PETE’s Aggressive New Translation of Chekhov’s 'The Three Sisters'

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble premieres a reinvigorated interpretation of the Russian classic by a Lewis & Clark professor. July 31–Aug 17

By Caleb Diehl July 31, 2014

Rebecca Lingafelter, Cristi Miles, Amber Whitehall in PETE's The Three Sisters

Image: Owen Carey

Critics have named Anton Chekhov one of literature’s greatest writers for his skill with subtext and meaning expressed in the pauses following one-word replies and sudden stops. At the same time, English translators with romantic stereotypes of soulful Russians have dulled the author’s play The Three Sisters with ornate, ostantatious language, making its characters lace together complex words while managing to say nothing of consequence.  

Review"This is not your high school English teacher's The Three Sisters. Lewis & Clark theater professor Stepan Simek's new translation is fast, blunt, and at times quite funny. But what really sets this performance apart from the staid productions that have turned off a century of audiences is the Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's dynamic set and staging..." 
Read our full review.

Bored by diluted English translations, Lewis & Clark theater professor Stepan Simek, who has worked as a director in Switzerland and is one of the leading translators of Czech playwright and anti-Communist dissident Vaclav Havel, was awed when he first heard the intensity in a Russian recording of the play. Wanting English-speaking audiences to experience the same, he went back to the original Russian script and stripped the play to its basics, returning to Chekhov’s limited vocabulary (the smallest of any Russian writer). Big words tumble only from the mouths of bumbling or emotionally crippled characters.

“These characters seem literally ‘glued’ to the floor of their existence and are working as hard as they can to ‘unglue’ themselves,” says Simek.

Russian, Simek says, is a hard-driving, aggressive language that demands fierce gestures and delivery from the gut, something most earlier translations ignored. For example:

Constance Garnett’s 1916 translation:
MASHA: In this town to know three languages is an unnecessary luxury! Not even a luxury, but an unnecessary encumbrance, like a sixth finger.

Gerlad Ledger’s 1998 translation:
MASHA: In this town to know three languages is an unnecessary luxury. It's not even a luxury, but a sort of unnecessary addition, like a sixth finger. We have a great deal of superfluous knowledge.

Simek’s translation:
MASHA: To know three languages in this shithole is an unnecessary luxury. It's not even a luxury; it's more like some sort of an unnecessary add-on, like having a sixth finger.

The Three Sisters
Reed College’s Diver Studio Theatre
July 31–Aug 17
Simek turned to Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble to debut the script at Reed College’s new state-of-the-art Diver Studio Theatre. PETE will invite just 35 audience members beneath a skeletal house built into the black box for the birthday party of 20-year old Irina Prozorova, where tension grows as the characters balance nostalgia and dreams of the future. Simek will direct the cast of fourteen, which features some of Portland’s best, including Isaac Lamb, Rebecca Lingafelter, Chris Murray, Cristi Miles, and John San Nicolas.

“PETE is known for it’s extremely, yes almost otherworldly, commitment to a sort of physically and vocally muscular directness in acting,” Simek says. “It is exactly the kind of approach that the original Russian demands.”

If you want to learn more, Simek is leading a seminar on Sunday, August 10, from 12–5 pm.

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