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An Essay by Justin Alexander

Photo by Mark Vancleave

In Act I of Chekhov's The Seagull, Arkadina and her son Konstantin quote from Hamlet:

Аркадина (сыну). Мой милый сын, когда же начало?
Треплев. Через минуту. Прошу терпения.
Аркадина (читает из Гамлета), Мой сын! Ты очи обратил мне внутрь души, и я увидела ее в таких кровавых, в таких смертельных язвах нет спасенья!
Треплев (из Гамлета). И для чего ж ты поддалась пороку, любви искала в бездне преступленья?

Michael Leader gives a rough, literal translation of these lines as:

Arkadina (to her son). My dear son, when will it begin? [referring to Konstantin's play]
Konstantin. In a few minutes. I ask you to be patient.
Arkadina (reading from Hamlet). 'My son! You've turned my eyes into my soul and I have seen there such bloody and such deadly sores - there is no salvation!'
Konstantin (from Hamlet). 'And why did you give give yourself to vice, and seek love in the abyss of crime?'

These are not the actual lines from Shakespeare, which read:

Queen O Hamlet, speak no more!
Thou turn'st my eyes into my very soul;
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.

Hamlet Nay, but to live

In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty!

This is because Chekhov was pulling his quote from the Russian translation of Shakespeare by N.A. Polevoi.

This line creates some problems for English translators of The Seagull because Polevoi's translation of these lines is not as harsh as Shakespeare's original. Putting Shakespeare's original lines in Konstantin's mouth results in a much harsher portrayal of the relationship between Kostya and his mother than Chekhov probably intended.

More importantly, in my opinion, the original Russian can be taken as a sly reference back to Kostya's critique of his mother's "Theater" from earlier in the same scene -- the context from Hamlet quite clearly references her relationship with Trigorin, but the context of the upcoming play results in the line also alluding to the "vices" and "crimes" of her false theater. The original quotation from Shakespeare, however, results in a complete non sequitur (which also adds to the harshness of what Kostya is saying).



For me, there are several factors to take into consideration when attempting to provide a proper translation of these lines:

(1) The literary reference is part of a larger tapestry of literary references woven throughout the entire structure of the play. In an English translation, I think, this particular reference is even more important because it is one of the few references which will be directly recognizable as a quotation to modern audiences and, thus, capture some of what the original flavor of the references throughout the play would have been for Russian audiences.

(2) Arkadina quotes from Hamlet because it provides her with an opportunity to over-react (in a particularly and literally dramatic way) to her son's light chastisement. Therefore, I think the line she chooses can be directly translated.

(3) By matching her quote-for-quote, Konstantin is also showing that he can play her game. Given Konstantin's earlier comments about feeling humiliated in her social circles, this is imporant.

(4) But Konstantin is also using the line to call attention to the context of Hamlet -- and thus make a sly dig at her relationship with Trigorin.

(5) And, as noted above, Konstantin is also using the line to comment on the "sins" of her "Theater".

(6) The narrative relationship between the Kostya-Arkadina and Hamlet-Gertrude relationships is also heavily emphasized by many commentators, so it's possible that Chekhov is using these quotations to set up a larger theme of the play as a whole. But since most commentators who attempt to highlight this narrative relationhip do so by using the Oedipal Complex interpretation of Hamlet -- an interpretation which post-dates Chekhov's life -- it is doubtful to my mind that it is as strong as many commentators would suppose.


In approaching these lines, I first considered several different approaches that have been attempted by other translators. These include:

(1) Laying all other considerations aside and using the original Shakespearean lines. (This was unsatisfactory to me for the reasons described above.)

(2) Re-translating the passage from the Russian back into English, producing a result more-or-less similar to Michael Leader's effort quoted above. (This approach is problematic because they are no longer recognizably quoting from the play. Some translators have attempted to address this issue by removing the name of "Hamlet" -- but at that point any remnant of reference to the original play is completely lost and the entire nature of the scene is fundamentally altered.)

(3) Using Gertrude's line as it appears in Shakespeare, but then re-translating Kostya's quote from the Russian back into English. (This allows the translator to blunt the harshness and non sequitur of Kostya's response. The problem is that Kostya now looks like an idiot. Instead of playing his mother's intellectual game of quotations and matching her blow-for-blow, Kostya instead appears to misquote the play. Instead of showing him as clever, this approach turns him into an unmitigated and out-classed bumpkin.)

None of these proved satisfactory to me and so I started experimenting with other approaches.

The first thing I played around with was the idea of selectively editing Kostya's quote. For example, I tried dropping the very end of Hamlet's line ("... over the nasty sty!"). This made the line slightly less vicious, but it ultimately failed to truly alleviate the problem and still came up short in capturing most of the dynamics in the original Russian.

Eventually I decided to go trolling through the entire scene from Hamlet to find a literal quotation that would work. I have subsequently found a few other translators who have done the same, but -- as far as I know -- none have chosen the same line:

Mother, for love of grace,
Lay not that flattering unction to your soul,
That not your trespass, but my madness speaks.

This satisfies the literary necessity for an accurate quotation (without which Konstantin's tit-for-tat is thwarted since he's failing to accurately quote the play); calls attention to the relationship with Trigorin; and can also be taken as a sly dig at her theatrical shortcomings.

It's not a perfect solution. (I doubt a perfect solution exists.) But it seems to work well. (For me, anyway.)