Saturday, 15 March 2008

[6] Gogological Problems in The Seagull

I submitted the review of Ghosts I-IV from the previous post to CC2K for publication. An edited, and wholly improved version of the review can be found here. I was a little underwhelmed by the amount of hits, as I don't believe there are enough intelligent and informed reviews of this album on the internet at the moment, but we'll see how it develops.


In a blog post 2 weeks ago, I wrote a rough draft of a chapter from my dissertation, which is still under the working title of 'In Translating Chekhov's The Seagull, To What Extent have English Language translations 'domesticated' the play's foreign nature'?'. In that chapter I mostly discussed the reference to Tver, but I also brought in Chekhov's reference to the poet Nekrasov, and the implications of arbitrary / unexplained reference in translation.

Today I'm going to post a rough draft of another one of my chapters. In the dissertation it will be called 'Gone, and still forgotten: Literary and Cultural References in translation' If you want to see the structure I'm working from, I've uploaded the document to googledocs.


In terms of distinctly Russian literary references in The Seagull, I've been very intrigued by a specific allusion to Nikolai Gogol's Diary of a Madman, in Act II. This is part of the exchange between Trigorin and Nina towards the end of the act, and the Russian goes like this:

Тригорин ...и мне кажется, что это внимание знакомых, похвалы, восхищение,— все это обман, меня обманывают, как больного, и я иногда боюсь, что вот-вот подкрадутся ко мне сзади, схватят и повезут, как Поприщина, в сумасшедший дом...

This section basically means: 'and to me it seems, that these attentions from acquaintances, this praise, this admiration - it's all deception, I'm being tricked, like an invalid, and I'm sometimes afraid, that they're about to sneak up on me, grab me and take me, like Poprishchin, to the mad-house'. In terms of the sentence structure, in both Russian and English, the reference to Poprishchin, the main character and narrator in Gogol's short story Diary of a Madman, is quite superfluous. I'm guessing it is a literary reference added into Trigorin's speech because, well, he is a literary figure and is likely to make such an allusion. I think this is a prime example of a reference that could easily be cut out in translation, as it doesn't affect the meaning of the sentence (being sectioned is not an alien concept in modern European society) and only serves 'Trigorin's character' in a minimal way.

However, there are a couple of factors which make the translation of this reference interesting, and out of the various editions consulted, few are the same. Gogol is easily in the upper echelons of Russian writers, especially 19th century writers. If I made a personal list, trying to gauge cultural notability, I would place him on a par with Gorky and slightly behind Lermontov and Turgenev, in the 'minor heavyweight' category (they have a small kernel of ground-breaking or well-regarded works), which is separate from the 'true heavyweights' of Pushkin, Dostoyevky, Chekhov and Tolstoy. At very least, he is more of a household name in 21st Century Europe than Nekrasov can ever hope to be. 'Diary of a Madman', thanks in part to Ozzy Osbourne, is one of his more recognisable works; so much that the Penguin Classics edition of his major short stories I recently purchased is titled 'Diary of a Madman and other stories'. This in itself is interesting, as the very decision to grant one piece a certain prominence reveals the target audience's perceived awareness, and this approach is common ('Queen of Spades and other stories', 'Lady With a Lapdog and other stories', 'Death in Venice and other stories' - name the author!). Does this mean that translators may feel inclined to preserve such a reference, as it's meaning may still resonate with today's audience?

There is one problem - the Russian reference is to Poprishchin, who is the protagonist. The name is in isolation. However, his name is only mentioned once in the story itself, in the final two pages (at least in my translation, Ronald Wilks, 1972). Even though the piece is narrated in the first person, the 'madman' develops anonymously, or eponymously. This character is certainly not as 'recognisable' by name as Raskolnikov, Onegin or even Pechorin. Such a straight statement, without a reference to Gogol, or the story, may not register for the target-language audience.

What is interesting is the findings. Four of the translations consulted (in this case, 13) left it out. Tennessee Williams, in his 'free adaptation', The Notebook of Trigorin, re-arranges the scene. The other three, which includes the recent 'pared-down' Martin Crimp translation, as well as renowned earlier translations by David Magarshack and Constance Garnett, remove Poprishchin, but keep the madhouse reference.

On the other hand, only 3 retain the straight reference to the character, and two give footnotes to explain it: Bristow, of course, but also Elizaveta Fen (one of only two notes in the whole translation). Peter Gill rather inexplicably translates the character as 'Popchina' - something I can't find any reference to on the internet (apart from a Chinese media blog), and is therefore best filed away as an oddity.

The others, in some way or another, call on the cultural profile of Gogol, to best evoke this reference. Frayn and Stoppard leave out the focus on character and relate to an author's narrative with 'like the wretched clerk in that story of Gogol's' or 'like in Gogol'. Pam Gems hedges her bets with 'like Poprishchin in Gogol'. Two relatively recent translations, from Christopher Hampton and Stephen Mulrine, take the same approach, opting for 'like Gogol's madman', maybe hoping that the use of 'author + fragment of title' would do the trick. This angle also relates back to the sense of Poprishchin being more of an eponymous 'madman' than a necessarily 'named' character.

I find this instance very intriguing because, like the reference to Tver, it manages to crystallise the issues facing translators when they have to negotiate references in the source text. However, whereas Tver is a reference to a place which most likely has little relevance to UK-based audiences, Nikolai Gogol is part of the International Canon of Literature (or at least an educated Brit's idea of such a canon). A different set of rules comes into play here, and there is a greater sense of necessity for preserving the reference, even if it has comparably little intrinsic importance in the speech itself. In comparison to the Tver reference, which was rendered as an arbitrary 'other place', 'like Poprishchin' is not even grammatically necessary; but its sense is still amended, shaped and sculpted to best convey its intertextuality. This is a small example of translators perhaps going beyond the call of duty in order to best render textual allusions to Well-Known Figures. Other Russian examples in The Seagull include Tolstoy and Turgenev (I will discuss these later). These side-glances are retained, highlighted and footnoted, while references to dimmed or forgotten properties, such as Nekrasov, become meaningless or arbitrary.

No extended, elaborate link with film or pop culture this time! In the next chapter, which I will hopefully upload in the next few days, I will discuss how English-language translators approach references to target-language properties, namely Chekhov's extensive quotation and allusion to William Shakespeare. Even though one would assume that this aspect of translation would be simple, it is not necessarily so. Chekhov's quotes Shakespeare, but he quotes Shakespeare in translation. I'm sure there's a quote from Nabokov on the matter, referring to translations Pushkin would have read, but I can't find it (maybe in 'The Art of Translation'? I'll have to check).


Also, for those who have read this far, I shall link to another short youtube video. This week, I shot a very short sequence in the basement of the Arts Building on campus with Emilio. The corridor is long, quiet, with an oppressive and claustrophobic quality. That evening, I decided to mess around with use of music (fading and multiple tracks), slowing down the footage and fiddling with the chroma key settings. I ended up with a silly little piece, which I decided to upload.


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