Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Laryngitis? Call the Doctor!

So, where was I? Oh, yeah: Laryngitis and performing. The first time was back in 1986 or ‘87. I was at Cal State Fullerton, and we were performing “The Sea Gull.” It was near the beginning of my obsession with Chekhov.

That began in late 1983 or 1984, when a friend of mine went through a particularly bad break-up. I knew she loved Chekhov, and, despite my relative lack of knowledge about the doctor, I decided I was going to do a translation to cheer her up. How and why I made that connection is unclear, but I did. I knew her favorite play at that time was “The Three Sisters,” so I decided that was what I’d tackle.

I managed to find a Russian text of “Три сестры, or, as I came to know it, “The Three Sisters,” at the Cal State Fullerton library. It took me a while to figure out the whole Cyrillic alphabet thing, but once I worked that out, I was surprised at how simple the whole thing seemed. Despite the obvious differences, there are a lot of cognates to English and (more interestingly) I came to discover it’s a surprisingly sensible language. If nothing else, words are spelled the way they sound and sound the way they’re spelled. Some of it’s – the lack of articles, the patronyms and nicknames (some of which are longer than the original name), the cases and genders – confusing, but enough of it makes enough sense that I was able to dope my way through it.

For some reason, I ended up going to the Anaheim city library to get a Russian-English dictionary – it was a big one and far better than any other I’ve come across since (and I’ve seen and owned a lot) – and starting on page one, I went word by word through the play. Eventually, I came up with a cheat sheet to create shortcuts for those words that I was seeing a lot, but for which I just couldn’t remember the English word or term. Working late at night, I started at a very slow pace, one page a night, but by the end (six weeks later), I could handle four or five.

It was something of a complicated process. I’d go through a couple of speeches and write the literal translation on the left page of a binder, then devise a smoother, more coherent version of those speeches on the facing page. Eventually, when I finished an act, I’d go through it all again, this time on the typewriter (yes, a typewriter, goddammit; it was the 80s), and smooth the text out even more. My goal was – still is, in fact – to keep the formality of tone of the original period while making it more relevant to an American audience a century later. Most of the translations I’d read up until then were either by academics – which were great and exact, but utterly bloodless and unperformable – or by British translators – who were better, but whose language was hopelessly stilted in British English.

Here’s an example. There’s a small exchange in Act Two that reads like this:

Тузенбах (берет со стола коробку). Где же конфекты?
Ирина. Соленый съел.
Тузенбах. Все?

Literally, in English (by my reading), it’s:

Tuzenbakh (Takes from table box). Where the candy?
Irina: Solyony ate.
Tuzenbakh: All?

The British translations I read mostly gave me things like (and this should be read with a very posh accent – and please ignore what I find are egregious mistakes in transliteration):

Tusenbach (Taking a box from the table): Where are the sweets?
Irina: Solyony’s eat (pronounced “et”) them.
Tusenbach: The whole lot?

Which is fine, if you’re an Oxford don, but for an American audience, I think a better – and more accurate – version is:

Tuzenbakh (Looking at the candy box): What happened to the candy?
Irina: Solyony ate it.
Tuzenbakh: All of it?

So, I was doing this translation and became obsessed with Chekhov. (When we moved into our house, we bought 19 IKEA bookcases which I’ve long since filled. About 2/3rds of one of them is books by and about Chekhov. You can imagine how thrilled my wife is about all of those volumes …) In the intervening years, I’ve translated two more of the plays, continually come back to “The Three Sisters” to polish it, and am going to tackle the big one (“The Cherry Orchard”) soon. I’ve even toyed with the idea of creating my own version of his last unwritten play. To quote Simon Karlinsky’s “Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary:” “We know that after completing ‘The Cherry Orchard,’ Chekhov conceived an idea for still another play, which was to deal with arctic explorers and was to show the ghost of the hero’s beloved and a ship crushed by polar ice onstage.” Not exactly aristocrats moaning about wanting to go to Moscow, is it?

The things I love about the translation process are, first, that it’s a real education in writing. Since I’m almost literally writing the play with Chekhov, I get to see why he chose particular words or phrases or try to figure out why he did or didn’t do something. The second is the “detective story” aspect; that is to say, taking the clues he gives me, what did he mean? (I suppose it’s a psychology story, in that context.) What’s he trying to say? What’s the heart of the information and what does a modern American audience need to get the equivalent of that language and information? I’m hoping there’s a third thing I’ll come to love – but I’ll save that hope for next time.

Next time? How the hell did I get off on this tangent? I was talking about laryngitis. And since I’m nearly 1000 words in, once again I’m going to call an audible and delay the conclusion for at least one more day.!

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