Monday, 7 April 2008

[10] Pushkin and Shovin': Rusalka in The Seagull

Double digit blog posts, and another draft chapter from my dissertation. This is chaper 6, and is concerned with a distinct reference to Pushkin's unfinished dramatic poem Rusalka. It will be the last chapter concerned with Russian cultural references, before a concluding chapter on Shakespeare (already posted here).

I've almost finished this draft of my dissertation. I'm already over the 6000 word limit, with 7000 words at the moment. I still have half a chapter (Chapter 2: 'By Any Other Name...?: The Russian Patronymic and Diminutive'), and the (hopefully) short introduction and conclusion to write.

Here's the draft.

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Pushkin and Shovin': Rusalka in The Seagull


In previous chapters, I have discussed translators' approaches to literary references of various kinds, including quotations from now-forgotten poets (Nekrasov) and allusions to foundation texts of Russian literature (Gogol's Diary of a Madman). This final chapter concerned with Russian cultural properties will focus on a reference in Act IV of the play to Pushkin's unfinished dramatic poem, Rusalka (Russian text here).

In the final act of The Seagull, which takes place two years after the rest of the play, Konstantin has become a published writer, and Nina has left to pursue her life as an actress. There is an exchange between Konstantin and Dorn where the young man narrates Nina's tragic story (quote from Mulrine, 2005, 54):

'She had a baby. The baby died. Trigorin tired of her and went back to his former attachments, as one might have expected. Actually, he'd never given them up - he's so spineless he'd somehow managed to string them both along. As far as I can make out, Nina's personal life had been a disaster.'



Konstantin goes on to revealing how he had received letters from Nina, and Chekhov inserts a reference to Pushkin:

'Она подписывалась Чайкой. В «Русалке» мельник говорит, что он ворон, так она в письмах все повторяла, что она чайка.'

or (my translation)

'She would sign herself Seagull. In Rusalka the miller says, that he is a raven, in a similar way she would repeat in her letters that she was a seagull.'



This revelation serves multiple purposes in the course of the play, almost being the crux of the play, as 'The Seagull' of the title is linked with Nina's traumatic experiences. However, of more interest to this project is the reference to Rusalka. Again, like with the reference to Poprischin from Diary of a Madman, Chekhov does not plainly state the author of the work. However, like with the example of Gogol, some translators have added in the author's name to better convey the reference (translation table here).

Rusalka is an interesting case. As an unfinished dramatic poem, its standing in the English-speaking world is not very prominent. There is also some confusion over its title, as it has been translated as 'Rusalka' (a Slavic mythical creature), 'The Water Nymph' (Magarshack), 'The River Nymph' (Fen) and 'The Mermaid' (Garnett, Bristow). Even the differences in translating this title are fascinating, with some going for literal description of the creature (Water/River Nymph), or a 'cultural equivalent' (The Mermaid), or simply retaining the Russian word, providing a sense of language transfer over understanding. This in itself is a microcosm of the decisions facing translators when they deal with cultural properties.

Unlike Nekrasov's poetry, Rusalka has been translated, although is usually hidden in collections such as Oxford World Classics' 'Boris Godunov and Other Dramatic Works' (which, at the moment, is the only UK translation I can find). However, whereas Pushkin is one of the major heavyweights of Russian literature, intimate knowledge of his work in the UK is probably less than Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. Of course, Eugene Onegin (Evgenii Onegin), The Queen of Spades, Boris Godunov and perhaps The Bronze Horseman are all important pieces of literature - but it can be argued that, outside of the knowledge Russian students, their popular standing is more due to successive and successful productions of the operas based on Pushkin's, than of familiarity with the original texts. The Tchaikovsky duo of The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin are regularly performed, with the latter just recently completing a run at the Royal Opera House. However, Rusalka is an unfinished, arguably minor work

What is interesting with this example is that the reference is at least in part explained by the speaker. Konstantin relates Nina's use of the epithet 'The Seagull' with the miller in Rusalka calling himself a raven. Some translators have attempted to convey a fuller or more rounded sense of the reference, such as Frayn's:

'She'd sign herself "The Seagull". It was like that play of Pushkin's where the old miller goes mad with grief and says he's a raven...'


Frayn (and Stoppard) here sacrifices the title for more informtion regarding the reference; Nina is likened to the old miller, both go mad with grief and adopt names of birds as epithets. This manages to convey one level of this multi-faceted reference. The story of Rusalka, for those who have not read it, goes like this (from Bristow's footnote, p.42):

'A dramatic poem, Rusalka (1832) by A.S. Pushkin that was never finished. In the poem, the miller's daughter (betrayed by a prince) throws herself into the Dneiper River and becomes a rusalka. Her father goes mad with grief over his daughter's death.'


Indeed, Nina is likened to the miller, but the thematic links between The Seagull and Rusalka run deeper. These parallels are not conveyed as clearly as in Konstantin's line, but rely on the audience's knowledge of the dramatic poem itself (although, my Russian edition does footnote this reference). Bristow recounts that the miller's daughter is 'betrayed by a prince'; this is also a tidy link with Nina's relationship with Trigorin. In his notes on Frayn's translation, Worrall quotes Paul Schmidt, from his 'The Plays of Anton Chekhov', who stresses the importance of this reference to Rusalka:

'In addition to Hamlet, another play [dramatic poem] whose action parallels the plot of The Seagull is The Water Nymph (Rusalka) by Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin... Russia's foremost poet. Educated Russians would be as familiar with his work as we are with that of Shakespeare...The Water Nymph was written between 1829 and 1832, and was left unfinished [but] is about a young girl, a miller's daughter, who lives by the shore of a river and is seduced, made pregnant, and abandoned by a passing prince...'


There is a distinct parallel between the stories of the daughter (the Rusalka) and Nina (the Seagull) - both the eponymous characters of their respective pieces. However, this extra level, that Nina represents the abandoned daughter as well as the grief-stricken old miller, is not conveyed in any of the translations. Indeed, even the Russian edition footnote only explains the relevance of the miller to Nina's story. Nevertheless, this reference, which could be lost in the multitude of similar quotations and citations, is important. It also represents both a direct reference, and a more subtle allusion. However, the fact that the work itself is not well known has led to translations short-changing Chekhov's link between his work and Pushkin's drama; the majority represent only half of the link's thematic content, and three of the translations studied removed the reference altogether. However, as Schmidt reveals, there is a case to be made that Rusalka is an effective parallel and precedent for The Seagull.

It is unfortunate that too much of the reference is subtle, left unspoken, and that it would be too obscure a reference for English-speaking audiences to understand. This parallel, therefore, is lost, and Schmidt would attest that this is to the detriment of English analysis of the play. It seems that, especially in this case, translators are bound by the perceived knowledge of their audiences, or of the critical tradition of which they are a part. The prevailing analysis of The Seagull, especially in English-language cultures, is that it is a retelling, or resetting, of William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Schmidt highlights Rusalka as another important parallel; but the prominance of Hamlet in translations of The Seagull could certainly be influenced by Shakespeare's own dominance, certainly over Pushkin, in the culture of literate English speakers. The approach to Shakespeare in The Seagull, and the possibility of double standards, will be analysed and discussed in the next chapter.

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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This post is brilliant. What articulate writing on Chekhov! Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

This was a great help to me and you seem to know a lot about all this. I'm portraying Nina in an acting college level acting class and trying to figure her out in this monologue is insane. But in researching Turgenev and Pushkin I found your blog, which is wonderfully helpful. So, thanks! I look forward to reading on to more Chekhov and The Seagull!