Criticism Upon the Translation of Certain Important Words in the Convention Between Russia and Great Britain

This critique was originally published in The Alaska Boundary, by George Davidson, President of the Geographical Society of the Pacific (San Francisco: Alaska Packers Association, 1903)

    We have elsewhere remarked upon the weak and unequivalent English translation of certain of the more important words of the French text, such as lisière, sinuosités, crête, limite, ligne and crique; and herewith exhibit extracts of the texts in parallel columns for ready comparison.

La Crête.

This is an important word in the Treaty and is used once in each of the Articles III and IV.
French Text.

Article 111.     "de ce dernier point la ligne de démarcation suivra la crête des montagnes situées parallèlement à la Côte * * * "

Article IV.     "2°. Que partout où la crête des montagnes qui s'étendent dans une direction parallèle à la Côte * * * "

English Translation.

Article 111.     "from this last mentioned Point the line of demarcation shall follow the summit of the mountains situated parallel to the Coast * * * "

Article IV.     "2d. That wherever the summit of the mountains which extend in a direction parallel to the Coast * * * "

    "La Crête" in its simplest application is the cock's comb, and indicates the crest and not a single point thereof. When it is applied to mountains it refers to the ridge and not to isolated peaks thereof.
    It is essentially the crest-line of a mountain chain, from which the waters flow in opposite directions; it is the water-parting of engineers and geographers. In mountain chains there are numerous high and prominent peaks that are not on the crest-line, but rise from either flank, and they may be higher than adjacent summits in the crest-line. There are examples in California and Oregon, and Mt. Rainier in Washington.
    The late boundary troubles between Chile and Argentina arose upon the question of the crest-line or water-parting of the Andes.
    When Mr. George Canning enclosed his "draft convention" to Sir Charles Bagot, in his letter of July 21, 1824, (page 433) and it was submitted to the Russian Ambassador, Count Lieven, (page 438), the latter took exception to the proposition in Article II, that the boundary should follow the Coast parallel to the sinuosités (text) at the base of the mountains towards the sea. He says, that as a rule when a chain of mountains was to serve as a boundary line "C'est toujours la cime de ces montagnes qui forme la ligne de démarcation. "La cime" is simply the top of a high body, and may be applied to a tree, a rock or a mountain, and the word appears to have been then and there abandoned for the more appropriate word crête.
    Later on Mr. George Canning wrote to Mr. Stratford Canning, December 8th, 1824 (Page 448), "where the mountains are the boundary, we are content to take the summit instead of the 'seaward base' as the line of demarcation." He does not use the plural summits, or individual peaks; his words imply a line of summits in the water-parting crest.
    We submit that the translation of "crête" by the English word "summit" does not carry the idea of a crest-line or water-parting with prompt clearness; it is not a decisive equivalent.


    This is a word of vital importance in the Treaty. It is used but once, as follows-
French Text.

Article IV.     "2°. * * * la limite entre les Possessions Britanniques et la lisière de Côte mentionnée ci-dessus comme devant appartenir à La Russie, sera formée par une ligne parallèle aux sinuosités de la Côte * * * "

English Translation.

Article IV. " 2d. * * * the limit between the British Possessions and the line of the Coast which is to belong to Russia, as above mentioned, shall be formed by a line parallel to the windings of the Coast * * * "

    The translation of "sinuosités" in the English text is not in conformity with the actual meaning. The word "windings" is vague and does not express the idea intended to be conveyed. It is not in use by nautical men and geographers to describe or designate such marked and important breaks in the general trend or direction of a coast as we find on the western coast of Vancouver Island, or in the great inlets penetrating the continental shore of British Co lumbia north of Fraser River, or Portland Inlet and others in Alaska. The proper English equivalent is sinuosities. Both the French and English words are derived from the Latin sinus.
    An examination of maps that exhibit the old world of the Roman Empire, reveals the application of the word sinus in its larger, and its more restricted sense. In the larger applications, some of the gulfs of the modern maps are there called "Sinus;" and on the broken coast line of Greece the sharp indentations are also named " Sinus. " There are double applications of the name; for example, the Red Sea is denominated the Sinus Arabicus; and at its head the Gulf of Suez (Bahr Assuez) is named the Heroopolites Sinus, and the Gulf of Akabah (Bahr el Acaba) is the Ælanites Sinus; the Gulf of Corinth is the Sinus Corinthiacus. Among the smaller indentations are the Sinus Singiticus, and close to it the Toronaicus Sinus in the Northwestern part of the Ægæum Mare; each a relatively narrow and long indentation of the continental shore.
    Comparing the application of the word by the Romans to such bodies of waters as gulfs, bays and inlets, nearly every indentation of the western coast of Vancouver Island would be a sinus; such as Clayoquot Sound, Nootka and Quatsino Sounds; and on the mainland eastward of Vancouver Island, Jervis Inlet, Bute, Knight and Seymour Inlets. These we consider remarkable examples of the Roman Sinus. And farther to the northward, Holkham Bay and its arms, Taku and Taiyá Inlets, and Lynn Canal in the Archipelago Alexander, are equally good examples.
    In fact the English language still holds to the word "sinus," with its Latin definitions: "a bay of the sea; a recess in the coast; an opening into the land;" and this English dictionary gives a quotation from T. Burnett, "some arms of the Sea or Sinuses." For the word "sinuosity," it quotes from S. Smith, "a line of Coast, certainly amounting with its sinuosities, to more than 700 miles."
    The English geographers still use the word sinuosity for such inlets, arms or fiords, as is shown in the following quotation from the English translation of Reclus' description of New Zealand where he says, after Captain James Cook had made a general survey of the Islands, "nothing remained to be done beyond following the sinuosities of the coast line and exploring the interior of the Islands." Volume "Australia." (Page 421.)
    It should be remembered that Vancouver had been with Cook on two of his voyages of exploration, and rigidly carried out the investigations of all the sinuosities of the Continental shore of Alaska. In the recent surveys by the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey and the Canadian official parties, this plan was developed more closely by the modern means and methods of delineation.
    The French word "sinuosité," and the English word "sinuosity" convey no difference of meaning, and especially in the matter of nautical geography. It is very doubtful whether the word "windings" would, in the present case, be translated by the word "sinuosités."
    The term " windings " is so vague that we can readily understand that the Russians intentionally used the word sinuosités; it aptly described all those remarkable arms of the sea that penetrated the continental shore with deep water and navigable capacity; and it precluded the English passing through any one of these great arms or fiords as a channel way to the interior if such arm should be found to extend ten marine leagues or more into the continent.


    This is another very important word in the Treaty, and is used in Articles IV, V and VI, as follows:
French Text.

Article IV.     "la limite entre les Possessions Britanniques et la lisière de Côte mentionnée * * * sera formée * * * "

Article V.     "soit sur la lisière de terre ferme comprise dans les limites des Possessions Russes * * * ,

English Translation.

Article IV.     "the limit between the British Possessions and the line of the Coast which is to belong to Russia, as before mentioned, shall be formed * * * "

Article V.     "or upon the border of the Continent comprised within the limits of the Russian Possessions * * * "

    In speaking of the streams crossing the strip of ten marine leagues wide, the treaty says:
Article VI.     Il traverseront la ligne de démarcation sur la lisière de la Côte indiquée * * * " Article VI.     "may cross the line of demarcation upon the line of coast described * * * "

    We submit that making "lisière" represent a "line" of the coast in Articles IV and VI is erroneous, and the more especially in Article VI where "ligne" is properly translated as a "line," and in the same sentence in immediate conjunction the word "lisière" is translated a "line."
    The " ligne " of Article III may clearly ascend from the head of Portland Channel, but a "lisière" could not.
    The translations are not uniformly made and are not satisfactory or definite. There are good English words that are especially applicable to the intentions of the Treaty as expressed in French. The French word and its English equivalent are derived from the Teutonic words list and liste; and the French lisière, English list, and German leiste, carry the same meaning; namely, a strip, border or selvedge. Of cotton goods it is the selvedge, of broad- cloths (woollen) it is the list or listing, and this was in general domestic use for garters in England.
    Throughout the correspondence between Mr. George Canning, Sir Charles Bagot and Mr. Stratford Canning with the Russian Plenipotentiaries, the latter continually insisted upon the "lisière." The "Counter-Draft" by the Russian Plenipotentiary, March 13th, 1824, declares that the principal motive which forces Russia to insist upon "la soveraineté de la lisière indiquée plus haut sur la terre ferme depuis le Portland Canal jusqu'au point d'intersection du 60° avec le 139° de longitude, c'est que, privée de ce territoire, le Compagnie Russe-Américaine n'auroit aucun moyen (le sontenir les Établissemens qui seroient dès lors sans point d'appui, et qui ne pourroient avoir aucune solidité." An important declaration. (Page 427.) And in Mr. George Canning's "Draft Convention" July 2, 1824, he uses the term "lisière de côte," but the translation is "line of coast," which is altogether another condition.
    One of the latest uses of the word "lisière" is by Hon. David Glass, Q. C., etc., in his paper on the Alaska boundary, when he speaks of that section of the boundary line lying between 56° latitude and the 141st meridian "covering what is known as the lisière, or strip of mainland located along the coast of the continent between the last named two points."


    This is another important word of the Treaty and is used in Articles III, IV and V. It is used to designate the boundary line from the initial point at the southernmost extremity of the Prince of Wales Island to the Arctic Ocean.
French Text.

Article III.     "et, finalement, * * * formera, dans son prolongement jusqu'a la mer Glaciale, la limite entre les Possessions Russes et Britanniques sur le Continent * * *"

Article IV.     "à la distance de plus de dix lieues marines de l'Océan, la limite entre les Possessions Britanniques et la lisière de C&0circ;te * * *"

Article V.     "soit sur la lisière de terre ferme comprise dans les limites des Possessions Russes * * *"

English Translation.

Article III.     "and, finally, in its prolongation as far as the Frozen Ocean, shall form the limit between the Russian and British Possessions on the Continent * * *"

Article IV.     "at the distance of more than ten marine leagues from the Ocean, the limit between the British Possessions and the line of Coast * * *"

Article V.     "or upon the border of the Continent comprised within the limits of the Russian Possessions * * *"

    The word "limite" is clearly and sharply defined by the word boundary; and although the words limite and limit are derived directly from the same Latin word, yet, by usage, the English word limit does not promptly indicate or suggest the special application as a boundary line, and especially on an extended scale. Certainly the word limit would not be translated into the French limite as a boundary line.
    In Articles III and IV, the word limit does not definitely suggest a boundary line; in Article V, the word used for "lisière" is border, and that at once suggests breadth as well as length, but immediately in connection therewith, the word limites is translated limits, where boundaries should have been used. The French word limite and the English word limit are not equivalent.

Crique. Intérieures.

    We suggest that a few words of explanation may be given to these terms. They occur in Article VII.
French Text.

Article VII. "toutes les Mers intérieures, les Golfes, Havres, et Criques sur la Côte mentionée dans I'Article 3 * * * "

English Translation.

Article VII. " all the inland Seas, the Gulfs, Havens, and Creeks on the Coast mentioned in Article 3 * * * "

    The translation is not quite so explicit as it should be. The word "intérieures" should have been translated by its equivalent, "interior." The word "creek" is not used in the United States in the same sense as in France and England. In this country it refers to a small stream tributary to a larger one, or it may open directly upon a lake or ocean. It is not navigable save to a canoe or light draught boat. In Article VII the creeks there mentioned are navigable to the vessels then trading on the Coast, or to the naval Vessels of Russia and the United States.

Armes Blanche.

    Among the minor inaccuracies of the translation of the French text is that of "des armes blanches" into "other arms" instead of the military meaning, "side arms."


    The weakness of the translation is shown in the invocation: "Au Nom de la Très Sainte et Indivisible Trinité," is rendered, "In the Name of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity." The French word "indivisible" and the English word "undivided" are not equivalent.