Translating “The Snow Maiden”

Interview with André Markowicz — By Simon Hatab

When we needed a translation of the libretto of The Snow Maiden, which has been reprinted in the programme, it was to one of the greatest specialists of Russian theatre that we turned. After an intense three-month encounter with this incredibly rich text, the poet and translator, André Markowicz, returns his verdict.

When we asked you to translate the libretto of The Snow Maiden, did you already know the opera?

André markowicz: I had a long-standing relationship with the work. I had read the play by Ostrovski from which the libretto is taken. I can’t remember when. Perhaps when I was an adolescent. I had never heard Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, except for a few arias. On the other hand, I knew the story of the Snow Maiden. Through fairy stories. During my childhood. Snegurochka and Grandfather Frost are among the characters that accompany every child in Russia. Grandfather Frost is a variation on Father Christmas. Does he also bring presents? I think so. To tell you the truth, I’m not that familiar with Russian folklore. I realised that whilst working on this translation. Numerous words used by Ostrovski, particularly concerning clothes, headwear and the ranks of courtiers and state employees, were unknown to me.

How would you describe the style of the libretto?

A.M.: What struck me about the style is precisely the fact that one can’t talk about a single style. There is an absolutely incredible richness of form. Of course, one finds the traditional decasyllabic verse form of the theatre, a verse style that we’ve been familiar with since Pushkin and which goes back to German theatre and Shakespeare. But there are also all the folk songs, some rhyming, some not, which add infinite variety to the text. The lexical variety is equally stunning. From a linguistic point of view, I know of no equivalent in Russian literature.

The snow melts in the sun but, with that as his starting point, Ostrovski succeeds in creating a whole that does not melt away but which holds together: a work of art. André Markowicz

Did this variety give you some difficult problems to solve during the three months that you spent on the translation of this libretto?

A.M.: Yes. It was actually the principal difficulty. Not only do the characters express themselves in different “languages” but, within each character, within each situation, one finds a whole series of different linguistic registers. How does one translate them when there is no equivalent in French? For me, this was a veritable balancing act. I had to invent forms that don’t exist. For example, take this aria sung by Dame Spring:

Fleurs parfumées, printanières
Sur la neige de tes joues,
Blanc muguet dans la lumière
Pour la langueur de l’amour.
Sur tes lèvres, nulle trace
Du mépris des gens de prix

Perfumed spring flowers
On the snow of your cheeks,
White lily of the valley in the light
For the languor of love.
On your lips, no trace
Of the scorn of people of quality.

There was no French equivalent for these lines of Russian. They are not comparable with any 18th or 19th century French text. Even less so with more recent texts. And this was the case with every line. The three months that I spent working on this translation were exhausting.

These different “languages” stem from the very essence of the text: the confrontation between two worlds, that of the sun and that of the snow. The snow melts in the sun but, with that as his starting point, Ostrovski succeeds in creating a whole that does not melt away but which holds together: a work of art.

During this period, was Rimsky-Korsakov’s music a source of inspiration for you?

A.M.: Yes, rather belatedly, I must confess. Admittedly, recordings are rare and it took me a while to get hold of one. I therefore made a first draft without having listened to the opera. Then I reread my translation in the light of the music. I was strongly inspired by the rhythms of the songs. Towards the end, there is that chorus sung by the young lads and lasses: I wrote the translation in such a way that one could practically sing the French words with the Russian rhythm. I tried to remain as close to the melody as I could without slipping into a word-for-word translation which would have been meaningless.

André Markowicz © Françoise Morvan
André Markowicz © Françoise Morvan

Stage Director Dmitri Tcherniakov really liked your translation of the heroine’s name: “Fleur de neige” (Snow Flower)…

A.M.: I am delighted and I must say a few words about that translation. In Russian, the name Snegurochka is formed from Sneg – (snow) and –urochka which in grammatical terms is the diminutive of a diminutive. The snow is therefore twice abbreviated. I was stuck on this name. Then Françoise Morvan (with whom I had translated all Tchekhov’s theatrical works and who is a great folktale specialist) suggested translating it as Fleur de neige. I think it is a magnificent idea because this expression conveys all the youthfulness, tenderness and fragility of the Russian word Snegurochka. I had my nose in the text. I was looking for a French diminutive, which clearly wasn’t appropriate because we were losing the spirit of the language. And she, starting from the French, from the character that I described to her, found “Fleur de neige”. That’s translation for you.

Interview by Simon Hatab

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