When Curt Columbus was a teenager, he rebelled against his Ronald Reagan adoring father by deciding to study Reagan’s Cold War nemesis, the Soviet Union. And it wasn’t just a phase either, to his father’s chagrin. Columbus eventually received a degree in Russian and Eastern European Studies from Yale University.
“I know it was a stupid reason to study Russian, but I guess I fell in love with the language anyway,” he says, from his office at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence R.I.
These days Columbus is the artistic director at Trinity, and his work as a director and playwright have been seen across the country. But his love of the Russian language and culture endures in his translations of Anton Chekhov’s plays.
“There have been a lot of great Chekhov adaptations in recent years, but they’re all pretty much working from someone else’s literal translation. Curt is a [playwright] who also happens to speak Russian. You’ve got both skills in the same person,” explains Terrence J. Nolen, who is directing Columbus’s new translation of “Three Sisters” at the Arden Theatre Company. “His translations are incredibly clean and muscular — and actable.”
As a Russian speaker actively involved with theaters around the country, it became somewhat unavoidable for Columbus to eventually translate Chekhov. Requests began in the late 90s, after he adapted “Uncle Vanya” for a New York producer. By 2005 he had translated all of Chekhov’s major plays, and the results were published widely.
Columbus’s translations are often praised for communicating the dramas to American audiences with unique clarity.
“I try to make them vernacular and plainspoken,” he says. “When I first read Chekhov translations in college, they were almost all done by British ladies. So they tended to sound like early 20th century British [upper crust], who had — let’s be honest about this — little to no sexual experience. So the plays, which are very sexual, tended to feel washed out. But when I went back and read them in Russian, I discovered what the plays were about.”
‘Three Sisters’ A new translation by Curt Columbus Arden Theatre Co. 40 N. 2nd St. March 20–April 20 $38–$48, 215-922-1122 www.ardentheatre.org