Wednesday, 9 April 2008

[11] What's in a Name?

I've almost finished this initial draft of my dissertation. This is the last analytical chapter; I just have the introduction and conclusion to write. This chapter is very long, and I'm not sure if it is entirely necessary in the structure as it has evolved during the writing process. Nevertheless, I'll post it up here.

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'By Any Other Name...?': The Russian Patronymic and Dimunitive


‘So...this defective edition… I… have transported it from France to England; put it in English clothes; taught it to talk our tongue’
(John Florio, 'The Epistle Dedicatory from translation of Montaigne's Essays')
In the introductory chapter to his Anton Chekhov's Plays, titled 'Translating Chekhov', Bristow highlights aspects of the Russian which must be retained 'as signs to the reader or to the audience that the scene is indeed Russian, not mid-west American' (1977, xxxi). Primary of these aspects is the 'transliteration of personal and place names' (op. cit.). Indeed, one of the more recognisable topics facing Russian to English translation is regarding names. To quote Bristow further, 'the Russian language has numerous variants of personal names which reveal the attitude of the speaker toward the person he refers to'. A full Russian name consists of three elements: the given name, the patronymic, and the surname (example: Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov). The patronymic is derived from the name of the person's father, and the given-and-patronymic form (Ivan Ilyich, Ivan Denisovich) is used 'by people who know each other fairly well, but are not particularly intimate friends' (Frewin, Teach Yourself Russian, 1977, p.70).

There is also another form of address called the diminutive, I will quote Frewin again:

'Russians use a great number of diminutives in everyday speech. Their use often suggests, apart from considerations of size and such, some emotional attiude of the speaker towards the object or person he is addressing, describing etc. By the use of various suffixes it is possible to suggest affection at one end of the scale and contempt at the other. The most common of the diminutives are probably those indicating tenderness.' (1977, 262-263)



There is more information of these forms on sites like this, or on wikipedia (patronymic and diminutive). One area where these various modes of address is encountered is in the translation of Russian literature. Frewin believes that learning the diminutive form (e.g. Masha, Vanya, Sasha) is 'indispensable' for the understanding of Russian novels and plays. Translators approach these Russian forms in different ways; I've attempted to illustrate some of these below, using examples from The Seagull; first focusing on play's dramatis personae in translation, then moving onto usage in Act I.

Character names are seen to be important to the audience's understanding of a play, and the Russian forms of address are sometimes seen as almost too exotic and unfamiliar for English-language spectators. Some of the translations consulted include a prefatory comment or note on the translation, pronunciation or meaning of Russian names. These concerns are for the benefit of the listener (the audience) and the speaker (the cast). There are some, mostly mid-20th century translations which seek to anglicise the characters' names, in order to comply with a more English frame of mind; of course, this reveals the view that names and forms of address are not important to the play, it is the 'matter' which must be communicated. David Iliffe, in his 1953 translation, reworks Pyotr Sorin and Semyon Medvedenko as 'Peter Sorin' and 'Simon Medvedenko', because 'their Russian equivalents are very difficult to pronounce in English'. This sentiment is echoed in the dramatis personae of translations by Magarshack and Hingley (table here).

However, even though the majority of the lists of characters in translation follow Chekhov's original Russian, the use of names in the body of the play is not uniform. To illustrate this, I have highlighted a series of names used in dialogue during Act I (table here).

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Example 1:

The first example, from the opening exchange of the play between Medvedenko and Masha, is the audience's introduction to Konstantin and Nina. He says (my translation):

'Medvedenko. ...Zarechnaya will be performing in a play written by Konstantin Gavrilovich.'


In the Russian, Chekhov has Medvedenko use Nina's surname, and Konstantin's given-and-patronymic forms. Worrall describes this choice in his notes: 'it is interesting that Medvedenko refers to the amateur actress as if she had the professional stage name of someone like Arkadina. He also refers to Konstantin with a degree of formality' (2002, 69). Even in this early stage, the choice of names used by characters are important and conscious in terms of revealing relationships, interplay and characterisation. Few of the translators attempt this (Bristow, Fen), and others either default to first names (Frayn or Magarshack's 'Konstantin.. Nina') or attempt an English fore-and-surname equivalent (Iliffe's 'Nina Zarechnaya... Constantin Treplev'). Equally, Hampton and Garnett have 'Miss Zarechnaya', which is admittedly a close equivalent in English. However, translators like Mulrine effectively reverse the thematic undertones of this by not only changing 'Zarechnaya' to the familiar 'Nina', but by removing the respectful 'Konstantin Gavrilovich' and replacing it with the intimate 'Kostya'.

Example 2:

The second example occurs later in the act, as Polina chastises Dorn for staying up late into the cold evening. Polina's line goes something like (my translation):

'Polina Andreevna. ...You were so carried away talking to Irina Nikolayevna... you didn't notice the cold.'


Polina is referring to Arkadina by her real name, in the given-and-patronymic form 'Irina Nikolayevna'. Arkadina here is the stage name for Konstantin's mother, who is elsewhere referred to as Arkadina. In translation, her full name is usually lost, and translators have adopted some unusual techniques to render this line. The various approaches reveal a definite, not entirely unfounded uncertainty regarding the audience's understanding of Russian names. Frayn decides to avoid the issue altogether, and replaces the name with a knowing, damning '...her...'; Stoppard follows suit, but retains a sense of respect by using the epithet 'madam'. Iliffe emends the line in order to stick with Arkadina, and evokes the stage name with a hint of irony ('that great actress Arkadina'). These translations are coupled with more straight-forward anlgicisations, such as Crimps 'Irina Arkadina' or Magarshack's 'Irene'.

None of these aforementioned translations attempt to convey Russian forms of address. The care taken by the translators might be due to a concern that the audience may be confused. Indeed, while seven of the translations retain a Russian given-and-patronymic form, and most of them reproduce full dramatis personae in order to keep readers informed, there is still confusion. In my library copy of Pam Gems' translation, a previous, entirely confused reader had underlined 'Irina Nikolayevna', and written in the margin 'Arkadina'.

Examples 3 and 4:

Towards the end of the first act, after the play-within-a-play, Arkadina calls for Konstantin, who had stormed off. In doing this, she uses the diminutive 'Kostya'. This is followed by Masha offering to find him, who walks off stage with the line (my translation):

'Masha. ...Aa-oo! Konstantin Gavrilovich! Aa-oo!' (where 'Aa-oo' is a close equivalent to 'Coo-eee' in English).


These two examples display two different characters' modes of address for the same person. Arkadina uses the diminutive intimate form, whereas Masha is relatively respectful with the given-and-patronymic. These lines are positioned side-by-side, and display the distinct relationships between the characters involved, as well as their own perceived relations with Konstantin. In this very marked situation, it is obvious that some translators feel more comfortable with these distinctly Russian forms, as 11 retain the diminutive and 6 retain both forms. It can be argued that the scene is very explicit in terms of character and motive, so the more 'confusing' aspects of address would appear more understandable through contrast and context. However, Masha's call of 'Konstantin Gavrilovitch' is still reduced to merely 'Konstantin' (Crimp, Magarshack, Iliffe) or even 'Kostya' (Mulrine, inadvertently adding extra dimensions to their relationship). Frayn and Stoppard again avoid the clashing terms by leaving Masha's line as 'Halloo-oo! Halloo-oo!'.

Example 5:

This last example is concerned with Arkadina's introduction of Trigorin to Nina. She introduces him with this line (my translation):

Arkadina. ...Allow me to present to you Trigorin, Boris Alekseyevich.


She places his surname first, followed by the given and patronymic names. When translated into English, this approach perhaps seems rigidly formal, as if from a roll call in a high security prison, or a register at a public school. Those translators that follow the Russian order are in the minority, and most attempt to convey the translation in a more comfortable English manner. The most popular is 'Boris Alexeyevitch Trigorin', which is not 'un-Russian', and is perhaps more comfortable for the understanding of English speakers. Nevertheless, there are still some translators that seek to shoe-horn the Russian into English naming structures. Mulrine, Magarshack and Crimp all attempt first-and-surname forms, ending up with 'Boris Trigorin' - although Crimp inexplicably goes with 'Aleksei Trigorin', a true mistake if there ever was one.

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I hope that these examples show that even in such small details as naming, translations are by no means consensual. It also reveals how there are certain aspects of language that translators will mould, edit, amend, even remove, for the sake of their own perceptions of what is 'understandable' or 'comfortable' for the English language audience. Indeed, these structures have been grammatical, but it is also a very important and distinct difference between English-speaking and Russian-speaking cultures. Translations of famous works serve very important duties as sources of information and education regarding these foreign cultures. To cram Russian literature into an aggressively English framework, to 'put it in English clothes', educates no-one and breeds ignorance. I have here been talking about grammatical, linguistic structures. The difference between the given-and-patronymic and diminutive forms of address may not be vastly important to criticism, world affairs or international culture. However, Chekhov uses these small decisions in order to meticulously create a thematic whole. In the following chapters, I shall focus on cultural references - places, poems and people - and how translators have approached these important and informative instances with a similarly idiosyncratic, often cavalier attitude.

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