Today is Anton Chekhov’s birthday. It is also the anniversary of the publication of George Calderon’s translations of The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard on 29 January 1912.
Was this a coincidence? Probably not. The publisher, Grant Richards, was making a risky investment in this Russian dramatist and wanted to get everything right. George’s approach to the publication was also fastidious. The text of Two Plays by Tchekhof had first been rejected by George’s usual publisher, Smith, Elder. Top Edwardian ‘art’ publisher Richards had probably been persuaded to take it on thanks to his acquaintance with Kittie going back nearly twenty years. George completely revised the translation for Richards, making it more ‘exact’, as he told him, than the acting versions he had evolved before. He also supplied many footnotes, which are often a delight in themselves, and an introduction. Richards was meticulous about the pre-publication advertising of his books and in the Times Literary Supplement of 25 January 1915 enthused: ‘Many readers will like the introduction as much as the plays. Mr Calderon is combative, lively — and he knows his Russia and his theatre. In fact he’s written the deuce of a preface!’
The loser from all this, for the next eleven years at least, was Constance Garnett. In the spring of 1906 she had started translating The Cherry Orchard ‘on spec’, as she wrote her husband, because she had heard that the Moscow Arts were coming to London that summer. The Russian company did not come, so she submitted the translation to the Stage Society, in which by then George was active. This probably gave him the idea of translating The Seagull, which he directed with success at Glasgow in 1909. Eventually the Stage Society put on Garnett’s translation of The Cherry Orchard on 28 and 29 May 1911. It was a famous disaster. Unfortunately, in a display of the tactlessness to which he was prone, George then told the Chairman of the Stage Society’s Council of Management that he thought the translation was ‘wretched’ and ‘now no-one would be willing to take up a Tchehov play anywhere as this poor translation would set the public against it’. These words are taken from a letter of 6 June 1911 written by Constance Garnett, to whom the conversation had been reported. Her laudable response was to try to publish her Cherry Orchard ‘at once’ and ‘not for a moment consider Calderon’s feelings’. But she was too late: George had already submitted his book to Smith, Elder.
All this is the background of events to pieces about George’s Chekhov translations and Introduction that I shall post during a ‘lacuna’ in the first fortnight of February.
Next entry: 1 February 1915