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More on Shaw’s translation of The Little Tragedies

August 14, 2012

A week ago I had a few days away from the internet and both finished The Eltyshevs and read all of Alan Shaw’s translations of Pushkin’s Little Tragedies. My previous post was reacting just to what was quoted on Alexander Anichkin’s blog, and I thought I’d add a few words now that I’m better informed.

Shaw has made me like Pushkin’s short plays even more than I did before. My favorites were and remain his narrative poems, some of his lyrics, and The Tales of Belkin. A few things, like “The Queen of Spades,” I could never understand what the fuss was about. The Little Tragedies were in between; as I read them they seemed impossible to improve, but I didn’t feel an urge to reread them and always suspected I’d missed the point, especially of “The Miserly Knight” (as Shaw renders Скупой рыцарь; sometimes it’s “The Covetous Knight”) and “The Stone Guest.”

It was the short bits of dialogue between the famous speeches that came alive for me in Shaw’s English. This probably has to do with the nature of well-executed translations and the limits of my Russian, but scenes like the one in “The Stone Guest” where the statue nods to a frightened Leporello and Don Juan had more impact on me in translation. The banter between Albert and his servant Ivan at the beginning of “The Miserly Knight” was livelier than I remembered. (Shaw’s treatment of the monologues is also excellent, capturing the emotion as well as the elegance, but these I felt better able to appreciate in the original.)

Here’s an example of dialogue working well in “The Miserly Knight”:

DUKE
It’s long, Baron, since we were last together.
Do you remember me?
BARON
Remember you, sire?
As if it were today I see you. Oh,
You were a frisky child. The late duke used
To say to me: Philip (he always called me Philip),
Tell me if I’m not right: in twenty years
The two of us, both you and I, will look
Like ignoramuses next to these young ones…

Even in a passage I quoted because I think it’s excellent, I can’t resist my inborn compulsion to nitpick and note that I want the last line to end in “this young one,” as I think the pronoun in the original is formal singular (cf. “Мы будем глупы перед этим малым…/ Пред вами, то есть…”; full Russian text here). But the main thing isn’t whether the baron and the late duke were talking about the young duke or his whole generation – it’s that Shaw manages so well to stay in the right register and in blank verse through brilliant choices like “will look like ignoramuses” for “мы будем глупы.”

I also liked Shaw’s afterword, which is full of the kind of things that sound obvious after you’ve heard them but clearly come from someone who knows the plays inside and out. Here’s part of what he has to say about Don Juan and “The Stone Guest”:

The play itself, the longest of the four, is very different from the first two, and its effect, apart from sheer entertainment, is harder to pin down. The main character has no long, self-revealing monologues. Except for when Don Carlos speaks to Juan’s alter ego Laura, conjuring for her a picture of her fleeting youth, not knowing he is to die within minutes himself, and her answer that evokes the intense here-and-now of the lemon-scented Madrid night, there are no poetic set pieces, and yet the whole thing exudes color and lyricism. What are we to make of this Don Juan? Does he really begin to believe, the more he embellishes and the more he raises the stakes, his own tale of love for Doña Ana? Or is he really, as he claims, in love with her from the start? That there is no agreement on such a basic point says it all.

My thanks and congratulations to Shaw for his translations, which are for sale in pdf or Kindle format.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 14, 2012 10:10 am

    Many thanks for reading all the plays and for your generous remarks. Please don’t worry about nitpicking – I only wish I could get more of it. Though I could defend using a plural here on the grounds that it sounds more natural and colloquial in English, I think it’s rather likely that I simply mistook the singular here for a plural. It’s certainly the sort of mistake I’m still capable of making – similar ones have been caught by readers in the past and, thankfully, corrected before publication.

    Anyway, I really appreciate the notice and am glad you got something out of reading my English version.

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