How to bring a giant of Russian literature to the Irish stage: start with the lads

 

You begin with a raw translation of ‘The Government Inspector’, Gogol’s political satire. Then you look around and start seeing more than a few parallels

MAYOR I’ve called you here, gentlemen, to tell you some news that you’re not going to like.

MAYOR Gentlemen! I’ve 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 ABOVEare five different translations of the first words spoken in Nikolai Gogol’s 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 Mayor’s assorted descriptions of the news both worrying and reassuring: worrying because I wanted to know what Gogol had actually written but I wasn’t 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 Gogol’s 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 Gogol’s 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 Inspectorwas written by one man, Gogol. He died in 1852. There had been no little Gogols. (“Natasha Mary Gogol?” “Anseo!”) Copyright wasn’t a problem.

But Gogol was.

I’ve always loved Gogol’s short stories. I like the bigness and darkness of 19th-century Russian literature. (I brought Crime and Punishment with me on my honeymoon.) Gogol’s novel Dead Soulsis 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 Inspectorbefore I even read it.

But I’m not Russian. I’m 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 Foyle’s 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. It’s one of the funniest episodes, and the plot of The Government Inspectoris very similar. The Mayor, Gogol’s 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 Towerslike 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? We’re all familiar with the term “lost in translation”. I didn’t want to lose Gogol on the journey from St Petersburg to Dublin, and I didn’t want to end up writing something vague, or bad, neither Irish nor Russian, neither 1836 nor 2011, something well-intentioned but pointless, because I couldn’t find the right language.

I read more translations. The plot was there – the misunderstandings, the slapstick, the timing – but the language, in most cases, didn’t seem to match it. It was flat, I thought, a kind of postwar BBC English that I couldn’t 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.

I started.

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 Mayor’s 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, Gogol’s Mayor hadn’t 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.

MAYOR Gentlemen.

I stared at it for a while. Then I added a dash “–” and “lads”.

MAYOR Gentlemen – lads.

“Lads” is such an Irish word. It’s used elsewhere, of course, but not in the same way. It’s often an affectionate term here – and yet the lads can be dangerous. The Mayor’s 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 day’s work. The gentlemen had become the lads, and The Government Inspectorstopped 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 Nabokov’s 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 it’s 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. I’d make the play more Russian by translating it into Irish! Or something like that.

“You’re grand”; “No bother”; “I’ll 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. That’s why it works – or why it used to. It’s the language of people we know, even if we’ve never met them. It’s reassuring, and amusing, even when it’s openly dishonest. It’s 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. “We’ll frontload the lunch. Tell them – tomorrow’s cabbage on today’s plates.” I made it Irish and kept it Russian. I listened to Morning Irelandwith 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 weren’t on their way – “Well, I’m 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 wasn’t 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.

© Roddy Doyle 2011


The Government Inspectoris at the Abbey Theatre from Wednesday until January 28th