Translations: The Seagull

By: Emily Field-Olson


Whenever you read something that has been adapted from its original language, you must, of course, proceed with some caution. I have said to myself more than once during this dramaturgical process that I believe I will only truly understand Anton Chekhov and his play The Seagull once I have learned Russian.  (Yet this is not something I plan to do, so I suppose I must let go of the idea of ever achieving full understanding.) As Laurence Senelick, a professor at Tufts University who has done work translating Chekhov’s work, has expressed “Chekhov had his doubts about the efficacy of translation, and after reading some Russian prose translated into French, concluded that transmission of Russian literature into another language was pointless. Later, when his own plays began to be translated, he lamented that purely Russian phenomena would have no meaning for foreign audiences” (Senelick 45). For our sake, we must hope that Chekhov was at least a little mistaken when he made this bold statement. As English speakers, or in any case non-Russian speakers, we must rely on the translator to attempt to deliver us the subtleties of Chekhov’s work. The most we can do is be aware that there are some discrepancies between the original Russian and our translated English version, and to research the work of the translator.

Senelick, in his essay on translation (an introductory feature to The Seagull as published by W. W. Norton & Company), express the difficult of capturing the harmony and rhythm that Chekhov uses so liberally in his stage plays. With the way that Chekhov writes, a word-by-word translation of the text would completely ruin the effect of the play and carry almost no meaning at all. Careful consideration must be done to the work as a whole, if the effect is to be translated along with the words. Exchanges of phrases and repetition of specific words must be kept in consideration. For example, as Senelick describes:

“In The Seagull, Chekhov employed three separate words for why: otchego, zachem, and pochemu. I have been very careful to observe those choices, translating them as “how come,” “what for” and “why”, respectively. Hence, in this translation the famous opening line is not “Why do you always wear black?” but “How come you always wear black?” which distinguishes Medvedenko’s way of asking a question from that of others.” (Senelick 49).

After finding several different copies of the script, I came up with these variations in translation with the first line of the play:

“Why always in black?”

“Why do you always wear black?”

“Why do you wear black all the time?”

“How come you always wear black?”

“Why do you always wear mourning?”

At first glance, these may not seem like major differences at all. However, when you consider the tone and structure of Chekhov’s play, it becomes obvious that the way that characters phrase their lines is one of the most important, if not the most important element of the show.  In a psychological drama such as The Seagull, the subtleties in dialogue are vastly important in revealing the characters. Chekhov was known for saying that everything there was to know about the characters was written in the dialogue. Thus, the importance of translation cannot be ignored.

The same problem can be found at the end of the play, as there is difficultly in translating from passive and imperfect action in Russian. This would be the difference between Konstantin shooting himself and shooting himself for good or shooting himself dead (Senelick 49).

Certain stylistic elements can also be lost in translation. For example, in Act One, during the performance of Treplev’s plays one of the lines that Nina recites, in Russian, goes as follows “Kholodno, kholodno, kholodno. Pusto, pusto, pusto Uzhasno, uzhasno, uzhanso.” In many translated editions, as a substitute, we see the English words “Cold, cold, cold. Empty, empty, empty. Horrible, Horrible, Horrible.” However, be translating in this way, we are denied the effect of repetition of o-sound. Senelick says that he makes up for this discrepancy by making the choice to translate the words into “Chilly, chilly, chilly. Empty, Empty, Empty. Ghastly, ghastly, ghastly.” Although not a literal translation, in this way, a ritual repetition is kept up (Senelick 50).

If you doubt that this effect makes any difference in the performance of the play, I urge you to watch a performance of the play in Russian. (There is a link to such a play in our production history section.) Verbal and stylistic choices with the dialogue are vastly important in a Chekhov play.

Of course, often jokes, colloquial expressions and figures of speech are often translated awkwardly as well. Senelick gives the example of Trigorin’s remark when he smells the heliotrope. The Russian expression “skoree motayu na us,” literally translates into “quickly I wrap it around my moustache.” This is a Russian figure of speech that does not translate well into English. Any translator of Chekhov must decide how to approach such as subject. Senelick does so with the follow phrase: “I instantly reel it in on my moustache” (Senelick 50). This may still seem awkward to an English speaker, but makes more sense than the alternative.

Often times, units of measurement, currency, beverages, and many other things are changed into a more western equivalent in order to make the text more accessible to English speakers. If you have read more than one edition of the script, you will surely have noticed that even the names are often westernized or changed. Things such as these are left up to the discretion of the translator. Senelick expresses distaste to changes such as these, lamenting “IF one is to turn Pytor into Peter and Masha into Mary, then one must go the whole hog and refer to Connie instead of Kostya and, to be consistent, Uncle Vanya as Uncle Jack” (Senelick 52).

Regardless of the degree to which the name have been altered, an English speaker approaching The  Seagull for the first time will most likely have trouble with pronunciation. I will include here the pronunciation guide as defined by Senelick, which can be found on pages 53 and 54 of W.W. Norton and Company edition of the script.




 Irina Nikolaevna Arkadina:  ee-REE-nah nee-kah-LYE-eff-nah ahr-KAH-dee-nah

Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplyov:  kahn-stahn-TEEN gahv-REEL-ah-veech Trip-LYAWF

Kostya – KAWST-yah

Pytor Nikolaevich Sorin:  PYAW-tr nee-kah-LYE-yeh-veech SAW-reen

Nina Mikhailovna Zarechnaya:  NEE-nah mee-‘HEIL-yeh-veech shahm-RY-eff

Ilya Afanasevich Shamraev: eel-YAH ah-fah-NAHSS-yeh-veech shahm-RY-eff

Polina Andreevna:  pah-LEE-nah ahn-DRAY-eff-nah

Masha:  MAH-shah

Boris Alekseevich Trigorin:  bah-REESS ah-lik-SAY-eh-veech tree-GAWR-een

Evgeny Sergeevich Dorn:  yihv-GHEHN-ee sehr-GAY-eh-veech DAWRN

 Semyon Semyonovich Medvedenko: sim-YAWN sim-YAWN-ah-veech myehd-VYEHD-in-kah

Yasha: YAH-shah





Works Cited

 Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich, and Laurence Senelick. The Seagull. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. Print.

Chekhov, Anton, and Ronald Hingley. The Seagull. London: Oxford University Press, 1968. Print.

Chekhov, Anton, and Milton Ehre. The Seagull. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1992. Print.

Chekhov, Anton, and Walter black. The Seagull. New York: Ferris Print Company. 1929. Print.

The Seagull. Dir. Yuly Karasik. Perf. Alla Demidova, Vladmir Chetverikov, Nikolai Plotnikov, Ludmila Saveliev. Mosfilm, 1970.