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Interview with A Month in The Country Translator John Christopher Jones
Scott Ebersold: How did you shift from being an actor to being a translator?
John Christopher Jones: My first translating job was the result of an acting job. It was 1992; the McCarter Theatre was putting on a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters with an all-star cast, Fran McDormand, Linda Hunt, Mary Stuart Masterson. I played Kulygin and it was the Lanford Wilson translation. I noticed I had questions, and I marked in my script, on how to get from sentence A to sentence B. There were five spots and I marked them, then I looked them up in the Russian – I had taken Russian in college as my language requirement. I noticed that in each of the places where I had trouble getting from one line to the next, Lanford had either omitted or sometimes added a line. I decided I would translate my whole part of Kulygin to see if I would learn anything about it. I spoke Lanford’s text in the production, but I used it as a tool to see if I could unearth some secrets. I’ll give you an example of one thing that I learned: in the fire scene, he’s asleep and Masha comes into the room; he wakes up, he says in Russian, “Mila moya Masha dorogaya moya Masha. Mila moya Masha dorogaya moya Masha,” which roughly translated means, “My good Masha, my dear Masha, my kind Masha,” something along those lines. Notice the repetition of the “m” sounds, “Mila moya Masha dorogaya moya Masha”. So, when I played him, I repeated a mumbling “mmm” sound before his line. It’s baby talk; it’s his endearment. It’s in his mouth, his lips. I think when I translated the part myself, I did, “Mmmm…my Masha…precious…Masha,” something like that. When the production was over, I decided I’d translate the whole play. I used a dictionary and worked off the original Russian text word-by-word, line-by-line. It was fascinating work because every sentence has at least ten different roads you could go down; there’s a fork in the road, you can decide upon this word or that word.
Scott: Can you give us some examples those difficult decisisons?
John: You might want to say, “It’s so upsetting,” or you might want to say, “It’s so annoying”. They’re different, annoying, being annoyed and being upset are different verbs. One of the hardest things to translate are jokes, poems, and sayings, like when we did The Cherry Orchard here and one of the characters says, “You look beautiful. You look more than beautiful, in those Paris fashions. I’ve lost my cart and all four wheels”. It means, “I’m stunned, I can’t go anywhere, I’m so stunned by how good you look”. In Three Sisters, Solyony has a line, “If man philosophizes, we call it philosophy, if a woman does, pull my finger”. How do you translate that? I was doing a play in Boston, at the Huntington Theatre on the main stage. Two flights up in a studio space, a Russian theatre troupe from St. Petersburg was performing Three Sisters. They’d been working on the play for three years, it was their language; I figured if anybody would know what this “Pull my finger” was, they would. I went up there and I said, “What’s pull my finger?” and an actor said, “It’s a Russian folk belief that if you want to know what someone’s dreaming, you pull their finger”. Another actor said, “No, no. That’s not what it means. He’s being rude; pull my finger is sexual, he’s just trying to be shocking”. “No, no. That’s not what it is,” said a third actor. “What’s the next line in the play? It’s Masha’s, ‘What are you talking about, you dreadful man?’ They don’t know what he’s talking about”. So it’s their language, their history, their culture, and they had three different ideas of what it was, so I kept it “pull my finger”.
Scott: What drew you to translating Chekhov? You’ve done Three Sisters, The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard…
John: And [Uncle] Vanya and Platonov. The four major plays.
Scott: Have you learned anything different from acting in them versus translating them?
John: As an actor, I pride myself on being a text man. I get solidly behind the text and think of the text as a horse I’m riding, sit astride and balance. The words themselves can carry me through my performance. With Chekhov, it turns out the words…the text…is not what’s going on. It’s subterfuge, camouflage; the tip of the iceberg is exposed, but nine tenths of it is something completely different, so that’s one different thing from acting.
Scott: When you’re acting in it, you’re speaking the language, but when you’re translating it you’re seeing all the different possibilities for that language?
John: When I translate it, I try to make it fun to say as an actor. I don’t let a line go by unless I feel like I would like to say that onstage.
Scott: How do you decide which way to go with a translation, which word to choose?
John: I go with my instinct.
Scott: Did you find any overlaps between Turgenev and Chekhov?
John: There are certain overlaps. Some of the themes are similar; they deal with similar topics. A Month in the Country, there’s a character Rakitin who stands in for Turgenev in much the same way that a character like Trigorin could stand in for Chekhov in The Seagull, them both being writers and both loving to fish. One of the things that is true about Chekhov’s comedies is that they’re filled with characters who love people who cannot or will not love them back. In The Seagull for instance, Medvedenko loves Masha, but she loves Konstantin, and he loves Nina, who loves Trigorin, who is also loved by Arkadina, but he likes to fish more than either of them. Paulina loves Dorn and he loves almost all women. Unrequited love is seen as amusing. Rakitin in A Month in the Country is madly in love with Natalya Petrovna, but they don’t consummate it. He seems to be almost content just to be around her, to be near her. It’s interesting, in The Seagull, Trigorin goes to Arkadina and says, “Be a pal, let me have this fling with this young girl, be generous”. She says, “How could you talk to me like that? That’s cruel!” Natalya Petrovna says to Rakitin, “Help me here. What am I going to do?” He says, “You want me to help you? With someone else?” So that’s one of the similarities. I think another similarity is that not much happens in both the plays.
Scott: Chekhov called The Seagull a comedy, but would you say that Turgenev is more comedic?
John: I would say it’s more comedic, but it has what our director Erica Schmidt calls “slow burn romance”. She was very helpful in coming up with the translation and her taste definitely shaped what I did with it.
Scott: You’re known for being very collaborative with your translations, working with directors and actors, and that’s not always the case. You go into the room and listen to people. Why do you choose to work this way?
John: Self-preservation. I’ve only done two productions now, both for Classic Stage, The Cherry Orchard, which was a huge success, and A Month in the Country. With Cherry Orchard, I had to collaborate because I had stars and a director who had to be satisfied. . As an actor, I do plays in translation all the time and it’s very important for me that it sit comfortably in my mouth, so I’m all for trying to accommodate the actors in rehearsal to make it feel natural. It’s the way people talk. I want to get it right for them because I realize that it’s different for every actor, so there’s no absolute right way. I feel it’s important to have the actors feel that they’re connected to what they’re saying.
Scott: How did you come to translating A Month in the Country?
John: It’s interesting…when Brian suggeseted me to Erica as a possible translator for A Month in the Country she took a look at my Cherry Orchard script and liked it. She had about seven other scripts she was looking at and none was right. One would have the comedy right, but not the romance; another would have good talk, but not the comedy. She called me and we talked and went with me.This is a very modern translation and I had to do it very fast. I usually take four months to do translations and I had about a month and a half. She had a lot of input. I turned the first draft in and it was very short. I joked with her, I said, “We could call this A Weekend in the Country”. There was a lot that she wanted put back in that I had left out. When I was writing; I didn’t have time to rewrite the first draft. I would write something and think, “Is that the best I can do? I don’t think so, but I can’t do any better right now. Let’s just get this.” In almost all the cases where I had hesitations, Erica brought it up, so we had similar sensibilities. Every time she brought up something that I had brought up myself, it was confirmation that this was someone I should trust in terms of collaborating with. This was someone whose judgment warrants trust.
Scott: What’s the next piece you’d like to translate?
John: I’ve translated Woyzeck and A Month in the Country as my last two, and I have version of Shaw’s last novel, he wrote five novels before he was a playwright, called An Unsocial Socialist. What I’d really like to do is not do any more translations; I’d like to have productions of plays that I’ve translated. Dramatists Play Service is going to publish my Platonov and I’m grateful for that. The problem with Chekhov publication is that there’s a glove in the market, there’s so many writers who have published versions
Scott: Which of your translations have had full productions?
John: Cherry Orchard is the only one…Platonov is a very interesting piece. It’s Chekhov’s first play, it was written when he was in medical school, when he was very young. It’s sort of unproducable; it’s five hours long and twenty characters. My version comes in at under two hours. When we did a reading here at CSC, I asked forgiveness from the six characters I cut from the script, I murdered, “Please forgive me for killing you off and bless this our reading”.
Scott: What do you think is next for you?
John: I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s thirteen years ago and I’ve been working as an actor steadily through that time, I would love to be able to continue to perform. I love the camaraderie, the backstage life. I love to audition. One of the things I said when we did an interview for Cherry Orchard was that one of the great things about translating is that as my acting career is riding into the sunset I can, in a sense, still play all the parts. And that’s pretty satisfying!