Translations of Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva
December 21, 2006 issue
Paul Schmidt (1934-1999), translator, poet, actor, librettist, playwright, and essayist, was born in Brooklyn, the oldest of seven children. He received a degree from Colgate University in Russian studies in 1955 and, after a year of graduate work at Harvard, he moved to Paris, where he studied mime with Marcel Marceau and acting with Jacques Charon of the Comédie Française. Drafted in 1958, he served in the US Army Intelligence and on his release resumed his Russian studies; his doctoral thesis on “the stylized theater of V.E. Mejerxol’d” was published as Meyerhold at Work. For eleven years, Schmidt was a professor of Slavic languages at the University of Texas at Austin, where he won the Bromberg Award for Teaching Excellence. His Arthur Rimbaud: Complete Works was published in 1975, and translations of Russian poets, notably Marina Tsvetaeva, followed. A commission from the Dia Foundation supported his translations of Velimir Khlebnikov (four volumes published between 1985 and 1997), allowing him to leave academia and move to New York City. Working with the Yale Repertory Theatre, the American Repertory Theatre, the Guthrie, and other companies, he translated Euripides, Chekhov, Brecht, Genet, Gogol, Marivaux, and Mayakovsky, and wrote three plays of his own, winning the Helen Hayes and Kesselring awards for best play for Black Sea Follies. Providing text and often performing, he collaborated with the Wooster Group and with the avant-garde directors Robert Wilson, JoAnne Akalaitis, David Schweitzer, and Peter Sellars. He also acted in film and television, and in the 1970s devised “The Lost Art of Melodeclamation,” a program of nineteenth-century works for voice and orchestra, which he toured and performed with the pianist Yvar Mikhashoff, who transposed the works for keyboard. The Plays of Anton Chekhov, Schmidt’s translation of twelve of Chekhov’s plays, was published in 1997. From 1993 until the end of his life, he taught translation and dramaturgy at the Yale School of Drama.