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“A Glimpse of ‘Another Russia’”: Elisaveta Fen's Chekhov Translations

  • Claire Warden

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Since the first British production of Anton Chekhov's play The Seagull in 1909, audiences have found the Russian's plays both beguiling and frustrating in seemingly equal measure. After living in Britain some years, Russian translator Elisaveta Fen began to recognize the problem:

These plays are tragi-comedies: they are the stuff life is made of. They do not fit into any conventional category. Awkwardly presented, they can disappoint, baffle, irritate, or they can cast their spell over the spectator and make him feel he is watching real people, living real lives—on the stage.

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Thanks to Mum, who found Fen's Remember Russia in my grandparents’ book collection after their death. In many ways this article represents a loving continuation of my grandparents’ love of education and travel.

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1. “Chekhov the Man” (talk, n.d.), in Elisaveta Fen papers, Leeds Russian Archive (LRA), Brotherton Library, Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, UK, MS 1394 [hereinafter EFP], 208–9, at 209, 1. (All citations of “Chekhov the Man” are from 209.) Details of the EFP's contents are online at https://explore.library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections-explore/20003/fen_elisaveta_jackson_lydia_ne_zhiburtovich; regarding the LRA, at https://library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections/collection/728; both accessed 26 April 2019.

2. Friedman, Susan Stanford, “Cultural Parataxis and Transnational Landscapes of Reading: Toward a Locational Modernist Studies,” Modernism, 2 vols., ed. Eysteinsson, Ástráður and Liska, Vivian (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2007), 1: 3552, at 36.

3. Fen's background remains a little shadowy, even in her many autobiographical works. Byelorussia is mentioned frequently (e.g., Fen, Elizaveta, Remember Russia [London: Hamish Hamilton, 1973], 16, 207), but she never makes her place of birth entirely clear. Ekaterina Neugodova, in her unpublished master's dissertation, does an admirable job of piecing together the evidence, although Fen's exact birthplace remains veiled; “Remembering Russia in Life and Work of Elisaveta Fen: A Biography” (M.Phil. diss., University of Vienna, 2012), EFP, 12048, 7. Perhaps this was due to fears about repercussions for her family who remained in the Soviet Union.

4. Fen, Remember Russia, 4.

5. Fen, Elisaveta, A Russian's England: Reminiscences of Years 1926–1940 (Warwick: Paul Gordon, 1976), 467.

6. As Mary Luckhurst, for example, rightly suggests, “Too many retrospectives of twentieth-century British and Irish drama have paid shockingly tokenistic attention to plays by female authors”; Luckhurst, Mary, “Introduction,” in A Companion to Modern British and Irish Drama: 1880–2005, ed. Luckhurst, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 13, at 2.

7. Lefevere, André, Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame (London: Routledge, 1992), 1.

8. Pavis, Patrice, Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture, trans. Kruger, Loren (London: Routledge, 1992), 156.

9. As Neugodova asks, “Can one talk about Fen as a Russian émigré? She sometimes calls herself that, but there is little evidence she took any part in the Russian colony's life in England” (4).

10. This scholarship includes Russia in Britain, 1880–1940: From Melodrama to Modernism, ed. Beasley, Rebecca and Bullock, Philip Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); A People Passing Rude: British Responses to Russian Culture, ed. Cross, Anthony (Cambridge: OpenBook, 2012); and Maclean, Caroline, The Vogue for Russia: Modernism and the Unseen in Britain, 1900–1930 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015). Theatre as well as theatrical interpretation and translation are part of these narratives, but the connection has been clarified further by Russians in Britain: British Theatre and the Russian Tradition of Actor Training, ed. Jonathan Pitches (London: Routledge, 2012) and my own book, Warden, Claire, Migrating Modernist Performance: British Theatrical Travels through Russia (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

11. Pitches, “Conclusion: A Common Theatre History? The Russian Tradition in Britain Today: Katie Mitchell, Declan Donnellan and Michael Boyd,” in Russians in Britain, 192–210, at 195.

12. Berman, Jessica, Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 10. To describe Fen as a “modernist” may appear problematic, given her lack of real aesthetic experimentalism and the fact that her translations did not appear until the 1950s. In using this broader version of “modernist” I am following the lead of New Modernist Studies scholars who have sought an expansion of the term to create new interweaving networks of creative making. In this sense Fen could be described in transnational modernist terms if, like Andrzej Gąsiorek, we conclude “modernism's boundaries are permeable and … it is not the job of the critic to police them”; Gąsiorek, Andrzej, A History of Modernist Literature (Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), 3.

13. Beasley, Rebecca, “Modernism's Translations,” in The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, ed. Wollaeger, Mark with Eatough, Matt (Oxford University Press, 2012), 551–70, at 558–9.

14. Fen, Russian's England, 24. Frances Fineman (Gunther)’s archive is housed at Harvard University; https://hollisarchives.lib.harvard.edu/repositories/8/resources/7193 accessed 23 May 2019.

15. See A. P. Chekhov, Eight Plays (1976), Plays (1959–1980) [The Seagull and Other Plays (1954)], [Short Stories (1974)], [Three Plays (1951)], EFP, 328–96. This is the most comprehensive collection of Fen's translations.

16. Western Evening Herald, 1 October 1951, EFP, 347.

17. Warden, 110–12.

18. Magarshack, David, The Real Chekhov: An Introduction to Chekhov's Last Plays (London: Allen & Unwin, 1972), 13.

19. Beasley, 560.

20. Chekhov on the British Stage, ed. Miles, Patrick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 2.

21. Ibid., 1.

22. Steiner, George, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), 29.

23. Dan Rebellato, “Chekhov's Genius Will Always Allude Us,” The Guardian, 3 November 2010; www.theguardian.com/culture/theatreblog/2010/nov/03/theatre-anton-chekhov-modern accessed 27 April 2019.

24. Young, Stuart, “Making the ‘Unstageable’ Stageable: English Rewritings of Chekhov,” Modern Drama 52.3 (2009), 325–50, at 327.

25. Nagy, Andras, “A Samovar Is a Samovar Is a Samovar: Hopes and Failures of the Author as the Object and Subject of Translation,” in Moving Target: Theatre Translation and Cultural Relocation, ed. Upton, Carole-Anne (Manchester: St. Jerome, 2000), 151–8, at 156.

26. Steiner, 28.

27. Elizaveta Fen, “A Glimpse of ‘Another Russia’” (n.d.), EFP, 299–300, 1. All quotations from 299. This document, though undated, gives the sense that Fen has experienced these places recently. She traveled back to Russia in 1929 and 1932, so perhaps it was written after these trips. Neugodova suggests that she wrote articles for The Lady magazine (62), so this may well be one of these.

28. Fen, “Glimpse,” 299, 3.

29. Fen, Remember Russia, 3.

30. She ironically refers to the Bolshevik regime this way in Russian's England, 9.

31. Elizaveta Fen, “Russia—My Country” (1939?), EFP, 253–5, 9. There are three versions in the LRA. I cite from the version numbered 253, as it seems the most complete.

32. Fen, Elisaveta, “Translator's Introductory Essay,” in Chekhov, Anton, Plays, trans. Fen (Ware: Wordsworth, 2007) [hereafter Fen, Plays/Wordsworth], xvii–xlii, at xli.

33. Letter from Fen to Dr. Ware, 21 January 1960, “Chekhov the Physician” (1960), EFP, 216. The article was indeed published as “Chehov the Physician,” British Medical Journal 1.5167 (1960): 192–3; www.bmj.com/content/1/5167/192, accessed 27 April 2019.

34. Program from Three Sisters, The Old Vic, Sunday, 19 May 1963; Patrick Miles Chekhov Collection, 1880–1998, CHEK/TP/1/6/13, Manuscripts and Special Collections, University of Nottingham, Kings Meadow Campus, Lenton Lane, Nottingham, UK.

35. Möser, Cornelia, “Gender Travelling across France, Germany and the US: The Feminist Gender Debates as Cultural Translations,” in Feminist Translation Studies: Local and Transnational Perspectives, ed. Castro, Olga and Ergun, Emek (London: Routledge, 2017), 8092, at 80.

36. Fen, “Chekhov in His Plays” (talk, 1959/60), EFP, 207, 1.

37. Fen, “Chekhov the Physician” (1960), EFP, 210, 2. Undoubtedly, this is true. Think of Dorn in The Seagull, Chebutykin in Three Sisters, and Astrov in Uncle Vanya. For more information about his short stories in this regard, see Coulehan, Jack, Chekhov's Doctors: A Collection of Chekhov's Medical Tales (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2003).

38. Fen, “Chekhov in His Plays,” 21.

39. Fen, “Chekhov the Man,” 1.

40. Elisaveta Fen, “Introduction,” in Anton Chekhov, Plays, trans. Fen (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin, 1959) [hereafter Fen, Plays/Penguin], 7–34, at 17. By way of example, see Gleb Struve's comprehensive critique of Soviet versions of Chekhov's plays and letters, which identifies particular censoring by Soviet authorities in order to infuse them with a greater sense of Soviet ideology. Notably, Struve says, British biographers David Magarshack and Ronald Hingley both welcomed the new Soviet imprints and neglected to note the inconsistencies or inaccuracies. This provides some context for Fen's intention to counter such publications. Struve, Gleb, “Chekhov in Communist Censorship,” Slavonic and East European Review 33.81 (1955): 327–41.

41. Fen, “Chekhov the Man,” 1.

42. Fen, Russian's England, 125.

43. Fen, Plays/Penguin, 11.

44. Elizaveta Fen, A Tourist in Russia (1932?), EFP, 311, 5.

45. Fen, Plays/Penguin, 398.

46. George Calderon, Two Plays by Tchekof, 2d ed. (London: Grant Richards, 1912) [hereafter Calderon], 158.

47. Chekhov, Anton, The Cherry Orchard, trans. Frayn, Michael (London: Eyre Methuen, 1978) [hereafter Frayn, TCO], 67.

48. Tchehov, Anton, The Cherry Orchard and Other Plays, trans. Garnett, Constance ([1923]; London: Chatto & Windus, 1965) [hereafter Garnett], 78.

49. Tchekhov, Anton, Plays and Stories, trans Koteliansky, S. S. ([1937]; London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1950) [hereafter Koteliansky], 52.

50. Ibid., 9.

51. Fen, Plays/Penguin, 341.

52. Frayn, TCO, 9; Koteliansky, 9.

53. Fen, Plays/Penguin, 350.

54. Garnett, 25; Calderon, 107; Anton Chekhov, Plays by Chekhov, Second Series, trans. Julius West (1916); http://www.gutenberg.org/files/7986/7986.txt, accessed 27 April 2019 (n.p.) [hereafter West]; Koteliansky, 17.

55. Fen, Plays/Penguin, 350.

56. Ibid., 375.

57. Koteliansky, 35; Calderon, 131; Garnett, 52; West (n.p.); Frayn, TCO, 43.

58. Fen, Plays/Penguin, 375.

59. Ibid., 334.

60. Magarshack, 16.

61. See Fen, Plays/Penguin, 316, 330.

62. West (n.p.). The only other place I can find a similar rendering of the song is in Noel Coward's Bitter Sweet (1929), where he includes the line, “Tarara boom-de-ay / It's mental washing day”; Noel Coward, The Lyrics of Noel Coward ([1965]; London: Bloomsbury Methuen, 2002), 81. West's translation was written some thirteen years previously, so this must have been a regular music-hall version before Coward incorporated it into Bitter Sweet.

63. Chekhov, Anton, Three Sisters, trans. Frayn, Michael (London: Methuen, 1983), 89, 90, xix.

64. Rayfield, Donald, “Chekhov's Stories and the Plays,” The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov, ed. Gottlieb, Vera and Allain, Paul (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 203–15, at 210.

65. A. D. P. Briggs, “Introduction,” in Fen, Plays/Wordsworth, vii–xvi, at xi.

66. The Weekly Telegraph (no city given), (n.d.) September 1951, EFP, 342.

67. Gielgud, John, “Introduction,” Chekhov, Anton, Two Plays of Anton Chekhov: The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, trans. Garnett, Constance (New York: Limited Editions Club, 1966), xxv, at xiii. Under the directorship of Theodore Komisarjevsky, Gielgud performed as Baron Tuzenbach in Three Sisters (1926) and as Boris Trigorin in The Seagull (1936).

68. Manchester Guardian, 30 October 1951, EFP, 346–7.

69. Neugodova, 83.

70. Three Sisters, BBC Home Service Basic, 24 May 1965; http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/8648d0fc28eb4cbb88b01d1a04368567, accessed 28 April 2019.

71. BBC Play of the Month: Three Sisters, dir. Cedric Messina, 18 January 1970; online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGPTcIOsqO4, accessed 28 April 2019.

72. BBC Play of the Month: Uncle Vanya, dir. Christopher Morahan, 8 November 1970 http://bufvc.ac.uk/screenplays/index.php/prog/1808, accessed 28 April 2019.

73. BBC Play of the Month: The Cherry Orchard, dir. Cedric Messina, 19 December 1971 http://bufvc.ac.uk/screenplays/index.php/prog/1085, accessed 28 April 2019.

74. The Seagull, Galleon Theatre at the Greenwich Playhouse (August 2005) www.galleontheatre.co.uk/theseagull.htm, accessed 28 April 2019.

75. The Cherry Orchard, Galleon Theatre at the Greenwich Playhouse (March–April 2010) www.galleontheatre.co.uk/the_cherry_orchard.shtml, accessed 28 April 2019. Landlords closed the Greenwich in 2012 to convert it to accommodations for the London Olympics; www.galleontheatre.co.uk/greenwich_playhouse.shtml, accessed 28 April 2019.

76. Cherry Orchard, Galleon Theatre.

77. Allen, David, Performing Chekhov (London: Routledge, 2000), 187.

78. Bassett, Kate, In Two Minds: A Biography of Jonathan Miller (London: Oberon, 2012), 209.

79. Romain, Michael, A Profile of Jonathan Miller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 128.

80. Janet Watt, “Diagnosing the Doctor,” The Guardian, 9 July 1976, 8.

81. Fen, “Chekhov the Physician,” 2.

82. Romain, 160.

83. Irving Wardle, “The Uniqueness of Chekhov,” The Times (London), 30 November 1968, 21.

84. Michael Billington, “Doctor's Dilemma,” The Guardian, 17 April 1974, 12.

85. Fen, “Glimpse,” 299, 1.

86. Fen, Plays/Penguin, 249.

87. Bassett, 183.

88. Miller, Jonathan, Subsequent Performances (London: Faber & Faber, 1986), 167.

89. Bassett, 183.

90. “Tania Alexander,” obituary, The Guardian, 14 December 2004; www.theguardian.com/news/2004/dec/14/guardianobituaries.artsobituaries, accessed 28 April 2019.

91. Program from Three Sisters, Cambridge Theatre, London, 23 June 1976; Patrick Miles Chekhov Collection, CHEK/TP/1/6/24, University of Nottingham.

92. Alexander, Tania, An Estonian Childhood: A Memoir ([1987]; London: Faber Finds, 2010), 143. The book was also published in 1987 under the title A Little of All These.

93. Ibid., xv.

94. Ibid., 86.

95. Ibid., 135.

96. Ibid., 90. All of this, of course, leads us to wondering whether Fen and Alexander ever met. There are multiple moments when the biographies of these two Russian émigrés might have collided. However, the only circumstantial evidence comes in the form of a highly speculative connection through the editor of the British Medical Journal, Hugh Clegg. He was married to Alexander's cousin Kira, to whom she was very close (ibid., 135). Clegg was editor in 1960 when Fen's article was published. There is no concrete evidence here, but perhaps Clegg's own Russian connections do provide a reason why the BMJ was interested in Fen's Chekhov article in the first place.

97. Fen, “Chekhov the Man,” 1.

98. Pavis, Patrice, The Routledge Dictionary of Performance and Contemporary Theatre (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 19.

99. Miller, 164.

100. Romain, 167.

101. Miller, 167–8.

102. Allen, Performing Chekhov, 174.

103. Quoted in Allen, David, “Jonathan Miller Directs Chekhov,” New Theatre Quarterly 5.17 (1989): 5266, at 58 (emphasis in original).

104. Ibid.

105. Rodney Ackland, “From Komisarjevsky to Jonathan Miller,” The Spectator, 18 September 1976, 34.

106. Quoted in Allen, “Jonathan Miller Directs Chekhov,” 52.

107. British Book News, December 1951, EFP, 346.

108. Three Sisters by RashDash, after Chekhov, coproduced with Royal Exchange at The Yard Theatre, London, 22 May–9 June 2018, www.rashdash.co.uk/three-sisters/, accessed 28 April 2019. Lyn Gardner, “Three Sisters Review—RashDash's Gloriously Playful Take on Chekhov,” The Guardian, 11 May 2018, www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/may/11/three-sisters-review-rashdash-royal-exchange-manchester, accessed 23 May 2019. The production also had a US run in February 2019 (closed 2 March) at Curio Theatre Company in Philadelphia.

109. Charlotte Higgins, “The Cherry Orchard Review—Michael Boyd's Exquisite Chekhov Debut,” The Guardian, 12 March 2018, www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/mar/12/the-cherry-orchard-review-michael-boyd-bristol-old-vic, accessed 28 April 2019.

110. Anton Chekhov Foundation, “Anton Chekhov's Garden,” http://antonchekhovfoundation.org/garden.html, accessed 28 April 2019.

111. Benedict Nightingale, “Theatre: The Cherry Orchard,The Times, 21 March 2007, 17.

112. Fen, “Chekhov the Man,” 3.

113. Program from Three Sisters, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, Surrey, 20 April–8 May 1976; Patrick Miles Chekhov Collection, CHEK/TP/1/6/23, University of Nottingham.

Thanks to Mum, who found Fen's Remember Russia in my grandparents’ book collection after their death. In many ways this article represents a loving continuation of my grandparents’ love of education and travel.

“A Glimpse of ‘Another Russia’”: Elisaveta Fen's Chekhov Translations

  • Claire Warden

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