When Translating a Play Is About More Than Language

Richard Nelson seemed to have found the perfect home for his play “Our Life in Art.”

He had written a show about the Moscow Art Theater’s 1923 tour of the United States with its director, Konstantin Stanislavski, and was planning to have a Russian translation presented by the company’s modern leader at a performance space that Stanislavski had built on the grounds of his family’s factory.

What’s more, the Brooklyn Academy of Music was interested in bringing the production to New York, where Nelson is best known as the author of the “Rhinebeck Panorama,” a collection of a dozen intimate plays that document and dissect slices of American life and history through nothing more than dinner conversation.

A major step toward the play’s premiere in Moscow came on Feb. 23, 2022, when the director, Sergei Zhenovach, read through it with his company. Everyone seemed enthusiastic about the project, but Nelson awoke the next day to a message that read, “Something awful has happened.”

Russia had invaded Ukraine.

“That was it,” Nelson recalled during a recent video interview. “The war cut all ties to Russian theater, so it was over.”

“Our Life in Art,” Nelson’s play about a close-knit theater troupe of the past, is being performed by a close-knit French theater troupe of the present.Credit…Elliott Verdier for The New York Times

The war, and a fresh crackdown on dissent in Russia, made “Our Life in Art” all the more necessary. Its plot, which unfurls between Moscow Art Theater performances in Chicago, examines and questions how art is navigated within world events and politics. “The play has evolved into being about itself,” Nelson said. “What’s happened while trying to get the play on has now affected how it is seen. So many people I know in Russian theater and art — it’s just a very difficult time, and all of these issues are in the air.”

In the air, and finally onstage. In the end, Nelson’s play about a close-knit troupe of the past was taken up by a close-knit troupe of the present: “Our Life in Art” found a new home at the Théâtre du Soleil in Paris, where it is running through March 2, translated into French by that company’s director, Ariane Mnouchkine.

The production has put Nelson on the other end of work he has previously done translating Russian theater classics into English with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the power couple behind many Russian literature translations in print today. So, Nelson knows that the process is more than mapping one language onto another; as with the plays by his hero and aesthetic ancestor, Anton Chekhov, it also requires the preservation of a specific, crucial sensibility.

In the works of both Chekhov and Nelson, the extraordinary emerges only from the ordinary. Revelations come not in speeches, but in passing comments. And, above all, in the spirit of verisimilitude, people have true conversations. Nelson’s characters speak to one another, not to the audience. He likes to tell actors that the performance “is the relationship you have with everyone else.”

That’s a level of lived-in mastery rarely seen even in naturalistic theater. Not for nothing does Nelson tend to work with the same actors as a de facto company; Jay O. Sanders and Maryann Plunkett appeared in all the Rhinebeck plays, but as members of three different families. And Sanders starred in Nelson, Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”

The translators got to know Nelson when he had mailed them a letter introducing himself and expressing interest in a collaboration. They later met in New York, during the release of their version of “War and Peace” about 15 years ago, and the three of them decided to embark on translating Russian theater, starting with Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country.”

“He’s a man of very great integrity,” Volokhonsky said of Nelson, “and he has a gift for friendship.”

The three quickly grew close, and built up their working relationship to translating all the major plays of Chekhov. “We would submit the text to him,” Pevear said, “and he would go through it and say, ‘My actors wouldn’t say that, what if we did it this way?’ That’s why we only wanted to do this work with a playwright. It’s not just about narrative.”

So, when Nelson wrote “Our Life in Art” — a nod to Stanislavski’s book “My Life in Art” — in fall 2020, he recruited Volokhonsky to translate it. Originally, it had been planned for Lev Dodin, the artistic director of the Maly Drama Theater in St. Petersburg, but he and Nelson had different visions for the play, about whether it should be understated or eruptive, and their collaboration ended on friendly terms. Next, the show was taken up by Sergei Zhenovach before he left the Moscow Art Theater, and by that point, Volokhonsky said, her work on the show was done; anything further would be refined in rehearsals. But those never came.

“To have this luxury and this luck, where every day, for months and months, I am just able to focus on making theater without any other pressures or anything else going on, is a piece of profound fortune,” Nelson said of working with the Théâtre du Soleil in Paris.Credit…Elliott Verdier for The New York Times

As the play lay dormant, Mnouchkine, who had seen Nelson’s work in New York, approached him about creating something for Théâtre du Soleil. He told her that he happened to have a show about an acting company, and sent it to her. She read “Our Life in Art” overnight and decided to mount it, with him directing, as he often does with productions of his plays in the United States.

Mnouchkine translated the text quickly, she said, “while he was already rehearsing” with her actors, over a luxuriously long 10 weeks last spring. “I had to go quite fast, but I needed to have this very high-standard, delicate easiness, which seems easy to say but is not easy. And I wanted to have the same rhythm as Richard.”

The translation was not without its complications. Nelson doesn’t speak French, and not everyone in the Théâtre du Soleil company speaks English. A translator was an essential intermediary. He would tell the actors what was happening in a scene, and if they responded, “That’s not quite what’s here in the text,” they would together work toward a more accurate turn of phrase. They talked through complicated idioms, untranslated figures of speech and, most difficult, the difference between pronouns, a nonissue in English: When should characters who are close but still colleagues address each another as the informal “tu” or the formal “vous”?

It helps that, after more rehearsals this fall, Nelson had 14 weeks with the actors, and spent that time living in the company’s home, La Cartoucherie, in the bucolic Bois de Vincennes on the outskirts of Paris, seeing them behave as a true company. “There are no stage managers, there are no real designers,” he said. “The actors do everything: They clean toilets, they move furniture around. This is their home, and they own this.”

The result may not have been an unequivocal success — in The New York Times, the critic Laura Cappelle found the play’s realistic conversations casual to the point of rendering historical context inaccessible — but Mnouchkine said she and her actors were “very pleased” to work with Nelson. For his part, he felt as if the most difficult translation, of his nothing-forced aesthetic, was achieved.

“I’m really happy with where the play has landed,” Nelson said. “At a time when the American theater is in crisis, to have this luxury and this luck, where every day, for months and months, I am just able to focus on making theater without any other pressures or anything else going on, is a piece of profound fortune.”

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