The Festival is presenting a World Premiere translation of Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country by the foremost translators of Russian literature, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment), along with playwright Richard Nelson (Sweet and Sad, James Joyce’s The Dead). WTF Artistic Director Jenny Gersten interviewed Richard Pevear about the genesis of the piece, how translating plays is different from prose, and what comes next.
Jenny Gersten: You are both well renowned for your extraordinary translations of Russian literature. Did you ever think about making a foray into dramatic literature before Richard Nelson approached you?
Richard Pevear: Our collaboration with Richard Nelson came about in a rather striking way. We often thought of translating plays, but many years ago I read an interview with the French translator André Markowicz, whotalked about translating Gogol's Inspector General. The translation was commissioned by Antoine Vitez, an actor-director who was then the head of the Comédie Française. Markowicz produced a version and brought it to Vitez, who praised it and then kindly made all sorts of suggestions from a director's point of view. Markowicz… learned that the theater makes very different demands from narrative prose, and he was humbled and deeply grateful for the lesson. . What he said made so much sense to me that I swore I would only translate plays if I could work with a theater person. But we didn't know any theater people. Then, towards the end of August 2010, I received an email out of the blue from Richard Nelson, suggesting that we collaborate on new versions of Russian plays. His appearance was so providential that we agreed at once.
Larissa remembers it as even more dramatic than that. "The thing is that I kept insisting we should translate some Russian plays, because I like translating dialogue. And Richard kept objecting. I almost gave up on ever doing it. Then, that summer of 2010, I just decided to pester Richard one more time. As usual, he said no. Two days later he emerged from his study and said, 'Come and see the letter I just got!' It was Richard Nelson's email!"
JG: Can you describe your process working together?
RP: We decided to begin with Turgenev's A Month in the Country, and Larissa and I got to work on a first draft in France, which we sent to Richard in upstate New York towards the end of 2010. Richard then went over it, sent us suggestions and queries, and we revised. Richard went over that at home and then came to France, bringing his copy with all sorts of notes, diagrams, and revisions scribbled on it. We spent some two weeks talking it all over, acting it out, making new changes, and arrived at a "final" version. This was the first time we had added a third person to our collaboration, but it was an indispensable addition.
JG: Has working on a dramatic text changed the way you approach prose?
RP: I'm not aware that working on a dramatic text has changed the way I approach prose. But there may well have been some influence, since the whole process is an inscrutable one. We're now translating Dostoevsky's Notes from a Dead House, based on his years of imprisonment in Omsk. It's full of remarkable characters, meaning remarkable dialogue, and it may well be that our work with Richard has influenced the way we render it. Larissa thinks it has. Right now, as it happens, I'm working on the chapter describing the theater that the prisoners set up for themselves during Christmas. It feels quite familiar – more so than it would have two years ago.
JG: What's next for you? Will you endeavor another play?
RP: Our collaboration with Richard Nelson is just beginning. The plan is to do a whole series of Russian plays, some well known in the West, some less known or even unknown. We've already finished a version of Mikhail Bulgakov's last play, an adaptation of Don Quixote. And we have several ideas for what will come next. Our aim in all this is to produce works for the stage, not just for reading.
A Month in the Country runs from August 1-19. Click here to learn more and purchase tickets.