Thursday, 10 April 2008

[12] Introduce Yourself

Here is the draft of the opening, introductory chapter for my dissertation.

I've had a flash of inspiration regarding the title. I think I might go for: 'Translating Literature, Translating Culture: Cultural Communication in English Translations of The Seagull'. However, I noticed it is perhaps too close to the Mueller and Irmscher collection 'Translating Literatures, Translating Cultures: New Vistas and Approaches in Literary Studies'. We'll see.

I think this draft is too long. Tell me what you think.

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Problems of Translation: The Seagull in English


'Translating Russian plays is a complex game in which each participant defines his own boundaries, makes his own rules, and keeps his own score... No single opinion concerning the aim of translation prevails: so the game is played without controlling principles. Part of the difficulty stems from the very nature of translation: part, from the components of theatre, and part, from the translator's bias... Yet the impossibility of total translation affords an excuse for literalists to rely upon the letter and for stylists to revel in the spirit.' (Bristow, 1977, xv)

'Since different languages reflect different cultures, translations will nearly always contain attempts to 'naturalise' the different culture, to make it conform more to what the reader of the translation is used to' (Lefevere, 2004, 243)


As Bristow states in the above quotation, there are no set rules for translation. Indeed, translation theory is one of the oldest areas of critical debate in terms of literature, and has a rich history of comment from Cicero, through Dante, Dryden and Nietzsche, to the more recent theories of Derrida and Nabokov. Of course, in terms of translating Russian drama (the focus of this piece), there is a distinct framework for a translator to follow. Translations can be written for many purposes, but are primarily stated as serving: the audience's response, the actors' performance or the author's reputation. However, I will suggest an important aspect of translation, which is quite often overlooked: the small details of the text, namely that of reference, inference and citation. There is certainly a feeling that these little details, often hard to convey in translation, can be left out, or rendered using the closest equivalent in English. Pam Gems, in the introduction to her translation on Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, states that:

'Characters in a play can be anywhere at any time, because the human ideas behind the material are universal.' (1994, xi)

The focus on universal aspects of themes, ideas or 'the human condition' can give rise to translators basing their decisions on prominent or popular interpretations of 'what The Seagull means' or 'why Chekhov is important'. In such a context, there can be a tendency to anglicise or neutralise such a distinctly foreign text. Some of the first elements of the text to be removed or neutralised are foreign cultural properties, be they grammatical (Russian names and modes of address), geographical (references to areas of Russia outside of Moscow or St Petersburg) or artistic (for instance, literary figures unknown to English-speaking audiences). Indeed, these concerns are not unfounded, as in performance, it is hard to explain references; a director cannot footnote a line of spoken dialogue.

However, translations and performances can effectively influence not only the status of the play and its author, but the cultural reception of the play's country and tradition of origin. I will refer to this concept as 'cultural communication'. There are aspects of the source-language text which, when rendered in translation, can educate and inform the target-language audience of a foreign culture. A piece of literature's 'foreign' nature is often found in these small details which, when left out, can create a totally different work. Gunnilla Anderman, in her study Europe on Stage, refers to mid-20th century translations of Chekhov, through such selective practices, as creating a distinctly 'Middle Class English' drama (2005, 129-130).


Indeed, what makes these small details and references all the more important is that they are integral to Chekhov's dramatic style, and reveal thematic and characteristic undertones necessary for interpretation. Bristow says:


'Like Ibsen, Chekhov relates every moment in a play to all other moments in that play, and translators should be wary of cutting, transposing, or 'improving' Chekhovian drama...' (1977, xxii-iii)


Chekhov's use of quotation and other intertextual strategies are conscious, and do in fact add to his stature and the play's 'meaning' itself. However, in the following chapters, I will be arguing that the decisions on the part of the translator have implications that go beyond simple analysis of the text. Using extracts from a selection of translations, published between 1923 and 2007, I hope to illustrate that there is a wealth of cultural knowledge and information in Chekhov's work that is not accurately or adequately conveyed by English-language translations. Without footnotes, or explanation, references to 19th century Russia, and it's culture, are rendered arbitrary. This results not only misrepresents Chekhov's craft, but does disservice to the web of intertexts themselves (some forgotten precisely because of selective translation and publication in Western Europe). No translation is perfect; however, the sparsity of notes and footnotes in popular editions of The Seagull is still inexcusable. The title of this introductory chapter was inspired by Vladimir Nabokov's essay 'Problems of Translation: The Seagull in English', his conclusion calls 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. I want such footnotes and the absolutely literal sense' (2004, 127)


In terms of cultural communication, this model is the noblest of all.

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