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.

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