Like A Windowpane: Paul Schmidt's Theatrical Translation

As an actor, librettist, poet, translator, professor, and Russian scholar, Paul Schmidt approached the translation of Anton Chekhov’s plays with a rare mix of academic precision and a highly honed skill set in the craft of theatre. In many ways his academic and artistic trajectory seems to have uniquely prepared him for his quietly revolutionary translations of Chekhov’s plays, the work that would be considered one of his crowning achievements.

Schmidt began his career as an academic; after two years of service in Army intelligence, he taught French and Slavic languages at the University of Texas in Austin. While pursuing his PhD in Slavic literature at Harvard, he produced summer seasons of plays at Radcliffe's Agassiz Theatre with a circle of friends that included actors Lindsay Crouse, Tommy Lee Jones, John Lithgow, Stockard Channing (to whom Schmidt was married for seven years), and writer-director Timothy Mayer. His doctoral dissertation was on Vlesovold Meyerhold, the highly influential Russian director who, contrary to Stanislavski’s psychological approach, valued “theatre as spectacle.” This interest in the performative aspect of foreign-language theatrical texts remained foundational to his theatre work, which often found him collaborating with major players in the American avant-garde.

Along with translations of the complete works of poets Arthur Rimbaud and Velemir Khlebnikov, a little-known Russian poet who died of malnutrition in 1922, Schmidt kept an active hand in the theatre, translating works by Gogol, Brecht, and Marivaux for production. His prior work as an actor and collaborator also informed his 1986 work with director Peter Sellars on the production of Khlebnikov’s play Zangezi in Los Angeles in 1986 and later at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And when JoAnne Akalaitis mounted Jean Genet's The Screens (a five-and-a-half-hour, 100-character play), at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis in 1989, Schmidt was the prime candidate to meld Genet’s three versions into a working American-language text. He also collaborated with Tom Waits and longtime friend and director Robert Wilson, writing the libretto for an opera adaptation of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass to great critical acclaim at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival in 1995.

His first work with Chekhov was for the Wooster Group's 1990 theater piece, Brace Up!, for which director Elizabeth LeCompte asked for a translation of Chekhov's Three Sisters that incorporated dance sequences and video; Schmidt not only supplied the translation, but acted the part of Chebutykin. Schmidt went on to translate all of Chekhov’s work for the theatre, published in 1999. His mission as a translator of Chekhov was crystal clear: “To write a play in English that will produce, when staged, an effect such as the original may be said to have had on a Russian audience.” The challenge was “to recreate in American English language [that is] as natural in the actor’s mouth as it is the audience’s ear.”

Previously, Chekhov’s plays had been translated by either Russian native speakers, Russian scholars, or playwrights without Russian language skills who brought their own voices to Chekhov’s text and characters. This made for an experience of Chekhov that was either stilted or unrepresentative of Chekhov’s aesthetic. All translation risks alienating its new audience from the original, but Chekhov’s plays present a particularly delicate case: his bold departures from the language and plot of the theatre of his day were plagued by overwrought, melodramatic productions in his own language during his own lifetime. Compounded with flawed translations, the innate humanity and humor of Chekhov’s work has been frequently inaccessible to English-speaking audiences.

Schmidt was also acutely aware of another barrier to Chekhov’s work in the US: the American perception of Chekhov’s characters as aristocratic and unrelatable. Prior to Schmidt’s translation, American theatres primarily performed British translations of Chekhov’s work, triggering the American tendency to equate British idiom with a patrician upper class. Chekhov wrote his characters to be relatable to his middle-class Russian audience, and this context was crucial to Schmidt’s translation: “Over and over, we see Chekhov reducing action and dialogue to their simplest terms, to ensure his audiences’ identification with their own lives,” Schmidt wrote. “He wanted the people onstage to be recognizably normal for the audience and to speak a language that the audience understood was theirs.” Schmidt was successful in his mission: his translation of Chekhov’s work is widely considered the premier American English translation, and has been praised by scholar Michael Holquist as “the gold standard in Russian-English translation.”

With careful attention to authorial intention in terms of character, language, cultural context, and relationship with audience, Schmidt’s translations of Chekhov evoke Maxim Gorky’s description of the playwright: “Beautifully simple himself, he loved everything simple, real, and sincere.”