In the course of preparing a second edition of my 1992 translation of Griboyedov’s The Woes of Wit, I recently went on Youtube to see what new material might be available there. I wasn’t disappointed. There’s a lot new since last time I looked, most notably the complete 1977 Soviet film version of the Maly Theater’s production of the play. Watching it repeatedly and seeing how different parts are played has been quite a revelation. It’s easily the best of the three versions I’ve now seen (none of them live, though Oleg Menshikov’s video version was basically a recording of his stage production).
The actors playing Chatsky (Vitaly Solomin) and Sofya (Nelly Kornienko) in the Maly’s production were both superb. The latter role is probably the harder to do convincingly. Sofya, Chatsky’s childhood friend, fancies herself in love with Molchalin, her father’s obsequious live-in secretary. The witty, irreverent, and outspoken Chatsky, who loves her himself, is at first unbelieving, and finally, dismayed. It is this that drives the action of the play.
But Sofya is no shallow dupe. D.S. Mirsky in his History of Russian Literature says of her:
She is a rare phenomenon in classical comedy: a heroine that is neither idealized nor caricatured. There is a strange, drily romantic flavor in her, with her fixity of purpose, her ready wit, and her deep, but reticent, passionateness.
There’s the rub: Sofya is mistaken about Molchalin, but her mistake is an honorable one. One must feel, when she defends him in the face of Chatsky’s ridicule, that, but for that mistake, she is entirely justified in doing so. Beyond that, one must be able to see things from her point of view. Chatsky is admirable, intelligent, passionate, but seeing how uncomfortable he makes people, and what eventually happens to him, who can blame her for not wanting to tie her fate to someone like that? That is the way Kornienko, with complete conviction, plays her.
It is wonderful that Mosfilm has chosen to make so many great movies available online. Given that, I can’t complain too much about them blocking the excerpts from two of their unsubtitled films that I put up on Youtube with my own subtitles added. I know they’re just following a general policy. I have, however, received some disappointed queries from people who have tried to view them since then. In the three years that the 5-part Mozart and Salieri sequence from Shveitser’s malenkie tragedii was viewable, the first part had 6,555 viewers.
[UPDATE, 2016: These videos have again been viewable for some time now: Mosfilm has allowed them to appear with ads that you can click out of after 3 seconds.]
In June I attended the “translators’ coven” organized under the auspices of the Russkiy Mir Program of St Antony’s College at Oxford. There were about thirty short presentations by Russian-English literary translators, discussing recent or current work. Some 125 people attended the two-day event; many, both presenters and audience, were also in London at Pushkin House for a series of evening readings/discussions the following week.
My presentation was on “translating classic Russian verse drama for performance,” in which I discussed my approach to translating Pushkin and Griboyedov. With me on the drama panel, chaired by Sasha Dugdale, were Lisa Hayden and Noah Birksted-Breen. A full summary of the proceedings is here.
Presentations were mostly informal, with ample time allowed for open discussion. Being a very infrequent conference-goer, I don’t have much basis for comparison, but the general level seemed to me very high. Literary translation tends to be solitary, despite the obvious benefits of collaboration (a point that arose more than once in discussion), and the collegiality of the gathering felt quite remarkable. The socializing around the conference, including a restaurant dinner for about 40 the first night (and a bit of pub crawling afterwards) didn’t hurt, either.
Aside from all this, it was my first visit to London in about a decade. I stayed in the East End, in Stepney Green, an area I was not familiar with. The flat where I was staying looked out over St Dunstan’s churchyard (below). The church’s bells (“the bells of Stepney”) are among those mentioned in the “Oranges and Lemons” nursery rhyme about the bells of East London.
My translation of Alexander Griboyedov’s verse comedy Gore ot uma (The Woes of Wit) was published by Hermitage in 1992. It has been out of print for some time now. I am planning a second edition, with revisions; I would like, however, to get it produced first. It had a table reading by professional actors in New York in 1992, but has not yet been performed publicly.
The performance history of this play in English has been dismal, considering that in Russia it is regarded as a classic on a par with Molière or even Shakespeare. It has had some success on stage in Germany and Poland (Joseph Conrad’s father did a Polish adaptation), but if there’s anywhere outside of Russia where it is performed with any regularity, I don’t know of it.
Two other English versions appeared around the same time mine did, one by Beatrice Yusem, and the other by Anthony Burgess, the late British novelist. The Burgess version, so far as I know, was never published, but it had a run of some weeks at the Almeida theatre in London followed by a tour in 1993. Since then at least one more English version has been published, by Mary Hobson. There are plans afoot now at the National Theatre in London to do an adaptation (I have this from Ranjit Bolt, who has been commissioned to do it).
My translation was always intended as a performing version, but it is not an adaptation. I have the same feeling about adaptations of classic drama as Richard Wilbur, whose approach to verse translation I largely share. The aim is to achieve line-for-line, or thought-for-thought, rather than word-for-word, fidelity. When a dramatist writes in verse, the verse line becomes the rhythm of the drama; it’s not decoration. That means that some sort of equivalent for it must be found in the target language, or we lose the whole savor of the thing. Of course the story remains, and one can try, by updating language or action or both, to make it compelling, or at least entertaining, to a modern audience. But the result generally has little to do with the original work. Which is fine, as long as the adapter has the honesty to claim the work as his own, and not use a revered old name to sell it. To make an old play come alive, our best hope, as Wilbur put it in an introduction to one of his translations, is to “see whether a maximum fidelity, in text and in performance, might not adapt us to it.” If old plays have nothing to offer beyond what we already know, why bother with them at all?
I discussed the language and style of Griboyedov’s play in some detail in my translator’s introduction. To give English speakers a very rough sense of the dramatic rhythms that emerge from Griboyedov’s verse, I recently took some video clips of filmed Russian performances of the work, and added subtitles from my translation.
The first is from Oleg Menshikov’s 1998 stage production, which ran for two years in Moscow. A video version was made in 2000 by Peter Shepotinnik. This is Act 3, scene 3, where Chatsky and Molchalin, rivals for Sofya’s love, have their one conversation. Molchalin, the obsequious social-climber, is often played as mere foil to the witty and intelligent Chatsky. But the Molchalin in this performance (Alexey Zavialov) holds his own. He throws Chatsky’s irony right back at him, clearly considering one who alienates all the important people around him to be the real fool. Chatsky (played by Menshikov) is not just disdainful, either; the flashes of real anger and dismay on his face show the passion and vulnerability that make him more than just the author’s witty mouthpiece, as he is often taken to be.
The second clip is from the 1952 film directed by S. Alekseev and V. Voitetsky. This is Act 3, scene 21, where the guests at Famusov’s ball, after Sofya has started the rumor that Chatsky is mad, find confirmation of his madness in all the quips that have offended them earlier. This is a very satirical scene; the Soviet tradition was to make the guests a gallery of grotesques, and some of that can be seen here, but there are some fine performances. Famusov (Konstantin Zubov) and Khlyostova (Vera Pashennaya) are both good, though the latter is perhaps a little too soft in the role. The Khlyostova in the Menshikov production is more formidable: when she utters her final “three!” to clinch the argument with Famusov, he is reduced to jelly.