Team Pushkin was given the beautiful gift of a person who speaks Russian, so our post used this expertise in our approach to this piece. Here is what we learned. Enjoy.
Translations and imitations are among the large number of works of Alexander Pushkin. These works make up about a fifth of all the works of Pushkin, and can rightly be called magnificent samples of his genius, although they are borrowed from other authors. This is what Pushkin writes on this matter: “Imitation is not shameful kidnapping or a sign of mental poverty, but a noble hope of own strength, a hope to discover new worlds, seeking the footsteps of the genius — or even more sublime feeling: the desire to explore your masterpiece and give it a secondary life”.
A Feast During the Plague (1829) is one of the most famous Pushkin’s “Little Tragedies.” Pushkin’s masterpiece was even adapted to a movie. This the scene where Mary sings.
The originality of Pushkin’s play is still debated among lot of Russian scholars; they argue whether Pushkin’s play is simply a translation of John Wilson’s The City of the Plague (1816) or an independent Pushkin masterpiece. We, Team Pushkin, as “linguistic researchers”, examined three versions of the Plague narrations (Wilson’s, Pushkin’s, and the translation of Pushkin’s work by Anderson) and came up with the conclusion that the last two works slightly differ in terms of word choice and punctuation from the original text, but overall they accurately convey the basic content of the source plays. Here is the example:
Wilson’s The City of the Plague (1816)
O impious table! Spread by impious hands!
Mocking with feast and song and revelry
The silent air of death that hangs above it,
A canopy more dismal than the Pall!
Amid the churchyard darkness as I stood
Beside a dire interment, circled round
By the white ghastly faces of despair,
That hideous merriment disturb’d the grave
And with a sacrilegious violence
Shook down the crumbling earth upon the bodies
Of the unsheeted dead. But that the prayers
Of holy age and female piety
Did sanctify that wide and common grave,
I could have thought that hell’s exulting fiends
With shouts of devilish laughter dragg’d away
Some harden’d atheist’s soul into perdition.
Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague
Безбожный пир, безбожные безумцы!
Вы пиршеством и песнями разврата
Ругаетесь над мрачной тишиной,
Повсюду смертию распространенной!
Средь ужаса плачевных похорон,
Средь бледных лиц молюсь я на кладбище –
А ваши ненавистные восторги
Смущают тишину гробов – и землю
Над мертвыми телами потрясают!
Когда бы стариков и жен моленья
Не освятили общей, смертной ямы –
Подумать мог бы я, что нынче бесы
Погибший дух безбожника терзают
И в тму кромешную тащат со смехом.
Anderson’s A Feast During the plague
A godless feast, befitting godless madmen!
Your Feasting and your shameless songs
Mock at and profane the gloomy peace
Spread everywhere by death and desolation!
Amidst the horror of the mournful burials
Amidst pale faces I pray at the graveyard,
And your hateful shouts and cries of revelry
Disturb the silence of the tomb – because of you,
The earth itself trembles over the dead bodies!
If the prayers of so many reverend men and women
Had not consecrated the common gravepit,
I would have thought that devils even now
Were torturing some ruined, godless soul,
Laughing as they dragged it to outer darkness.
In all three texts we can see the following pattern of the language use:
Archaic English → Simplified Russian version of the play –> Translation of the simplified Russian version
Moreover, we can regard A Feast During the Plague as independent work simply because it is not the word-by-word translation of the whole of Wilson’s play, but only a part of it. And why did Pushkin choose exactly this scene from all the play?
According to the Russian scholar, Leo Polivanoff, Pushkin generally chooses to translate to his native language only the brightest part of the original foreign work. This is what happened with A Feast During the Plague: Pushkin chose from all the play the part that interested him most, and thus shifted the focus from describing the horrors of the plague to the conflict.
As for the sources of the tragical story, some evidence indicates that Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) actually inspired John Wilson to write a play. Another famous Russian scholar Yakovlev wrote: “The book of Defoe influenced someone who in turn was a source of inspiration for Pushkin — an English writer John Wilson”. In addition, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year was also found in the library of Pushkin, and perhaps he read it as well.
We can definitely notice the resemblance between the play A Feast During the Plague and the tavern scene, where people partied and behave atheistically, in A Journal of the Plague Year. Both scenes essentially have the same settings and major actors. Both scenes are happening at a tavern and the major actors all involves a dead-cart, group of jesting people, and a godly or moral man that tries to correct the group’s way. In fact, even the plot progresses in a similar manner, with the moral person failing to change the behaviour of the group. However both pieces differ in the perspective that the story is told. Pushkin told the story in the form of a play and therefore gave us the perspective of both the priest and the group while Defoe told the story from the perspective of H.F., the moral person.
Given the amazing thread of a creative work such as this one, we could not help but make the connection of a traveling text and a traveling plague. Specifically, the way in which the nature of the plague transforms through communication. The Russian version was slightly more explicit than either of the English versions, be it the original work or the translation. The author’s taste is key. With talk about any sort of contagion, the details one chooses to express or omit will affect hordes of people’s actions and perceptions when it come to the given contagion.The telling and retelling of the horrors of the contagion gives people a sense of agency and authority in a situation that renders them helpless and subject to whatever may come. But to get back to the situation of the authors at hand, their adaptations of this story in effect becomes their own once they allow it to pass through their analytical lens. Thus, the foundational idea may not be original, but the products still stand as a one worth recognizing, one of a unique analytical lens.
So we say go ahead Pushkin, recreate with your bad self.