Roddy Doyle, How to bring a giant of Russian literature to the Irish stage: start with the lads, in The Irish Times (26 Nov. 2011), Weekend Review, p.7.
[Source: The Irish Times online - accessed 02.12.2011.]
You begin with a raw translation of The Government Inspector, Gogols political satire. Then you look around and start seeing more than a few parallels.
MAYOR Ive called you here, gentlemen, to tell you some news that youre not going to like.
MAYOR Gentlemen! Ive summoned you here because of some very distressing news.
MAYOR Gentlemen. I have bad news.
MAYOR Gentlemen, I have invited you here to inform you of some extremely unpleasant news.
MAYOR I invited you, gentlemen, with the intention of announcing the dreadful news.
The lines above are five different translations of the first words spoken in Nikolai Gogols great play The Government Inspector. They are five versions of the one Mayor, delivering news that is bad, distressing, dreadful, unpleasant, and some. I read all five as I started work on my own translation, and I found the Mayors assorted descriptions of the news both worrying and reassuring: worrying because I wanted to know what Gogol had actually written but I wasnt going to find that out unless I learned Russian very quickly; and reassuring because if five competent translators could come up with five adjectives to capture Gogols one, then I was possibly free to add a sixth.
I was confident that I could find the words but worried about what those words would do. The Mayor who says extremely unpleasant news is not the same man who says bad news. The words make the character. A few extra words could reinvent him; they could take him away from Gogol. Gogol had created one Mayor. The translators, it seemed to me, had multiplied him. Before I even typed my own MAYOR and gave him my version of Gogols words, there were questions, both practical and moral, queuing up to tap me on the shoulder. There was much more to translation than translation.
It was Aideen Howard, literary director at the Abbey Theatre, who suggested that I read The Government Inspector. I had been keen on adapting a very well-known film. It is set in the US during the Great Depression, and I wanted to rewrite it for the stage and set it in Dublin, today. But the screenplay was written by three men and based on a short story written by one. Finding out who actually owned it was like looking for a brown marble in the Pine Forest. So we very reluctantly gave up. The Government Inspector was written by one man, Gogol. He died in 1852. There had been no little Gogols. (Natasha Mary Gogol? Anseo!) Copyright wasnt a problem.
But Gogol was.
Ive always loved Gogols short stories. I like the bigness and darkness of 19th-century Russian literature. (I brought Crime and Punishment with me on my honeymoon.) Gogols novel Dead Souls is a comic masterpiece and a favourite of mine. (Book lovers know that claiming to have read one of the great 19th-century Russian classics is a bit like claiming to have lived through a war. There should be a memorial day for those who died reading Russian literature.) I liked the idea of adapting The Government Inspector before I even read it.
But Im not Russian. Im Irish, and wanted to write about characters living in Ireland today.
I was in London the day after Aideen mentioned The Government Inspector, and I went into Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road and bought a copy. Actually, I bought two copies – two different translations, two very different versions. I read the shorter one on the plane home that evening, and loved it.
The play – that is, the plot – is hilarious. By the end of the second act, I was thinking of Fawlty Towers, and the episode called The Hotel Inspectors. Basil hears that there are inspectors in town and decides that one of the guests, a spoon salesman called Mr Hutchinson, is one of them. Its one of the funniest episodes, and the plot of The Government Inspector is very similar. The Mayor, Gogols Basil, even shakes his fist at his own face, Basil-style.
I saw how I could shift the time and geography, make a modern Irish story out of it. But beyond the story, or the plot, the problem of the language, the translation, still remained. What is Fawlty Towers like in Russian? When Mr Hutchinson asks Basil if the hotel has a table-tennis table, Basil replies, Indeed we do. It is not in absolutely mint condition. But it certainly could be used in an emergency. These are English lines, delivered with an English accent.
Could they possibly be as funny with Russian subtitles or, worse – and, in my case, more relevantly – a voiceover, the lines delivered in Russian? Were all familiar with the term lost in translation. I didnt want to lose Gogol on the journey from St Petersburg to Dublin, and I didnt want to end up writing something vague, or bad, neither Irish nor Russian, neither 1836 nor 2011, something well-intentioned but pointless, because I couldnt find the right language.
I read more translations. The plot was there – the misunderstandings, the slapstick, the timing – but the language, in most cases, didnt seem to match it. It was flat, I thought, a kind of postwar BBC English that I couldnt imagine these characters, or anyone else, speaking.
But I started to take notes, getting ready to have a stab at my own version. This was in early 2010, and the news – Nama, bailouts, rumours, denial – was relentlessly awful, and perfect.
Aideen Howard had given me a literal translation, a flat version that made no attempt at rhythm or art. It was like an entire text run through an online dictionary; all authorship had been washed out. Using such a translation is standard practice, and the reason playwrights with no ancient Greek can translate the Greeks.
These are the Mayors first lines in the flat translation: I invited you, gentlemen, with the intention of announcing the dreadful news. No Mayor of mine was going to speak like that and, I was certain, Gogols Mayor hadnt spoken that way either. I decided very quickly that this was the ideal way to approach the work, through the flat translation, because it invited – it actually demanded – improvement, personality and rhythm. The translation had taken the play from Gogol. At the risk of seeming sentimental, it seemed to me that a good translation of this translation might give the play back to Gogol.
I put the manuscript on my desk, beside me, at my left elbow.
I typed MAYOR.
I liked the way that three of the other versions had started with Gentlemen. In my experience, men who call other men gentlemen rarely mean it. So I typed it.
I stared at it for a while. Then I added a dash – and lads.
MAYOR Gentlemen – lads.
Lads is such an Irish word. Its used elsewhere, of course, but not in the same way. Its often an affectionate term here – and yet the lads can be dangerous. The Mayors lads, the men he addresses at the start of the play, are his political cronies, and friends, Irishmen who have grown up together. I felt a door open in front of me when I wrote the word lads, and a whole vocabulary tumbled out.
It already felt like a good days work. The gentlemen had become the lads, and The Government Inspector stopped being a Russian classic and became something that I was going to write. I had the plot and now, I thought, I had my language, the language of the lads.
MAYOR Gentlemen – lads. I have some shocking news.
I was sitting in the kitchen at about half past six the morning after I started my version, reading Vladimir Nabokovs book on Gogol, when I turned to page 38 and met this: None but an Irishman should ever try tackling Gogol. I calmed down later but – then, there – I made it my own religious moment: Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was talking to me.
Nabokov was criticising the rigidity of English translations of The Government Inspector. The English is dry and flat, and always unbearably demure. The English we speak in Ireland might occasionally be flat or dry, even damp, but its never fucking demure, and Nabokov was giving me licence to use it. The extra elbows we give the grammar, the way we pull open the words and hide things in them, the way a phrase like Ah now can fit a thousand occasions from tasting tea to murder; I was going to use all this. Id make the play more Russian by translating it into Irish! Or something like that.
Youre grand; No bother; Ill sort something out. The language of the lads, the lexicon of Irish politics, is the soft and cosy language of the kitchen and the pub. Thats why it works – or why it used to. Its the language of people we know, even if weve never met them. Its reassuring, and amusing, even when its openly dishonest. Its our strength, and our problem. And it was my opportunity.
I made lists: downsize, up-skill, frontload. I got my lads to mangle those already mangled phrases. Well frontload the lunch. Tell them – tomorrows cabbage on todays plates. I made it Irish and kept it Russian. I listened to Morning Ireland with a notebook on my lap. I took notes as the lads tried to ease us past the recession. Things were manageable and on the up; we were all going forward. I wrote quickly. I was none but an Irishman, and I was making Gogol Irish.
By the time I started on the second draft the news was much, much worse – and even better. The inspectors from the IMF and ECB werent on their way – Well, Im not aware of it; nor is Noel. I wrote in front of Sky News as I watched them arrive. The bailout was an engagement, and the executioners in suits were a delegation. We had hard choices to make, but everything was grand. We had no government for several months, but everything was still grand. I wasnt just writing the play: I was living in it.
I still am. The play is in rehearsal. The lads on the page are now actors on the stage, and the new lads in Leinster House are filling the State agencies with their friends, the slightly more refined lads. I watch the actors practise their timing as they hand over the brown envelopes, and a few weeks ago I watched a political career come to a sudden end when, in front of a live audience, the candidate uttered the word envelope, and the audience started laughing.
Gogol would love Ireland; I know I do.