his machinations, he would impale him on a stake saying “I am not to blame for your death: either your lord, or you yourself are. Say nothing evil against me. If your lord, knowing you to be dim-witted and inexperienced, sent you to me, a quick-witted lord, then your lord has killed you; if you yourself dared to come whilst still inexperienced, then you have killed yourself.” Thus he would make a stake, tall and entirely gilded, for the emissary and would impale him on it and Dracula would send that speech in writing with others to the man’s lord, so that the lord would not send a dim-witted and inexperienced man as an emissary to a great lord.

Craftsmen made him iron casks; and having filled them with gold, he placed them in the river. And he ordered that those craftsmen be executed so that no one would find out about the devilry done by him, except for his namesake, the devil.

And once the Hungarian king Matthias marched against him in battle; he marched against him and both sides clashed, and they took Dracula alive, his own men having handed him over in sedition. And Dracula was led before the king, and the king ordered that he be thrown in prison. And he sat in Visegrad on the Danube above Budapest for 12 years. And the king installed another prince in the Wallachian land.

When that prince died, the king sent to Dracula in prison to let him know that if he should desire to be prince of the Wallachian land, as he was before, then he should take the Catholic faith, and if he did not, then he would die in prison. As Dracula loved the pleasure of the mortal world more than that of the eternal and unending world, he fell away from Orthodoxy and stepped away from the truth, and left the light, and took up darkness. Alas, he was not able to bear the fleeting burdens of imprisonment and he prepared for endless suffering, and he left our Orthodox faith and took up the Catholic deceit. So the king not only gave Dracula the principality on the Wallachian land, but gave him his own sister for a wife, and from her two sons were born. And having lived thus for not even 10 years, he died in that heresy.

They say about him that, even while in prison, he didn’t abandon his evil habit but, catching mice and buying birds from the market, he would execute them thus: one he would impale on a stake, and another’s head he would cut off, or having plucked the feathers from another he would release it. And he taught himself to sew and in this way he supported himself in prison.

And when the king released Dracula from prison, and brought him to Buda, and gave him an estate in Pest across from Buda, but Dracula still had not been to see the king, it happened that a certain criminal entered Dracula’s estate and hid himself there. And those who were pursuing him arrived, and began to search, and found him. So Dracula, having gotten up, grabbed his sword and raced from the room and he cut the head off of one officer, who was holding the criminal, but Dracula let the fugitive go; and the other officers ran and went to the magistrate and told him what had taken place. And the magistrate went with all of the officials to the king, complaining about Dracula. The king sent to him, asking: “Why have you done such an evil thing?” And Dracula answered thus: “I have done no kind of evil, for he killed himself; anyone who searches for a criminal on a great lord’s estate will die. If he had come and told me, I would have found that criminal in my own house, and either would have handed him over or would have pardoned him from death. And they told the king. And the king began to laugh and to marvel at Dracula’s heart.

And Dracula’s end was thus: he was living in the Wallachian land, and the Turks arrived on his land, and began to take captives. And Dracula attacked them and the Turks fled. And Dracula’s troops began to slash at them and drove them out without mercy. And Dracula, having rushed up a hill out of joy, in order to see how they slashed at the Turks, was separated from his troops. The soldier who was closest to him mistook him for a Turk and struck him with a spear. And having seen that he was being killed by his own men, Dracula killed five of his murderers with his sword, and they pierced him with many spears, and thus he was killed.

And the king took his sister and, with her, her two sons, to the Hungarian land on Buda. One lives with the king’s son, and the other was with the Bishop of Varad and died in our presence. And a third son, the oldest, Mikhail, we saw right here in Budapest, he having fled from the Turkish sultan to the king (not yet having married, Dracula begot him on a wench). And Stephan of Moldavia, according to the kings will, installed in the Wallachian land a certain lord’s son, Vlad by name. This was the Vlad who was a monk from youth, and then a priest and an abbot in the monastery, then renounced the order and became a prince and married, taking as his wife the wife of the prince who ruled after Dracula for a short time and was killed by Stephan of Wallachia. And the current prince of the Wallachian land is Vlad, who had been a monk and an abbott.

On February 13th in the year of 1486 I wrote this the first time, and then, on January 28th in the year of 1490, I copied it out a second time, I the sinner Efrosin.