Translating plays, like directing them, is at least as much art as science. Director and translator both bear a responsibility to transmit the original intent of the playwright. But, aside from the difficulties of determining original intent (just ask the Supreme Court), they also, inevitably and sometimes happily, impose their own ideas, associations, and vision.
It's understandable, then, that Diego Arciniegas, artistic director of the Publick Theatre, would want to write his own translation for his staging of "The Seagull." If, as he's said, he's looking to present a more accessible, less Victorian-British take on Anton Chekhov's classic story of an aging actress and the lives that fall apart around her, why not make his job as director easier by hiring himself as translator?
Of course, Chekhov already has plenty of English translators, from Elisaveta Fen to Paul Schmidt to Tom Stoppard. But, as Stoppard writes in the introduction to his own version, that's no reason to quit trying:
"You can't have too many English 'Seagulls': at the intersection of all of them, the Russian one will be forever elusive."
After seeing this new "Seagull" just once in performance (a written text is not yet available), it would be foolish to judge it in detail. But the Publick's production, especially because Arciniegas directs it himself, does give a sense of his text's strengths and weaknesses.
Strengths first: His rendering of dialogue is often admirably concise and clear; as an actor himself, he knows how to write lines that actors can speak. He is also reasonably faithful in matters of syntax and meaning; line for line, his "Seagull" is immediately recognizable as Chekhov's "Seagull."
It's in matters of tone and diction, however, that this version goes off the rails. And it's in these matters that it sometimes gets tricky to distinguish the translator's work from the director's - although the decision to render two different Russian words, one that clearly means "nonsense" or "rubbish" and another that also carries nuances of "trivia" and "childishness," with a single barnyard expletive is clearly the translator's choice, and not a good one.
It's not that this expletive isn't accessible, contemporary, American - all those qualities Arciniegas has said he was seeking. But it's also completely jarring when he has Masha, the estate manager's daughter, use it to tell her mother what she thinks of romantic ideas of love.
Nineteenth-century Russian peasants undoubtedly used such language. But 19th-century Russian stage peasants didn't. Nor do any of Chekhov's characters sound comfortable with such idioms as "same old same old," "gotcha," and "totally random." To have them speak these words while still wearing Rafael Jaen's historically appropriate shawls, long skirts, and tunics is to make a hash of the play's atmosphere, setting, and mood. If you're going to let Masha swear, let her get out of that corset, too.
Arciniegas the director also makes choices that work against my sense of what Chekhov is really like.
Everyone, from Susanne Nitter as Madame Arkadina to the talented young Tyler Reilly as her bitterly flailing son, Constantine, speaks and moves with a vehemence and exaggeration that may be meant to suggest their comical theatricality but only feels like heavy underscoring of even the most delicate moments. Lynn Guerra's Masha doesn't just drink her vodka; she's falling down drunk. Only Dafydd Rees, as Arkadina's brother Sorin, and Joel Colodner, as the neighbor Dr. Dorn, keep their performances at a more nuanced pitch.
The most irritating choice, however, comes at the very end, after what's probably the most famous offstage gunshot in history. (Stop reading right now if you don't know what I'm talking about.)
Bad enough that the Publick's uneven sound system makes the gunshot sound as if it's coming from stage left even though Constantine has just exited stage right. Then, after Dorn has reassured a spooked Arkadina that it's nothing, just a bottle that blew up in his doctor's bag, he pulls her lover Trigorin aside and urges him to get her away, because Constantine has shot himself.
"Curtain," right? Not at the Publick. Music swells, and the men exit - then return, carrying Constantine back onstage. Dorn starts pulling bloody bandages out of the young man's chest - and Constantine twitches. Oh! He's not dead! He just shot himself again, as badly as usual.
This is certainly one possible interpretation of Chekhov's last line as written. But to make it the only one, to rob a great theatrical moment of all its ambivalence, subtlety, and sudden chill, goes beyond translation. It is, to echo Stoppard again, more like a travesty.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.