When thinking about the relationship between Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague and Wilson’s The City of the Plague, from which it was adapted, we are on the wrong track if we are preoccupied with labeling it as a “translation” or an “adaptation” or something else entirely. The set of questions we should be asking is related to the effects it has as a work of world literature and the language used to transport it across time and cultures.
David Damrosch, a scholar of Comparative Literature and a researcher in the field of world literature, writes in his book What is World Literature? (2003) that it is “not an infinite, ungraspable canon of works but rather a mode of circulation and of reading” (5) “encompass[ing] all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language” (4). The key means of enabling a text’s circulation is translation, which Damrosch does not renounce as a destroyer of meaning but sees as a tool to help a work of world literature gain additional meanings. In another book, How to Read World Literature (2008), Damrosch describes translation as “an expansive transformation of the original, a concrete manifestation of cultural exchange and a new stage in a work’s life as it moves from its first home out into the world” (66), focusing less on specific cultures in which the texts of world literature originate and more on the ideas they communicate. It is therefore important to read in translation and be critically aware of the translators’ choices, both linguistic and social.
The subtitle in English (“From Wilson’s Tragedy The City of the Plague“) is a word-for-word translation of the original (“Из Вильсоновой трагедии: The City of the Plague”), where the word “from” or “из” does not shed any light on how Pushkin saw his play against Wilson’s. When thinking about translation and the use of language, it is noteworthy that we are reading a Russian adaptation of an English play – in English. What is even more interesting is how Pushkin’s translation choices (intended or not) used language as well as the element of language to alter the meanings constructed in his play. Nancy K. Anderson points out in her critical essay Survival and Memory that in Wilson’s play the driver is the one who mutters in an unknown language while in Pushkin’s it is the dead; according to Anderson, this “inspired misunderstanding,” as she sees it, helps reaffirm the disconnect between two separate communities, the living and the dead. Perhaps this was a conscious decision on Pushkin’s part to convey a specific cultural message through the use of the motif of language, a metafictional device referring to the reality where translation loses some of the original meanings, but at the same time gains new ones.
Damrosch also discusses the idea that literature has expanded beyond its fundamental meaning of “written with letters” to include a wide range of cultural productions, from oral texts to movies as works of cinematic narrative. There is no doubt Wilson’s The City of the Plague entered into world literature. One of its occurrences is Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, but plenty more iterations of Pushkin’s play have appeared since its publishing: including but not limited to several translations into other languages, Russian stagings of the play (Пир во время чумы, see parts 1 and 2), numerous English renditions (see here and here), a 1990 Russian opera Feast in Time of Plague by César Cui (Anatoly Moksyakov’s performance of the Chairman’s Hymn to the Plague is available here) etc. A Russian rock band took its name and inspiration from the title of the Pushkin’s play, and a Russian stand-up comedian Mikhail Nikolayevich Zadornov used the title for one of his books as well as played a pun on it in one of his performances.
Without looking further into the constellation of themes and messages revealed to us through a close reading and focusing only on the abovementioned aspects of it, A Feast During the Plague already proves to be a global text, migrating not only through different cultures and languages but across the domains of literature and art as well.