Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Could we please get an English translation of Shakespeare?

John McWhorter says what everyone has thought but no one is supposed to point out about Shakespeare:

One writer beautifully captures the mood of most audiences at Shakespeare performances as "reverently unreceptive," "gratified that they have come, and gratified that they now may go." One need only take a look at the faces in the lobby as the audience files out — the gray-haired gent's polite grin, the thirty-something couple's set jaws, the adolescent girl's petulant weariness — with general interest oriented suspiciously more towards getting to the rest room and planning where to go for a bite than in discussing the play. . . .

The problem is whether Shakespeare's English is the language we speak at all. English of the late 1500s presents us with a tricky question: At what point do we concede that substantial comprehension across the centuries has become too much of a challenge to expect of anyone but specialists?

The foremost writer in the English language is little more than a symbol in the actual thinking lives of most of us for the simple reason that we cannot understand what the man is saying. . . .

I submit . . . that Shakespeare be performed in translations into modern English. I do not mean the utilitarian running translations in textbooks, but richly considered ones, executed by artists equipped to channel Shakespeare to the modern listener with passion, respect and care.
One commenter on his post, "Simon Greenwood," says:
Half the appeal of Shakespeare is that it's inaccessible, though. If it were possible to understand what was going on then it'd no longer be on its special perch but on the same level as contemporary art. Going to see Shakespeare would no longer be a rite of flagellation to prove your place in the cultural elite but instead directly comparable to going to the movies or watching the boob tube. It may even move some theaters out of the hallowed ground of squeaking by on donations, a la NPR, and instead being crass low-brow self-sustaining businesses.


Jason (the commenter) said...

As someone who reads older works I can say from experience that the language becomes much more understandable if you spend some time with them.

Before you go see a play go buy a cheap copy from the Folger Shakespeare Library and read it. Then you'll know what the hell is going on.

If you want a modern translation try High School Musical or West Side Story. But if you expect a more word for word translation expect to be disappointed.

I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

Try translating that and not sounding insipid or using many more words.

Ann Althouse said...

Charles Lamb's "Tales from Shakespeare" (1807) is really good. Not in play form though.

John said...

Seems like a great idea. I never much got Shakespeare anyway. Why is he - today - considered the best writer in English ever? He was writing when the language was still very new. I'd like to think we've made some progress and improvements since then. Maybe he was the best writer of his time. But it's not like there was tons of competition. Most people were illiterate. Today's best scriptwriters, screenwriters, etc are probably a million times better than Shakespeare.

I think one concern is when you see people say that if you take out the original language, you're only left with unoriginal plots and silly jokes and puns. Well, maybe we're scared that Shakespeare really isn't all that great, once the dust clears.

Anonymous said...

True, the quote from MacBeth in Jason's comment is an example of the kind of shock and power that would be lost if Shakespeare were to be messed with. As with any form of translation, "touched up" versions of a Shakespearean plays would lack the magic, in my opinion.

However, I don't think there's a problem with having more accessible options available, as long as the originals weren't eradicated altogether.

That way, those who still choose to seek out Shakespeare's language could find it, and those who want to experience a taste of the classic plays without the sometimes-cryptic and/or archaic elements could also be exposed to the famous plots.

Jason (the commenter) said...

John, Shakespeare lived during a transitional period and used everything around him for inspiration. Also he worked under heavy censorship and had to keep things vague. Because of all this his writings can be interpreted in many different ways. That is a big part of their value.

Different productions of the exact same play can be about vastly different things. Directors often drop scenes or lines to further enforce their vision.

Now, once someone "translates" Shakespeare's words into "modern" language those layers would be lost and only one interpretation (that of the translator) would remain. It's usually just easier to steal Shakespeare's ideas and redo them (like in West Side Story) rather than having to worry about doing the original justice.

If you would like to learn more about Shakespeare and the theater I would recommend the excellent Candaian TV series Slings and Arrows, which completely kicked ass.

Anonymous said...

i completely agree with you john. reading the book was painstaking, watching the bbc movies torture. i couldn't wait to sell back my shakespeare book. i sometimes think that maybe i should have kept my book for nostalgia, but nothing yet has motivated to reread shakespeare despite continued education and maturity - a gulf between me and english professors - a reason why i have chosen to advance study in education rather than in english. i appreciate the commentary of loyalists, but please, i prefer modernity.

John said...


Shakespeare is the greatest writer because he had to go to some lengths to become successful in his day and age?

What I think you're saying is that Shakespeare is valuable - particularly so - because each succeeding generation has been able to put its own take on him. But does that have anything to do with his own virtues as a writer?

Does that make him a great writer? I thought writing was supposed to be clear, concise, easy to understand, etc?

Jason (the commenter) said...

John, I'm not saying he's the greatest, just one of the greats. Being able to be appreciated for several hundred years is an accomplishment.

John : I thought writing was supposed to be clear, concise, easy to understand, etc?

One of my favorite authors has a character named (and this is all ONE character's name): Excellentissimo Domino Jeronimo Alejandro Peñasco de Halcones Quinto, Marchioni de Azuaga et de Hornachos, Comiti de Llerena, Barcarrota, et de Jerez de los Caballeros, Vicecomiti de Llera, Entrín Alto y Bajo, et de Cabeza del Buey, Baroni de Barrax, Baza, Nerva, Jadraque, Brazatortas, Gargantiel, et de Val de las Muertas, Domino Domus de Atalaya, Ordinis Equestris Calatravae Beneficiario de la Fresneda

The story the character appears in was published in three volumes in 2003 and 2004.

march said...

frank mccourt - "teacher man"

Zachary Sire said...

No way!

Part of the benefit, and beauty, of learning to understand Shakespeare is that it makes us better communicators and writers in modern English. There's an obvious brilliance to his work that transcends time. Understanding and dissecting Shakespeare only makes your own writing more clear because you have a deeper appreciation for the craft of writing. Plus, it actually exercises your brain and makes you a better thinker.

It's just like learning French or another foreign language. I (humbly) believe that I'm a better writer and reader today because I've learned another language. You have a wider frame of reference, and a deeper understanding of how sentence construction and syntax works. You use the words that, hopefully, get your point across in the most direct, succinct way. And with that said, goodnight!

summer anne burton said...

I'm a little late to the commenting, but I'm firmly with Zachary and Jason on this one.

Studying Shakespeare in high school was one of the, if not the very most, formative educational experiences I had.

I disagree that writing is 'supposed' to be clear and concise. Journalism, maybe. But poetry? Fiction? Not always. One of the joys of reading (and particularly of reading Shakesepare) can be struggling to discern layers of meaning and beauty. And it's not impossible or reserved for the intellectually superior. As a fifteen year old, I could open a page of Hamlet and admittedly be overwhelmed and confused. But with time and study, on the same page I would discover a world of meaning, metre, and beauty.

I wish Shakespeare was taught differently in school, but not with modern translations. I was spoiled by a passionate, funny, patient drama teacher who explained everything from the importance of iambic pentameter to the racial implications of Othello. It'd be nice if everyone had someone like that, but I think it would be selling kids short to give them 'easy to understand' translations of Shakespeare's plays, depriving then of the depthness and richness of his language.

summer anne burton said...


Thank goodness for that formative Shakespeare study that made me such a great writer! Good grief.

This is why I should really give my comments a once-over before hitting 'publish.'

Kent Richmond said...

I am the translator John McWhorter mentioned in his article. Here is how I translated the passage that Jason had doubts about.

....I’ve shared my milk and know
How sweet it is to love a nursing babe.
And yet, while it is smiling up at me,
I’d pluck my nipple from its boneless gums
And dash its brains out if, as you have done,
I’d said I’d do it.

This passage is now just a bit easier to follow yet has the tone and rhythm of the original. It even maintains the iambic pentameter.

See more about my translations at http://www.fullmeasurepress.com