Monday, August 29, 2011

Alexander Pushkin, Little Tragedies. A new translation by Alan Shaw.

Alan Shaw, an American translator and publisher of the linguistic blog, is about to publish a new translation of Alexander Pushkin's mini-plays collectively known as Little Tragedies.

The book includes all four dramatic works of the Little Tragedies canon which are The Miserly Knight, Mozart and Salieri, The Stone Guest (Don Juan) and Feast in the Time of Plague (Feast During the Plague).

I read an advance copy of the book and I must say I was impressed with the quality of both, the poetry and the translation. It is not a rendition of the original work, but an accurate translation. A poetic translation that is as close to the music and rhythm of the great original as seems to be possible. A remarkable work.

In Russia and Russian-speaking countries Little Tragedies have long been regarded as a classic and remain popular. Though less known in the West than Pushkin's other poetic works, including his full scale historical drama Boris Godunov, and his novellas. Many lines from the plays have entered the language as proverbs and idioms. For example, 'proved harmony with algebra' from Salieri's monologue quoted below is used to describe a cold, calculating approach to somoething that needs passion and emotion. The plays have had numerous stage and screen versions, as well as operatic interpretations by the likes of Rimsky-Korsakov (Mozart and Salieri) and Rachmaninov (The Miserly Knight).

Here is what Alan Shaw writes about Little Tragedies:
In the autumn of 1830, with his impending wedding to Natalya Goncharova in Moscow postponed due to the death of his uncle, Alexander Pushkin set out for his remote family estate in Boldino, intending to use the delay to get some writing done. When he got there, travel restrictions were put into effect due to a cholera epidemic in the region, and it was three months before he was able to return to the capital. These months were the most poetically fruitful in his short life, and probably in all of Russian literature. A "Boldino autumn," in Russian literary parlance, has subsequently come to mean any extraordinary burst of creative accomplishment.
Among the flood of masterpieces that emerged from this brief period were the four playlets in verse known as the Little Tragedies. (Pushkin never used this title, though it is derived from references he made to them in letters). The genre of short plays or "dramatic scenes" in verse had a brief vogue in the early 19th century, notably in England, and Pushkin represented two of his own plays as adaptations from English originals. But in his hands they were something entirely new, highly concentrated studies of human obsession, tragedies of psychological epiphany more than of action. As poetry, their reputation has long been high. As drama, or more precisely as works for the stage, they have only gradually begun to come into their own.
There have been previous translations of Little Tragedies, notably by Nabokov. What makes Alan Shaw's translation stand out is that he did it with a view of actually performing them on stage. Mozart and Salieri, which he translated first nearly thirty yeas ago, in 1983, has since been performed in several countries and was used for subtitles for Rimsky-Korsakov's opera. In 1984 Shaw directed a stage reading of the mini-play at Ann Arbor.

Here is Salieri, Mozart's contemporary and himself a good composer, getting desperately envious at Mozart's light genius:
                        ...A pedestal 
To art I made out of facility, 
And facile I became: my fingers gained 
A dry obedient dexterity, 
My ear reliability. I deadened 
The sounds, dissected music like a corpse, 
Proved harmony by algebra. And then, 
Then only did I dare, with all my lore, 
Yield to the bliss of my creative fancy. 
One of the most difficult parts in the mini-plays is Mary's Song in the Feast During the Plague. Here are two opening quatrains of the song:
Time was, in our flourishing, 
When peace and plenty were abroad, 
Sunday would be sure to bring 
A full crowd to the house of God. 
Schoolyards echoed with the clash 
The voices of our children made, 
And the bright field saw the flash 
Of sickle and the scythe's quick blade.

Little Tragedies are published as an e-book, not a print edition. For details see Alan Shaw's web-site

Update: the e-book is now available for purchase from Alan Shaw's site.

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