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Translating Shakespeare

Translation of Shakespeare’s works is almost as old as Shakespeare himself; the first German adaptations date from the early 17th century. And within Shakespeare’s plays, moments of translation create comic relief and heighten the awareness that communication is not a given. Translation also served as a metaphor for physical transformation or transportation. Claudius speaks of Hamlet’s “transformation” and asks Gertrude to “translate” Hamlet’s behaviour in the previous scene so that Claudius can “understand … the profound heaves”. Gertrude not only relays what Hamlet has just done but also provides her interpretations, as a translator would, of her son’s actions.

Henry V contains several instances of literal translation. The peace negotiations dictate that the English monarch marries the daughter of Charles VI of France, uniting the two kingdoms. The “broken English” in the light-hearted scene symbolises Henry V’s dominance over Catherine and France after the English victory at the Battle of Agincourt. One is unsure whether Catherine is speaking the truth that she does not understand English well enough (“I cannot tell”) or just being coy—playing Harry’s game, though Catherine eventually yields to Henry V’s request: “Dat is as it shall please de roi mon père”.

Given that Shakespeare used translated materials extensively, it is not a surprise that his plays are among the most frequently translated works today. Translating Shakespeare involves new semantic, semiotic, and cultural contexts. While European translators can draw on the shared Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions, the farther a language is situated from early modern English culture the more creative strategies of displacement a translator will have to deploy.

Translating Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech into Japanese, for example, will require substantial rewriting, because Japanese does not have the verb “to be” without semantic contexts. For the English sentence to make sense, the aphorism will have to be elaborated to specify what message the translator conveys and what values he betrays, but the punning value of the epigram will be lost.

In a collage of recitations of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech in different languages, drawn from actual performances, the vague, versatile, and “Swiss-knife” verb “to be” is as ambiguous in English as it is in many other languages. Sometimes it is translated as “to have” (but to have or not to have what!?), to do, to die, and so on.

William Shakespeare by hiroaki maeda. CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

Working with Japanese, a language more complex than English from a sociolinguistic point of view, a translator would have to wrestle with more than 20 first- and second-person pronouns to maintain the ambiguity and subtlety of gender identities in a play such as Twelfth Night. In addition to making the right choice of employing the familiar or polite style based on the relation between the speaker and the addressee, the male and female speakers of Japanese are each confined to gender-specific personal pronouns at their disposal. Before a translation can be undertaken, decisions will have to be made on the register and gendered expressions to convey Orsino’s comments about love from a male perspective and Viola’s apology for a woman’s love when in disguise as Cesario in Twelfth Night, or the exchange between Rosalind in disguise as Ganymede and Oliver on her “lacking a man’s heart” when she swoons, nearly giving herself away.

But limitations create new opportunities and bring translation closer to an act of performative interpretation. Differences in grammatical structure aside, bawdy language and puns also pose a challenge. The exchange between Sampson and Gregory in Romeo and Juliet presents an opportunity for innovation and self-censorship:

Sampson:   Tis all one, I will shew my selfe a tyrant, when
                    I haue fought with the men, I will be ciuil with the
                    maides, I will cut off their heads.
Gregorie:   The heads of the maides.
Sampson:   I the heads of the maides, or their maiden heads,
                    take it in what sense thou wilt.
Gregorie:   They must take it in sense that feele it.
Sampson:   Me they shall feele while I am able to stand,
                    and tis knowne I am a pretie peece of flesh.

Christoph Martin Wieland’s 1766 German version excised this scene in its entirety and begins with the encounter between Gregory, Sampson, Abraham, and Benvolio and the ensuing fight. Along similar lines, Goethe’s 1812 adaptation of the play (based on Schlegel’s verse translation) presents a sanitized version, turning Romeo from a volatile youth to a more responsible man. References to the lovers’ bodies are replaced by purified language. Juliet’s comment to her nurse that she will die “maiden-widowèd” because “death, not Romeo, take [her] maidenhead” (3.2.135-137) is rid of the reference to virginity. Cao Yu (1910-1996), an accomplished modern Chinese playwright, felt equally uncomfortable about the passage but approached the issue differently. Diverting the attention from maidenhead to the action of cutting off the head, Cao used the verb “gàn” to activate the latent connection between cutting off the maids’ heads and Samson’s later comment about his sexual prowess. “Gàn” has a very wide range of meanings from innocent daily usage to profanity, including to do, to get rid of, and to copulate.

Translations also shed new light on familiar Shakespearean passages. Consider for example these lines from Macbeth

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

The deliberate alternation between the Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) and the Latinate words suggests two pathways to and two perspectives on the world. The passage “translates” the words back and forth to draw attention to the color.

Act 1 Scene 3 of Othello offers another interesting instance (which is the focus of Tom Cheeseman’s multilingual crowd-sourcing project):

If virtue no delighted beauty lack,
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.

Translations of these lines into different languages deal with the meanings of “fair” and “black” rather differently. Mikhail Lozinskij’s Russian translation says “Since honor is a source of light of virtue, / Then your son-in-law is light, and by no means black.” Christopher Martin Wieland and Ángel Luis Pujante used white in German and Spanish (respectively) to translate “fair,” while Victor Hugo chose “shining.” It’s eye opening to see how translation opens up the text in new ways.

Featured image: Timeless Books by Lin Kristensen. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Chips Mackinolty

    In large part this represents not just the problem of “literal” translation, but translation over centuries, and the shifts of languages over time. I am working with a young Italian-speaking student, who–for better or worse–is having Dickens’ “Hard Times” as a senior high school text. As a well read English language speaker, the text is not comfortable for me–let alone the extensive tracts of what I assume are 19th century renderings by Dickens of northern English dialect, which I find very difficult at times! Both the English and dialect are at times pretty bloody impenetrable for me. Dante’s Inferno has been translated into English many times over the centuries into contemporary Englishes; why shouldn’t Shakespeare be treated any less? So that non-English readers/speakers might be able to approach his work from less rarified and problematic sources? At a certain point, the archaism of Shakespeare’s English may well deter non-English readers/speakers from bothering at all!

  2. Pir Kaleem Hussain

    God`s blssings upon some ersons with extraordinary talent along with suitable opportunity make people famous & popular, but how many genius couldn’t achieve their destiny. The famous writers no doubt had talent, but they had good opportunist also.. So Shakespeare was a lucky writer, whose literature is translated in almost all languages….. Pkchishty

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