Tag Archives: New York Times

Lost and Found in Translation

h/t to Thomas for today’s New York Times’ Bookends feature today titled “What do you look for in a modern translation?” This question was posed to Bard College professor and author/essayist David Mendelsohn and film critic and writer Dana Stevens. Before we get to their opinions, I want to offer a few other assessments of our own translator — Annie Baker — and responses to her approach to Chekhov.

From Charles McNulty’s review of the Soho Rep’s production in the LA Times (Aug. 4, 2012):

This bridging of eras seems to have been the impetus behind the Baker-Gold production, which has become the sleeper of this globally warmed New York summer. Baker’s version of the play doesn’t radically update the work yet she gives the language an American suppleness that allows the cast members to appear as though they are spontaneously thinking the lines up on the spot. Like her “Circle Mirror Transformation,” produced at South Coast Repertory in 2011, this “Vanya” tries to capture the intense drama that is always lurking under the surface of everyday reality.

Baker and Gold’s perfectly matched aesthetic offers a contemporary means of fulfilling Chekhov’s oft-quote dictum about his art: “Let the things that happen on the stage be just as complex and yet just as simple as they are in life. For instance, people are having a meal, just having a meal, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being smashed up.”

From Brian Scott Lipton’s review in TheatreMania (July 17, 2012):

but Annie Baker’s strikingly colloquial (yet remarkably faithful) translation. Her dialogue not only rarely feels anachronistic, but eliminates any distance we might feel from these universal characters first created over 100 years ago, but recognizable to — and in — each one of us.

From Clancy Martin’s review of the Soho Rep’s production in the July 3, 2012 issue of The Paris Review:

But what makes Baker’s translation and adaptation superior—in the writing—to any other Uncle Vanya I’ve read or seen is her insistence on strictly following Chekhov’s own maxim that the language should be as simple, authentic, and realistic as possible.

For example: after the doctor’s (Astrov’s) promise to quit drinking, Nanushka advises the excited Sonya that, for a man who has to travel and work in the dirty Russian villages, “It’s hard to stay clean and sober.” “Clean and sober” is an American cliché for the state of a recovered alcoholic. It’s the ordinary language anyone would use to describe someone who was off the bottle—especially the plainspoken, unreflective Marina Timofeyevna. But Baker makes it new—makes it worth listening to—he can’t stay “clean” because of the dirty Russian villages and peasants. When she speaks the American cliché she speaks it for Russian reasons. Baker practices this kind of astonishing verbal magic over and over again, and as a translator myself I was envious.

But she never uses slang terms: she never cheapens the dialogue, she doesn’t Americanize it in that unfortunate way so many filmmakers have tried to Americanize Shakespeare. Dachas are still dachas; peasants are still peasants. When Astrov complained about the destruction of forests and “climate change” I winced, and I worried for Baker: then I went to the text and in fact Baker had it right—Chekhov was just ahead of his time—Astrov does in fact express concerns about deforestation and its effect on the climate.

One more compliment on the writing: in many places, Baker follows the excellent, recent translation by Peter Carson [Carson passed away in January of 2013]. This shows her confidence. We translators are often tempted to change the work of a previous translator simply so that our own translation will differ from a previous (good) one, and this is always a mistake. Baker uses Carson where he gets it right; when she can use her own poetic gifts and vision to go him one better, she improves on his text. Because it is a play, she is not publishing it as a new translation, and so her heavy reliance on Carson is not an intellectual fault, it’s an artistic virtue.

I’ve bolded sections from these critics’ assessments above because they each reflect parts of my arguments to Jeff as we were pouring over translations starting last spring. As with Duke’s production of A Doll’s House in fall of 2011, I wanted to find the translation I felt most completely echoed the director’s vision for the production. In the case of Doll’s House, I became an early advocate for Byrony Lavery‘s version (which, like Baker’s is a “version” built on someone else’s–Margarita Shalina‘s–literal translation) because it offered the kind of overlapping and poetic approach to dialogue that captured the nervous energy that fills every corner of the Hellmers’ house. Characters didn’t start speaking in full sentences until Act 4 when Nora’s wall of lies comes crumbling down. In most of the other translations I’d read, that kind of full sentence self-composure was present from the very beginning. This evolution in pace and tone of language over the course of the play in Lavery’s version, I argued to Ellen, would allow audiences and actors the opportunity to make a very clear emotional as well as plot-driven journey. It would enhance and reinforce the movement-based work she was building and the contemporary POV we were taking on characters and their relationships. 

I had a similar reaction upon reading the Baker. Not only did it read as a wonderful blend of Russian specificity and American modernity, but it had already been the foundation for a rather radical re-visioned production of the play at Soho Rep. Although I knew we were taking a 180-degree different turn from Sam Gold’s vision, I argued to Jeff that we were on solid ground given the successful experimentation that had been done with this text already. As with any well-loved and many-times translated piece, there are always things that I miss from other versions I’ve read; however, the cumulative positives of Baker’s choices married with our approach outweigh any nostalgia I might have for Schmidt or Friel or Hampton.

But what to Mendelsohn and Stevens have to say about translation? (Because that’s probably the reason you’re reading this blog!) Mendelsohn starts with this perhaps well known paradox of the art:

Every text is, to some extent, a bafflement to its translator, because every language, like every writer, has characteristics that can’t be “carried across” — which is what “translate” means — into another tongue, another culture. (Think of words like “chutzpah” and “chic.”) Traduttore traditore, the Italians pun: “The translator is a betrayer.” Yet translations must be made.

He then offers four criteria that for him no translation can afford not to consider: accuracy, sensitivity to formal considerationstexture and tone. I particularly love the way he uses tone to offer a more general piece of advice to all translators:

 Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon” is notorious for its elaborate diction and inscrutable syntax — a murky Greek that nicely suggests the moral and political murkiness that is the play’s subject. When David R. Slavitt chose to pepper his 1997 translation of this titanic masterpiece with phrases like “learning curve,” “stress-related” and “Watch what you say, mister,” he was not only cheapening the diction but hamstringing the play’s larger meanings. Clytemnestra is not Joan Crawford.

Then again, “Watch what you say, mister” is great advice for all translators. Or in the words of Rilke — to elevate the tone a bit — “What, if not this deep translation, is your ardent aim?”

I’ve hyperlinked Mendelsohn’s review of Slavitt’s “updated” Agamemnon above so you can read more about his views on translations that keep reaching for “the modern”.

Stevens turns her attentions to two new translations of Homeric stories: Barry B. Powell‘s Iliad and Stephen Mitchell‘s Odyssey and talks about the immense duty and labor required to translate works of such immense gravity and history. She cites nineteenth-century poet and critic Matthew Arnold whose four qualities of translation (of Homer) echo those offered more generally by Mendelsohn:

Matthew Arnold gave a series of lectures on the problems of Homeric translation in which he compared and assessed multiple English versions, from Chapman’s to the 18th-century rendering by Alexander Pope, praised by Pope’s contemporary Samuel Johnson as “a performance which no age or nation can pretend to equal.” Arnold named four qualities a good translation of Homer must hold in balance: his rapidity, his plainness and directness in both language and ideas, and his “nobility.”

And, like Mendelsohn, Stevens finds aspects of these qualities lacking in various ways in new translations that are driven, in part, to make classic texts “accessible to impatient 21st-century ears”:

In Powell’s “Iliad,” a displeased Achilles poutily informs Agamemnon, “O.K., I’m off to Phthia.” Mitchell is also a believer in swiftness, eliminating many of the fixed epithets that give the Greek poem its stately rhythms, only occasionally allowing the dawn to show off her rosy fingers or Athena her flashing eyes. But Mitchell’s fresh, elegant diction and the care he lavishes on meter — turning the original dactylic hexameter into an irregular five-beat rhythm inspired in part by the late poems of Wallace Stevens — brought me closer to the transfigurative experience Keats describes on reading Chapman’s Homer: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.”

Of course as I read Stevens’ work, I couldn’t help of think about Phil whose senior distinction project next semester is a production of An Iliad, another version/vision of Homer’s text adapted by the actor Denis O’Hare and the director Lisa Peterson.

Most, if not all of you, read both the Schmidt and the Baker versions of Uncle Vanya. What do you think about the differences in their choices? Some, perhaps many of you, also read/write/speak multiple languages. What do you think about the process of translation as you may have encountered it in your classwork and/or personal/artistic life?

Would this study change Chekhov’s mind about academics?

In a study published yesterday in the journal Science, social psychologist researchers from The New School for Social Research in NY have found that reading literary fiction (as opposed to popular or non-fiction writing) has a greater impact on a subject’s understanding of emotional nuances, which, in turn, improves real-life skills like empathy and understanding the beliefs and intentions of others. The study summary published in The New York Times‘ “Well” blog opens with a paragraph that immediately leaped out at me and might have caught your attention as well.

Reading Chekhov for a few minutes makes you better at decoding what other people are feeling. But spending the same amount of time with a potboiler by Danielle Steel does not have the same effect, scientists reported Thursday.


In the study, […] people who read excerpts from literary fiction (Don DeLillo, Alice Munro, Wendell Berry) scored better than people who read popular fiction (Gillian Flynn, Rosamunde Pilcher, Mary Roberts Rinehart) on tests asking them to infer what people were thinking or feeling – a field that scientists call “Theory of Mind.”

People who read literary fiction also scored better than people who read nonfiction (in this case, pieces published in Smithsonian Magazine, like “How the Potato Changed the World”). Interestingly, when subjects were asked, they said they did not enjoy literary fiction as much as popular fiction.

And in two experiments, some participants read nothing at all before taking the tests, yet performed as well as the participants who read popular fiction. Both of those groups made more mistakes on the tests than literary fiction readers, reported the researchers, Emanuele Castano, a psychology professor, and David Comer Kidd, a doctoral candidate.

“It’s a really important result,” said Nicholas Humphrey, an evolutionary psychologist who has written extensively about human intelligence, and who was not involved in the research. “That they would have subjects read for three to five minutes and that they would get these results is astonishing.”

Dr. Humphrey, an emeritus professor at Darwin College, Cambridge, said, “I would have thought reading in general” would make people more empathetic and understanding. “But to separate off literary fiction, and to demonstrate that it has different effects from the other forms of reading is remarkable. I think it’s going to generate a lot more research and I hope it’s going to generate some discussion in education.”

The report of this study’s findings raised a few questions for me, not the least of which being what’s the need for data to reinforce a point that English majors, their professors, and book lovers have argued for ages? I almost immediately answered that question with a reminder about the new Common Core standards being implemented in American schools, especially the addition of attention on non-fiction texts, which has been met with consternation (some from teachers, much from conservative politicians) about whether this shift will diminish the time spent teaching literature. Of course, since Chekhov wrote across genres (short stories, plays, articles, and what could be classified as early ethnographies) maybe he’s the key to bringing these different factions together. He’s already triumphed over the academics he lampooned in his pieces by becoming such a revered object of study for so many. On the other hand, I love imagining what kind of story he’d make out of this research, those who conduct it, and those who use its data for news reports and public policies.


Drawn from/of the land

Perhaps it’s only fitting, given the prevalence of Chekhov’s plays on New York City stages in the past couple of years, but just a few weeks ago, the New York Times published this feature about Chekhov’s Melikhovo estate and the museum on/of its grounds tended so carefully (through turbulent times) by a devoted curatorial staff, especially Kseniya A. Tchailkovskaya who has worked at the estate for over 40 years (Marina?).

A couple of photographs and a section about the feel of the place when Chekhov was in his heyday caught my attention, esp. as I look at some of the place names referenced in Vanya which are thinly transformed references to the very real places and people that surrounded him and his working life (as playwright and doctor).


"Many artifacts came from the later Chekhov home in Yalta, enabling visitors today to get a full glimpse of a cramped family home in the late 19th century."

“Many artifacts came from the later Chekhov home in Yalta, enabling visitors today to get a full glimpse of a cramped family home in the late 19th century.”

When the Chekhovs lived here, she said, they entertained, gardened, painted and made music — the dacha pastimes of generations of Russians able to afford them. The playwright’s brother Aleksandr was a keen photographer, and scene upon scene of guests and family line the walls of the main wooden house, alongside works by renowned Russian artists — and visitors — like the painters Isaak I. Levitan and Vassily D. Polenov.

Chekhov, besides writing and taking part in the estate’s gostoprimstvo, or hospitality, also worked as a doctor, preparing his own medicines. He was always ready, Ms. Tchaikovskaya said, to treat even the poorest patient.

Chekhov’s guiding principle in doing so, she added, was “hasten to do good,” a maxim of Dr. Friedrich Haass, a revered chief doctor of Moscow prison hospitals in the 19th century.

Chekhov’s altruism and the modest proportions of his estate are a far cry from the all-out materialism and bigger-is-best mantra of oil-rich Russia today, where millions are still poor but millions of others are consuming as never before.

Perhaps the writer felt bound to serve not just because of his medical training but also because his own father, Pavel, started life as a serf, winning his freedom only at age 16.

"Chekhov’s country estate, which he bought at age 32, is where he wrote “The Seagull” and many other works."

“Chekhov’s country estate, which he bought at age 32, is where he wrote “The Seagull” and many other works.”