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J U L Y  1 9 9 7

Books
Chekhov in American
by Adam Kirsch


THE PLAYS OF ANTON CHEKHOV
translated by Paul Schmidt.
HarperCollins,
387 pages
$30.00.

IN the English-speaking world Anton Chekhov is far better known for his plays than for his short stories. But during his lifetime Chekhov's stories made his reputation; his plays were given a more ambivalent reception, even by his fellow writers. Shortly after Chekhov's death, in 1904, Tolstoy voiced a common feeling that plays like Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters weren't quite dramas. "To evoke a mood," he said in an interview, "you want a lyrical poem. Dramatic forms serve, and ought to serve, quite different aims. In a dramatic work the author ought to deal with some problem that has yet to be solved and every character in the play ought to solve it according to the idiosyncrasies of his own character.... But you won't find anything of the kind in Chekhov."

In this criticism Tolstoy hit on exactly those features that have made Chekhov's plays the fundamental works of modern drama. Like lyric poems, they favor mood over plot; there is no overriding "problem," and when problems do appear, the playwright never seems to endorse any solutions. Chekhov's dramatic form allowed him to present things on the stage "just as complicated and just as simple as ... in real life," as he famously wrote. "People are sitting at a table having dinner, that's all, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn apart."
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But Chekhov's emphasis on tone and mood, and his faithful re-creation of ordinary conversation with all its hesitations, references, and silences, make him an unusually difficult playwright to translate. Just as difficult to convey is the class dynamic that Chekhov treated again and again: there is no precise English, much less American, equivalent of his gentry, trying to live a city life on income from vast, ungovernable, debt-ridden estates. To an audience that doesn't share Chekhov's basic cultural knowledge, his plays can seem far more meandering, depressing, and vague than they were intended to be.

In his new translation of Chekhov's complete plays Paul Schmidt has these problems very much in mind. Both an actor and a Russian scholar, Schmidt sets out to give us a Chekhov who makes sense. He writes in his introduction, "Above all, I hope these translations will provide actors and directors with a clear sense of how the plays are meant to work and how they should sound." His guiding stars are clarity and relevance -- particularly relevance to an American audience. "I want to emphasize," he writes, "that this is an American translation, not simply another 'English' translation."

The result is a surprisingly lively Chekhov, colloquial and clear, which will come as a revelation to those who know the playwright through the widely read but rather stiff British translations of Constance Garnett and Elisaveta Fen. Everything about Schmidt's book, from the organization and footnotes to the language itself, is meant to clear away the obscurity and sentimentality with which Chekhov is often burdened. The plays that emerge are funnier and more muscular than one might have expected.

Among the simplest but most effective of Schmidt's choices is to include all of Chekhov's mature finished plays. Most editions of Chekhov include only the "major plays" -- The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard -- and these are, of course, the heart of his achievement. But from those four plays one would never know that the young Chekhov started out as a writer of comic stories for humor magazines, and that his first successes for the stage were one-act farces. He continued to write these short comedies throughout his career, and they show him to be a master of comic timing. Most of them have faded with age, but The Bear -- in which a blustering bully challenges a woman to a duel and then falls in love with her when she agrees to fight -- could still raise laughs today. Seeing these farces (there are seven of them in the volume) alongside the later plays changes how we see Chekhov, and makes us more responsive to the comic elements in a play like The Cherry Orchard.

Even more illuminating are Schmidt's notes, which manage to demystify the many quotations and references scattered throughout the plays. Whenever a character hums a tune or recites a verse, Schmidt tells us just what it is he's saying, and what associations it would have for a Russian audience. This basic information, which most translations fail to provide, does away with half the vagueness that audiences often find in Chekhov. For example, in the first act of Three Sisters, Masha, the middle sister, repeats a snatch of poetry from Pushkin. To an English-speaker the verse sounds highly romantic, like something from Yeats: "Beside the sea there stands a tree, and on that tree a golden chain." This creates an atmosphere of sad longing -- very "Chekhovian." But for a Russian audience, Schmidt reveals, the reference would have immediately called up the next lines, which he takes the liberty of including in his translation: "And on that chain an educated cat goes around and around and around." This effectively punctures the dreamy tone, leaving us instead with a fanciful, even silly, fairy tale; the emphasis now is not so much on the "golden chain" as on the "going around and around," which mirrors Masha's sense of frustration. This is a perfect instance of how even a literally correct translation can give a misleading impression of Chekhov.

BUT the most striking element in Schmidt's "American" translation is his attempt to put Chekhov's Russian into modern American idiom. There's no doubt that we sorely need such a translation; even the most casual dialogue can sound faintly absurd in the starchy British English of many popular editions of Chekhov. Take, for instance, this exchange from Act I of Ivanov in Elisaveta Fen's Penguin translation.

Anna Petrovna: Who was it talking here just now? Was it you, Misha? Why are you stamping about like that?

Borkin: Anyone who had to deal with your cher Nicolàs would stamp about!

Anna Petrovna: I say, Misha, will you have some hay brought to the croquet lawn?

Borkin: Leave me alone, please.

Anna Petrovna: Tut-tut, what a tone of voice!
Schmidt turns this passage into something American actors can plausibly say onstage.

Anna: What's going on out there? Is that you, Misha? What are you marching around like that for?

Borkin: Trying to talk sense into your friend Nicholas here. Voilà. Enough to make anybody start marching.

Anna: Misha, I want some hay brought up to the croquet lawn; don't forget to tell them.

Borkin: Oh, leave me alone, will you?

Anna: How rude! Will you please not take that tone with me?
At times, however, Schmidt's effort to make Chekhov sound more American leads him to word choices that a sensitive ear may find anachronistic. The risks in his approach are most evident in The Cherry Orchard, in which Lopakhin, the son of a serf, ends up buying the Ranevsky estate, to which his family once belonged. Class is the crucial element in the play; it's vital to recognize that Lopakhin is a peasant, on a level altogether different from the aristocratic Ranevskys. But Schmidt persistently refuses to use the word "peasant" in describing him. Take, for example, Lopakhin's speech in Act I, which establishes his love-hate relationship with Lyubov Andreyevna, the mistress of the estate. As Ann Dunnigan translates it, in the Signet paperback edition, the class implications are clear.

Lyubov Andreyevna ... led me to the washstand in this very room, the nursery. "Don't cry, little peasant," she said, "it will heal in time for your wedding...." Little peasant ... my father was a peasant, it's true, and here I am in a white waistcoat and tan shoes.... I may be rich, I've made a lot of money, but if you think about it, analyze it, I'm a peasant through and through.
Schmidt prefers a far less suggestive term for Lopakhin:

"Don't cry, poor boy; you'll live long enough to get married." Poor boy ... Well, my father was poor, but take a look at me now, all dressed up, brand-new suit and tan shoes.... I'm rich now, got lots of money, but when you think about it, I guess I'm still a poor boy from the country.
"Poor boy from the country" does not carry nearly the same emotional weight as "peasant." Elsewhere Schmidt has Lopakhin calling himself a "dirt farmer," which has still different connotations. What Schmidt gains in Americanness here, he loses in psychological accuracy. And such word choices abound: "literacy programs" for "reading rooms," "homeless man" for "tramp," "freak" for "crank." These words are so contemporary that they call attention to the translation, distracting us from the play itself.

Still, when translating Chekhov, too contemporary is better than too literary. Even when a word or phrase sticks out, Schmidt's language is vigorous and comprehensible; reading it, we feel that these characters are not just beautiful, sad souls but real people. For a playwright as frequently misunderstood as Chekhov, this is perhaps the greatest service that any translator could have performed. A generation from now Schmidt's American English may sound as antiquated as Elisaveta Fen's British English, but until then Schmidt's Chekhov should be the first choice for any American reader.


Copyright © 1997 by Adam Kirsch. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1997; "Chekov in America"; Volume 280, No. 1; pages 110-112.

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