Mark Thwaite What are the biggest challenges in translating Chekhov (1860 - 1905)?
Hugh Aplin "Chekhov belongs to a line of Russian writers that begins with Nikolai Karamzin (1766 - 1826), who at the end of the eighteenth century was instrumental in creating a modern literary language based on the idiom of everyday educated speech. Included among the writers working in this tradition were Pushkin, Lermontov and Turgenev, and it gave rise to works not in general 'difficult' to translate. Chekhov's language is clear and plain, to the extent that many of his stories and the major plays are actually quite easily tackled by learners of Russian at a relatively early stage of study. So the main challenge probably lies precisely in reflecting the economy and subtlety of Chekhov's prose."
MT Does Chekhov pose different challenges to, say, Dostoyevsky (1821 - 1881), Gogol (1809 - 1852) or Turgenev (1818 - 1883)?
HA "Certainly as far as the works I have tackled are concerned, the answer is 'yes'. Gogol, for example, is stylistically quite uneven, with sentences that begin innocuously getting carried away with themselves and whisking the reader away on the wings of purple prose to totally unexpected places. While Dostoevsky's penchant for expressing the tortured psychological state of his heroes through their verbal tics, tortuous thought processes and correspondingly convoluted syntax can render his periods immensely lengthy, complex and hard to fit into the differing structures of English without major reconstruction. With Turgenev the situation is different, as he is, like Chekhov, basically an adherent of the Karamzinian tradition."
MT Why do you think we should still be reading these old Russians!?
HA "Because in their different ways they wrote on universally important, still topical themes in ways that have stood the test of time. We still listen to Mozart and still look at Raphael because in so doing we enrich our mundane lives - so it is too with the classic Russian writers of the nineteenth century. Perhaps Chekhov is particularly popular in Britain - the regular appearances of his plays in theatre repertoires alone attest to that - because there is a certain familiarity for us in his outlook on life, while Dostoevsky attracts with his exoticism - all those wild Russians swilling vodka - but what they have in common is the artistry of their work. We should be reading them for a long time yet."
MT Three Years is Chekhov's heartfelt attempt to create a 'novel of Moscow life'. But, somehow, it just isn't as successful as his short stories. Why do you think that is?
HA "As I try to argue in my introduction to Three Years, I don't think Chekhov had the talents of a novelist. He was a miniaturist rather than a creator of epic canvases, not an artist of vision on a grand scale, but an acute observer with a great eye and great sympathy for significant detail. That is why Three Years has some wonderful moments - I personally find the ending particularly poignant - without necessarily being entirely convincing throughout. Nonetheless I would hesitate to criticise it too strongly - slightly uneven Chekhov is still superior to most writers' very best."
MT What is your favourite Checkhov story?
HA "'The Lady with the Little Dog' I always find a delight; 'The Kiss', 'The House with a Mezzanine' - I could list quite a few, I think!"
MT What are you working on now? What is coming next?
HA "At the moment I'm working on a new version of 'The Death of Ivan Ilyich', one of Tolstoy's very finest works, in my view, which will be published by Hesperus together with another of the late stories, 'The Devil'. Between them they represent his recurrent themes of the 1880s of sexual love and death. As always with Tolstoy, it's powerful stuff, and a long way from Woody Allen."
MT What is your favourite book? Who is your favourite writer?
HA "Ever since I read my elder brother's copy of a translation of it when he was taking A-level Russian, Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time has been right up there at the top of my list of favourites. So it was a particular pleasure to produce my own translation of the novel for Hesperus, to be published, I think, in January 2005. It works wonderfully well in a number of ways, and I have yet to meet with a student of Russian who has failed to enjoy it - it's both a series of cracking Romantic yarns and a sophisticated examination of the nature of story-telling, so it really does offer something for everyone. Then there's Pushkin - Eugene Onegin in particular - and Gogol, especially Dead Souls. My doctoral research was on Russian literature of the 1830s and 1840s, so my choices are actually rather predictable, I'm afraid. From the twentieth century I like Bulgakov (1891-1940) very much, and a lesser known, later writer from the Soviet period that I admire is Yury Trifonov, whose acute psychological insights are matched by the quality of his exemplary Russian prose; The House on the Embankment and his shorter stories are all highly recommended. A contemporary writer I really enjoy is Tatyana Tolstaya - now her glittering, poetic prose is a real test for the translator!"
MT What book do you wish you had written?
HA "That's easy: any one, or preferably more, of the Harry Potter series, and for totally mercenary reasons. In less cynical mood I might say almost anything by Yury Lotman, a brilliant scholar of great erudition who managed in his writing on eighteenth and nineteenth century Russian life and literature to be quite enthralling. It would have been nice to be that gifted."
MT Do you have any tips for for the aspiring writer!?
HA "I would not be so presumptuous ..."
MT Thank you so much for your time Hugh - all the very best!