Translating the Subtext: Paul Schmidt’s 1997 Version of Chekhov’s The Seagull

Tatiana Alenkina, Columbia University

By the time Anton Chekhov wrote The Seagull he had already formed his innovative aesthetic principles. Those are: the acknowledgement of the necessity of the author’s “objectivity and freedom,” for the sake of which one should “avoid the personal element” and “rely on the reader assuming that all the missing elements he will add himself.” The reliance on the reader/spectator who must bring his own active perception to the work is one of the most innovative techniques in Chekhov’s dramatic art. The artistic embodiment of this dramatic principle can be defined in different ways: “the undercurrent,” “the second dialogue,” or the subtext.

By the term “subtext” we imply the widening of the semantic integrity with the help of the hidden, implicit sense of the utterance resulting from the balance of its verbal and non-verbal components with the speech act. The issue of keeping, and consequently, communicating the subtext while translating a literary piece of work, especially drama, has gained prominence in recent years. This paper examines the means that Paul Schmidt employed to convey Chekhov’s subtext in The Seagull.

Working on the translations of the twelve Chekhov plays, writer, actor, and Slavic scholar Paul Schmidt (1934-1999) could sense the subtle psychological nuances of Chekhov’s characters, the musicality of dialogues and their words’ covert meaning. In this paper I will define several groups of the systematically found elements of the “covert meaning” – the subtext – in the Chekhov’s The Seagull.

1. Playing with the order of dialogue and revealing in the dialogues “without mutual hearing” (M.Bakhtin) the inner sense, gives another interpretation of an event, mood, evaluation. Those are the verbal and vocal utterances of Doctor Dorn (some of them given in the Schmidt’s translation in French) which not only express confidence that Masha’s plans and Sorin’s dreams will fail to come true, but also expose the selfishness and cruelty of Arkadina towards her son and Trigorin.
2. A large number of intertextual borrowings which not only carry out a contact – dialogue with Chekhov’s cultural predecessors and contemporaries, but create emotional tension and stir premonitions of tragic plot turns. This is why Paul Schmidt expands Chekhov’s references to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and gives the original of Shakespeare’s text, without any cuts or changes.
3. Replay of the important emotive-aspect words in various contexts (“soul,”“subject for a short story”) and images (“seagull,” “lake”) which form the system of leitmotifs enlarged by the translator.
4. Widening of the meaning-making role of Chekhov’s pauses by employing a rhythm of beats, known in semantics as emotive rhythmo-intonational signs. According to the translator’s notion, the beats are meant to help the actors/audience feel out the subtext, to “grope for the false bottom” in Chekhov’s dialogue.

Works Cited.
1. Schmidt, P. “Translating Chekhov All Over Again.” Dramatists Guild Quarterly. (Winter 1997): 18-24.
2. “The Labyrinth of Words.” (Interview of T. Sellar.) Theater. Vol. 30, no.1: 93-101.
3. “Chekhoviana. Poliot ‘Chaiki’.” M.: “Nauka,” 2001.