Translating The Seagull: How far can you push Chekhov?

Translating The Seagull: How far can you push Chekhov?

Anya Reiss's new version modernises The Seagull and transplants it to the Isle of Man. Does the language suffer - and how respectful should adaptations be?

Just before seeing a new version of Chekhov's The Seagull at the Southwark Playhouse in London, I had been reading Julian Barnes's collection of essays, Through the Window, which includes a fascinating analysis of the variations between different translations of Flaubert's Madame Bovary. As a result, while enjoying this adaptation by Anya Reiss, a parallel track in my mind was wondering what other dramatists had done with certain key lines. Getting home, I chose from the flock of seagulls on my bookshelves, texts by Michael Frayn, Tom Stoppard and Christopher Hampton.

This exercise may seem unfair to Reiss: it sets a 20-year-old working on her first foreign version against three of the most accomplished writers in English theatre. Yet, on the evidence of her previous plays Spur of the Moment (2010) and The Acid Test (2011), she is a remarkable talent - and has the advantage that the production updates the action to the modern-day Isle of Man, meaning that she's competing less directly with previous incarnations of the play.

As it turns out, Reiss emerges very creditably from the comparison, and especially in relation to two of the best-known exchanges in the script: the first two lines and the last two. Chekhov begins The Seagull with one of the heavily expository conversations from which modern dramatists are discouraged but which were standard in 19th-century theatre. On a Russian estate, Medvedenko, a local teacher, asks Masha, a young woman, a question to which he would in all probability already know the answer. The Frayn version (1986), the Stoppard (1997) and the Hampton (2007) all word the inquiry as: "Why do you always wear black?", and phrase the reply identically as: "I'm in mourning for my life. I'm unhappy."

Reiss, though, has sensibly judged that such formal, portentous language would be improbable coming from a young student, as Masha has become in the new production. And so her version chops up the conversation, reflecting the verbal style of a young woman who texts and probably also tweets, and would show far less reflex social courtesy to interrogation by a dull schoolteacher than her 1896 Russian predecessor felt obliged to.

In Reiss's adaptation, Medvedenko starts the play by challenging, "Again?", to which Masha sullenly replies: "What?" The teacher gestures to her dress and repeats: "Again?" Masha simply stares and glares, prompting her interlocutor to give the abrupt explanation: "Black."

A single line of dialogue in the traditional adaptations has become three questions, and a statement and the second sentence now divides into five:

Masha: I'm in mourning.
Medvedenko: For?
Masha: My life.
Medvedenko: Why? Masha: I'm unhappy.

Reiss, whose own plays show an almost digital clarity in recording the tics of contemporary speech, has not only stripped the speeches of their facile delivery of back-story but also caught the cagey, resentful, fragmentary nature of much modern inter-generational conversation, through the way in which Masha instinctively treats her senior as a sort of policeman.

Later, the writer disrupts the expected rhythms of the play's curtain lines with equal success. (Any reader who has not yet seen a production of The Seagull, and plans to, should perhaps be warned that the next paragraphs cannot avoid a Chekhovian plot-spoiler.)

The play ends with Konstantin Treplyov, an aspiring playwright, killing himself off-stage. Dorn, the doctor, goes to investigate the noise of a shot, discovers the body and returns to murmur the news to Trigorin, a famous novelist who is a house guest. The radicalism of the scene is that the physician chooses not to interrupt a game of cards involving the dead man's mother, but to confide the information in an undertone to a single other character.

Russian speakers have told me that it is almost impossible to capture in English the astonishing off-handedness of Dr Dorn's delivery. Frayn (fluent in Russian) gives the line as: "The fact is, he's shot himself ..." Stoppard (working from a literal translation) chooses exactly the same words, while Hampton's differs only in the inclusion of patronymics: "The fact is, Konstantin Gavrilovich has shot himself ..."

In other versions, I have heard the first part of the speech presented as "the thing is" and "by the way"; it will probably not be long before it is translated as that favourite introductory trope of modern conversation: "You know what?"

Reiss's solution is to have Dorn saying: "Konstantin's uh ... the fact is ... um ... Konstantin's ..." The novelist looks in alarmed understanding at the doctor, who simply says: "Yes." In the script published by Oberon books, Dorn is asked to mime a gun shot to the head, but that gesture was missing when I saw the production. When I interviewed Reiss and the actor Matthew Kelly for Front Row, he explained that he had convinced her that the information could be conveyed by the words alone.

Again, this seems the right decision to me. Reiss's fractured, allusive reference to the death that closes the play both reflects the sawn-off nature of much contemporary talk and acknowledges that, in the 116 years since The Seagull was first staged, audiences, due to TV and film, have become quicker at picking things up, needing to be told less.

It's common to complain that translation inevitably involves loss, but Reiss's exciting new rendition of The Seagull offers gains by adjusting a great drama to how we speak and hear now. I will be intrigued to see what the forthcoming David Duchovny film Relative Insanity - which relocates The Seagull to modern New York - does with those famous opening and closing lines.

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