Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Remnick/Stoppard Part 1

As part of BAM’s Artist Talk series, David Remnick interviewed Tom Stoppard for an hour last night. Stoppard’s new version of The Cherry Orchard is being directed by Sam Mendes and will be performed at BAM next year in repertory with A Winter’s Tale. What follows is a reconstruction from the notes I took while the two men were talking, notes which can barely approximate the offhand precision of Stoppard's conversation, which was at all times elegant, clever, and grammatically correct.

REMNICK: I’d like to start off by talking about the art of translations. You’ve done several of them – Schnitzler, other Chekhov plays – and like Vladimir Nabokov you have an enormous interest in translation. As a matter of fact, you share a number of similarities with Nabokov -- verbal magic, that throbbing feeling within, --

STOPPARD: The fact that he’s dead. [LAUGHTER] But still protesting.

REMNICK: Nabokov himself supervised his own translations and spent years himself translating Eugene Onegin, which we should probably talk about later, but what I want to ask you now is, you have a very full plate. You write plays, you write screenplays and radio dramas. So why translations? There are many translations of Chekhov out there; what do you get from doing one?

STOPPARD: Well, number one, by the very nature of translation, and more acutely in the case of a great writer like Chekhov, there is no terminus to the event. The Cherry Orchard exists somewhere around the intersection of innumerable translations, but none of them can really account for the play, not can they ever hope to. And the second thing is, a translation that appears to have its optimum realization also has a built-in obsolescence. It may be perfect for its time, but in five years it will seem dated. What seems right for one now, always seems wrong a few years later. Plus there’s a third thing. I haven’t discussed this yet with Sam Mendes, but it also seems to me that directors like to have a new text to work with because the text is essentially unsettled. It is only when the play is performed and the script is published that the text becomes settled. And yes, of course, there are several translations of The Cherry Orchard by a number of writers which are quite good. Michael Frayn’s, for instance -- which has the added value of being written by the only one of us who also reads Russian. You would think that would have taken care of the problem for everyone else. But when the script is being worked on by directors and actors during rehearsal, there is still the sense of a writer composing in English and not the original language. (One of the problems with having me as an interviewee is that I can go on and on like a toy. [LAUGHTER] This is not a tribute to your question so much as it is a tribute to my nature. [LAUGHTER]) As I was saying, having the text not settled is a pleasure and a benefit, but it means that the task of translation is always an open-ended one.

REMNICK: What qualities would you put in your translation that you weren’t getting in Frayn’s? What do you want your Chekhov to have more of? What is Tom Stoppard’s Chekhov?

STOPPARD: I don’t see it in those terms. One must remember that theatre is an event, as it were, and not a text. The text is fulfilled in performance. And when one is working on a translation, one writes for actors, one sounds out the lines, pretending to be an actor while saying them. It’s a different type of storytelling. But all storytelling is an art form, and an Anton Chekhov story is told in what is even now a slightly idiosyncratic -- and at the time quite revolutionary -- manner. The fact is that in a Chekhov play there is a macro-story and a micro-story, like a palimpsest of several maps layered one upon the other, where two different scales of action are taking place. A great deal of internal things are going on while a character speaks two lines and takes a drink. There’s a story that when he finished his first play -- he was 27, and it took him two weeks, ten days actually -- he wrote a letter to his brother and he said “I have written no villains and no angels.” So he had some sense of what he was achieving, the revolutionary nature of it, even now, that one can write with total moral neutrality. And it didn’t come out of nowhere -– one can point to Turgenev and a Month In The Country which was written 50 years before. But it was revolutionary. I just thought of a strange analogy. It would be equivalent to someone saying seventy years ago, “What the hell is this with New Yorker stories? They don’t seem to finish, they just stop.” [LAUGHTER] Of course people now are taking that in stride. One does not judge modern stories by how much they are like an O Henry story. By the way, I would like to come back to Eugene Onegin at the half past nine mark. [LAUGHTER]

REMNICK: When Constance Garnett translated Dostoevsky and Tolstoy into English, it was their introduction into the English language culture. I interviewed Joseph Brodsky once, and he said, “Your problem as English-speaking readers is, they sound the same to you. Oh, maybe Dostoevsky is a little darker, and Tolstoy is a little lighter, but they’re essentially the same. You don’t understand. Dostoevsky is a hilarious writer.” That’s a word you don’t usually hear to describe Dostoevsky. “Hilarious.” So my question is, do you think translation a tonal thing as well as a verbal thing?

STOPPARD: Tonal as well, yes. One comes back to the proposition that theater is an event. Chekhov was always seeing tonal problems in the performance of his plays. He would complain that the actors were always too emotive with his words, while the actors were shocked and surprised that he would describe Cherry Orchard as a comedy. But the more one sees Chekhov in performance, and working with him, as it were, in translating his play, one understands the meaning of the term comedy as he meant it, which can be stated very glibly. “In what sense is Cherry Orchard a comedy? Well, in what sense is life a comedy?” His plays contain genuine, authentic reflections on what people are. His refusal to judge them is stated explicitly in Ivanov, where a character says, “I don’t understand you, you don’t understand me, and neither of us understand ourselves.” He is totally neutral on the issue of morality, he has no judgment on how we behave with each other, and yet even a toddler knows what is good behavior and what isn’t. But Chekhov resisted the easy categorization of credit and blame.

REMNICK: Did you ever study Russian?

STOPPARD: For about a fortnight. I was very keen on a girl once who went to Russian lessons. But she gave it up after two weeks, so I saw no point in continuing it. [LAUGHTER]

REMNICK: So you base your version of the play on a word for word translation written by someone else.

STOPPARD: Yes. Of course, one would not want to see a production of Chekhov written by a linguist. [LAUGHTER] My assistant, Helen Rappaport, provides not only a word-for-word translation, but she also suggests alternate words, she notes topical and historical references, allusions, that sort of thing. Plus there are all these other versions up there on the shelf. I ended up taking down an anonymous one, which was accurate and faithful, which meant that it was also a little stilted in its conversation.

REMNICK: Robert Lowell wrote a series of poems he called Imitations, based on various poets, which were not so much translations as stylistic echoes. But they all ended up sounding like Robert Lowell. Do you want your Chekhov to sound like Tom Stoppard?

STOPPARD: Oh no. Although there have been moments. When I was working on translating a Schnitzler play, there was a particular line, I can’t remember what it is now, but I could not see my way through it. And that was like a revelation, because that was the point where I realized that as a translator I was there to serve the purpose, and not the text. Having said that, however, I have done horrible things to other people’s plays; --

REMNICK: For instance. [LAUGHTER]

STOPPARD: If I may finish what I was about to say after the semi-colon, “which I would have to have done with mine.” [LAUGHTER] For instance, in this production of Ivanov I just finished working on -- I’ll tell you if you promise not to tell anyone else -- I killed a character that Chekhov unaccountably failed to kill off. [LAUGHTER] I gave him a heart attack. Chekhov wrote the play in ten days but he wasn’t satisfied with it, he was never satisfied with it, as a matter of fact, which I felt was an opening for me, although not a wide-opened door. [LAUGHTER] So there was a monologue which an actress gives, and she’s essentially saying things she’d said before, but I didn’t want to cut it, so I gave another character a heart attack while she was delivering it. Two things happening at the same time. And Chekhov had the last laugh, because no one even noticed. [LAUGHTER]

[Continued here]


Ethan Stanislawski said...

Jeez, you're notes were like 100 times better than mine. Bravo, sir.

Horvendile said...