Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright
On Some Lines of Chekhov
“Ах, боже мой... - повторял он, наслаждаясь. - Ах, боже мой...”
—Anton Chekhov, “Gooseberries,” 1898
“Ah, how delicious!” he shouted in his glee. “How delicious!”
—S.S. Koteliansky and Gilbert Cannan, “Gooseberries,” trans. 1920
Interstate 94 trucks due west through the summer-ripe terrain of Waukesha County, Wisconsin. Peg the Oconomowoc exit, merge onto State Highway 67 and follow the corn south, maybe twelve miles, past enduring clumps of second-growth forest, burgeoning fields, irrigation rigs, a set of stoplights, and clusters of suburban-rural residences with Chevy or Ford or, more often, Dodge vehicles in the driveway. Hang a sharp right onto County Road ZZ—this stretch nothing but curves shaped by stands of oak and maple—and then it’s another quick right into the park. Smokey Bear will be there—bizarrely clad in blue jeans and a ranger hat—to greet you. His paint is fading (it seems fire danger has been moderate to low since the 90s), but his rotund figure is a fixture.
Follow the park road through a developed patch of wetland, follow the signage, and you’ll find my lake, Ottawa Lake, hunkered into the northern end of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, Southern Unit. There are more than forty lakes in this county, where I grew up, but this is the lake I know best, the lake I’ve accidentally ingested the most of. This is the lake I always return to.
After college, I lit out west so hard I wound up in the east, in Japan. The night before I left, a friend of mine from school and I drove out to Ottawa for a farewell swim.
It had been a cloudy July afternoon, and as we pulled up to the water the early-evening sunlight was just starting to bleed through, recasting the sky red and orange and yellow and pink, and tinting the landscape gold. It was a spectacular thing to see, the distant tree-line
like a fuzzy, sfumato border on a flashy impressionistic painting, the marshy back-quarter of the lake effulgent and shimmering, the rest of the water dark and viscous and crawling. There is a fishing pier jutting out into the lake, and we dove off its five-foot railing into the water eight-feet below, shattering the surface and allowing our trajectory to run its natural course, our bodies suspended, weightless, for a glorious hundredth of a second, as we glided through the lowest point of our downward arc, and then, kicking again, our arms pulling against the easy resistance of the water, we arched back up to the surface.
Huffing the smell of lake water, of fish, and algae, and wind, I laid my head back, filled my lungs, and just floated there. And then it started raining, a drizzle at first, soon a steady pattering all around us.
I plunged under, headfirst, and shook my whole body wildly just to feel the tension of water on my skin, the sensation of water enveloping me completely, and then I crashed the surface, letting the rain dazzle my senses.
Delicious, I say, thinking back on it. Absolutely delicious, this diving and rising, this back and forth between cold submersion and the warm rain.
Eventually the sunset faded and the rainstorm sputtered to an end. The gloam settled in. My friend got chilled and swam to shore.
Still, I didn’t want to get out. I never wanted to get out. I never wanted to leave the water, always trailed behind, ignoring others’ imploring me to hurry up. I would lie in the shallows of that lake like a crocodile, only my eyes and nose above water, tacking on seconds, minutes, building a reserve to keep me sated until I was able to return. I would hover, and wait, and savor the sensations of weightlessness and freedom that came with being immersed in the lake—so delicious were these floating sensations, so delicious!
Gauge your reaction to the above scene-description. Circle one:
A: Um, I don’t really like swimming, but I thought the description was okay.
B: Lakes are opaque, creature-infested, bacteria-ridden cesspools, and having never swam in one, I have no real frame of reference. I hope you showered.
C: I hear you. I like swimming. I like rain. Sounds like a good time. Dig it.
D: I agree 100%, completely. I know exactly what you’re saying. Fucking delicious.
Not long ago, I spent a weekend in Washington D.C. An old friend of mine had just moved there, and I crashed at her place. Her boyfriend is a photographer and one of the few non-photography books on their lovely, elephantine bookshelf was a hodgepodge review of literary highlights, 501 Must-Read Books, which I perused that first evening while she threw dinner together. I jotted down some titles that sounded good, or that maybe rang a bell somewhere, and that is exactly how—in that apartment in D.C., drinking a beer, singing along to The Brian Jonestown Massacre, waiting for the linguine—Josef Skvorecky’s novel The Engineer of Human Souls first flit into my consciousness.
And looking into this book, on page 107 of this particular edition, the narrator, an exiled Czech professor of American literature living in Canada, writes, “Associations—the essence of everything. Associations in time, in appearance, in theory, in the heart, omnipotent
I like that, the idea, the way it sounds, the way it looks written here: “Associations—the essence of everything.” Twenty pages later, boiled down: “Associations are everything.”
I encountered Anton Chekhov for the first time in graduate school, in a Readings class with the writer Steven Barthelme, a class in which we read stuff (maybe this is obvious) and then talked about it until our voiceboxes folded and our larynxes collapsed. One week he assigned a
collection of Chekhov stories. I hadn’t bought the book, didn’t want to buy the book, and believed I wouldn’t need to buy the book because I had fortuitously picked up an old Dover Thrift Editions collection of five Chekhov stories (at a library book sale for 25 cents), four of which were among those assigned by Steve.
Of course, this anthology and the one that had been assigned included slightly different translations, and the words I read did not entirely match up with the words I was supposed to be reading. But as it happens this was a lucky blunder.
So one warmed-over Tuesday afternoon our class was sitting in a stale conference room, all our various books cracked open, waiting for the conversation to get going—and finally I blurted out, “I loved the delicious line!” I went on, “This must be what makes Chekhov so great!
His descriptions! And he knows things! He knows exactly what it’s like to be swimming out in the country, in the rain. Goddamn! Excellent! Wonderful! Delicious! Chekhov! Yes!
Yes!”—exclamations to this effect.
De∙li∙cious \ adj, here of course defined as characterized by self-indulgent or sensuous pleasure: seeking voluptuous enjoyment: LUXURIOUS syn see DELIGHTFUL see HEDONISTIC.
Steve cocked his head, said, “Where did you find that?”
The other students just looked at me, quietly, maybe with some pity.
Undaunted, I turned to the text. I read:
Ivan Ivanich came out of the shed, plunged into the water with a splash, and swam about in the rain, flapping his arms, and sending waves back, and on the waves tossed white lilies; he swam out to the middle of the pool and dived, and in a minute came up again in another place and kept on swimming and diving, trying to reach the bottom. “Ah! how delicious!” he shouted in his glee. “How delicious!” He swam to the mill, spoke to the peasants, and came back, and in the middle of the pool he lay on his back to let the rain fall on his face. Bourkin and Aliokhin were already dressed and ready to go, but he kept on swimming and diving.
“Delicious,” he said. “Too delicious!”
“You’ve had enough,” shouted Bourkin.
And then Steve, following along in his own copy, rebutted, “My book doesn’t say that.”
It seems in the version Steve was reading Robert Hingley had translated Ivan Ivanich’s clamor of profound pastoral joy as “‘By God, this is terrific!’”—stoically adding, “He was enjoying himself.” And he rounds out the scene with a, “‘Ye Gods!’ said he. ‘Mercy on us!’” And then the obligatory, “‘That’s enough,’ shouted Burkin.”
And so our Readings class conversation on Chekhov morphed into a debate on the merits of this translation versus that one, a righteous little battle that culminated in my finally throwing down, “It’s obvious that Hingley is a prim, prissy idiot, and that the translators S.S. Koteliansky and Gilbert Cannan actually understood joy.”
I continued, blazing—“Why would anyone want to read a translation by someone who is not completely taken by the all-wonderful prospect of swimming in the rain?!”
Still, despite my yawping fervor, there wasn’t much in the way of a response. The class seemed borderline annoyed, at the very least ready to move on. Steve eventually shrugged, as if to say, “This is all kind of subjective, I guess.” And then it hit me: it wasn’t that everyone else disagreed necessarily—they just didn’t much care. And they didn’t much care, I suspected, because they didn’t really understand what I was talking about. They didn’t understand because they’d never had that same experience. And if one hasn’t had the same experiences, one’s associations, of course, would be quite different.
Using only the materials of personal experience, complete the following statement: I associate swimming in chilly country lakes, in the rain, with—
B: The sort of peculiar pneumonia-inducing activities enjoyed by those too young, immature, or inexperienced to appreciate the allure of indoor, warm and dry and cozy, drug-induced recreation
C: The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Lake Placid, Piraña, Jaws: The Revenge
D: Friends, warmth, home, freedom, happiness
Other notable “Gooseberries” translations:
Ronald Wilks: “‘Oh, good God,’ he kept saying with great relish. ‘Good God…’” And
later, at least we get an exclamation point: “‘Oh, dear God,’ he said. ‘Oh, God!’
‘Now that’s enough,’ Burkin shouted.”
Elisaveta Fen: “‘Ah, God!’ he repeated, in his delight. ‘Ah, God!’” Then, “‘Ah, God…’
he was saying. ‘Oh, Lord, have mercy…’ ‘Surely you’ve had enough!’ Bóorkin
called out to him.”
Constance Garnett: “‘Oh, my goodness!” he repeated continually, enjoying himself
thoroughly. ‘Oh, my goodness!’” And for euphoria round two: “‘Oh, my
goodness!...” he said. “Oh, Lord, have mercy on me!...’ ‘That’s enough!’ Burkin
shouted at him.”
And these alternates deserve some comment. Wilks seems to be, appropriately, the most masculine, with his, “Oh, good God,”—an exclamation Ralph Fiennes might have ejaculated in the film version of The English Patient while lapping at Kristen Scott Thomas’s suprasternal notch.
Garnett’s “Oh, my goodness!” is certainly much more demure, cute, and I think, unlikely.
I wonder at both Garnett and Fen’s supplication for mercy. I understand they were working within a particular zeitgeist, and that paradigms have since shifted and diction has changed significantly since the first half of the twentieth century (since Wharton’s The House of Mirth for example), and so I will go on record here attesting that my desire to see delicious on the page in lieu of “mercy” is not merely an aesthetic preference. Rather, “Oh, Lord, have mercy…” bears a host of potential meanings, meanings which I say render the expression at odds with the singular, wholly joyful experience Ivan Ivanich is undergoing swimming in the rain—Mer∙cy \ n defined here as a clemency of kindness extended to someone instead of strictness or severity: esp: the mercy of God to man ALSO a word of much emotional force and hence one applicable to extreme situations.
I understand where the phrase Oh Mercy! comes from, that is from the idea that such grandiose beauty in nature inspires feelings of the sublime, of the impressive power of nature, and hence of the all-omnipotent power of the (sometimes) beneficent deity, God, and hence, in the face of it, one might cry out, in ecstasy, “Oh, Lord, have mercy…”—as in, “Oh, God I recognize the total awesomeness of your power! Now please don’t kill me!” And to be fair, this sort of exclamation makes sense if you’re staring down a rogue wave. I just think it makes less sense if you’re simply enjoying flopping around in a pond—this flopping around in a pond by no means an “extreme” situation.
In any case, it seems to me that Ivan Ivanich—the energetic veterinarian, the country-boy who stops swimming at one point to chat up the peasants—was probably more of a pantheist. And while it’s possible, it seems unlikely that in this moment of pure engrossing rapture this
pantheistic country-lovin’ animal doctor would cry out to God, “Oh, have mercy!” Much, much more likely, I think, he would shout something befitting a true-blue nature worshipper, an altogether more straightforward exclamation like, say, “Delicious!”
Delicious, delicious, delicious!
Deep in the fever here, I’m beginning to agree with my quiet classmates—who really cares? This isn’t even about Chekhov anymore. I’m just crushing on two guys who translated some Russian back in 1920, who probably had a supra-pleasant experience swimming in some lake, in the rain, once, and who let it influence their choice of words when it came time to work on “Gooseberries,” and then having finished their translation, this particular (almost) insignificant smudge on the puzzle probably never traipsed through their consciousness, or conscience,
¡Ya basta! Enough! Let’s move on, please.
Chuck Palahniuck reportedly praised the film adaptation of his raging novel Fight Club. He applauded the altered ending, declared it better than his original.
The great Roy Batty line at the close of Blade Runner: “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears…in rain”—the first time I saw the film I was knocked out by that line, and I always gave credit for it to the original author, Philip K. Dick, or at least to Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, who wrote the screenplay. Well, it turns out Rutger Hauer, the actor, tacked that line on there at the end, late in the game, during filming.
Orson Welles’ famous Third Man speech: “In Italy, for thirty years…they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the
Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce: the cuckoo clock.” This was not in Graham Greene’s screenplay; this nugget was a Welles original adlib.
My questions are these: Can these additions, these changes, be seen as translations, since they effectively transform the material? And if each of these new additions improves on the old, as I would argue they do, would that mean a translation has the precedent to “improve” the
Scenario: You’re out on the driveway playing HORSE with your brother. He’s whomping you, H to HORS, so you perform a simple right-handed lay-up, nothing fancy. You do this because there’s always a chance he’ll miss the easy shot, and in any case, you buy some time. Your brother rebounds the ball, dribbles once, twice, goes for the lay-up, jumps, and while in the air, in a flash of impromptu showmanship, he passes the ball around his waist before ricocheting it off the backboard, clank, swoosh, he lands, done and done. How do you feel about this? How do you feel about your brother?
A: My brother is amazing. So casually, he adds this bit of flare. When asked to accomplish any task, even simple, glory-less tasks, like sinking a lay-up, he does so with a pizzazz utterly foreign to normal, lesser people like myself. I accept this. I watch him, amazed.
B. God, what a showoff. Always has to one-up everybody, never content to just do what everyone else does. I concede, “Yes, he’s talented,” but I hate him for always doing something to make himself stand out. Why does he always have to be so…different? Still, he made the lay-up…I guess it counts.
C. Yes, my brother is sleek and beautiful, and I admire his skills and coordination, and yes, that was a truly fine lay-up, far, far better than my own. But it doesn’t count, because he didn’t do what I did, which was a simple lay-up. So: HO.
D. What a cockface. What I did was just fine, and it was exactly what I wanted to do, and it was
exactly what I wanted him to do, and he didn’t do it, so he’s wrong. If he was a translator he’d be fired! So there: HO-bag.
To clear up any confusion as to what the “correct” translation here actually is, let us consult some experts.
First up is Elizabeth Allen, Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. She says, via email, “I heard back from my expert. She quoted the Russian to me, and we concur that ‘delicious’ is not indicated in any way. The translations with ‘oh my God’ and ‘Lord have mercy’ are correct.”
The expert has consulted her expert and the experts have responded. The Lord(s) hath spoken.
“The phrase, ‘aх, боже мой,’ repeated three times in the story, is indeed rendered literally as, ‘Oh, my God!’” says Michael Katz, Professor Emeritus of Russian and Eastern European Studies at Middlebury College, who has translated “a dozen or so” Russian novels into English. “It’s an expression of physical pleasure,” he says, “and while ‘delicious’ conveys the sense, I think it’s also a bit too loaded with other connotations. Furthermore, the idea of ‘too delicious’ seems inaccurate. That’s just not what the character says.” That said, Katz admits, “Still, I can’t say what I would do without translating the whole piece, since context is so important. I’d have to get into the character’s skin to know what makes sense for him to say.”
Batting last, we have Dale E. Peterson, the Eliza J. Clark Folger Professor of English and Russian at Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts. He tells me, “…the text in the original Russian is ‘Ах, боже мой... - повторял он, наслаждаясь. - Ах, боже мой...’ which is
repeated several times. Literally translated it would simply be ‘Oh, my God…’ he repeated, enjoying. ‘Oh my god.’ Other possibilities might include, ‘Well, well, goodness gracious…’ or even ‘Wow! How great!’ etc.” Dale closes this correspondence with, “You see the quandary that translators deal with all the time…”
Edith Grossman really revved up my love life when I was young. She’s re-worked many a potent drama (Cervantes, Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mayra Montero, and so many others) into English. An old girlfriend’s Grossman-translated copy of Love in the Time of Cholera is still on my bookshelf, never returned, now at home between Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn and Colette’s Break of Day. Pre-official courtship, my now-wife and I exchanged a lovely, tattered copy of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, and while I can’t credit this erotomaniacal literature alone with getting us where we are today (at one point in the story a naked woman is covered in milk and licked clean by a bedload of frisky, hungry kittens), it was certainly one more lascivious spark to the tinder—made available in English by Grossman, the so-dubbed “Glenn Gould of translators.”
In her own book, Why Translation Matters, Grossman suggests that translation is an interpretative performance, “bearing the same relationship to the original text as the actor’s work does to the script, the performing musician’s to the composition.” She cites Walter Benjamin, from his essay “The Task of the Translator”: “No translation,” he says, “would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original… For just as the tenor and
significance of the great works of literature undergo a complete transformation over the centuries, the mother tongue of the translator is transformed as well.”
So an inspired translation, here, would merely be a jump-step in the evolution of the language we know and speak and read—a more fitting adaptation of the language to our times, e.g. the Alice Oswald-translated Iliad we read today is certainly not the Alexander Pope-translated Iliad from 300 years ago, which was not exactly the Iliad Homer ran around reciting to everyone back in the day—or at least the Iliad of today is not told in exactly the same way. And this is okay, necessary even. This is simply how culture (i.e. literature, language,
our cultural stories) evolve.
Maybe a translator must always, not merely adapt, but evolve a story’s language in order to keep it meaningful to readers of the translation. Maybe “Gooseberries” has simply evolved
from one translation to the next, each subsequent attempt meant to better speak to the culture at hand, to help this new round of readers really grok the meaning intrinsic to the story.
Question for the readership: How do you feel about the quandary that Dale from Amherst College posits translators deal with all the time? How do you feel about the idea that there is such a thing as a “correct” translation, here, or anywhere?
A: Yeah, it’s quandary all right. Must be tough having to look up all those words in the dictionary, and what if you come across a word like, shit, which means a couple of different things. I could never be a translator.
B: I say all translations are a sham! Every translation I’ve read seemed like it was written by an English-speaking writer, which leads me to believe that all translators really do is steal stories from vulnerable foreigners and pass them off as their own, except that they keep the foreigner’s name on the cover and title page because the foreigner is usually much more famous and this way they’ll sell more books. The only quandary here is the moral quandary of theft: I say, cut off their nubs!
C: Obviously 1+1=2, chat = cat, Shakuhachi = traditional Japanese wind flute, and Ах, боже мой = Oh, my God! So it’s simple: 2, cat, traditional Japanese wind flute, and Oh, my God!
are correct. There is no quandary!
D: A good translator translates the idea rather than simply replacing the foreign word with the
domestic. If a good translator, while translating the French pop-star Carla Bruni’s sugarplum lyrics, happens across Je veux te baiser, they might write, “I want to kiss you.” But if said translator is working on the French equivalent of, say, a Phillip Roth novel, then Je veux te baiser might be properly transmogrified into something more forward, like, “I want to fuck you, hard core.” A good translator understands the context of the work they’re translating—and the multiple entendres of a verb like baiser—and remains true to the inherent meaning, rather than
to the superficial definition of the words in question. Hence the very real quandary that translators face is one of balance, keeping the balance between maintaining the original shape and structure of the thing, while also transposing its actual, intrinsic meaning.
One last wedge of evidence I’d like you to weigh: In Chekhov’s story “Lady with a Lapdog” there is a somewhat famous and portentous inkstand observed upon a desk—an inkstand famous for its actually being something of an anti-portent. And yet, though it forecasts nothing, its presence accomplishes something. In the words of Nabokov: “The storyteller seems to keep going out of his way to allude to trifles, every one of which in another type of story would mean a signpost denoting a turn in the action…but just because these trifles are meaningless, they are all-important in giving the real atmosphere of this particular story,” an atmosphere that can only be described as “a profound-feeling gray light emanating from the story’s austere
interior”—so says author Richard Ford, also a Chekhov super-fan, apparently.
Chekhov, by incorporating such potentially prophetic details as the dusty inkstand featuring an oddly decollated horseman, draws our attention to what doesn’t happen, and if the dominoes line up (which Nabokov and Ford assure us they do) then our attention is redirected, with force, to what does happen, and there, “we reconsider moments of overlooked decisiveness and issue and possibly see mankind more clearly” (Ford again).
The point is: Chekhov was crafty. His stories display an intention that so many writers claim, but rarely live up to. And so—for the last time, I promise—let’s take a look at the amazing “Gooseberries.”
The plot, which oddly hasn’t come up until now, is simple: After the swimming, Ivan Ivanich tells the story of his miserly brother who toiled as a civil servant, who worked ceaselessly and mattress’d every ruble, and who even entered a loveless marriage with a rich old widow, all because he was obsessed with buying land and returning to the charming pastoral life that he remembered from his youth. And this dream centered itself on his wanting to grow his own gooseberries. As if happiness will come when your DIY gooseberries overflow your vintage
The story culminates in a flashback scene in which Ivan Ivanich visits his brother in his new house on his new land and they are eating from the first-ever batch of his brother’s own, homegrown gooseberries—and they’re terrible! They’re not even ripe, are in fact offensively “hard and sour,” but his brother is shoveling them down anyway, exclaiming, “‘How delicious! Ah, how delicious! Do you taste them!’” And of course Ivan Ivanich is disgusted, by the immature fruit, by his brother, by people like his brother in society who lust after a faux-ideal of
comfort and wealth and beauty, and who are contemptibly out of touch with real life and real people and real beauty; our man Ivanich slinks away from his brother’s insipidity as soon as possible the next morning.
And this is where Chekhov as a craft-genius comes out: those first few pages, which reveal Ivan Ivanich to us as a bonafied country-man having a swimmingly good time, are there to provide a marked contrast: the whole point of the bathing scene in the beginning is to
show us Ivan Ivanich enjoying nature, enjoying life, enjoying swimming, to show him in joy, juxtaposed to his brother, whose own relationship with the world is so anemic and twisted.
And this is where Koteliansky and Cannan as translator-geniuses really shine: employing the word delicious in that early scene of revelry 1) reflects the truth—swimming in the rain is
delicious, and 2) it sweetens that sweet bit of Chekhovian irony as we later witness Ivanich’s brother affecting praise for his homegrown, but no-good gooseberries: “How delicious!” he says. “Ah, how delicious!”—Thus Ivanich and his brother are better juxtaposed, the irony in “Gooseberries” better exposed.
Is there any other word, any other idiom, that would better express such unabashed joy entwined with such irony, in a scene such as this? Does the translation not beg its way towards delicious? Can we not forgive a bit of creative translational transmutation, just a
bit, done to strengthen the beating heart of the story? I think we can.
Of course, nothing can really be so simple. We’re still stuck in a real suck-your-feet-off quagmire here. You see: Yes, C&K do appear to have re-written that lovely swimming-in-the-rain scene—substituting “Delicious!” for “Oh, my god!”—and yet, when we arrive at the crux of
the story, that scene described above in which Ivan Ivanich’s hopeless brother makes an idol of those acerbic gooseberries, they don’t have his character actually use the word “Delicious”—despite Delicious!, here, being the obvious translation.
Even Fen and Wilks and Garnett and Hingley get this. Even Google Translate gets it. Feasting on those crappy gooseberries, Chekhov has the daft brother shout:
- Как вкусно!
И он с жадностью ел и все повторял:
- Ах, как вкусно! Ты попробуй!
And the translation, literally, is:
- How delicious!
And he eagerly ate and kept repeating:
- Oh, how delicious! Try some!
And yet, for some reason, somehow, C&K went with:
- How good they are!
He went on eating greedily, and saying all the while:
- How good they are! Do try one!
And so what the hell? Having already used delicious once, they opted for the thesaurus? But why? And does this mean my theory about their earlier switch of “Oh, My God!” to “Delicious!” to play up the irony in the story is destined for the crapper? Are we not rhyming sonnets anymore? Does 1/2 + 1/4 +1/8 + 1/16 + 1/32 + 1/64 + 1/20... no longer asymptotically approach 1? What’s happening? How could they do this to me?
I’ve been known to overthink things. Maybe I’ve attached more significance to these few words than those translators ever did. Maybe they really did just love swimming in the rain, as I do, as you may—and they threw that Delicous! in there with a wink and a chuckle and nary another thought, simply because swimming in the rain. Is. Delicious.
Or something like that.
Maybe there’s nothing more to it. Maybe human nature really is, at best, apathetic. Maybe the cold universe really is vast beyond understanding, and empty, and godless.
My wife and I just had a baby, born exactly—at this moment—6 days, 4 hours and 4 minutes ago. His name is Ari, and he’s in a little rocking-crib next to me and he just let loose a yawn as big as his fist, his fist which is about the size of a walnut, but still… And now I’ve yawned,
too. Research has shown that even reading the word YAWN will induce people to yawn. Yawns all around then, because yes, here we are—at the ultimate anti-climax. I too have forgotten why we care about any of this.
I am going to insert an ellipsis in a second, and just imagine this ellipsis standing for much time passing—weeks, months, a year or two—enough time, hopefully, for your essayist to think his way back into this mess...
Okay, I’m back, my hair slightly grayer now, and I think I’ve got it. This is simply the way of the essay, that it has taken us all of this to arrive only here: I realize now, this is why I care so much about this story, this translation business, what it all might mean, why I care enough to still be here, thinking on it, so long after everyone else has cleared the room: Because it’s a metaphor. Of course.
I didn’t know this until just now. I really was convinced we were actually thinking about Chekhov, and “Gooseberries,” and delicious, and we were, to a point, I guess—but we’ve also, in a sense, been thinking about writing, writing about the world, and how one’s experiences influence one’s writing. In a sense, we’ve really been hammering out how we feel about the idea of Truth v. truth, whether there is such a thing as unbiased storytelling, or unbiased reading, an unbiased translation, whether there ever even could be, or should be, and our responsibilities as writers in this genre to aim for some kind of verisimilitude as we translate experience into prose.
It’s all a rich, rich metaphor.
Do you see it?
From the gallery, again, Edith Grossman:
I believe that serious professional translators often in private, think of themselves—forgive me, I mean ourselves—as writers, no matter what else may cross our minds when we ponder the work we do, and I also believe we are correct to do so…for the most fundamental description of what translators do is that we write—or perhaps re-write—in language B a work of literature originally composed in language A, hoping that readers of the second language—I mean, of course, readers of the translation—will perceive the text, emotionally and artistically, in a manner that parallels and corresponds to the esthetic experience of its first readers. This is the translator’s grand ambition.
Thinking of translators as re-writers, as writers one step removed from the initial experience of the world, it seems to me Grossman just described the ambition (and plight) of so much literary nonfiction. We are all translators of experience, writers of experience, re-writers of experience, re-writing the world to better fit the narrative arc of whatever story we’re trying to tell. As writers, or re-writers, or translators, or whatever, we are all inherently one step removed as we transmute experiences into words—and we should remember that no translation exactly fits the mold of the original. No translation. In fact, attempting to match the original too exactly “would lead not to a translation but to a grotesque variation,” says Grossman. And so we inevitably adapt—interpreting, translating, transmuting—what’s there.
Some writers do this more overtly—blatantly conglomerating people, or compressing time, or even shaving off a square peg’s unwieldy angles until it neatly marries a round hole, i.e. fudging the facts of a situation for the sake of narrative, or lyricism, or whatever, and sometimes these writers are lambasted on Oprah, and sometimes they are lauded as “a crucial articulator of the possibilities of the essay,” and earn hefty salaries in academia, but in any case they merely represent one extreme of a vast spectrum to which all writers belong, some openly—some less obviously. But we all do it. This is simply the nature of the way we exist in the world.
With every pen-stroke—every electronic signal sent from keyboard to processor to screen—we remake the world in our own image, as we see it, as we know it. Writing, we make the world our own, if not actually making up facts and statistics, i.e. reality, then with our myriad interpretations of reality. And maybe the new question is, simply, where do we draw the line? What liberties can we, should we, do we take? And maybe the answer is entirely up to us as individuals, as writers, so long as our audience has an idea of what we’re up to—though ultimately this caveat strikes me as unnecessary. Surely we all recognize that no
writer, in fact no one, truly speaks for the masses, not really. I know the world through my senses, and make sense of it all through so many personal associations, as you do. I see the color blue; you see a slightly different shade of blue. I see doom in the death of the pine that used to stand in our front yard; you find hope in the sapling we planted to replace it. You battle ennui by watching baseball; I go to a Monday matinee. You run; I like to swim, in lakes, in the rain. And so on and on. Ultimately, for all our words—for all our attempts to capture the essence of the world in writing—we speak only for ourselves. It’s only our particular
understanding of the world that we can ever really offer, whether we’re writing, or translating—it’s all a unique-to-us transmutation of the original. We offer only our particular version of things. And any good reader should recognize this.
I have arrived, finally: The translation at hand is a fair one—Delicious!—but it should be noted then, too, that my favorite Chekhov story is “Gooseberries,” as translated by S.S. Koteliansky and Gilbert Cannan. It’s their version of the world—maybe, not Chekhov’s exactly—that I have fallen in love with. And that’s fine.
Such a long path to arrive at such a simple conclusion, but here we are. There you go. Let’s wrap this up.
A final Question: Which is the correct translation? Or if not correct exactly, which speaks to you, which better aligns with your reality, with the unique world only you live in? Trust your instincts. Go with your gut. Follow your heart. Choose your answer:
A: Delicious is better because I like it, because it resonates with me, because I feel I understand exactly what’s being said, and it makes me feel like Chekhov, or the translators, or whoever, wrote that word, in fact that whole scene, in fact that whole story just for me. I love it, and so it is right.
B: Whether Ivanich shouts out “Delicious!” or “My God!” or “Oh, Helen!” the overall meaning of the piece doesn’t change, so I don’t think it really matters, and I sincerely wonder how I managed to keep myself interested in this facile thumb-twiddling for so long. All of this talk has made me hungry—for an apple.
C: I don’t know. I sincerely don’t know. There is a quandary here, and I find myself wondering about all the translations I’ve ever read and loved, wondering if what I loved was real, or if the fact that there was an intermediary between me and the original text means there will always a blank space, a disconnect, a lack of authentic understanding of what the writer actually meant to convey, what they tried to say, what they were thinking. And thinking about this, how we fill that blank space—that space between ourselves and what we read (read: between ourselves and the world)—becomes a big question for me. And I feel, instinctually, that someone out
there knows the answer to all of these questions, the proprieties of translating, the proprieties of Truth-writing in its many shapes and forms, the key to communing truly tete-a-tete, vis-a-vis
with an other, and although I am not that person (sorry), and even though the amateur who composed this essay hasn’t given me anything concrete to stand on, I feel okay. I feel okay not knowing, not knowing if I’ll ever know. Who can know just what Chekhov really meant to say?
Maybe the second we put any thought or experience into language that thought or experience is corrupted, and its true intention—its real meaning to us—is lost. Maybe it doesn’t matter anyway. And I’ll just keep looking, and reading, and loving it all. After all, I loved Chekhov
before all of this came up, and whatever has just happened—even if we’ve never spoken, really, the same language at all, even if his blue was more akin to my gray—I’ll probably love him after. And at worst, maybe my favorite of Chekhov’s sentences is simply not by Chekhov at
all, and ultimately, so what? Does any of this really change anything? I love swimming in the rain. And I love that story. I really get it. I do. And I think that’s what matters. And the Earth—as far as I can tell—is still turning. Delicious.
D: “My God!” is obviously correct. Seriously, enough already. боже мой!
 Chekhov, Anton. “Gooseberries.” Five Great Short Stories. Trans. S.S. Koteliansky and Gilbert Cannan. New York: Dover Publications, 1990. Print.
 Chekhov, Anton. “Gooseberries.” The Russian Master and Other Stories. Trans. Robert Hingley. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 1999. Print.
 Chekhov, Anton. “Gooseberries.” The Kiss and Other Stories. Trans. Ronald Wilks. New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 1982. Print.
 Chekhov, Anton. “Gooseberries.” Short Stories. Trans. Elisaveta Fen. London: W&J Mackay Limited, Chatham, 1974. Print.
 Chekhov, Anton. “Gooseberries.” The Essential Tales of Chekhov. Ed. Richard Ford. Trans. Constance Garnett. New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1998. Print.
InterviewThe Mystery of Past Habitation: An Interview with Sheep Jones
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