Wednesday, 26 March 2008

[7] The Universal Bard? Shakespeare in The Seagull

Here is another draft chapter from my dissertation. That (working) title again - 'In Translating Chekhov's The Seagull, How Have English-Language Translators 'familiarised' the Play's Foreign Nature?'. This chapter will be the last in the analysis section, and is about Chekhov's quotations from Shakespeare. I'm trying to provide a counterpoint to the approaches to Russian or 19th century references, working from a position of Shakespeare-worship, to an acceptance and illustration of the 'relative importance' of this particular case.

I'm not entirely happy with it as it is; it seems a little boring and unenlightening. And way too long. It definitely needs more work. So I would appreciate some thoughts.


'I was certainly the only one who could do the annotation - not only because I knew all the games I had played, but also because I knew the relative importances of all the games I had played... One has to gauge the relative importance of different facets of a text in order to know which ones are adjustable, or even expendable, in the interests of 'saving' others. But often a translator feels unable to do such gauging, or perhaps is willing to make guesses but then doesn't have much confidence in them.' (Hofstadter, Le Ton Beau de Marot, 1997, 58)

In the previous chapters, I have attempted to convey the choices and implicit biases present within translators approaches to translating cultural references in The Seagull. So far, I have only tackled cultural properties that are foreign from the target language, English, or the target culture of 20th / 21st Century English-speaking countries (although primarily Britain and the USA). In this chapter, I will focus the discussion on Chekhov's reference and quotation from perhaps the most recognisable English literary figure, William Shakespeare.

There are 2 direct quotes from Hamlet in the original Russian of The Seagull, I will focus on the first, in the middle of the first act:

Аркадина (сыну). Мой милый сын, когда же начало?
Треплев. Через минуту. Прошу терпения.
Аркадина (читает из «Гамлета»), «Мой сын! Ты очи обратил мне внутрь души, и я увидела ее в таких кровавых, в таких смертельных язвах — нет спасенья!»
(из «Гамлета»). «И для чего ж ты поддалась пороку, любви искала в бездне преступленья?»

Again, here's a dodgy little translation (the second two lines are taken from Worrall's notes, p.74 in the Methuen edition, 2002):

Arkadina (to her son). My dear son, when will it begin? [referring to Konstantin's play]
Konstantin. In a few minutes. I ask you to be patient.
Arkadina (reading from Hamlet). 'My son! You've turned my eyes into my soul and I have seen there such bloody and such deadly sores - there is no salvation!'
Konstantin (from Hamlet). 'And why did you give give yourself to vice, and seek love in the abyss of crime?'

I don't know how many Shakespeare experts read this blog, but it is still worth pointing out that these lines are not from the English Hamlet. That is because Chekhov himself, in quoting Shakespeare, was one step removed; he quoted from a 19th century Russian translation by N.A. Polevoi. The corresponding lines in the English Shakespeare (taken from the Peter Alexander Text, Collins 2006 edition, III.iv.88-94) are:

Queen O Hamlet, speak no more! / Thou turn'st my eyes into my very soul; / And there I see such black and grained spots / As will not leave their tinct.
Hamlet Nay, but to live / In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, / Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty!

In this instance 14 translations were consulted. Whereas all but one retained the 'Speak no more...' line, Hamlet's / Kostya's response was rendered in different ways, with only half committing to the following line in Shakespeare. Worrall tries to account for this by saying 'Hamlet's reply to his mother in Polevoi's version bears little resemblance to the verbal savagery of Shakespeare's original', so translators insert a 'tamer line from elsewere' (2002, 74). This is understandable, as Hamlet's explicit references to sex and corruption come across as a little jarring against the more gentle and playful nature of the Russian. This results in a complex set of variations on the same (imperfect) Reference in Russian. For ease of illustration, I have uploaded a table with the translation decisions here.

But it is important to ask, why is there this worry? Why do translators feel the need to not only preserve this reference, but to go out of their way, returning to the source material, to find a quotation that better reflects its sentiments in English? There are multiple levels and aspects of the practice of translation revealed by this case. In the previous examples I have spoken about, at least one translator decided to remove the reference; it is worth noting that all the translators agreed that Shakespeare must be represented. Even the most radical of translations, that 'pared down' version by Martin Crimp, selects a different, shorter exchange from the same scene (lines 39-41).

Indeed, Shakespeare is an undoubtedly major figure in both English-language and world literature. When referring to Gogol, I described him as a 'Minor Heavyweight'. Shakespeare is a brilliant example of a 'True Heavyweight', a writer whose reputation and cultural shadow is all-encompassing and totemic. His standing is so much that it is expected that education in English literature is at least anchored in his work. In the UK, it is expected that young children, or teenagers, must 'embrace the Bard'. Equally, as part of my English degree, I have studied at least one example of Shakespeare's work a year: Twelfth Night in first year, his collected sonnets in second year, and finishing with a compulsory module on his whole ouevre in my final year. Therefore, whereas the previous references have been to forgotten, foreign or niche cultural properties, Shakespeare is one of the most recognisable literary figures in the Target Language. If Tver, Nekrasov, or even Gogol weren't worth a mention because the audience wouldn't understand, then surely Shakespeare must be eligible. Although, it must be noted that here lies the translators' assumption that the audience will 'get' that Arkadina and Konstantin are reciting from Hamlet, in other words that they would know a quotation from 'The Closet Scene'.

Even though the Russian does not make the quotation explicit (it begins 'o son'), apart from in the stage direction, the English language translations are lucky because, in Shakespeare, the line assigned to Arkadina begins 'O Hamlet'. The translators are therefore given a method of foregrounding a Shakespeare quote for the unenlightened, and unsurprisingly, most stick with this. The interesting exception in this case is Tom Stoppard, who replaces 'O Hamlet' with 'O Kostya' (leaving the lines unmarked as from Shakespeare). In his introduction to the translation, Stoppard states that this decision 'is not as cheeky a rendition as it might seem', and cites the unmarked nature of Polevoi's Russian as allowing him ample freedom to tinker (1997, x). However, by doing this, the translator is assuming that the audience has a great deal of intimate knowledge with Hamlet (this is not 'to be or not to be', after all). Of course, the transition from normal dialogue to the performative quotation could be stressed in performance, but the actual source itself will still be unclear. Nevertheless, Stoppard adds to these lines with further quotation from Hamlet and King Lear, admitting that he often fell 'into the temptation of Spot-the-Shakespeare' (op.cit.). One example of Shakespeare spotting is at the beginning of the second act, I'll provide a comparison with another translation of the same lines:

Dorn Nonetheless and notwithstanding, I'm still reading, am I? (picks up the book) We stopped at the corn-chandler and the rats...
Arkadina And the rats, yes. Go on, then. (sits) Or rather, give it to me and I'll read. It's my turn. [Frayn, p.21]

Dorn Albeit and regardless, I'm going to go on [reading]. (he picks up the book) We stopped at the cornchandler and the rats...
Arkadina And the rats. Read on, Macduff. (she sits down) Or rather, give it to me. It's my turn [to read]. [Stoppard, p.23]

Of course, this is more about Stoppard's tastes invading the translation; it is probably the only tangible piece of evidence I have at the moment of a translator's 'identity' over-ruling the source material. Stoppard's interest in Shakespeare is well-known, and some of his more acclaimed works are influenced or informed by The Bard: his first major play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is a retelling of Hamlet, equally Stoppard reworked Shakespeare into Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth, and he received an Academy Award for his work on the film Shakespeare in Love. But still this assumption persists - Shakespeare, and these quotations from Hamlet, are seen to be important to the text. So much so that one (admittedly Shax-obsessed) translator worked MORE REFERENCES into his edition.

The link between The Seagull and Hamlet is quite well-documented. Actually, I'd hazard to state that it is the foremost analysis of the play. A quick google search brings up a few blog posts and reviews which easily bring up this analysis. John Baker, in the London Theatre Blog, goes so far to say that The Seagull is 'not unlike a mirror image of Hamlet'. There is a fascinating article by Thomas Winner from a 1956 issue of the American Slavic and East European Review, called 'Chekhov's Seagull and Shakespeare's Hamlet: A Study of a Dramatic Device'. In this piece, Winner makes reference to 'Hamletian themes' which permeate the Seagull:

'...Quotations from Shakesepare, especially from Hamlet, occur in various plays of Chekhov. But in the Seagull we find more than incidental background snatches from Hamlet. For Hamlet appears related to the total structure of the play, and it would seem that the image of Hamlet is, in the intent of the playwright, most intimately connected with the situations and characters of the Seagull'

So, even though the inclusion of the Shakespeare quotation may in a way seem like double standards concerning the target culture, or even the tastes and background of the translator, there is also a sense that the references to Hamlet are important to the reputation of The Seagull. I started this chapter with a quotation from Douglas Hofstadter, on the topic of translating his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Gödel, Escher, Bach. I suppose one of the primary concepts that I am discussing in this essay is that translators must gauge the 'relative importance' of all these references in the original text, in order to convey 'The Seagull' for English-speaking audiences. Worrall, in his notes for the Methuen edition stresses that 'it is important for an audience to recognise the quotation' from Hamlet (2002, 74). Indeed, the relative importance aspect is cast against the assumptions of the audience's knowledge (they know Shakespeare, maybe Gogol, not Nekrasov) to provide a filter for cultural references and literary allusions.

In my introduction (which I've not uploaded), I highlighted three aspects of translating reference, with regards to what the translator serves - do translators serve the audience, an abstract sense of the repututation of the author / the play or do they serve the source culture. It happens to be that previous examples have conflicted with these aspects: Nekrasov and Tver have no meaning for the target audience, despite their relative importance in late 19th century Russian society (why else would Chekhov throw in these very specific references). However, where Shakespeare is concerned, all three manage to coalesce in an almost harmonious way. Indeed, it is assumed that the target audience will pick up on the Hamlet lines, and the reputation / long-standing analysis of the play as a recasting of the Hamlet narrative is faithfully represented. However, it also works as cultural communication, as it manages to retain the sense that Shakespeare was an important literary presence to Chekhov and his Russian culture. Considering this, it is possible to see that it is not merely 'double standards' that references to Shakespeare receive more attention.


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