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Jan/Feb 2005 Book Reviews

"About Love" and Other Stories: A new translation by Rosamund Bartlett
Anton Chekhov
Bartlett. Oxford World's Classics (2004) 211 pages

reviewed by Kevin McGowin


Rosamund Bartlett has done for seventeen of Chekhov's stories what Paul Schmidt did for his plays in the 1996 translation: brought them to life for a new generation of readers. While it is both misguided and unfair to dismiss a translation as poor simply because it's outdated in our own linguistic idiom (though some are poor), even Robert Payne's 1963 collection now seems stilted. Certainly the translations Constance Garnett put out in the England of the teens now sound melodramatic and ridiculous, like something Robert Louis Stevenson wrote while hitting the sauce (think of Olivier as Astrov in Uncle Vanya), and I know a professor who used that translation in a class, like a fool, thereby turning his poor students off to Chekhov for life.

There have been other recent translations, but I haven't read them. Yet in a period in which I'm seeing fewer and fewer books of merit—unless you like all that Dave Eggars/Rick Moody/David Sedaris self-indulgent mastabatory bullshit, or a bunch of loser playwrights writing monologues about their pussies, or various academes who have never really written a goddamn thing—the translation has gained a new and urgent importance. Yet though Raymond Carver wrote in 1992 that Chekhov was "the greatest short story writer who has ever lived," he didn't mean that Chekhov sounded like him. The last century ended wallowing in the wake of Carver, because of M.F.A. programs, and I like some of that stuff well enough, but it's just been brought home to me by Bartlett what Chekhov can really be.

In her very lucid and informative Introduction, which beats a cart-full of biographies and works of criticism, Bartlett points out that "Chekhov's language is direct and straightforward, and the temptation to 'poeticize' it has been resisted, out of a conviction that it is lyrical enough as it stands." Goddamn right, I'm screaming. She also stresses the importance for the translator of preserving the original cadences in the long/short sentence variation as well as Chekhov's often "idiosyncratic use of punctuation," which just approximates the way people actually talk! He's not Thomas Hardy. He's the first modern writer, and just like without The Seagull (a wonderfully-acted but shittily-directed production of which I recently saw) there would be no Tennessee Williams as we know him. Without Chekhov there would be nobody but people still jacking off to Hemingway.

And in the present translation, "The Lady with the Little Dog" finally made sense to me, and "The Bishop" finally affected me. "Fish Love" shows how just hilarious Chekhov really is, though, and "The Student" and any number of the other pieces show the obverse side of Chekhov's wonderful sense of the absurd. "The House with the Mezzanine" and "Rothschild's Violin" are entertaining reads pure and simple, "The Black Monk" is harrowing, "The Man in a Case" is perhaps my favorite—but this translation of "Gooseberries": I had chills again, and again, and again, and yet again. Pick up the volume, read that story, and it you don't "get it," go be a lawyer or something.

And the title piece... the Title Piece... ok, it must be here that I drop the Erudite Vulgarian tone. I'd never read "About Love" before, in anyone's translation, and I'm glad I hadn't—because it hit me, and in the heart, and I could feel it, in my heart, and I knew just how lonely I often really am. And I cried. For myself... and maybe also for you.

 

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