Words & Stuff

FFF: Plow Up Your Soul and Freeze Your Blood

(11 March 2000)

I heard a linguist, John McWhorter, on the radio last week advocating translating Shakespeare. "Well, of course," I thought. "Why would anyone object to translating Shakespeare?" My high school theatre department put on Romeo and Juliet and then took the production to the USSR; late in the trip, we met with a Russian theatre group, and we watched our Romeo and their Juliet perform the balcony scene in English and Russian, cuing each other by pauses and body language. So it seemed obvious to me that translating Shakespeare into other languages was a good idea.

And then McWhorter made clear that he was talking about translating Shakespeare into modern English.

My first reaction was "What a lousy idea." And then I thought about it more, and I had to admit McWhorter had a point: Shakespeare is often pretty incomprehensible to a modern audience. Most people don't object to providing translations of opera, or to the subtitles in a couple recent Scottish movies that make the accents intelligible to American audiences; would it be so terrible to make Shakespeare more understandable?

(For that matter, some Shakespearean lines are incomprehensible even to the actors: I always wince when I see an actor speak a line that they obviously don't understand, and I get annoyed when they cover by inserting some random sexual innuendo to get a cheap laugh.When Hamlet says "who would fardels bear, / To grunt and sweat under a weary life," if the actor doesn't know that a fardel is a bundle, he might grab his crotch and pump his hips while saying "who would ... fardels bear, / To grunt and sweat ... under a weary life" with an insinuating intonation.... I hate that.)

The problem, as McWhorter noted, is doing a good translation. Idioms, metaphors, cultural references, and puns don't usually make much sense when translated literally. The translator has to make decisions: if one phrase doesn't translate, should it be translated into an analogous phrase in the other language? Should it be translated literally, with footnotes added?

For that matter, the cultural foundations of a story may be so alien as to preclude any sort of reasonable translation. I vaguely recall reading about an anthropologist trying to introduce an indigenous tribe to Hamlet; the tribe's social structure was such that the characters' motivations made no sense to them.

Then, too, if you use current slang when translating to modern language, you'll have to re-translate every decade or two. The language used in the '60s in translating the Bible into then-current patois is laughable today. But if you're avoiding using current slang in a modern translation, how do you deal with slang phrases in the original? (If you were translating A Clockwork Orange into Russian, would you change all the Nadsat words? Also, what do you do with terms that are already in a foreign language? If a character says "That has a certain je ne sais quois," a French translation will be lacking a certain ... well, you know. And if you're translating into Spanish, what do you do with place names like Los Angeles?)

A true artist can sometimes work around such issues. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice says "...the earth takes twenty-four hours to turn around on its axis"; to which the Duchess replies, "Talking of axes, chop off her head!" Willard Espy notes that that pun doesn't work in French, but in a French translation Alice instead refers to the Earth making a complete revolution; the Duchess's reply translates roughly to "Talking of the Revolution, chop off her head!" Similarly inspired translation can be seen in Michael Kandel's renditions of Stanislaw Lem's work: in one story in The Cyberiad, a computer is asked to write a sonnet using only words that begin with the letter S. That would be difficult in any language, but I'd have thought it impossible to translate; Kandel not only translates it, but produces a perfectly good sonnet.

So for best effect, the translator should be as good a writer in modern English as Shakespeare was in English.

And it's hard to find someone who can do even a passable modern English translation. Chaucer is widely available in modern translations, but I've never seen one I've liked -- the prose translations lose a lot of the sound, and the verse translations perforce sacrifice some of the sense. And frankly, I don't think it's that hard to learn to read Chaucer's Middle English; it takes a little getting used to, and you may have to look at footnotes for vocabulary, but a lot of it is closer to modern English than it initially appears. On the other hand, I'm pleased with Michael Alexander's verse translation of Beowulf, because I'm not willing to learn Old English just to read the original.

By the way, Shakespeare himself may have been a translator -- I've read speculations that he was one of the people commissioned to translate the Bible into English, resulting in the venerable King James Version. Much of KJV is difficult to follow, sometimes to the point of incomprehensibility, and during several translation steps through various languages a lot of meaning in the earliest known texts got lost. Nonetheless, much of KJV contains lovely and poetic language, and more modern translations (even when closer in meaning to earlier texts) often sound harsh and flat in comparison. (Though to be fair, some of that is simply familiarity; almost all of the famous lines from the Bible come from KJV.)

In the end, I remain unconvinced that performing Shakespeare in modern English translation is a good idea. But I can't condemn it out of hand, either. Perhaps the best approach is what most of the best modern productions do: judiciously edit out some of the more obscure stuff, and use body language, intonation, and props to make meanings clear for the rest.


I realize I'm only brushing the surface here -- there are more issues in translation and performance and modernization than are dreamt of in this column. But I'm out of space and time. Maybe a future column will address some of the stuff I had to leave out. For example, why is modern dress considered practically de rigueur for Shakespeare, while modern language is a no-no?


Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>