Book Review: “Woe from Wit” — A Great Russian Drama, Newly Translated
By Laurence Senelick
One of the masterpieces of Russian drama is done justice in an English version that successfully captures much of the wit and fluency of the original.
Woe from Wit: A Verse Comedy in Four Acts by Alexander Griboedov. Translated from the Russian by Betsy Hulick. Columbia University Press, 200 pages.
“This work is untranslatable” is a statement that rarely holds water. Even Finnegans Wake has been translated (into French, Spanish, Polish, Russian, and Chinese, among others). The question is, which qualities of the original have been preserved or lost, emphasized or downplayed, substituted or multiplied. Another element is introduced when the translated work is a stage play. In addition to a modicum of lexical fidelity, the effect on the performers and the audience has to be calculated. Dialogue has to be delivered and received in the moment, so a translation made exclusively for reading will miss out on much of the potency of the original. And when the play is in verse, the translator’s burden is increased immeasurably.
This may explain why one of the masterpieces of Russian drama, Gore ot uma by Aleksandr Griboedov (pronounced Gri-boy-EH-doff), is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world. The title alone presents a problem: literally, it means Grief as a Result of Intelligence, but um can also be rendered as “mind,” “wit,” “cleverness.” How is one to pack these compact three words into a catchy English title? The 10 translations I’m aware of cannot agree: their choices range from Woe from Wit and Wit Works Woe to The Trouble with Reason and Intelligence Comes to Grief, not to mention such echoes of Oscar Wilde as The Misfortune(s) of Being Clever and The Importance of Being Stupid. One of the most misleading choices is to call it Chatsky, after its hero, for reasons I’ll explain later.
Griboedov (1795-1829) was a Russian career diplomat in the post-Napoleonic era who dabbled in playwriting. A duel caused the Foreign Office to send him to Teheran, where he married a Georgian girl and was later torn to pieces by a fanatic mob storming the embassy. Such an exotic background finds no reflection, however, in what is one of the most stageworthy social satires ever written.
Ranked by the poet Aleksandr Blok “the greatest work in Russian literature,” the play features a young gentleman, Chatsky, who returns to Moscow from travel abroad. Affected by liberal ideas, he finds his sweetheart Sofia cool and evasive; her father, the pompous official Famusov, dismissive; and society as a whole superficial and vacuous. At a ball at Famusov’s, Chatsky’s caustic attitude leads to the rumor that he is mad, and he finally flees the city. (It’s worth noting how many heroes of Russian fiction of this period — Pushkin’s Onegin, Gogol’s Khlestakov and Chichikov — end by driving away in haste.) The five-act play is neoclassical in form, the action occurring within a single day, and, to worsen the translator’s migraine, is written in free iambics in rhymed lines of from one to 13 syllables, over half of which are regular alexandrines. Only some of the anglophone translators attempt to reproduce the verse.
Part of Griboedov’s brilliance is to use this constricting metrical structure to shape dialogue that scintillates and coruscates; although it reads easily, fluently, and colloquially (albeit in an idiom that can sound antiquated), it can attain the sharpness of aphorism and the poignancy of deep emotion. Griboedov shifts readily from one linguistic level to another, from an elevated Russian infused with Slavonic elements to Frenchified society chatter to the backstairs lingo of the servants. Think of Byron’s Don Juan as a (nondramatic) equivalent. Despite its universal qualities, the play is riddled with as many topical allusions as a Restoration comedy, for it is grounded in a specific time and place – the upper echelons of Moscow society in the wake of the Napoleonic invasion.
Composed between 1819 and 1824, publication of Gore ot Uma was prevented by state censorship until 1833 and then only with substantial cuts. Yet even as the manuscript was being passed from hand to hand – a typical Russian transmission of proscribed writing — its lines were becoming proverbial. After reading it this way in 1825, Pushkin wrote to a friend that half the lines were bound to become proverbs, and by May, according to another writer, almost all the lines had done so – even though the play would not be printed for another eight years. By 1900, 60 of them were included in a Russian dictionary of familiar quotations. Many are used as catchphrases by those who have never heard of the play. So the translator is further tasked with coming up with memorable and pithy equivalents.
Critics like to compare Gore ot uma with Molière’s The Misanthrope, and there are definite similarities. Both Alceste and Chatsky scorn the hypocrisies and corruption of the aristocratic society in which they move, but are hopelessly in love with a flirt who shines in just such a society. This contradiction is the source of much of the comedy (early editions of Molière’s play bore the subtitle L’atrabilaire amoureux, The Grouch in Love). Both protagonists fail to effect any reform or win the lady, and so abandon the scene. Since Russia lacks a viable tradition of classical tragedy, actors tried to turn Chatsky into a kind of modern-dress Hamlet; the director Meyerhold interpreted him as a romantic rebel foreshadowing revolution. Chatsky is, however, part of the society he rails at, a figure of fun precisely because he wastes breath complaining of abuses to the very people who embody them. That’s why renaming the play Chatsky upsets Griboedov’s comic balance.
All this throat-clearing is to introduce a new translation – Woe from Wit – by Betsy Hulick. Hulick is not an academic, but has an impressive list of published or produced translations from the Russian to her name. Her renderings show her to have great proficiency, literacy, and a keen sense of humor. Her vocabulary is extensive, and her sense of verbal effectiveness strong.
Hulick set herself a set of tough tasks: to replicate the verse form, including the rhymes, to stay faithful to the original in meaning if not in the literal phrasing, to provide a text that reads smoothly for a contemporary American, and to offer actors a workable script. She has succeeded admirably at many of these. Her dialogue trips along fleetly, there is a good sense of dramatic movement in the soliloquies and monologues, and she can move deftly between the demotic and the high-flown, as Griboedov does. Her version successfully captures much of the wit and fluency of the original.
Ms Hulick has to vie with two previous contenders: Sir Bernard Pares and the novelist Anthony Burgess. Pares, like Griboedov, began as a diplomat who served in the Petrograd British embassy during World War I, and later became a professor of Russian history and a booster of Stalin. His translation first appeared in 1925, and, in many respects, remains the gold standard in this field. Burgess learned Russian in midlife to create the Nadsat lingo in A Clockwork Orange. His translation was performed at the Almeida Theatre in London in 1993 with Colin Firth as a Byronic Chatsky.
The mention of Firth, an epochal Mr. Darcy, recalls that Gore ot uma is only somewhat later than the novels of Jane Austen and that its language may sound quaint to the modern ear. Pares captured that Regency tone admirably; his translation has echoes of Thackeray’s satires. Burgess relied on his linguistic ingenuity, laid on lots of sexual innuendo, updated the political references, and cut ruthlessly. Hulick makes no attempt at period parlance, but offers crisp, eminently playable locutions.
Perhaps the best way to show this is by example. As the play begins, it’s early morning and the lady’s maid Liza had been up all night outside the door of her mistress Sofia, who has been having a tryst with her father’s social-climbing secretary. The father comes by and chats up the maid. When he departs, she says (rough literal translation) “Ah! from masters keep away./Every hour brings you troubles with them;/Preserve us from the worst of all tribulations/Both lordly anger, and lordly love!”
Pares: Oh, save us from our masters!
With them you’re on the watch with every step you move.
God help you! Worse than all disasters
Your master’s anger or your master’s love.
Burgess:Well, so much for the master.
His brain is going and the rest is gone.
The gentry carry on and carry on.
The first carry on’s with threat and tongue and teeth,
The second’s with what he carries underneath.
Hulick:He’s gone and none too soon. Best beware.
The gentry are a tricky lot.
I don’t know which is more a pain to bear:
The master blowing cold or blowing hot.
Pares is the most literal and the most concise, with the master/servant relationship put front and center. Burgess is verbose, thick with plays on words, added asides, and innuendo; his audience has to listen hard to catch the jokes. He often uses a single word to sum up a speech. Hulick sticks to the quatrain, and ends with a neat one-liner.
When Chatsky arrives, he greets Sofia with “Daylight already, already on your feet, and I am at your feet.”
Pares:So early – yet afoot, and I am at your feet.
Burgess:The sun’s up, but your radiance casts a fireier glow
On this your servant, kneeling at your feet –
Hulick:It’s daybreak, and you’re up! I’m at your feet.
Pares preserves the play on “feet.” Burgess replaces it with a very discursive greeting (try to say “fierier.”) He makes Chatsky’s relationship to Sofia ironic from the start, which weakens the dramatic arc of the comedy. Hulick ignores the pun, offering a flat statement implying it.
In Act 2, the fatuous army officer Skalozub remarks of Napoleon’s burning down Moscow, “The fire was conducive to a good deal of its beautification.”
Pares:The fire contributed to Moscow’s beautifying.
Burgess:The fire we had improved the place a bit.
Hulick:We owe the fire, in my view,
A city greatly beautified.
None of the translators is spot on with their rendering of one of the most famous lines in Russian literature. None finds an equivalent for the pretentious “conduced to” (sposobstvoval) which adds to Skalozub’s obtuseness. Hulick needs two lines to Griboedov’s one, to accommodate her rhymes, adding an unnecessary clause and losing the snappy adage quality.
In Act 3, Chatsky twits Sofia about a possible engagement to Skalozub: “The face and voice of a hero…” Sofia: “Not in my roman” [both novel and romance].
So stout and firm of stance,
In face and voice the hero quite –
But not of my romance.
His soldierly achievements add to zero,
But, since he says so, has to be a hero?
Not a hero in my book.
Upright, solid, with the voice and look
Of a hero in the making.
Not in my book.
Pares has to pad a bit. Burgess fiddles for the sake a rhyme. Hulick bears away the palm this time, for the way in which Sofiya’s riposte snaps shut.
Still, it may be unfair to parse individual lines and speeches so closely, since these translations are made for the reader and the listener unfamiliar with the original. It is the overall effect that matters most and Hulick is at her best over the long haul. So here is one of Chatsky’s monologues in the three versions, without a preliminary trot, to let the reader unfamiliar with the original choose the one that most appeals.
As the ball comes to an end, Chatsky indulges in a patriotic outburst, condemning Francophilia and praising Russian tradition; its sentiments are not alien to Russian claims of exceptionalism these days. In most editions it runs to two and a half pages. This is a small portion of it.
Pares: [We have exchanged]Our manners and our tongue and all we once revered,
Our gracious flowing robes for something new and weird –
A veritable clown’s costume,
A monkey’s tail behind, a swelling bulge in front,
Against all common sense, to nature an affront,
The movements all constrained, the face without its bloom,
The chin absurd, clean-shaved, with bristles here and there,
Short coats, short locks, and wits still shorter than the hair;
Though born with the idea that every country’s finer,
A little we might take from our good friends in China,
Of their most wise contempt for ways that aren’t their own.
When shall the foreigner have ceased his endless sermons,
That even if by our speech alone,
Our good, our clever folk may tell us from the Germans?
The European style! What is there sounds so well?
Burgess:We drop our customs, ancient holiness,
Our noble language and our northern dress,
Scraping our chins, powdered like babies’ bums.
Aping each little crowing cock who comes
Hulick:We dress in monkey-suits, tails behind,
in front, a widely gaping breech,
instead of stately garments of the kind
we used to wear, which suit the elements,
a need for comfort, and our common sense.
Our graybeards’ chins are pale and bare,
We’re short of wits no less than hair.
If imitate we must, then why not imitate
the sensible Chinese, who stand alone,
and recognize no culture but their own.
When will we wake up? Repudiate
The rule of fashion, break its heavy yoke?
We might be Germans, so dissimilar we are
To our own people. “Is there a parallel
Between the European and our native folk?”
With Hulick’s eminently stageworthy translation available, could one hope that a regional repertory or university theater might venture on a production? Such a hope may run aground on three prominent rocks. First, although there are only six main characters, Acts 3 and 4, the ball and its aftermath, are peopled with a whole beau monde, from aristocratic grannies to social parasites. (Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre insisted that every super, whether they had lines or not, come up with a complete biography for their character.) No doubling is possible, and in this case puppets would be an awkward solution.
Next: many years ago, at a translation conference in Amherst, Richard Wilbur read from a verse rendering of Racine’s Andromache he was working on, a herald’s speech. It was a valiant attempt to reproduce the speech’s rhetorical line in alexandrine couplets. In the Q & A that followed, I asked where one could find the American actor capable of delivering effectively a page-long tirade in rhyme. As recent productions of Shakespeare have shown, standard training provides neither the breath control nor the phrasing, let alone the diction, to handle plays reliant on poetic dialogue. Woe from Wit needs polished and virtuosic execution from its players.
Finally: a friend of mine recently combed through the listings of the magazine American Theatre and found that, with the exception of Shakespeare, only four pre-20th-century plays were regularly produced by regional theaters: Tartuffe, A Doll’s House, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Arms and the Man. No Greek or Jacobean tragedy or comedy, no commedia or ballad opera, no Victorian farce or melodrama, no symbolism, expressionism or futurism, no Asian or African play: in short, most of the drama of the past lies neglected by the professional American stage. Whether the reasons are artistic or economic, this suggests that it may be a while before the Hulick translation of Woe from Wit finds the theatre audience it deserves. In the meantime, it makes for a very enjoyable read.
Laurence Senelick is Fletcher Professor Emeritus of Drama and Oratory at Tufts University; the translator of The Complete Plays of Chekhov (W. W. Norton); and the author of A Historical Dictionary of Russian Theatre.