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.
This splendid little production, which premiered last December at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and had a brief run at the Marblehead Little Theatre this past weekend, is a creation of Igor Golyak, artistic director of the Arlekin Players, a Boston-area-based Russian-American troupe. It is performed in Russian.*
The piece is an adaptation of Pushkin’s “Scene from Faust” and “The Stone Guest.” Aside from Gretchen’s song, lifted from Goethe, the lines are all Pushkin’s. But as Golyak conceives it, Don Juan, the protagonist of “The Stone Guest,” becomes yet another incarnation of Faust. This works surprisingly well, or perhaps not so surprisingly – the two damned souls were often associated with each other in Goethe’s and Pushkin’s time, and have been many times since.
For those unfamiliar with Pushkin’s take on the story, his Faust suffers not so much from a thirst for knowledge and experience as from pure ennui, which Mephistopheles (the Demon) tries in vain to alleviate. In a few brief pages of verse, Pushkin creates a sort of negative image of Goethe’s Faust, a soul of frightening vacuity who can only rouse himself to enthusiasm by sentimentalizing his past, in particular his seduction of Gretchen. At the end of the scene, we see his boredom turn murderous.
Enter Don Juan, back from banishment, at the risk of his life, for killing the Commander in a duel. Why has he returned? Out of boredom. Northern women are “like waxen dolls.” He wants to revisit his Spanish haunts. He looks up Laura, his alter ego, and kills her current conquest in a duel, then fixates on Donna Anna, the widow (not the daughter) of the Commander. Disguised as a monk, he courts her at the monastery where she comes daily to pray at the statue that marks her husband’s grave. She permits him to call on her at home, and his conquest of her is imminent when the statue, responding to his invitation, appears at the door. In Arlekin’s production, things are rounded out with the re-appearance, at Juan’s demise, of the Demon from the Faust scene.
In his verve as a seducer, Pushkin’s character owes a lot to Mozart’s Don Giovanni; what Pushkin adds is a certain virtuosity. As many Russian critics have noted, his Juan is essentially an artist. His conquest of Donna Anna, in which, though completely gratuitous, it is essential to him that she know exactly who he is, becomes his masterpiece, and his swan song.
Virtuosity, it is true, doesn’t seem particularly characteristic of Pushkin’s Faust. But in their inner emptiness, the two characters connect well enough. We can believe that a Faust who can have anything he wants, and is still inclined to see love as a salvation, or at least the ultimate distraction, might choose to become this Don Juan. In any case, Pushkin’s verse is so laconic, so suggestive of hidden essences and possible connections between them, that the transformation feels perfectly plausible. And the Arlekin production, in a minimalist black box set with fluid, easily reconfigured elements, has an elegance to match the poetry.
The cast is uniformly excellent. The director plays the Demon (as well as Don Carlos), and Gene Ravvin plays both Faust and Don Juan.
The Guest will be performed again in New York on May 5 at JCC Manhattan, on June 28 at Chelmsford High School, Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and on September 7 and 8 at the Moscow Art Theatre School in Moscow. Details at the Arlekin site.
*[The performance I attended had occasional English subtitles projected on a screen on stage, but not enough to make the dialogue, or even the gist of the story, clear to anyone who could not follow it aurally (except for Gretchen's song, the subtitles were from my translations). Subtitles for spoken live theater, due to speed and variations in timing of delivery, are fiendishly difficult to do effectively. I don't know if anything more extensive is planned along these lines for the remaining US performances. Those interested in attending them, if they don't know Russian, would do well to read the plays in translation first.]
My translation of Pushkin’s Little Tragedies, with an Afterword, notes, and other material, will shortly be available as an ebook, purchasable as a pdf download from this site, and I plan to make a Kindle version available soon after.
The translation of Mozart and Salieri will continue to be separately available as a free download.
A long lapse in blogging, partly due to an unresolved problem with the image uploader. So for now, it’ll be straight text, plus a few links.
In September Video Artists International released a DVD with performances of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Mozart and Salieri and Dargomyzhsky’s The Stone Guest, both done at the Bolshoi Theatre (in 1981 and 1979 respectively). I provided the on-screen subtitles.
It was an interesting process. I had already done some informal subtitling, earlier in the year, of Youtube clips, using my translations of Mozart and Salieri and The Woes of Wit. I was pleased with how easily the translations matched up with the lines spoken on screen. I made no cuts or simplifications, and it was possible to get all the relevant text into titles of manageable length that stayed on the screen long enough to read them without falling behind the spoken dialogue. I felt like it was a good test of the resilience of my versions.
These are verse translations, of course, but one thing that becomes evident right away is that in subtitles you have to pretty much forget about the printed verse format. Regular line breaks, capital letters to begin lines, indentations for half-lines, and all that, just get in the way and are pretty pointless (rhyme changes things a bit; that has to at least not be obscured). The actors are delivering the words at their own pace, according to their own interpretation, and “chunking” different sections of dialogue in the way that feels most effective to them. Made into readable title screens, these chunks may not look like verse at all.
But they are, and good actors would bring out the rhythm even in the absence of these printed cues. They might do all kinds of things that would drive teachers of “proper” verse delivery wild, but as long as they are focusing on what is being said, verse on the stage can mostly take care of itself.
Opera introduces at least one more layer of interpretation, but in these two “chamber operas” the composers adhered to Pushkin’s texts with remarkable fidelity. There are few cuts, discreetly made, which leave the shape of these brilliant mini-dramas very much intact.
Doing subtitles for a commercial release, though, I did have to simplify some titles. At least I was asked to, and it made sense to do it. Limpid as Pushkin’s verse is, there are times when it is just too complex, in terms of syntax, image, or rhetoric, for an audience to take in by brief reading on a screen, while listening to a sung performance. In such cases a less elaborate version of the lines can be helpful. But most of the titles are unsimplified.
More recently the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra asked permission to use my text in supertitles of a live performance of the Rimsky-Korsakoff Mozart and Salieri. It was performed in Calgary on Oct. 30.