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I suppose this one will be tough, or actually impossible, to crack by looking at Russian in isolation — there is no way to know what writers at what point had which meaning in mind, short of going back in time and asking them all.

However, it should be feasible to take a detour via other languages. Obviously, someone, somewhere, in some language, was the first one to translate (or back then, rather mistranslate) Красная Площадь as Red and not Beautiful. Others then followed suit, or even copied him directly, gradually establishing it in everybody's minds.

Consequently, my question is: who was that someone somewhere? Who did it first? When did it stop raising objections as a mistranslation and became established and unexceptionable?

3

Here is an attempt at antedating the translation "Red Square" in a variety of languages. Still work in progress. Comments and additions are welcome.

English

  • 1816: The Scots Magazine.

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    On the 28th August, the Emperor reviewed troops in the Red Square at Moscow.

German

  • 1885: Westermann's illustrierte deutsche Monatshefte, issue 58.

    enter image description here

    Von den Spuren seiner blutigen Vergangenheit ist der Rote Platz längst gereinigt.

French

  • 1898: Bulletin de la Société de géographie de Toulouse.

    enter image description here

    La place Rouge est rectangulaire. L'un des grands côtés est formé par le mur du Kremlin,...

Spanish

  • 1836: Adrien Balbi, Compendio de Geografía Universal: redactado bajo un nuevo plan con presencia de los ultimos tratados de paz y los descubrimientos mas recientes, volume 2.

    enter image description here

    Sus mejores plazas son el Arbate, la plaza Roja cerca del Kremlin donde se halla el monumento de Minin y de Pojarsky; y la del gran teatro ruso llamada Petravskaïa.

So far we can see that at the beginning of the 19th century, the square was widely agreed upon to be red. I am still on the lookout for older cites.

Ideally, we should be homing in from the other side as well: that is, looking for older (yet most recent) translations of Красная Площадь as indeed Beautiful rather than Red. Then we should be able to pin it down to a particular century — or who knows, perhaps even a particular decade.

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    This name was (according to the most popular version) given to the square by Tsar Alexis' ukase in 1661. By that time the word had already come to mean "red" in contemporary Russian, and even the word красивый had emerged to separate the meanings which hints on "red" being the main meaning by that time in spoken language. So I seriously doubt translators were aware of those subtleties and just took the main meaning right away. – Quassnoi Dec 27 '13 at 9:47
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It isn't shifted. "Red" is "beautiful" (but may be "painted" or "coloured") in old Russian.

Красна ягодка, красна девица, красна (not краснаЯ) площадь - red raspberry, red girl, red square - all is beautiful.

Крас-ота, крас-ивый, крас-ный, крас-ка, крас-ить

Update

We have many different meanings for many words. I'm not a history or philology specialist, but for me there are 3 definitions from old years:

  1. really beautiful,
  2. really red, maybe coloured, maybe from the red colour of the Kremlin
  3. unknown or lost definition of 'red' (blood from execution of criminals, red pavement bricks, beautiful things in the market, abundance of red clothing on the market...)
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    But was Red Square ever meant "Красивая площадь"? According to other answers its name was given after the red lost it's "beautiful" meaning. – Artemix Dec 31 '13 at 8:13
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According to Russian Wikipedia, the first meaning of Красная was Beautiful because of the Saint Basil Cathedral building. It used the old East Slavonic meaning of the word. When the Red Revolution occurred, this meaning was replaced to just the name of the color, which actually is a constricted inheritance of the previous meaning (for Russian language!).

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I think back to my Russian history class and I don't recall that even Russians considered the Red Square to be "Beautiful Square". At different times in history it was called by other names, but around late 1600 it was named Red Square. I remember reading old Russian сказки where the term was used "красная девица" which meant "Beautiful Girl". So I'm not sure if it was ever known outside of Russia an Beautiful Square, but even inside Russia it has been treated as "Red" square for a long time.

Another thing to consider, during the "Red revolution" some names were changed, and the government "rewrote" some history and what people call things. So unless you find really old Russians and ask them, I'm not sure who can help.

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    That is all nice and well, but it's really more of a comment. These things are all common knowledge and none of this is really what I'm after. All that counts is that at some point in the past the name did mean beautiful, and at some later point people started to get confused. I am trying to pin down when exactly that happened. You are right that the Red revolution didn't help with anything, but as we can see from the above cites, it was at least a hundred years too late to the party. – RegDwight Dec 26 '13 at 22:41
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    I guess this is two part question: First part: Was Red Square ever translated as Beautiful Square? Second Part: When did Russian people started to refer to it as Red instead of Beautiful? – Vladimir Oselsky Dec 27 '13 at 13:18
  • I am really after the latter. The former is but a proxy for answering the latter, because the latter is unanswerable by itself. See the introductory paragraph. – RegDwight Dec 27 '13 at 13:20
  • You need to look at the countries that have longer history with Russia, another point of reference is major historical milestones like wars. Napoleon came to Moscow in 1812 so what does French language says about it? – Vladimir Oselsky Dec 27 '13 at 13:34
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    The last part of your answer (about revolution) does not give any clues and not helpful at all. You can hardly find a person who remembers about things 100 years ago, but you can easily find printed sources back to 1700. Using them you can easily see that Red Square was not renamed in 1917. And the meaning of "red" did not change since 1917 as well. – Artemix Dec 31 '13 at 8:10

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