Mews, hues, and wonkers

So (see ‘Two anniversaries’, 29 January), save perhaps for a few lost manuscript versions of Chekhov’s one-act plays made throughout the British Empire for amateur performance, Constance Garnett was the first person to translate a Chekhov play into English (The Cherry Orchard, 1906, disastrous production by the Stage Society 1911, published 1923).

If we include American English, which we should, the first published English translation of a Chekhov play was of The Cherry Orchard (New Haven, Conn., 1908). This means that, contrary to the impression I may have given elsewhere, George Calderon’s book Two Plays by Tchekhof (1912) was not the first English-language version to appear in print.

However, American English is not my native language, so I am not competent to judge American translations. The important thing about George’s translations (The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard) is that they remained the preferred versions in Britain until the 1930s and, unlike Garnett’s Cherry Orchard, his translation of The Seagull directed largely by himself was a significant success in a commercial theatre, the Glasgow Repertory (1909). His Cherry Orchard was the text used for the production that finally put Chekhov on the London commercial stage (1925) and initiated a Chekhov ‘boom’.

In this post, then, I am going to confine myself to British translations, specifically Constance Garnett’s and George’s. On 13 February I shall get a few things off my chest about George’s introduction to Two Plays by Tchekhof, which was probably even more influential than his translations.

How good are George Calderon’s versions of The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard?

When I was asked to look at all available English-language translations of The Seagull in 1978, for a proposed production at our new National Theatre, of course George Calderon’s and Constance Garnett’s were at the top of the list (numbering about twenty-five, even then). But the Head of Scripts, Shakespearian critic and excellent theatre practitioner John Russell Brown, immediately — with a pained look that I remember well — rejected George’s as ‘too quirky’ and ‘too Edwardian’. I entirely agreed with him. The sheer number of footnotes suggested bookishness, and there were, it seemed, some very peculiar linguistic solutions (e.g. ‘non possumus‘ for the Russian indifferentizm). There was also a strange bloodlessness about his language, reminiscent perhaps of Galsworthy, that one felt, with a shudder, was quintessentially ‘Edwardian’. I shall have fought my way back to this subject by the end of tomorrow’s post. Suffice it to say, Constance Garnett’s translation, though also ‘Edwardian’, was rejected as being too bland and featureless!

Perhaps the first thing that should be said about Calderon’s and Garnett’s translations is that they, like most British versions, do not render Chekhov’s stage directions into the centuries-old convention of the British theatre. Published nineteenth/early twentieth century Russian plays present the set and action as seen from the auditorium (you can read a lot into this, but Russian theatre practice is another matter). Thus what is ‘right’ in Chekhov’s stage directions is ‘[stage] left’ in British practice. The fact that this transformation has not been made by George or Constance means that their English texts are scenically a mirror-image of the original. Well, one could say this is irrelevant, but it is rather Carrollian to contemplate…

Next, we should be clear that there are Russian words whose semantic, poetic and cultural resonance is impossible to trans-late, i.e. carry over, into English words. Unfortunately, the titles of these two plays are cases in point. Constance Garnett immediately realised that chaika ‘isn’t a Sea-Gull — but a Lake Gull’, as she wrote her son, but what could be done about it? The ozernaia chaika (lake gull) is Larus ridibundus, the Black-Headed Gull. This can be a very beautiful bird, with wings appearing more pointed than those of larger gulls and pure white leading edges. However, the associations of seagulls for us, a seafaring nation, are squawky and filthy. The closest I can get in English to the associations of chaika for land-locked Russians is a tanka by Wakayama Bokusui:

How forlorn/the white bird!/Sky and sea are both/blue: yet untinged/she hovers there.

One also gets a sense of what chaika can mean to Russians from the scene of Hamlet’s being set on the shore of Denmark in Kozintsev’s famous film: the camera follows a white seagull wheeling over sea and rocks, suggestive of the soul of Ophelia.

Not much can be done about this in English. ‘Mew’, ‘Gull’, ‘Sea-Swallow’ and others have been tried, but they are even less beautiful than ‘Seagull’. Nowhere does George explain what associations he felt chaika had in Russian, but he is the first person to have opted in print for The Seagull as the play’s English title. The best solution, it seems to me, is Laurence Senelick’s in his magnificent Complete Plays/Anton Chekhov (New York & London, 2006): ‘In English […] The Seagull has gained common currency as the play’s title, so I have retained it here, but refer simply to the “gull” in the text.’

Similarly, Chekhov made it crystal clear to Stanislavsky that of the two possible pronunciations of the Russian adjective vishnevyi, he intended the one (‘veeshnyo-vy’) that referred to the flower rather than the fruit, i.e. to the orchard’s beauty rather than its Lopakhinesque commercial value as a jam-producer. In conjunction with the pronunciation ‘veeshnyo-vy’, the word sad, usually translated ‘orchard’, acquires overtones more of ‘garden’. Hence when I was asked to produce a lexical/literal translation of the play, I gave titles ranging from Cherryflowergarden [sic] through Cherry Flower Estate to Cherrylands (since Vishnevyi sad is not just the actual garden/orchard, but the name of the estate). However, since Constance’s plonking The Cherry Orchard of 1906/11, repeated by George in 1910/12, that is what it will always remain.

Then, of course, there is the simple matter of mistakes of translation. I have not made a word-for-word comparison of the two translations, but I have the impression that there are more of these (say, a dozen altogether) in George’s version of The Seagull than in Constance’s. For instance, when at the end of Act 3 everyone has departed, leaving an empty stage, first a maid returns to grab a forgotten basket of plums, then Trigorin re-enters, saying ‘I’ve forgotten my stick. I think it’s on the verandah’, but George has ‘I think she’s out there on the verandah’, meaning Nina. There is no doubt that he has mistaken the nominative feminine pronoun representing an inanimate feminine noun (stick) for the feminine third-person singular (she) here. Knowing that Nina was coming onstage towards Trigorin from the verandah (which Trigorin had/had not planned), George has, I believe, let his scenic imagination run away with him.

There is a slight sense, perhaps, in George’s translation, that like a lot of Englishmen of his generation he had not immersed himself long enough in a Russian ‘language-bath’ for certain things to be second nature. The use of pronouns might be one. Originally, he had Polina stroking her own hair in the scene with Masha and Konstantin at the beginning of Act 4, when the Russian possessive pronoun clearly tells us it is Konstantin’s hair. However, he may have just overlooked the pronoun ‘his’ because of, again, his own cultural and scenic expectations. He corrected the mistake in proof.

Conversely, Constance Garnett translated Trigorin’s ‘vdovii tsvet‘ in Act 2 as ‘widow’s flower’, a bad mistake as tsvet here can only mean ‘colour’. But George had difficulty with it too: in Two Plays by Tchekhof he rendered it as ‘mourning shade’, but in the margin of his mother’s copy he wrote ‘widows’ colour’ (not incorporated, however, in subsequent editions as other revisions were).

Correction by George Calderon in margin of his published translation of The Seagull, 1912

Correction by George Calderon in margin of his published translation of The Seagull, 1912

Actually this crux demonstrates the difficulty of translating languages that have different structures and are at different stages of development. The Russian vdovii is a possessive adjective (‘belonging to a widow/widows’) of a kind that exists only tenuously in English: ‘fishy hope and fear [= the hope and fear of fish]’ (R. Brooke), ‘the bovine mind [= the mind of a cow]’, ‘mousy cheer within the larder [= food of mice]’ (S. Goathead), ‘oaten flavour [= taste possessed by oats]’. George and Constance had no alternative but to use an apostrophe. Some translators have done worse: Ronald Hingley has ‘Flower. Sombre hue’, Elizaveta Fen hedges her bets with ‘flower — the colour of a widow’s dress’. The point is that the deep, but vibrant, almost purple blue of the commonest garden heliotrope is a colour that certain widows might choose to wear at a certain stage of mourning. Today, the attributive use of the plural noun would be possible: ‘widows colour’, and a case might even be made for, on Trigorin’s lips, ‘vidual hue’.

The reason Garnett’s translations have the edge in accuracy is probably that she ran every word past her collaborator-consultant Natalie Duddington, who had native educated Russian but also a good knowledge of English. George had his native Russian consultants, but none was as professional as Duddington. It is perhaps surprising that Yavorskaya, Chekhov’s brief lover who played Nina at the age of forty in the 1912 London production of George’s translation, never pointed out George’s mistake with the stick, but then as the centre of attention (in her own eyes) it wasn’t in her interest to! A consultant like Duddington would also have spotted that George translates Treplev’s ‘novyye formy‘ as ‘new formulae’ in Act 1, moves to ‘new forms’ in Act 2, then returns to ‘new formulae’ in Act 4. Although Calderon had translated three plays by now (the Chekhov and Musset’s On ne badine pas avec l’amour), one cannot help thinking that an experienced translator would not have made this mistake. Constance, of course, was very experienced.

Like ‘non possumus‘, ‘formulae’ is an example of George’s ‘quirkiness’. Why did he go for ‘formulae’ when it would imply something mathematical, almost Aspergic? The very fact that he came back to the best and most emotive word, ‘forms’, surely implies that he was uncertain himself. On the other hand, the use of the ‘quirky’ word ‘Tatterdemalion!’ hurled by Arkadina at her son in Act 3, does seem appropriate for the funny word oborvysh and contributes to the ghastly campness of the scene. Here Constance has the fuzzy ‘You ragged beggar!’, Hingley the English cliché ‘Tramp!’, Fen the colourless ‘You beggar!’.

George’s ‘quirkiness’ has given some people the impression that as a translator he is too clever by half .This is borne out by his explanation in a footnote of why he has translated the phrase devichii bor, written down by Trigorin in his notebook after trying to break with Arkadina, as ‘the corn was “shuckled” by the wind’: ‘The translator has palmed off a handy substitute, instead of rendering Trigorin’s own trouvaille, which seems to mean “the maid’s spinney”.’ It does not seem to mean ‘maiden’s spinney’, or ‘virgin’s copse’, it does mean that and is vital to conveying what is actually on Trigorin’s mind at this point…

Yet Chekhov himself is famous for quirky, sometimes absurd words — one can think of examples in all of his last four plays. Possibly the most famous is Firs’s nedotepa in The Cherry Orchard. George renders it as ‘a job-lot’, i.e. ‘half a set’, something unfinished, a congeries, inferior. This, in my opinion, is very good, because it sounds odd (as the Russian word did originally, having come through Chekhov from Ukrainian) and makes a brilliant stab at the idea in the original of ‘half-baked’, ‘half-fashioned-by-chopper’. Constance originally had ‘a never-come-off’, which shows she understood the roots of the Russian word; but then she changed it to the flaccid ‘good for nothing’. However, at least she rejected Galsworthy’s suggestion to her: ‘have my “Ye’ve got no backbone”. Think — it’s the last word of the play, and backbone is a fine thing.’ A translation completely acculturated to Edwardian values, one might say!

Unfortunately, the meaning of ‘job-lot’ must now be known to relatively few. In any case, as with Garnett’s version, it ignores the fact that a nedotepa is a person who only half does things, botches them, and so the English cries out for an -er word. The closest English word in meaning is probably ‘wanker’. Obviously, even if it existed then in the metaphorical sense it has now, neither George nor Constance could have used it on the Edwardian stage! I think even today it is too ‘in your face’. In my surtitles for Dodin’s production in London in 1994 I rendered nedotepa as ‘nincompoop’, because surtitles shouldn’t be so colourful as to distract from the acting; in my expansive lexical/literal translation (2000) I preferred ‘bungle-arse’; for Timothy Hughes’s production in London in 2011 I was able to go for ‘wonker’, because the actor playing Firs (Donal Cox) had a fine Irish accent. It definitely worked. In fact, in my view ‘wonker’ is particularly appropriate, as the stressed syllable in nedotepa was to Russians intriguingly, almost embarrassingly, suggestive of ‘yop’ (‘fuck’), and this makes sense of Yasha’s criticism of Firs in Act 3 that he is always using ‘inappropriate words’.

This has been a rather discursive examination of some areas of George’s and Constance’s translations of the same two plays by Chekhov, but tomorrow I shall try to draw some more general conclusions, and at far less length. For viewers who are wondering why I am producing three posts out of the historical ‘real time’ of this blog, please read my post Lacunae: the ‘benefits’ of 25 January.

Next entry: The Edwardian turn of language


About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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