“Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee. Thou art translated,” declares Peter Quince in A Midsummer Night’s Dream on catching sight of his friend who has been turned into an ass.
But does translation of Shakespeare turn the great playwright and poet into an ass? Is something always sacrificed and the result lesser, a form of Shakespeare-lite? Or, as the novelist Salman Rushdie has observed about his own and others’ work, although “it is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can be gained.”
I’m very much with Rushdie on this one, particularly when it comes to Shakespeare. Some of the most invigorating Shakespeare productions I have seen have been performed in tongues that I do not understand at all. Hamlet in German, Timon of Athens in Greek, Richard II in Arabic, Macbeth in Japanese and Catalan, Measure for Measure in Russian. I have enjoyed them all and would rate some of them amongst the greatest Shakespeare productions I have experienced, which suggests that the brilliance of the plays is not rooted in the language alone. If it was, why would anybody go and see them when we could just stay home and read them?
Of course, when Shakespeare is translated something inevitably gives, whether it is iambic pentameter, cultural allusions or metaphor. For those who think that what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare is language, and only his language, then something is sacrificed. Iambic pentameter is impossible to achieve in some Asian languages. In any language, approximations must always be found for puns and jokes, metaphors reimagined. Cultural contexts also change the work. Romeo and Juliet may be received quite differently in a culture where suicide is not seen as a tragic but rather an honourable action.
But the witty wordplay of Love’s Labour’s Lost becomes something no less entertaining or intricate when it is translated into British Sign Language as the deaf-led company Deafinitely Theatre did in 2012 for the World Shakespeare Festival at the Globe. It could be argued that the language of the play is celebrated and made all the richer by the fact that it suddenly has a striking visual component.
There is a story, probably apocryphal, about an American woman who went to see Olivier play Othello and was sorely disappointed by the production, telling him: “I saw it years ago in Brooklyn. It was in Yiddish and it hurts me to hear how much it loses in translation.”
It is quite possible that many theatre-goers from cultures all across the world who have only experienced Shakespeare in their native language would heartily agree with that disappointed woman if they were to see an English language version of one of the plays. All good translations of any play find ways to reinvent the original cultural context with something new and local.
Theatre-goers or movie-goers, unfamiliar with Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet might be disappointed coming to these plays if their first and only previous encounter with them was via West Side Story or The Lion King, both superb pieces in their own right and unashamedly owing a considerable debt to Shakespeare. But then Shakespeare himself was a magician when it came to translating one form into another and borrowing stories from around the world to use as the plots for his plays.
“Shakespeare,” says Joe Dowling, Artistic Director of the Guthrie Theater in Minnesota, “is American. He’s also British. He’s also French. He’s also Italian. He’s also Spanish. He’s Japanese.” Those living in Germany in the 19th century called him “unser Shakespeare” (our Shakespeare) and revered him alongside Schiller and Goethe.
As Andrew Dickson, author of Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys around Shakespeare’s Globe has observed:
Every performance of a play in whatever language is itself a form of translation—an attempt to reanimate sparse and often energetic texts.
Indeed, Grotowski suggested, there is no such thing as Hamlet, there is only a text that is an idea for a play called Hamlet. That will ring particularly true to anyone who has ever seen a performance of the rarely staged First Quarto. Watching it feels a bit like finding yourself in a familiar room where the furniture has all been moved around, some of it removed entirely and the walls painted a slightly different colour. Still completely recognisable but also a tad strange.
It makes you see and hear the play differently. Something similar happens when we see and hear Shakespeare in another language. As Dennis Kelly, Emeritus Professor of Trinity College Dublin, has said: “In English, Hamlet is a series of well-known quotations, in Chinese it is a new play.”
That was particularly true of Ken Campbell’s 1998 production of Macbeth in Pidgin (Makbed Blong Willum Sekspia) in which Lady Macbeth’s line “Come, you spirits/that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,” became the less poetic but remarkably vivid: “Seten, tekem mi hambag!”
Something similar happens when we see productions in English but not in Received Pronunciation, which for most of the 20th century was the only way that Shakespeare was produced in the UK.
Companies such as Northern Broadsides, in which actors speak Shakespeare’s language in their own native accents, and more recent productions such as Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Donmar Shakespeare trilogy, which included working-class and BAME accents, offer another way of us experiencing and hearing these plays afresh.
How Shakespeare has been heard and received down the centuries is yet another example of translation. After all, to 17th-century theatre-goers Shakespeare wrote in a language which was mostly understandable to them even when it was heightened. For modern theatre-goers, Shakespeare is written in an archaic language which requires simultaneous mental translation in order to fully understand. So, it’s perhaps not surprising that in 2015 the Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned 36 playwrights to translate 39 of Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary modern English.
James Shapiro, professor of English at Columbia and author of the brilliant 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, disapproved, arguing that “the only Shakespearean thing about his plays is the language.” Shapiro went on to make the very good point that often our failure to understand Shakespeare is less to do with the difficulty of the language and more with the inadequacy of the stagings. My own experience of watching Shakespeare is that while I seldom understand every word, in a great revival that is no barrier to understanding.
It is always well worth remembering that even the English language plays come down to us in mediated forms that have been edited by numerous hands. Just as each production is a form of translation, so each published version is too, reflecting the tastes and cultural shifts of that era. The First Folio offers an unfamiliar version of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech and at a different point in the play. Yet, when director Lindsey Turner experimented with moving the speech from Act III (where it sits in the commonly used Second Folio) during the Benedict Cumberbatch production at the Barbican in 2016 there were cries of “blasphemy.”
Once we accept that all Shakespeare, even when in English, comes to us in a form of translation, it becomes much easier to accept the idea that there is no single authentic version of any of the plays. It allows us to recognise that they are given new life every time they are translated into different languages and cultures and those productions are as much Shakespeare as the revivals produced by the RSC.