Google Translate can only get you so far. Despite continual evolutions to computerised translation software, there are still some things that, as Jean Aitchison called them, an ‘articulate mammal’ (I think the normal term is ‘human’) can tell you. So with that in mind, I set off to the Sovremennik Theatre’s Russian-language performance of Three Sisters with my very own personal translator, also known as Anastasia. To my knowledge, Anastasia is not an invention of Silicon Valley – although I’ll be mighty impressed if it turns out one day that she actually is – but she does know a lot about Russia and the country’s language. This probably means her presence on Thursday night at the Piccadilly Theatre counts as one of the most effective uses of a Plus One ticket. Not least, because anything that sounds intelligent that follows this paragraph can be attributed solely to her.
Daria Ignatyeva’s surtitles can be read from no less than five illuminated boards approximately the same size as the ones on tube station platforms. Similarly, the text is set in rotation from the bottom to the top of the screen. Especially at first, reading this and also watching the performers on stage is difficult (partly because I get caught in a Goldilocks quagmire trying to decide which screen is just right to read from). However with a little practice it becomes relatively easy to register the rolling text with one eye whilst keeping the other on the performers. This is partly because the surtitles are fairly succinct. It’s useful to note that the Sovremennik’s performances in London appear to be aimed at a mainly Russian crowd – most of the audience on press night are speaking Russian and information on everything from distributed leaflets to the signage for ladies’ loo is in Cyrillic script. So the English surtitles are only there for the minority of those in the audience who when the subject of languages comes up, turn beetroot and mumble something about ‘a bit of French in school’ (read: yours truly).
The concision of the surtitles inevitably means that certain parts of the text are omitted. One of the choices made is to use the same names, usually a single word, for the characters. This means that variations in politeness and familiarity are lost from the English text. For example, the woman that Andrei (Ilya Lykov) marries is in the Russian referred to as Natalia Ivanova (Yelena Plaksina) at the beginning of the play, but is later called Natasha after she becomes a member of the household. In the English, she remains simply ‘Natalia’ throughout. Likewise, Natalia and Andrei’s child is always called ‘Bobik’ in the English translation. In the Russian, most of the characters call him Boris, and it is only his mother who insists on the ingratiating diminutive.
The effect of simplifying the names is relatively minimal – it wasn’t something I reflected on until it was pointed out. It does, however, serve as a neat reminder of what can be lost in translation. Names, as Bobik de Pfeffel Johnson would surely agree, are important. Intended rudeness or tenderness in using a familiar shortening is not conveyed when the same name is always used. Social hierarchies reflected in, for instance, the elderly nurse Anfisa being addressed informally are also streamlined.
It is easy, however, to travel the well-trod route of listing all the troubles with translation. It’s perhaps more interesting to consider what is gained when watching a work performed entirely in another language. My personal watching of Three Sisters could be separated into three parts. During the first trimester I spent 70% of the time reading and 30% watching the performers; in the second I got the hang of the multi-tasking and it balanced out at 50-50; and in the final third I threw caution to the wind and decided – especially since I’m familiar with Chekhov’s plot – to mainly watch the performers and glance at the surtitles infrequently.
It seems trite to point out how much is communicated on stage visually. Yet the design elements of a production are often relegated to second position behind a play’s narrative and a company’s performance. A production that is visually stunning but weaker on the plot points runs the risk of being dismissed as ‘style over substance’, an accusation that fails to recognise the astronomical amount of skill that goes into creating costume, set, sound and lighting. And that’s to say nothing of focusing on the specifics of directorial choice with regard to the positioning of characters on stage, and use of scenery and props. It really is a language in itself.
Making the decision to relax into watching Galina Volchek’s Three Sisters rather than worrying too much about reading is an easy one. In fact it is almost a shame that the illuminated boards are there as they interrupt the delicate gloomy hues of Damir Ismagilov’s lighting design. Even in the middle of the day during the celebration of Irina’s name day, we could be convinced the scene was set at twilight. Later, charcoal greys and faintly foreboding peach tones collapse into a final scene that is played out almost entirely in darkness.
The sisters are themselves wrapped in funereal tones. At the start of the play, the women are colour-coded – Olga (Olga Drozdova) in black, Masha (Alyona Babenko) in grey and Irina (Victoria Romanenko) in white. This is in contrast to the brash Natalia in frothy, fussy pink. As time wears on (and it is always the passage of time that is felt so heavily in this production) the positive and perky Irina becomes tarnished with notes of despondence. We end with three – not fifty – shades of grey as Irina receives the news of Tzuenbach’s death whilst wearing a suitably governess-style dress the colour of gathering clouds at dusk.
The feeling of approaching tragedy is, in fact, liberally spread throughout Volchek’s production. A wicked wind almost continually whistles and – thanks to a turntable stage – the domestic world of the sisters is quite literally spinning faster and faster out of control. Yet despite the sadness and the stagnation, there is also a slight note of hope in the grouping of the women. As they cluster together in various formations, the importance of their companionship to each other is detected. No matter the boredom, heartbreak and dissatisfaction, at least they are not completely alone in bearing it. Companionship is, after all, the most important thing. As Olivia Laing notes in The Lonely City, “language is communal”. Whichever one you speak, it’s best if you have someone to speak it to. Poor old Google Translate, however it improves, will never drink wine from paper cups in Soho Square with you. They can’t create an app for that.
For more information on the Sovremennik Theatre, click here.