Friday, 4 April 2008

[9] Poor Old Nekrasov

I have another article on, as part of the Weekly Guide to Gaming's collaborative article on Sex and Gaming. Check it out, I'd like to know what you think.

I'll dedicate the rest of this post to another draft chapter from my dissertation. This is chapter 4, which will be placed after the chapter discussing the reference to Tver. It will be the first chapter discussing literary references, followed by the chapter on Gogol, and a chapter on a reference to Pushkin's Rusalka (which I will upload soon), culminating in the chapter titled 'The Universal Bard?'.

Please comment with any suggestions, criticisms or advice. It will be greatly appreciated. Thanks.


'Gone, and Still Forgotten?' Nikolay Nekrasov in The Seagull

In the previous chapter, it was illustrated that unexplained reference can lead to elements of cultural communication and information being rendered arbitrary and empty. However, whereas Tver is an example drawn from geography, there are other examples of this 'neutralisation' of cultural property in terms of literature. The Seagull includes a plethora of literary quotations and references, and a good few of them are still relevant to modern English-speaking audiences. However, Chekhov also makes use of poetry, folksong or texts which are not familiar to 21st century audiences. This presents a sliding scale, from the relatively known to the unknown. Like with Tver and the 'complicated' or 'exotic' modes of address, translators approach these references in different ways. In this and the following chapters, I will attempt to illustrate these issues, and engage with the thought process and value judgments behind the translation process.

This first example regards Nikolay A. Nekrasov (1821-1878). Nekrasov was a poet, publisher and critic, and a friend and colleague of many of the great Russian thinkers and writers of the 19th century (Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Belinsky to name but three). However, despite his important role in the literary culture of his time, his standing in contemporary English-speaking culture is comparatively non-existant. I had not heard of him until reading for this project, and beyond Wikipedia and a handful of translated poems online, it is hard for a monolingual English reader to acquaint themselves with is work. Both the Birmingham University library and the British Library have few translations of his work (dating from 1910-1930), and online bookshops like Amazon and Abebooks have little besides a translation of 'Who Can Be Happy and Free in Russia?'. I feel the need to point out that even though this edition is published 2007, the translation, by Juliet Soskice and introduced by David Soskice, is from 1917 and available for free on Project Gutenberg.

In the first act of The Seagull, Konstantin describes his mother, Arkadina, as being able to 'recite the poetry of Nekrasov by heart'; a similar situation is present here, where some keep the reference, but some default to an arbitrary remark about her reciting poetry. Although more translators (nearly all, in fact) retain the reference to Nekrasov, the fact that the majority of them are not footnoted or explained conveys an arbitrary meaning (table here). Indeed, Alexander and Sturridge's neutralisation of the line to 'she's capable of... reeling off poetry at you' has essentially the same thematic effect, as to the general English-speaking audience, Nekrasov will default to 'a poet', and by extension the image of a pretentious old actress dropping lines of poetry in conversation will prevail.

However, this default position for characterisation is not completely accurate. Only two translations footnoted this reference, the scholarly editions (Bristow and Frayn/Worrall). Both of these footnotes focus on the ideological background to Nekrasov's poetry, and how knowledge of these aspects should affect the audience's view of Arkadina. Worrall's note calls Nekrasov 'a civic poet with a social conscience... His work tended to idealise the Russian peasantry, which makes Arkadina's apparent enthusiasm for his poetry seem a conscious piece of Chekhovian irony' (2002, 70). Once this reference can be described as 'conscious', it becomes clear that the straightforawd, neutral translation is not satisfactory.

Indeed, many of the cultural references in The Seagull fulfill specific thematic or intertextual roles. Moreover, not only is it a shame that this delicate nuance is lost (remember, this is the first description of Arkadina in the play), but also Nekrasov, the important cultural property, is not effectively communicated. As a result, the audience will not understand this aspect of Chekhov's style. It also contibutes to Nekrasov's muted international profile; ignorance of his poetry in the English-speaking world will continue, and his works will remain out of print.

This isn't the only reference to Nekrasov in The Seagull. Another aspect of the Russian text that translators often discuss, underestimate, or neutralise is the quotations of Russian poetry, song and folksong, mostly given by Chekhov to Dorn and Sorin. Like names, these short quotations are often discussed in introductions and prefatory comments. Frayn, in his 'Note on the Translation', notes:

'Chekhov gives precise references for all the songs that Sorin and Dorn sing to themselves. I have retained the titles of only the two which may still be familiar. The others, which have disappeared into the mists of time and would be entirely unfamiliar even if disinterred from the archives, I have reduced to unspecified humming.'

One of the quotations comes from a poem by Nekrasov: 'Тяжелый крест достался ей на долю', or 'A Heavy Cross' in English. I would link to an English translation, but the only reference I can find for such a thing is in the Harvard College Library sound recordings archive, of Vladimir Nabokov reciting his own translations of Russian verse. Obscure indeed! This particular quotation comes during an exchange between Dorn and Polina, here is the line:

Дорн (напевает). «Не говори, что молодость сгубила».

or (my translation)

Dorn (hums). 'Don't say, that youth was ruined'

The translation of this line, across the 13 sampled is idiosyncratic (table here). Frayn, Williams and Crimp remove the quotation, and reduce the line to 'humming'. Like Frayn's approach to certain uses of modes of address, or Alexander and Sturridge's 'reeling off poetry', this method attempts to convey the 'gist' of the line, without misrepresenting or under-representing the Russian text. Nevertheless, this hedge away from specific reference manages to short-change the audience and reader.

The majority of the translators do include the line, although there are many variations on its meaning. The original line quoted by Chekhov does not contain a personal pronoun. This opens up the line to various interpretations, including 'my youth', 'thy youth', 'her youth' and 'our youth'. Nevertheless, two central thematic and character-based ideas are transmitted through this line, showing 'Dorn's casual treatment of [Polina], and his general all-round insouciance' (Mulrine, 2005, xxvi), as well as having 'significance for the play as a whole, especially as it affects the fate of the young people' (Worrall, 2002, 73). Indeed, it must be noted that Worrall retains a footnote about this reference, despite Frayn's retraction; these little snippets of poetry and song are important to the play.

However, the cultural communication is still absent. The intertextuality of the original reference, like the aforementioned Nekrasov allusion, is not carried across. The footnotes quoted above only state the poet and attempt to relate the reason for inclusion (Bristow is strangely silent in this instance); neither Mulrine or Worrall trace the line back to its source. I was only able to discover the title of the poem through my Russian edition of the play, which includes short textual footnotes (although is standoffish in terms of themes and analysis). That the English-language editions, especially those which feature extensive footnotes on all aspects, including kopeks, snuff and Shakespeare, neglect to include the poem's title, is a gross oversight.

With this in mind, it is clear to see where the attentions of English language translators are focused. The 'forgotten' references stay forgotten, or at very most are explained in restricted circumstances in relation to the translation in question. The literary community created by the intertextuality Chekhov develops is an important aspect of his literature. Indeed, it would be naive to expect English-language audiences to understand these references, but The Seagull's role as a culural touchstone, as communication with a different place and time, is seriously hindered as these references are either sacrificed or made arbitrary in translation. The loss is not Chekhov's, as his standing is perpetuated by such high profile performances and editions. Instead, it is the audience who miss out on the varied tradition of Russian literature. And poor Nekrasov, reportedly hailed by Dostoyevsky as the greatest Russian poet since Pushkin and Lermontov, remains out of print, unread and forgotten.



Anonymous said...

I would like to point out that although it may not be the best version out there Laurens Sendic's Complete Plays Of Anton Chekov does an excellent job of pointing out referances and not only notes the writer of lyrics but affers a composer for the musical peices.

Anonymous said...

You probably won't ever see this, but I want you to know that I'm dramaturging The Seagull right now and these posts (Tver, Gogol, Nekrasov) are incredibly helpful to me as research. Thanks a million!

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