Lost in translation

November 16, 2007

Works of art rely on symbols that are common currency in their creator's society. So can a British audience, say, ever truly understand Chekhov, and must efforts to stage his work all resort to stereotypes? Cynthia Marsh asks. I have recently been wrestling with the issues of translated theatre, in the form of Russian plays on the British stage. How far can they migrate across frontiers and retain their meanings (or acquire new ones) in a different context? Even the title of The Cranes Are Flying , Mikhail Kalatozov's Soviet film of 1957, baffled me until it was pointed out that the departure of the cranes from their Siberian breeding grounds for their winter sojourn in Iraq or Iran is an ingrained Russian metaphor for the arrival of autumn. In the same way, the The Rooks Have Returned , as in the celebrated painting by Alexei Savrasov (1871), heralds the spring. We have something similar with swallows, I think.

Continuing the ornithological theme, a recent trip to a well-known Dorset seaside town turned up the following sign, which I present as evidence:

I also came across a headline in the Daily Mail in 2006: "Pensioner left bloodied from attack by seagulls." The British stereotype of the seagull as a noisy, scavenging and vicious creature operating in packs suggests we would be better off without them, and many British would cheerfully shoot them, if it were allowed.

Not so the Russians. The implied view in Chekhov's The Seagull (1896) is of a bird flying free, alone, over an inland lake, indifferent to human life - until it is shot down unnecessarily by human agency. It then becomes a tragedy. So powerful was this idea that the bird was taken as the symbol of the Moscow Art Theatre, the stage for the first successful production, and still adorns their curtain today.

The problem for a British audience is that Chekhov knowingly manipulates Russian resonances of this creature in the imagery of his play, notably the gentry's love of hunting wild birds. The hero presents the shot seagull to his girlfriend as a symbol. "Of what?" you may ask, as she does. He argues that it is a symbol of himself; she battles for it not to become a symbol of herself; and ultimately it is stuffed on the orders of the villain of the piece, perhaps as a stereotype itself.

What do the British make of this when they view the play in translation? (You can hardly miss it when it is enshrined in the title of the play.) Do we just accept that there is an impenetrable aspect to translated theatre that prevents us reaching the core? And that in this particular example that impenetrable core must in some way be "Russianness"? Or can the stereotype migrate across national borders with some if not all of its attendant implications intact? The British attitude to seagulls might suggest not.

It is in the nature of a stereotype that it foregrounds one or more aspects of something at the expense of others. The British view of seagulls conceals their grace and beauty as fishers in the sea, the gleaming sharpness of their colouring, their faithfulness to one location. We also forget the huge range of the species and that it is as much an inland bird as the iconic inhabitant of the British seaside. So how does Chekhov's vision operate in its transition to the British stage?

Actually the seagull may not be the best example. Because Chekhov's play is such a feature of the British stage repertoire, the notion of "seagull" probably now carries more than a hint of its Russian reputation, at least within theatrical and probably literary circles. In other words, constant repetition may help stereotypes migrate.

Yet if stereotypes generally have so much trouble in negotiating cultural frontiers, going against the grain of their suggestive shorthand in the source culture, is not the balance of the work of art upset? When a play is staged in translation it has to borrow from the stereotypes of its host culture and become a kind of hybrid, otherwise it will remain inaccessible. By adopting the language of the host culture, the linguistic sign systems that come with it (such as the English associations of the word "seagull") become almost inevitable. But that conceals some of the implications of the original text. Similar issues apply to staging: the shorthand for productions of Russian plays is one or all of the following: birch trees, samovars, boots, onion domes, fur, Russian-style shirts ... Given a selection of these, we feel secure in the knowledge that we are watching something "Russian".

Much of my research has focused on reviews of Russian plays over the past 60 years. In themselves theatre reviews function much like a stereotype. They have to be brief; they often have to be written immediately post- show; they are subject to editorial policy. They carry responsibility, potentially making or breaking individual productions. They have to maximise communication within a tight framework and keep the reader engaged. In all these ways, they embody many of the qualities of a stereotype: convenience, clear and recognised communication, tapping into common assumptions.

Yet reviewers are dabbling in cultural dynamite, utilising and recycling many received cultural myths. In my own field, concepts such as Mother Russia, suffering Russia, the intelligentsia, the gentry (often miscast as the aristocracy) and ennui pepper the responses to Russian theatre. There is no time to analyse these myths: they are there for their generalising and subsuming properties. And reviewers are not questionable nor answerable: the very pace of their trade precludes it.

The number of reviewers tends to be very small (and mostly male); there are some who have been reviewing theatre for more than 20 years in the areas I have been exploring. Under pressure they quote themselves, if they have reviewed a production of a given play on an earlier occasion. It is admirable that they keep good records, but such recycling also contributes to the circulation of specific cultural (mis)understandings.

But to get back to migrating stereotypes. We are constantly made aware that globalisation is breaking down the barriers between cultures - but is it? I have tried to dredge up just one global stereotype that could be universally understood and would not need to make the treacherous journey across cultural frontiers. Depressingly, I cannot think of one. Or perhaps that is a consequence of the stereotype: its nature is to be localised, of common currency only in the cultural enclaves it inhabits. In this respect, we should be very wary of the expectation that one Russian's seagull is another Briton's stereotype.

Cynthia Marsh is professor of Russian drama and literature at Nottingham University. She is the author of Maxim Gorky: Russian Dramatist (Peter Lang, 2006) and is currently working on Staging Russian Theatre in the British Repertoire (Edwin Mellen, 2008).

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