A Word on Translation
Translation is by all intents and purposes an impossible act; it demands that one language be rendered into another. But what is language, if not the culmination of symbols and expressions and sentiments and values that come from a history and a culture? Language exists largely in sounds and in rhythms – as J.L. Austin puts it in How to Do Things with Words, it stems from “locutionary acts,” the performance of utterances. Now, we can agree that besides meaning, every utterance in a language evokes a feeling, or at the least provokes an impression. In American English, for instance, the word fuck is prevalent in colloquial speech chiefly because it is so sonically satisfying as well as short, without necessarily being culturally regarded as crude, or derogatory. More than that, it can also describe the act of making love, as does the word fucking, which, when used as an adjective also serves to punctuate or hyperbolize a noun. Fuck, one might say, is a quintessential word emblematic of the shape of American English.
There is no true equivalent in French.
There is no true equivalent in Portuguese.
There is no true equivalent in Italian.
And yet, it falls upon the translator to invoke its rendition... in context.
New Saloon’s incredible take on Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Minor Character, uses a mash-up of different English translations of the Russian play. With several actors interpreting each role and juggling several translations simultaneously, the piece first and foremost amplified Chekhov’s play, if only through the sheer number of voices uttering each line and the number of actors not only playing in each scene but sharing each character, save the professor. While this set up may sound chaotic, the different actors wore a token of identification allocated to each character. For example, Astrov’s was a pencil, worn on one’s ear, so whenever an actor would begin to play Astrov, they’d pick up a pencil and place it on their ear. Not only were these clever identifiers necessary for any audience member unfamiliar with the text, they were specifically picked out to epitomize the essential roles of the characters in the given circumstances.
Similarly, having several actors playing one character simultaneously, but acting independently, was the perfect form to summarize the complex nature of each and every one of Chekhov’s characters, in the end. Their many sides, their many selves, all embodied on stage and at the same time gave individual scenes a richness that for the first time, I felt, really did justice to the author’s complicated literary play. A beautiful example of this was the staging of the intimate scene between Yelena and Astrov, which started with an equal number of Astrovs and Yelenas, but slowly evolved into a predatory and dangerous point at which the number of Astrovs doubled, and Yelena was left alone, to be played by one actor. Whether this choice was meant to signify Astrov’s dominance over her, his out-of-characterness in the scene, or Yelena’s slight indulgence to him will be left up for interpretation.
Finally, a word translation. Much like with the multiplication of actors for each character, the overlaying of different translations throughout the piece achieved (closely) an impossible task. The constant permutation of a wide range of English translations, relentlessly piled on top of each other through the show, served less to clarify previous lines and phrases than to add to them, to complicate them, thus arriving at the “truest” rendition of this intricate Russian text.
In fact, Vanya doesn’t just mean he’s been “stupidly cheated”, he’s also been “foolishly betrayed” and “made [into a] complete fool” - because, as it turns out, a certain combination of those is necessary for us to get at what exactly, in that moment, Vanya wishes to communicate, or lament.
With Minor Character, New Saloon brings to the Public an incredible interpretation of a classic play; performed by some of the best actors I had the pleasure to watch in very long time.