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Richard Nelson, Little Comedies Director and Co-Translator
Richard Nelson, Little Comedies Director and Co-Translator

By Richard Nelson, Little Comedies Director and Co-Translator

For years I had tried to read Dostoevsky, and simply found his writing dense and heavy-handed.  I knew there had to be more to him than just this, but I didn’t know how to explore or discover another side.  In a bookshop in Grand Central Station, sometime around 2003, I picked up a copy of what I had known as The Devils, but here had the title of Demons. This was the first translation I read by the translating team (and married couple), Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Almost immediately I ‘heard’ the voice of another Dostoevsky, one totally human, subtle, alive, and at times very funny.  It was as if I had discovered a world of Breughel, which had long been hidden under grime and heavy retouching.  And so through these two translators, new worlds opened up; I read all of their Dostoevsky translations, I read their Tolstoy and Gogol; the latter again opening up worlds unknown, or perhaps presenting new doors in worlds I thought I knew and had already explored.

Years passed, and it was now 2010, when it occurred to me that the Pevears had apparently never translated a single play.  They had two volumes of Chekhov (stories and novellas), but no Chekhov, Turgenev, Bulgakov, Ostrovsky, etc. play. I asked my agent to find an email contact for them; perhaps their agent (which they don’t have) or editor (which they do).  I wrote a long fan letter, describing how their work had deeply affected me. And, with some hubris, asked if it was indeed true that they had not translated plays, and was there a reason for this?  And, by the way, I was a playwright, who had often translated classic plays, but always from what we called ‘literal translations,’ so without any knowledge of the original language.  I suggested that this might seem very bogus to them; still, I made the argument that translating plays requires a different skill than translating prose, and that the former was enhanced by a thorough knowledge of playwriting and theater.  I sent off the email, and had to wait only a day for a response. It turned out that they had always wanted to translate Russian plays, but were convinced that they should do so only in collaboration with a “theater person.” And they didn’t know any theater people.  Our sudden connection turned out to be providential on both sides.

The Pevears live in France, but they were soon to be in New York, to give a reading at the 92nd Street Y.  I had a play running at the Public Theater at the time; and so we met for dinner, and then I took them to my play. To this day, I think none of us completely understands how we were able to take the plunge and commit to collaborating after just one evening together.  And I am sure it occurred to each of us, at some point as our time together approached, that such a collaboration was bound to fail.  After all, the Pevears are married, and had never allowed anyone into their working methods before; they finished each other’s sentences; they had the same references; they knew each other so profoundly well that anyone, especially one who knows no Russian, would have a very hard time ‘fitting in.’ And of course, I had never collaborated on a translation before; never had to ‘compromise’ or ‘convince’ or admit to being wrong.  Yet for some fated reason we all agreed to go forward. We selected A Month in the Country as our initial effort; this being a play, I felt, that had not been adequately translated before, and so had often been misunderstood or misrepresented.

A Month in the Country.

We met in their country house in Burgundy, and in fact we worked for a month, all day, every day, with only the occasional expedition, to show me some Burgundian site. Here’s how we worked then and have worked since:  Larissa, with a native experience of Russian literature and an extraordinary linguistic gift, does the first draft. She then hands it to Richard, who besides being an important translator in his own right (from both the Italian and the French – his translation of Three Musketeers is published by Penguin Classics) is a poet and a rigorous stylist.  He does the next draft.  Then they sit down together and discuss it in minute detail, raising questions, making decisions about the style, the level of diction, the choice of words, phrases, and so on. After that Richard writes the third draft. This is sent to me; I make notes, write out questions – nearly all relating to how the play works as a play.  And then we meet; work through the translation word by word; discuss, argue, cajole, but always with the understanding (and how we arrived at this understanding, I don’t know) that we all needed to agree all of the time.  And if one of us were unhappy with a solution, then it was the obligation of the others to either convince or come up with another idea.

Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from this first effort at our collaboration occurred one morning in their kitchen. Larissa was making coffee, I was sitting at a small table looking out into their garden; and Larissa said something like, ‘You know, Richard, you keep asking us one question that, in all our other translations, we never ask.’  ‘What question?’ I asked. ‘Why?’ she said.  ‘You are always asking why did this character say this, and why this way and not that, and why now.  In our other translations, we don’t ask why, we are simply trying to translate the words.’

Of course here was the essence of our collaboration, or rather, what I think I was bringing to them.  Unlike a novel or a story, a play is basically a series of notations for something else.  It is not an end in itself.  It is the notation for the production of the play, and so, as we worked together, I, as both a playwright and director, was always thinking toward production, imagining the questions that would be asked by actors and designers, and trying to make sure we were asking them as we translated.  Here I felt was my contribution in this extraordinary process.

Playwrights often are hired to ‘translate’ plays in languages they do not know.  In England this is especially common.  And the talents they bring are precisely these – to make the play as ‘actable’ as possible.  However, such endeavors have an Achilles’ heel; the playwrights are dependent upon the veracity of the literal translation that they are working off of.  However, here, in Burgundy, all the possible players were at the table together, rowing together, while each respecting the other.  Anyway, that is how it felt; and the pure artistic pleasures of that month soon became addictive.

We decided to come together once a year and translate a play; and found a publisher, TCG books, for this series.  Next we did Larissa’s choice, Gogol’s Inspector, followed by two Bulgakovs, including one, his adaptation of Don Quixote, which had never been translated into English before. We began to get commissioned by theaters for these translations, and eventually turned our attention to the Everest of our ambitions: the major plays of Anton Chekhov.

The Cherry Orchard

We began with my favorite, The Cherry Orchard. What we soon discovered was that many significant changes had been made to Chekhov’s script during the rehearsals at the Moscow Art Theater; and thanks to the fact that the latest 30-volume edition of Chekhov has extensive endnotes where these changes are marked and Chekhov’s original  text is given, we were able to reconstruct this script, eliminating all the changes made in rehearsal.  On close examination, I soon became convinced that all of these changes were, in fact, to the detriment of the play.  So what I had known to be one of the greatest plays ever written, was in fact even greater!  To the best of our knowledge no one had ever reconstructed this pre-rehearsal script before – in any language; and so we published both scripts in our Cherry Orchard TCG volume.

The Cherry Orchard was written and produced while Chekhov knew he was dying of consumption.  He couldn’t attend many rehearsals.  The Moscow Art Theater itself was going through a crisis; its two founders, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko, were hardly speaking. A few days after the play’s premiere, Russia was at war with Japan. These were tumultuous times, personally, professionally, and politically.  Stanislavsky clearly made these changes (as directors have and always will) to make his production ‘work.’  He cut up the character of Charlotta, making her all but unplayable in future productions. He changed locations (making the last Act the same as the first), the ages of characters (to fit casting), and so forth.  In other words, we were reminded of the lesson every living playwright is faced with again and again: that plays are not literature, they are but notations for productions; and between the words and the audience are actors and directors and designers.

We followed with The Seagull, then Uncle Vanya; and this past spring, we translated Three Sisters. We are eyeing Ivanov now.

Uncle Vanya

When Larissa told me, as we began work on Vanya, that here was Chekhov’s most religious or at least most spiritual play, I hesitated.  I did not see Chekhov as either a religious or spiritual writer, but rather as the most profound humanist.  But after a month working on the play together, I came to understand what she meant, and eventually to be completely convinced. Vanya is a spiritual play, that asks or poses the deepest question or questions that we, humans, ask: do we matter? Each character in this play will or is asking himself or herself this question.  And no answer or answers are given. However, by the end of the play, I believe, we are left with the unmistakable belief that there either must be  or there needs to be something greater than ourselves.

There is much I could say about this play; all I learned about it working with Larissa and Richard; but I will just mention one thing.  We often told ourselves, or began our work day together saying, ‘You know, this is an untranslatable play!’ And it is, and for this one simple reason: there is an untranslatable Russian word, chudak (plural chudaki),  that is used in the play six or seven times. Astrov at one point says something like ‘You come to the country and all the people here are…’ and then the word, chudaki. “And you live here long enough and you too become a chudak.”  Then at the end of the play, he says, ‘You know I think we’re all chudaki.’ That word is very important, as it goes to the moral center of the play and its meaning. It has been translated in so many different ways; three examples: creep, crackpot, old fart. But the original Russian word is not a criticism or a judgment.  And it’s a very common word.  We couldn’t find the right word to do all that, choosing meaning over finding something common. The word we finally chose for chudak is misfit.  So, ‘We are all misfits.’ And that, I think, goes to the heart of what the play is all about, what these people are feeling and what they’re trying to sort out about their lives.  Translations, I’ve learned, are very complicated animals.  ‘We are all crackpots.’ ‘We are all misfits.’ Those are two different plays.

-Richard Nelson