An Interview with The Cherry Orchard Translator John Christopher Jones

“Subterfuge or Camouflage”
An Interview with Translator John Christopher Jones

You’ve acted in several Chekhov plays over the course of your career. Could you talk about the experience of playing Chekhov?

I did Kulygin twice over a twenty-year period, I did PLATONOV at the ART and Sorin in THE SEAGULL at CSC. Playing Sorin was one of my all-time favorite experiences in the theatre because the Russian director Vyacheslav (Slava) Dolgachev who I thought was the most brilliant theatre animal I’d ever come across, sort of lived and breathed theatre. He was so passionate, and it’s interesting because as an actor, I’ve prided myself on being a text man, of centering myself on what the character was speaking and getting behind it one hundred percent, and Slava said that in Chekhov the text is not what’s going on. It’s like the tip of the iceberg. If anything, it’s subterfuge or camouflage. So that was a particular revelation.

I remember when I played Kulygin at the McCarter Theater in Lanford Wilson’s translation, that there were five places where I didn’t know how to get from sentence A to sentence B. So, I looked it up in the Russian original—I had taken Russian as a language in college, but I hadn’t really remembered too much of it so I used a dictionary—and every place where I had marked my script with an X, Lanford Wilson had either added or deleted a line of Chekhov. So, it was kind of interesting. I translated the whole part of Kulygin at McCarter. I used Lanford Wilson’s translation, I didn’t use any of my own stuff, but I did it to try to figure out, to at least give myself some ammunition to play the part. Here’s an example. I don’t know if this will translate for a newsletter but it’s kind of interesting. In the fire scene, Kulygin’s asleep and Masha enters the room and he wakes up and his line is “Milia Moya Masha. [More Russian]” which is usually translated, “My good Masha, my kind Masha, my dear Masha, my sweet Masha.” And the repetition of the “m” sound gives a clue. Interesting that it’s “nym nym nym” so I imagine him waking up at 3 or 4 in the morning, seeing his wife, and going, “nym nym nym.” It’s kind of baby talk, and I think I translated it as, “Mmmmmm my Masha. Precious, mmmyyy Masha.” So I was able to use the sound of the Russian to get a hint, a clue, as to how to play the moment, and when the show was over, I decided to translate the entire play. It took me a year. I did three drafts and I used a dictionary and the Russian text.

So would you say that your experience of playing Kulygin in that production, and your challenges of the areas that you had marked as being problematic in terms of the translation, sort of led you to start wanting to translate Chekhov yourself?

The answer is a resounding yes. The deal about translating the entire play, part of me just wanted to see if I could. I’m sort of a puzzle person, I like Scrabble and crosswords and cryptic puzzles, so translation sort of feeds the same appetite in terms of trying to come up with alternative fillers for a space. And, I just found the work very, very interesting and rewarding. When CSC was about to do THREE SISTERS, I submitted my translation for consideration, but they had already committed to doing the Paul Schmidt version, but they said, “It’s really good, your THREE SISTERS translation. How about this, what if we commission you to do THE CHERRY ORCHARD?”

You worked closely with Andrei, John and Dianne on this translation. Can you talk a little bit about that collaborative process?

One of the reasons I was plugging for my version as opposed to other translations was that I’d be around and I’d be able to change things during rehearsal, if that was the case. In translating the part of Ranevskaya, I was thinking of Dianne specifically and the first hurdle was to get her seal of approval. I think because we’re friends and colleagues she was perhaps a little embarrassed having to tell me that although she thought the major speeches were beautifully written, a lot of the dialogue didn’t sit well in her mouth when she spoke it. It was a little too contemporary. So I had two or three sessions with Dianne changing things. They were very good sessions, I think. Basically, I was trying to make it so that she was comfortable, because the problem with translations is there usually comes a point where the actor rolls their eyes in disgust at the words they have to say. I know the particular word that I always hated as an actor in plays in translation was the word “scoundrel.” I just didn’t know how to say it. For Dianne, a lot of the changes were very minor: exchanging “darling” and “sweetheart,” changing “gonna” to “going to”… they were very minor but they made a big difference. Every time an actor has to say something they don’t believe in or have difficulty saying, it takes them out of the play. So, one of my jobs as an on-the-spot translator is to make it comfortable for the actors so that they can live through the words they have to speak as opposed to stumble over them. I had two or three sessions with John. First of all, he’s a lot of fun to be around. And like Dianne, his intuition is unimpeachable. I know Andrei’s particularly unhappy with the nickname for Yepikhodov, which is usually translated as “twenty-two misfortunes” or “two-and-twenty troubles” or something pretty stupid like that. I have them call him “Major Catastrophe.” Andrei hates it. So, the short answer is: we’re in process.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Yes, there is. I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease eight years ago, and thank God I’ve been able to continue my work as an actor. I’m very grateful to CSC and Brian and Dianne for the privilege and the joy of continuing to work on such great material, but particularly Dianne, for her appreciation of what I can still do. I’m still working as an actor. Another company in town that’s been very faithful to me is Theatre for a New Audience. I think I’ve done seven plays for them in the last eight years. The parts get smaller and smaller but they were still good parts: the Gravedigger in HAMLET and the Porter in MACBETH. The porter in MACBETH is the smallest part I’ve ever played, all of two pages. But everybody remembers the porter because he says, “Remember the porter.” He tells the audience, “Remember the porter!” before he leaves. So, as my acting work sort of rides off into the sunset, it’s nice to be able to connect as a translator. And in translating THE CHERRY ORCHARD, I have tried to find each character’s voice, and as a result, in a sense, I get to play all the parts.