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No Further Translation

Writer Rob Weinert-Kendt recently spoke with Tracy Letts and Sarah Ruhl, both of whom have adaptations of Three Sisters in production this season. The complete interview appears in the May/June 2012 issue of American Theater. In the following excerpt Letts talks about his approach to the adaptation and how, as Weinert-Kendt put it, plays by Chekov were “born for an ensemble.”
The origin of the project When they first asked me at Artists Repertory Theatre to do this, they said, “We don’t want anything crazy, we’re looking for—” I don’t remember how they phrased it, but clearly they didn’t want it set on a houseboat. They wanted something traditional. And I said, “Do you have a text you would prefer me to work from? I don’t speak a word of Russian. Or is it incumbent upon me to find that?” They supplied me with a literal translation from what appeared to be an old textbook—it was photocopied—something called Hugo’s Russian Reading Simplified. It was truly, one word would be written in English, and underneath the word would be written in Russian. So my first pass through the script was using that translation. It was like math; it was some of the hardest stuff I’ve ever done, just trying to figure out what the sentences were… I got to the end of it and it was pretty terrible, but I didn’t expect it to be otherwise. And then I combed back through it and sort of tried to put it in my voice to a certain extent. I realized at that point, though, that some of the things I’d done in that first pass just made no sense; some things were exactly wrong… So I went out and I combed through all the translations I could find on the bookshelves, and I found two others guys’ work… I intentionally found stuff I didn’t like… there was nothing in my voice I would be tempted to rip off. So I used those as a guide to back to it. I got to the end; it was still pretty bad. It was at that point, through serendipity, that I met a friend of a friend whose sister was a Russian scholar, who as a favor to somebody had done a literal translation of Three Sisters… And she shared all of her work on the piece, and it was really the Rosetta Stone for me—it really opened the thing for me... Because I was even able to talk to her about what I felt I was missing—what I intuited that I was missing in my version. She was able to talk some about the Russian character, and the places I’ve gone wrong. The challenges of adaptation and translation I won’t ever do it again, I’ll tell you that. It’s a lot of work. I’ve worked as hard on this as I do on one of my own plays. And I think I have learned a lot from it, but no, I don’t think I’ll do it again. Also, there’s a kind of baseline fallacy about this whole business; I mean, a playwright’s stock in trade is primarily language and ideas, but when you do a translation, you scrap the language. You’re not going to hear it in that playwright’s language. Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov is in Russian, and we can’t hear that unless we’re Russian speakers. We just can’t; we never will. So what we end up with is ideas moreso than his language. I thought to myself when I first started, I agree with Sarah Ruhl utterly about humbling myself: I was like, You’re the playwright. I’m just here to get out of your way, in a sense; I’m going to try and communicate your ideas any way I can. But at the same time, as that intermediary, I have to have a point of view. There has to be a guiding principle going into it. So for me, the guiding principle was informed by the fact that I don’t much like going to see Chekhov, as an audience member. I sit in the audience, and they start talking about name days and using the patronyms, and everybody’s got a big beard, and I check out early and often. And I’m not supposed to check out; I’m supposed to be completely engaged, more than your average audience member. But I don’t. I’m normally left pretty cold by it. So my guiding principle going into it was, I’m going to try to eliminate for the audience any further act of translation; they’re going to have direct communication with the ideas and the characters…
Chekhov was writing about life After doing this—I was just talking to Martha Lavey about this the other day—for me, the line that I can draw between Chekhov and Beckett is actually pretty direct. And I would never have thought that before working on this Three Sisters. There’s an existential mindset about it seems that he’s working on. There’s a lot of talk about identity—Am I here? Am I really here? That for me is one of the things that elevates Three Sisters above the other Chekhovs; he’s getting at some core things.
The importance of acting You know, a play like Glass Menagerie, which I’ve seen I can’t tell you how many times—it survives even the worst actors. You can’t help but be torn up by the end of that thing, no matter who’s doing it. Chekhov is only as good as the actors who are up there. It will not survive bad acting; they’ve got to occupy fully lived-in characters from the beginning to the end, across the board. The acting is so important to Chekhov.
This article appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of American Theater Magazine published by Theater Communications Group.