Wednesday, 27 February 2008

[3] Where have Nina Zarechnaya's parents gone? Translating Place.

Work on my literature dissertation is proceeding slowly but surely. I have my final meeting with the supervising tutor tomorrow; I'm hoping to get his opinion on my structure and argument. We're allowed to submit a 1000 word draft, but I wouldn't be proud of a hastily-written and insubstantial proportion. The final deadline is April 30, so I have time to tweak my examples, chapters and basic structure before getting down to writing it. It's only 6000 words, as I chose to take an extra module last term ('American Cultures and Countercultures of the 1950s and 1960s'), one of the best decisions I've made at university.

My title is, at the moment (I might swap some words for synonyms at a later date): 'In Translating Chekhov's 'The Seagull', how far have English-Language writers 'Anglicised' the play's Russian nature?'

I originally attacked this in an incredibly general way, but after I focused solely on the foreign/domestic aspects, it's more manageable. It's much less thematic, conceptual and analytical than I'm used to - I'm allowed to indulge my pedantic side in the minute, but important, differences between the 13-15 translations I'm sampling. I'm resisting generalised conclusions at the moment, probably because my findings have been so scattershot and idiosyncratic.

So far, I'm including chapters which discuss how the English-language versions tackle Patronymics and Diminutives (working title: 'By any other name...?'), as well as cultural references in both historical (i.e. specifically 19th century) and geographical (specifically Russian) spheres.

Yesterday I was making notes on the translation of place names (working title chapter: 'Istanbul, Not Constantinople... or Byzantium), specifically focusing on a line spoken by Sorin at the start of Act II:

Сорин (тоном, каким ласкают детей). Да? У нас радость? Мы сегодня веселы, в
конце концов? (Сестре.) У нас радость! Отец и мачеха уехали в Тверь, и мы теперь
свободны на целых три дня.

I'm not here to debate fidelity or literalness of translation. The 'gist' of this line, is that Sorin addressed Nina in the tone usually used to talk to children, and says 'Yes? Are we happy? We're at long last happy today?', then to Arkadina he says 'We're happy! Father and step-mother have gone away to Tver, and we're now free for three whole days'.

I'm interested in the reference to Tver. Tver is a historical town in the Tver Oblast, situated on the Volga, a stop on the Moscow-St Petersburg railway. Out of the 16 translations I sampled, only 11 kept the reference. The other five include an adaptation of the play by Kilroy, which is set in Ireland, so is excused for using 'Dublin'. A translation I happened upon, from 1953, by David Iliffe, inexplicably translates it as 'Kharkov', perhaps better known now as Kharkiv (I won't get into the 'ov-iv' debate), the second largest city in Ukraine.

Curiously, three of these editions neutralise the reference. It is interesting to note that the translations in question are also modern, relatively well-regarded translations, which could be heralded as 'celebrity versions'. Tom Stoppard and Martin Crimp agree that Nina's parents have 'gone away', stressing the importance of their absence over their intended destination. Michael Frayn, a stickler in other regards (especially names), merely puts 'gone into town'. In the Methuen student edition I have, with notes by Nick Worrall, there is a note corresponding to this line that displays the editor's uncertainty with Frayn's choice:

'This suggests only a short journey. In the original, they have gone to Tver, an
old Russian town north-west of Moscow which, depending on where the action of
the play is set, could be miles away and hence account for the three days'
absence.' (2006, 76)

I completely understand the need for dramatists to present a performable, enjoyable and coherent translation, as they have a distinct audience to please, and therefore certain unfamiliarities (e.g. references to places, names) will be lost in the momentum of action. However, when it comes to print translations, I find myself following Nabokov's desire for

'...Translations with copious footnotes, footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers to the top of this or that page so as to leave only the gleam of one textual line between commentary and eternity.'

After all, aren't pieces of literature from other cultures and time periods effective distillations of the context that constructed them? Aggressive assimilative action takes away any of the educational or informative aspects of experiencing culture from outside one's direct context.

However, I say this, but perhaps the most comprehensively edited and noted edition of Chekhov I have, namely the 1977 Norton Critical Edition, by Eugene Bristow, is still, in this case, utterly flawed. Bristow keeps the reference to Tver, and adds a footnote:

'Now Kaliningrad, located northwest of Moscow, this ancient town has a history
dating to the origins of Russia.' (1977, 20)

I read this before the Methuen Worrall edition, and I was immediately struck by a mistake. Tver, which is indeed an ancient city located to the northwest of Moscow, was called Kalinin between 1931 and 1990, after the notable Bolshevik and Chairman of the Supreme Soviet Mikhail Kalinin, who was born in a nearby village in 1875.

Kaliningrad, on the other hand, can refer to two places. Korolyov, in the Moscow Oblast, was called Kaliningrad when it was founded in 1938 as a centre for military, scientific and, later, space exploration industry. The name was changed to Korolyov in 1996, after the leading Russian scientist Sergei Korolyov.

Kaliningrad is also the current name of a city and Oblast previously known as the Prussian/German seaport of Königsberg. This oblast is notable because it is an enclave, separate from the main body of Russia, situated on the Baltic sea, and bordered by Lithuania and Poland. Königsberg became part of the Soviet Union as part of the agreements from the Potsdam Conference, and was renamed Kaliningrad after Mikhail Kalinin, in 1946.

I'm guessing that Bristow was merely mistaken, and meant Kalinin, and Kaliningrad was a misprint or a slip of the mind. Indeed, at the point of his writing, there would have been 2 Kaliningrads and 1 Kalinin - even though Tver itself has never been called Kalinin, it is easy to see how, even to Russian scholars, there can be confusion with the pre-Revolution and Soviet place names. It's a shame that his well-intentioned approach in creating an informative and critical edition of Chekhov is marred by such a mistake.

Out of the 11 translations that kept the reference, Bristow's is the only one which attempted to explain the reference. It's a shame that in these un-elaborated examples, the reference to Tver will default to 'somewhere away from the action', and might as well be taken out. I have found similar examples in other forms of cultural reference, namely the little bits of song that are translated into generic whistling or humming.

Equally, there is a line where Konstantin describes his mother as being able to 'recite the poetry of Nekrasov by heart'; a similar situation is present here, where some keep the reference, but some default to an arbitrary remark about her reciting poetry. In these circumstances, distinct cultural references, which are important in translation as cultural communication, become arbitrary markers that serve basic descriptive functions. That the distinct references are lost is a shame; especially since Nekrasov has all but vanished from English bookshelves (I can't find any in-print collections on Amazon, my university library has a few Russian editions, and 1 Oxford collection from 1929).

I suppose my point is: what does translation serve? Is it to serve a reputation of the Great Author at hand - or should it attempt to communicate the culture, the context? Last night, I watched Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, and an interesting thought came to me. This is a landmark film in American Cinema; it will no doubt be watched and rewatched for generations to come. Tarantino's style is heavily intertextual, with plentiful cultural references. How will future generations come to terms with such references? Examples that come to mind are the title, as well as distinct scenes, such as the famous 'This is your father's watch' and 'Do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder With Cheese in France?' dialogues. Wars, fast food restaurants, racial slurs, film genres and styles, systems of measurement, even countries and place names. Will these references become arbitrary markers once their direct, tangible relevance fades? Will Christopher Walken's monologue lose its historical, stylistic flavour, and merely become 'backstory'? Pulp Fiction itself is an interesting piece without the in-jokes, in it's non-traditional narrative; but its references are key to its genius. Making this link, it is obvious to see how, without footnotes, without an understanding and awareness of the cultural climate, so much of the text's effect is lost.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

[2] Top 10 Films of 2007

I'm going to post up my Top 10 Films of 2007 article, which I wrote hastily so I could submit it to CC2K's Best of 2007 article series. Looking back, it wasn't really up to scratch; and it wasn't published at the time, anyway. I'll rehabilitate it here. The introductory ramble about year of production / year of release / year of viewing is still pretty topical, as we're over halfway through February and I'm still seeing '2007 Films'. Over the last three weeks, since my last post, I've caught Lust, Caution, Sweeney Todd, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Juno, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days and There Will Be Blood. I'm seeing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly this weekend.


This year, through steadfast stubbornness, I managed to see a lot more films than usual. In total, I got up to 22. However, of course, things slipped through the net. A Zodiac DVD is sitting on my desk at the moment, waiting for a spare 153 minutes; and I also missed out on most of the major summer films, so, for me, certain trilogies exist unfinished.

Time for my spin on the ‘year of production/year of release’ debate: I am not a professional. That goes without saying. But to impose the restriction of ‘year of production’ onto these personal lists makes it possible for strange juxtapositions (e.g. ‘The Lives of Others’, top film of 2006, seen on 23rd March 2007). It creates this strange dimension in between years, where nothing is certain. Of course, I’m writing this list now, but I’m also seeing ‘films produced and released elsewhere in 2007’ at this moment in time. In the last week and a half I’ve seen I’m Not There, Paranoid Park and No Country For Old Men, which miss this list by under a month; in the coming months I’m sure I’ll be seeing other ‘big films of 2007’. Where do the films of 2008 begin? Will the ‘allowed’ list of 2008 films only begin in July? Even December? Or not until 2009?

Ok, I’ll simplify it. Here are my favourite films that I saw in a big, darkened space, projected onto a screen, in the year 2007. In no real order, probably in order of viewing, as I come to think of it.

INLAND EMPIRE (dir. David Lynch)

Still miles ahead of the pack in sheer abstract 'what the fuck?' expression, Lynch foisted this 3 hour traumatic epic on us all. Laura Dern really steps out as a leading actress in a fantastic performance. A gripping, visceral experience.

Das Leben Der Anderen / The Lives of Others (dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)

This film seemed to deliver on every level, especially with the performance by Ulrich Mühe, and the ‘sonata’ scene. However, the film really stood out in terms of its unique tone – dragging espionage / thriller themes into a touching, affecting drama.

2 Days in Paris (dir. Julie Delpy)

The only film I saw twice at the cinema this year. Julie Delpy steps out and shows her impressive talent as a screenwriter and director in this mishmash of influences. Funnier than Linklater's Sunrise/Sunset movies, but bubblier than Woody Allen. Anchored by great performances from Delpy, her real life parents, and Adam Goldberg. A film which managed to balance French and American stylistics, humour and language - coming off quite uniquely trans-Atlantic. A talky, intelligent, funny Romantic comedy.

The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford (dir. Andrew Dominik)

A slow-burning, intense epic. A sharp script, with another landmark Brad Pitt role. Casey Affleck emerges as perhaps the most promising 'newcomer' of my year. The arrival of the night-train is my undisputed 'best scene' of the year.

Planet Terror (dir. Robert Rodriguez) / Death Proof (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

I only caught the divorced/extended standalone versions of the Grindhouse movies, being in the UK. Planet Terror delivered as a rollercoaster of gore, B-movie cheese, one-liners, references and a beautiful Carpenter-pastiche of a soundtrack. Death Proof was also good, although it seemed QT forgot that he was making a B-movie homage/parody, and spun his usual quick, snappy dialogue, at times sacrificing thrills for wordiness, especially around the centre. On the whole, probably the two films I enjoyed the most this year. A real treat, an experience with friends, wide-eyed laughing and air-punching. In a year where most films were serious-serious, these stood out as delivering the goods in a shamelessly fun capacity.

Control (dir. Anton Corbijn)

On the heels of the shambolic, self-referencing absurdism of 24 Hour Party People, Control brought dramatic depth to the story of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. Anton Corbijn, known for his evocative music videos and photography, frames this story in Black and White; capable of displaying the crushing dullness of 1970s Northern England, but with brief, striking moments of beauty and transcendence. The cinematography may have elevated this above other biopics, but the performances were nothing less than perfect. Sam Riley is another great newcomer; Samantha Morton confirms her position as one of the best Britishers around at the moment; AND a great minor role / extended cameo from Alexandra Maria Lara. The music was handled very well, with enough guts to mix in actor-performed material with actual Joy Division recordings. Ok, this detail may be mere cosmetics, only noticeable to those who know the music inside-out, but the band really nail the performances – dancing on the line between restraint and outbursts of cathartic energy.

The Hoax (dir. Lasse Hallström)

A careening romp in the style of Catch Me If You Can - Lasse Halstrom's casual retelling of Clifford Irving's Howard Hughes autobiography hoax, also referenced in Welles’ great ‘visual essay’, F For Fake. Great fun. Alfred Molina turning in a great comic supporting role to Richard Gere's cool performance as Irving (actually stretching himself!). Cameos from Eli Wallach and (again) Julie Delpy.

Hot Fuzz (dir. Edgar Wright)

A great follow-up to Shaun of the Dead. I’ve been a loyal fan of Pegg/Wright since Spaced, and I’ll faithfully gobble up anything they produce. Although, whereas Shaun of the Dead was, like Spaced, a touching story within a world of pop-culture references and movies-come-to-life, Hot Fuzz was a more fully-blown spoof. The story didn’t have as much heart as its predecessor, but was probably funnier, certainly in terms of set-pieces, dialogue and characters.

Lady Chatterley (dir. Pascale Ferran)

A real surprise. A French adaptation of an early version of the ‘titillating’ D.H. Lawrence novel. A tender, natural rendition, which manages to avoid the pitfalls of tasteless rutting. Languidly paced, the direction was surprisingly radical in its own way; with super-8 footage, episodic structuring, direct address, and ending on a sharp cut.

Stardust (dir. Matthew Vaughn)

An adaptation of a Neil Gaiman novel that I’ve only half-read. However, as a film, this worked well. A good injection of irony and satire into a traditional fairy tale, which is quite a breath of fresh air in a more spoof-focused world. A film made memorable by its fine details, a great cast of impressive cameos (including De Niro’s self-parody) and a nuanced pastiche of Epic Film Scores.


Bubbling outside of this 10 are a few films that were perfectly enjoyable, or in some way notable, just not ‘top 10’ material. Here are 5 ‘honourable mentions’:

Sunshine (dir. Danny Boyle) - Great cinema experience, but a flawed final third

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (dir. Stephen Kijak)- Really insightful, if too one-sided, documentary into a reclusive, mysterious musical genius.

Die Hard 4.0 (dir. Len Wiseman) - Pure enjoyable action, a great antidote to super-serious ‘gritty’ films – too bad about the bad 1990s ‘h4x0r’ storyline.

Sicko (dir. Michael Moore) - A really touching documentary from Michael Moore.

Youth Without Youth (dir. Francis Ford Coppola) - A challenging, abstract, often beautiful melange of a film, although almost smugly inscrutable at times.


There it is. I've been working closely with the Video Games CC2K editor on his new Weekly Guide to Gaming column. So far, there has been one instalment on The Most Anticipated Games of 2008 (I might post my contribution up here later, but for now, follow the link - hits would be appreciated!). Next week, and possibly the week after, we're discussing Video Game Violence. I'm contributing a rant-piece on the current wave of military advertisements which seem to recreate aspects of computer games to be more coercive. It was going to be short, but it's ballooning as I write it.

No news on the film-making front. I have been scouting out locations, and shooting some location/outdoor footage for the documentary, but I still need to email people to see who would be willing to participate.