Theatre is a personal means of expression that provokes an immediate emotional response. It transcends language, culture, and class. It instigates social and political change. Theatre is able to do this on a global scale when it is available to a broad audience. Translations allow the works of numerous playwrights to be accessible to audiences of all cultural and lingual backgrounds. Russia’s Anton Chekhov, a father of theatrical realism, is one of the most translated playwrights to date. Translations of his plays and short stories are taught at universities by professors with no knowledge of the Russian language. The translations are used as the source material and stand on their own as solid pieces of writing, “conceivable, because ideally they too should be works of art and, in sharing a common text, should stand on a level with the original, through their own uniqueness” (Sternberg 2). When translated word for word from Russian to English, Chekhov’s dialogue and characters get lost. A successful translation goes further than the text. A translator must take some artistic liberties and communicate Chekhov’s ideas and inflections into their writing.

David Mamet, a contemporary playwright known for his quick, cynical dialogue, released his own translations of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard. Working from a literal translation by Vlada Chernomordik, Mamet heightened the text and transformed the plays into something more current. Howard Pearce writes, “By writing against genre, against religious doctrine, and against a canonical realistic text, Mamet … asserts himself by performing acts of artistic dissent” (107). This analysis will uncover how a translator’s style can be present in the writing, while honoring the original text. Before delving into Mamet’s translations of Chekhov, it is important to evaluate other English translations of Chekhov’s works.

Penguin Classics’s translations are among the most used for English productions of Chekhov’s plays. Rosamund Barlett, a specialist in Russian literature, translated some of Chekhov’s letters for Penguin Classics. A Barlett translation is noted as being immensely lyrical. She has compared Chekhov’s writing to the music of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. Uncovering musical forms in his work led her to a melodic approach of translation. In her research, she learned of Tchaikovsky’s and Shostakovich’s fondness of Chekhov and how they recognized resonance in his work. Barlett was also influenced by what she perceived to be the “real Chekhov.” She explains, “We have this conception of Chekhov as someone who was usually quite closed when it came to personal relationships. What I discovered when translating his stories, however, is that he is very open, by contrast, when he writes about nature, and particularly the steppe landscape that lay beyond Taganrog, the southern provincial town where he grew up” (Guzeva 10). Barlett struggled to be concise in her translations. She revealed the hardest part of writing a Chekhov translation is getting what he wants to say across in only a few words. The literal translation from Russian to English came to her easily.

Ann Dunnigan, the translator of Chekhov’s major plays for Signet Classics, had a different approach. Prior to her career as a translator, Dunnigan performed in a number of Off-Broadway productions as well as two plays on Broadway. Her knowledge of theatre and performance gave her a better sense of how to write for the stage. She offered an accurate rendering of language and a great degree of literary grace. An implication of class distinguishes a Dunnigan translation from a Barlett translation. This is exemplified in her use of the word “peasant” in the following passage from her translation of The Cherry Orchard:

LOPAKHIN. …Lyubov Andreyevna…led me to the washstand in this very room, the

nursery. “Don’t cry, little peasant,” she said, “it will heal in time for your wedding…” Little Peasant…my father was a peasant, it’s true, and here I am in a white waistcoat and tan shoes…I may be rich, I’ve made a lot of money, but if you think about it, analyze it, I’m a peasant through and through. (Chekhov 322)

This speech establishes the love-hate relationship between Lopakhin and Lyubov Andreyevna, the mistress of the estate. A crucial part of the play is that Lopakhin is a peasant, yet other translations opted to use “poor boy” to describe him. Dunnigan honored Chekhov’s original text and clearly displayed the social status of the characters.

Ronald Hingley, translator of Oxford World’s Classic versions of Chekhov’s major plays, had similar values to Dunnigan when writing his translations. His edition is praised for being accurate and regarded highly for its ‘speakability.’ A collective critique is that it is too British in tone. Hingley strays away from making his work just a Russian to English translation. He does not intend for his translations to be studied as literature, but to be used in performance. His primary goal is to create content that a director can interpret and showcase his or her own point of view. Hingley recommends against translating Russian concepts such as “filosofstvovat” as “to philosophize” or “dusha” as “soul” because of their more specialized or less frequent use in English. As Russian concepts were removed from the play, Russian comedy soon followed. Hingley’s translation has been criticized for Chekhov’s humor being lost in translation. This is exemplified in Hingley’s translation of The Three Sisters. “In Hingley’s words, “You won’t do anything naughty after I’ve left will you?”—a colloquial, perfectly normal thing to say. But the Russian reads, ‘But without me you won’t go bang-bang again?’—which is more vivid and, on stage, a great deal more funny” (Wright 177). Comedic placement was not the only thing missing from Hingley’s writing. His lack of repetition garnered a similar critique. Repetition is a staple for a Chekhov play and translators constantly struggle to incorporate this. Translators choose when and how often to integrate repetition, which can result in the abundance of it or the scarcity of it .

An admiration for Chekhov ties each of these translators together. One can imagine that they had a moment in their lives where they were introduced to Chekhov’s work and chose to dedicate a part of their career to him. This rings true for David Mamet, who chose to revisit Chekhov when he was already deemed an established playwright. Mamet wrote translations of Chekhov as a result of a lifetime appreciation for the playwright. The two share a great deal of similarities and Mamet cites Chekhov as a major influence of his. Maureen Ryan, director of a 2010 production of The Three Sisters at Ohio State University, said, “Both playwrights had an affinity for capturing contemporary, colloquial life in its simultaneous simplicity and complexity. What appears simple and mundane on the surface based on the tenor of the dialogue is loaded with life-changing ramifications from moment to moment” (Weitz 4). They are interested in the average life and do not use an elaborate plot as a crutch. It is all about the little moments. Annamaria Pileggi, senior artist in resident at the Washington University’s Performing Arts Department, described Mamet’s translation of The Three Sisters as a conversation between the two playwrights. She said, “It’s fascinating, because you see them both at work. Chekhov brings out the poet in Mamet and Mamet, even when he’s changing and editing the language, manages to extract the heart of Chekhov’s intentions” (Otten 9).

Mamet understands what makes a Chekhov play. In his notes on The Cherry Orchard, he wrote, “We are drawn to the play because it speaks to our subconscious—which is what a play should do” (125). Mamet is not attracted to what is being communicated, but how the characters are communicating. The action takes place within the text. Mamet has said that the cherry orchard has little importance in The Cherry Orchard:“The cherry orchard and its imminent destruction is nothing other than an effective dramatic device” (123). Plot is trivial and Mamet recognizes that. It all goes back to dialogue and characterization. Pearce suggests that Mamet’s “works rely on the unspoken to reveal the distance between thought and meaning, between illusion and reality, between a person’s conception of him or herself and the conceptions of companions, and between the speaker and the listener” (130).

Mamet differentiates himself from Chekhov by incorporating his own style in his translations and he uses “a verbal idiom not unlike that in his original plays, stripping away excess and thus creating an idiom in sync with actors who excel in Mamet’s plays” (Wilmeth 147). Mamet originated a form of dialogue known as “Mamet speak.” This style is fast, often vulgar, and semantics-oriented. Mamet constantly works with the same group of actors (William H. Macy, Al Pacino, etc.) who are seasoned in his “speak” and have a deeper understanding of his material. Mamet’s works have expanded beyond this “speak.” He has produced soft and poetic content as well. Mamet’s tone is exemplified in the following excerpt from The Three Sisters:

  1.  And tomorrow: I’ll take you away. To be mine. To be with me. How can that be? That happiness? All my dreams. Can that be? Everything but the one thing: that you don’t love me.
  2.  How can I? I cannot “feel” it. … My soul is a jewelry box. And they’ve lost the key. (Chekhov 102)

His use of short sentences gives this deeply emotional scene a faster pace. The simplistic imagery surpasses that of other translations. Liam Otten explains, “That last image is all Mamet. In the original, Irina says, ‘My heart is like a glorious grand piano, and the lid is closed and the key is thrown away’” (13).  Mamet brings more delicacy to the line. His interesting word choice is also shown when Olga calls Masha the clownish sister rather than the silly one. This allows the actress portraying Masha to have more insight on her character. “Silly” is vague and “clownish” is distinct. Mamet’s lexicon and style, along with the integration of anachronism and pauses, makes up a Mamet translation.

Anachronism derives from Greek and means “against time.” It occurs intentionally or unintentionally when a thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists is present in a text. An intentional anachronism may be introduced in a literary work to help engage a contemporary audience more readily with a historical period. Mamet’s works have been criticized for the use of intentional anachronism. A review of his 1999 play Boston Marriage said that “its often anachronistic diction – a mix of antiquarian as well as colloquial word choices – makes it difficult to follow or believe the ‘stilted,’murky exchanges among these almost ‘campy’ Victorian women” (Braun 118). While puzzling some critics, others have praised him for his incorporation of this technique. This is exemplified in one of the first scenes of The Three Sisters:

In Hingley’s Translation:

IRINA. (in a louder voice) Will you please thank him? (Chekhov 1980, 176)

In Mamet’s translation:

IRINA. THANK HIM!!!!! (Chekhov 1990, 9)

Mamet’s version is very pungent. It is not subtle, but it is effective. This is not how a young lady from the late 1800s might speak. The excessive exclamation points would not be in literature from Chekhov’s time. It is modern. It is vulgar. It is Mamet.

The anachronisms within the text can influence the direction of the play as well as the acting. Mel Gussow critiqued W.H. Macy’s direction of a 1991 production of Mamet’s translation of The Three Sisters: “Most of [the actors] seem self-consciously contemporary while playing Chekhov. They have neither the quiet dignity nor the desperation of these provincial Russian characters” (3). Mamet made the play accessible to a broader audience by updating the language. He went against the time period, which directors and actors saw as a license to modernize the entire play. Some actors incorporated too much of this contemporary spirit into their performances and denatured the original work. The text is hardly to blame for this neglect; it all goes back to the director’s choices. Gussow even went on to praise Mamet for respecting the text and not straying too far from other translations of the play.

Other critics praised the anachronism since Chekhov is not definitive and a translator should be encouraged to incorporate his or her voice. The New Republic commended Mamet’s translation of The Cherry Orchard: “Mamet’s ear is famously impeccable, the dialogue is always authentic and convincing….[This adaptation] will help to undermine our silly critical notions of ‘definitive’ Chekhov. Mamet has made me rethink the play.”

Mamet’s use of pauses and ellipses distinguishes his style. The dialogue in his original work is overlapping and colloquial. He brings this into his translations, but this overlapping can be interpreted as pausing. This is illustrated in a scene between Irina, Kulygin, and Tuzenbach in his translation of The Three Sisters.

KULYGIN. Superbly.

IRINA. …she…

KULYGIN. …like twenty angels.

IRINA. She hasn’t touched the piano in years.

TUZENBACH. …no, I.

IRINA. For years.

TUZENBACH. No, I…I… (Chekhov 71)

This adds an element of naturalism to the play. The characters are searching for the right words. They start each sentence not knowing what they are going to say next. They are in the moment and it does not feel planned out. It is organic, genuine, and real.

Mamet’s most famous Chekhov translation is for the screen. The 1994 film Vanya on 42nd Street, which used Mamet’s translation of Uncle Vanya, was workshopped for three years and filmed in the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street in New York City. It cannot be grouped together with Mamet’s other translations because it is simply based on Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. It is not as cut and dry as a translation. This film blurred the lines between theatre, rehearsal, and film. It received mixed reviews. Douglass Sternberg wrote, “Thematic echoes are sacrificed, Chekhov’s emphasis on time is greatly diminished, cuts in lines and responses are frequent, and additional interjections and statements occur often. As one would expect in a film adaptation, longer speeches are abbreviated” (8).

In this analysis, Dunnigan, Hingley, Barlett, and Mamet’s translations of Chekhov are reviewed and critiqued. The question of which translation is the best is naturally raised. The answer is not simple. Some would not put Mamet’s translation in the same category as Barlett, Hingley, and Dunnigan. They see his translation as a debauchery of Naturalistic theatre. They believe that “naturalistic plays do not seem to offer suitable material for updating. This is largely due to the central importance of the relationship between characters and their environment, together with the highly specific details of that social context built into the action. These plays not only have the status of modern classics, they are literally period pieces” (Innes 16). Others put Mamet on a pedestal for making the text accessible, modern, and edgy. What really makes a good Chekhov play has nothing to do with the translation. It is all in the directing. With the wrong group of actors and a hazy vision, any of these translations could go awry. Each of these translators is brilliant and with the right direction, these plays could convey the themes that Chekhov fought to express in the late 19th century.

 

References

Braun, Heather. “The 1990s.” The Cambridge Companion to David Mamet. Ed. by

Christopher Bigby, 103-123. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

Chekhov, Anton. The Cherry Orchard. The Major Plays. Translation by Ann

Dunnigan, 319-393. NY: Signet Classic, 1964. Print

Chekhov, Anton. The Three Sisters. Anton Chekhov Five Plays. Translation by

Ronald Hingley, 169-238. UK: Oxford University Press, 1980. Print.

Chekhov, Anton. The Three Sisters. Adapted by David Mamet. Literal Translation by

Vlada Chernomordik. New York: Grove Press, 1990. Print.

Gussow, Mel. “Review/Theater; Speaking, in Mamet’s Words, to the Subconscious.” The

New York Times, 1991. April 18th. Web.

Guzeva, Alexandra. “Hearing the music in Chekhov and Tolstoy’s words.” The Telegraph. 2014.  October 7th. Web.

Innes, Christopher. “Introduction.” A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theatre. Ed. by

Christopher Innes, 1-28.  London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Kirsch, Adam. “Chekhov in American.” The Atlantic. July 1997. Web.

Mamet, David. “Note on The Cherry Orchard.” Writing in Restaurants. 118-125. New

York: Penguin Books, 1987. Print.

Otten, Liam. “Three Sisters, two playwrights.” Washington University in St. Louis, 2003. November 6th. Web.

Pearce, Howard. “Plato in Hollywood: David Mamet and the Power of Illusions.”

Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: David Mamet. Ed. by Harold Bloom, 120-135. Broomall: Chelsea House Publishing, 2004. Print.

Sternberg, Douglass. “Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya Translated on 42nd Street.”

Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 1. Salisbury University, 2002. Print.

Weitz, Jay. “Curtain Call: ‘The Three Sisters.’” Columbus Alive, 2010. May 12th.  Web.

Wilmeth, Don. “Mamet and the actor.” The Cambridge Companion to David Mamet.

Ed. by Christopher Bigby, 138-153. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

Wright, Colin A. “Translating Chekhov for Performance.” Canadian Review of

Comparitive Literature, Vol. 7, No. 2. Edited by Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz, 174-182. Canada: Queens University, 1980. Print.

 

Erica Ripperger’s critical essay, “A Deconstruction of David Mamet’s Translations of Chekhov’s Greatest Works,” won first prize in the Fourth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. Erica is a Film major who has just completed her first year. She attended a performing arts high school in New Jersey, where she acted in numerous plays, including Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.