Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Translations: part 1 of 2

Translation is cultural kidnapping –- cultural because the act of turning a foreign word into a domestic word is like painting, with shades and colors and contrasts, and every language has its own palette; and kidnapping because the bad ones always end with the victim’s escape from your clutches, while the good ones always end in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome marriage. Even the best translation can’t help but substitute a value for every word, what Noam Chomsky would probably call the myth behind the language. Which is why, in much the same way that every Hollywood movie about Ancient Rome becomes a replay of the American myth -- the war of freedom and democracy against tyranny and dictatorship -- every British translation of Chekhov is about the English character: class snobbery and repressed emotions.

(And it's not just Chekhov. Check out Night Creatures, the Hammer version of the Dr Syn story starring Peter Cushing, and compare it to Disney's Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. In Night Creatures, the Robin Hood figure is an ex-pirate who must pay for his past sins with his life. In Scarecrow, the Robin Hood figure is anti-tyranny ["There's a new spirit in the world, Mipps. Men can't beat armies. But ideas can."] and risks his neck to save a proto-Son-Of-Liberty from the gallows. Or to put it another way -- in England: repressed emotions; in America: a secret identity.)

And in Chekhov? It depends on the translation. There's a lot of repressed emotion and blindness in Tom Stoppard’s new Bridge Project version of The Cherry Orchard, which is currently playing at BAM. There's also a lot of comedy, which is not a tree that is usually found in most Orchards, despite Chekhov's insistence that comedy describes the play perfectly. But then most translations of the good doctor's plays go for the wistful over the wacka-wacka-wacka; it's only in the one-acts, the obvious farces, that you're given a clear and consistent presentation of the over-the-top craziness that is Chekhov deliberately going for a laugh. Of course, if you listened to Anton talk about his own work, every page of his plays has laughs galore. But since an author's blindness to his own work is not limited to modern writers whose program notes have no relationship at all to what's on the stage, you have to take Chekhov's self-professed label as a comedian with not just a grain of salt, but a lemon and a shot of tequila.

The laughs in this version are more Stoppard than Chekhov, which is at the same time a plus and a minus. It’s no secret that, because English is Stoppard’s second language, he has a wider brush when it comes to wordplay. His émigré status is also the reason why there’s a continental feel to even his most British pieces -- the sense that they’re not taking place in London but in Schnitzler’s Vienna, where any ill-considered word could provoke pistols at dawn. In Chekhov it’s exactly the opposite; in Chekhov there are nothing but ill-considered words, which (when they are not deliberately ignored) provoke the distant sound of sleighs and carriages as much as they do gunshots. The best translations of his plays show people verbally stepping on each other’s toes, and meanwhile hiding a wince when their own little piggies get trod on.

Is Stoppard's that kind of translation? No. But then I don't think there's a translation in English that reproduces this aspect of Chekhov's writing. I don't even know if it can be done without tearing the plays apart and re-inventing them as American fables. And even then. Setting Cherry Orchard in Virginia circa 1900 and turning Lopakhin into the son of one of the plantation's slaves would be the only comparable analogy to what Lopakhin represents as the son of a Russian serf, but the American representation comes with its own unique cultural baggage which (a) warps the role of "servant" into something so culturally charged that (b) in essence you've got a totally new play, not about repressed emotions but a repressed race of people. (I'm putting it on my project list right under the 1950's version of Hedda Gabler. Oh wait--Cate Blanchett already did that one.)

Next: so if it's impossible, why do it? or, The Everest Effect.

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