Tom Stoppard and Chekhov

March 6, 2009

Following up on their earlier interview with the playwright, the Barnes & Noble Review has posted a review of Tom Stoppard’s recent adaptations of two Chekhov plays, The Cherry Orchard and Ivanov.

In Stoppard’s hands, Chekhov’s locutions are contemporary, often simple (“No, seriously,” one character protests). Consider these two renderings of the scene where Anna, Ivanov’s Jewish wife, who has abandoned her faith and family to be with him, recounts their romance. In Lawrence Senelick’s translation, Anna exclaims:

“One glimpse of him and I was caught in the mousetrap, snap! He said: let’s go…I cut myself off from everything, you know, the way people snip off withered leaves with a scissors, and I went…”

Here is Stoppard’s re-creation of the same moment:

“I took one look and — snap! — I was caught. He said, ‘Let’s run off… let’s go!’ I stripped my life away just like you’d strip the dead leaves off a stem, and I went.”

The reviewer, Amelia Atlas, notes that Stoppard’s versions are actually less translated than they are reconstructed from someone else’s literal translation. Perhaps the immediacy of the stage production makes this kind of intervention in the text a more pressing concern. I have noticed that theater reviews often refer to, and even describe, the translations used by the company, much more than book reviews attempt any discussion of the translation. Of course, the productions under review are often classics retranslated for the contemporary stage, whereas novels and other titles reviewed in periodicals are usually first translations, making addressing the translation more difficult, especially for a reviewer who doesn’t read the original.

Still, the value placed on the translation in theater is an interesting contrast to its role in reviews of fiction. (Translated poetry is hardly reviewed at all, at this point.) And I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of the original as a dead text. Maybe it’s because theater is so undeniably alive that we give ourselves more permission to adapt it to our uses? But in that case the medium might simply highlight something that is true of fiction, as well, but that we more easily disregard because of the way fiction is transmitted to us.

-ar

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