What does it mean to translate or adapt a play? Anton Chekhov wrote Uncle Vanya in Russian, his native language. The play has been translated countless times (into English and dozens of other languages) and adapted into other theatrical works and films, with varying degrees of adherence to the original text. Now, 36 year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker—who is not fluent in Russian—creates a “transladaptation” of Chekhov’s masterwork that has been hailed as “easygoing, free of the stilted or formal locutions that clutter up some of the more antique-sounding translations” (The New York Times).
In her preface to the play’s script, Baker notes she aimed to “create a version that sounds to our contemporary American ears the way the play sounded to Russian ears during the play’s first productions.” This means that she worked from a “literal” translation that provided the basis for the text. Of course, the word “literal” should never be understood literally when pertaining to literary translation. Human languages are defined by their structural and semantic idiosyncrasies; no two languages express the same thought in exactly the same way. Working from a translation, an adaptor works to make a text “playable”—to create language that actors can use to create believable characters.
If a text is highly poetic, then the adaptor must possess poetic skills equal to those of the original author. In the case of Chekhov, whose work comes to us from both far away and long ago, an adaptor must decide whether to make the language sound as if it comes from the era in which it was originally written—in this case, the late 19th century—or, to make it sound contemporary, as Baker did. Many plays contain references to people, places or things that its original audience would have understood, but which would leave a contemporary audience scratching their heads. An adaptor chooses whether to leave these references intact and accurate, or to change them to similar references that the audience might recognize, which arguably enables contemporary people to understand the play in the same way that past audiences did. For Uncle Vanya, Baker maintains the integrity of these references; when a character exclaims, “It was a scene worthy of Aivazovsky!” she does not substitute another artist’s name. (She notes in the preface that this line is usually translated as “It was a scene worthy of a painter of shipwrecks!”)
Baker is not the only contemporary playwright to create a version of Chekhov’s plays. David Mamet, another Pulitzer Prize winner, also made his own Uncle Vanya, which features the distinctive, staccato rhythms characteristic of his work. Noted British playwright Tom Stoppard has similarly infused his own writing style into Chekhov’s plays. But Sarah Ruhl, a writer known for her poetic abilities, took a different approach with her take on Chekhov’s Three Sisters: “Getting to the root of the original Russian was what I wanted, rather than putting my own authorial stamp on the text.”
Like Ruhl, Baker aimed to drill down to the original text. Yet, describing her role in creating the text remains difficult. Is she a “translator” because she dealt not with changing the story but with preserving the story for English-speaking audiences? Is she an “adaptor” because she has limited Russian proficiency and therefore cannot fully access the Russian text without assistance? Is she a “transladaptor?” Perhaps it will simply suffice to say, as reflected in the published version of the play, that this is “a new version by Annie Baker.”