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An Essay by Justin Alexander

Photo by Mark Vancleave

In Act I of the The Seagull, Arkadina has become upset with her son Kostya. This prompts Dorn, a family friend, to respond in this exchange:

Дорн. Юпитер, ты сердишься...
Аркадина. Я не Юпитер, а женщина.

Which can be literally translated:

Dorn: Jupiter, you're angry...
Arkadina: I'm not Jupiter, I'm a woman.

Wait... what?

Translation isn't an easy gig sometimes, and it's perhaps unsurprising to find translators struggling with this line. However, I was somewhat surprised to discover how many of them -- at the end of the day -- get it wrong.

Let me spoil the ending here by explaining what this line is actually all about. Its source is a Latin proverb: Iuppiter iratus ergo nefas. Literally, "Jupiter is angry, therefore [he is] wrong." Although less known in English, this old saying was apparently quite popular in Russia (appearing, for example, in the works of both Dostoyevsky and Lenin, among others). Here Chekhov is assuming that the audience will be familiar enough with the saying that they will know what Dorn is saying even though Arkadina cuts him off.

In the end, I translated this line as:

Dorn: Jupiter is angry, therefore--
Arkadina: I'm not Jupiter, I'm a woman.

This is basically a literal translation. The significant difference is adding the word "therefore" (which I hope is enough of a clue for modern audiences to realize that Dorn is offering up a maxim) and changing the ellipsis at the end of his line to a dash (Chekhov uses ellipsis to indicate both characters trailing off and characters being interrupted; in modern usage the dash is a clearer indication that Dorn is being cut off by Arkadina).

Now, translation is more of an art than a science. There are certainly other ways a translator could try to tackle this line. But the essential elements here are (a) Dorn starts to quote a maxim and (b) Arkadina cuts him off.

Elisaveta Fen, on the other hand, translates this exchange as:

Dorn: Jupiter! You are angry, therefore...
Arkadina: I'm not Jupiter, I'm a woman.

By sticking that exclamation point after "Jupiter!", Fen turns it into an odd ephitet quite separate from the maxim that follows.

The Marian Fell translation (which is reproduced by Project Gutenberg without proper credit) has:

Dorn: Thou art angry, O Jove!
Arkadina: I am a woman, not Jove.

This, honestly, doesn't even make sense. Dorn referring to Arakdina as "Jove" looks like a complete non sequitur.

George Calderon, one of the earliest translators of the play, gives us:

Dorn: (singing) "Great Jove, art angry yet"...
Arkadina: I'm not Jove, I'm a woman.

Having Dorn break out into song is not as much of a non sequitur as you might think if you're not familiar with the play: Dorn frequently interjects snippets of song into conversation.

My point with all this is not to talk about how clever I am. (Well, not primarily anyway. I have an over-abundance of ego.) But I think it's a notable example of the ways in which translation can (and do) go astray. I've met lots of people who have written off Chekhov or Tolstoy or Hugo or Dumas on the basis of bad translations, bad productions, or bad adaptations.

Of course, not everyone is going to like Chekhov, Tolstoy, Hugo, or Dumas (or the thousands of other foreign authors like them). But I think it's worthwhile to remember that not all translation are created equal. If it turns out that you don't like the works of a foreign author, it might be worth your while to give them a second chance in a different translation. And this is a maxim that extends beyond the classical.