“I might even let libel go by, except that in a few days I will be leaving Russia for an extended period, perhaps never to return, and I lack the strength to refrain from responding.”
“Even libel I might have been prepared to overlook, but since in a few days’ time I shall be leaving Russia, perhaps never to return, I could not leave this calumny unanswered.”
“As a matter of fact I would not even reply to slander, except that in a few days I shall be leaving Russia for a long period, perhaps never to return, and I do not have the will power to refrain from a reply.”
One writer, many translators. The writer is Anton Chekhov, in a letter written on this date, April 10, in 1890, to Vukol Mikhailovich Lavrov. Chekhov is replying to something Lavrov had written in the previous month’s issue of Russian Thought, a Moscow-based journal. Here is the passage in question: “Only yesterday the high priests of unprincipled writing, like Messrs. Yasinsky and Chekhov, whose names . . .” The translators of the first passage above are Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky (Letters of Anton Chekhov, 1973). Only Karlinsky in his notes gives us the pertinent context. Chekhov addresses his letter “Vukol Mikhailovich.” Karlinsky writes:
“The address by the first name and patronymic alone, not preceded by any adjective, is deliberately abrupt to the point of rudeness. The letter and the preceding one [to Ivan Leontyev (Schcheglov)] represent Chekhov’s cumulative reaction to four years of critical baiting and endless accusations of `indifference,’ `lack of involvement’ and `absence of principles.’”
As Chekhov’s artistry and fame grew, so did the chorus of misunderstanding and resentment. He had no interest in championing any cause in his stories and plays. Critics in nineteenth-century Russia were as eager as their twenty-first-century descendants to enlist writers in political partisanship, and to condemn those who declined the offer. Chekhov, to his eternal credit, was an artist, not an “activist.” Karlinsky continues in his footnote to elucidate the sentence quoted above: “This psychologically significant flareup on the eve of his departure for Sakhalin was to remain the only one of its kind and was not repeated in Chekhov’s later life.” Nowhere else does Chekhov threaten to leave Russia for good.
The second team of translators, Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips, (Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters, 2004), remains close to the sense of the Heim/Karlinsky version. Only the third version substitutes “slander” for “libel,” two very different sorts of defamation, at least under U.S. law. It’s also the wordiest, at forty-four words. The others total thirty-five and thirty-one, respectively. The third version was translated by Sidonie K. Lederer (The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov, 1955), edited and with an introduction by Lillian Hellman, the prize-winning Stalinist and liar.
Karlinsky tells us the letter caused a two-year rupture in relations between Chekhov and Lavrov. Afterwards, “they made up and became rather close friends (Lavrov eventually came to be one of Chekhov’s very few literary friends with whom he was on a first-name basis).”