Saturday, October 3, 2015

Translating Shakespeare for English Speakers: An Act of Cultural Survival?

RSC Production of As You Like It

No playwright is more translated and adapted than Shakespeare, as (almost) every culture seems to have an insatiable need to meet his work half-way, inspiring many of the great writers and poets (and directors) to coin their own Shakespearean language. Given this, you would think that English speakers praise their lucky stars to be have this amazing literature born from their mother tongue, which requires no artful translation or extravagant staging. You can simply crack open King Lear or The Tempest and have at it. And yet, so many English-speakers, and chief among them students, groan at the very mention of Shakespeare and his all-but-unreadable language, which they often claim is “old English.” A Shakespeare play no longer draws throngs of eager pilgrims as it once did, as many claim the plays are too remote, too obscure, and require someone explaining all the business on stage. If only he could just speak “English” so it would all make sense! Indeed, many audiences find themselves lost in a labyrinth of language which leads them in circles, at least until they grasp at the coattails of a plot. This has inspired many theater companies to severely edit the plays, removing strange references and shortening lengthy speeches of verse. Some go even further and attempt a complete translation, making Shakespeare’s characters speak “our” language (wherever “we” are at the moment), so the audience can enjoy a simple night’s entertainment without having to pull up Spark Notes on their cell phones.

Clearly, Shakespeare needs some help: if audiences can’t understand his language, and his plays were meant to be performed for audiences who are hearing/seeing, and not reading, isn’t clarity an absolute necessity for performance? A recent article in The Wall Street Journal advocates just this, supporting a modern-language translation by Conrad Spoke (you can find the article here:  In the article, John McWhorter writes,

“It is true that translated Shakespeare is no longer Shakespeare in the strictest sense. But are we satisfied with Shakespeare’s being genuinely meaningful only to an elite few unless edited to death or carefully excerpted, with most of the rest of us genuflecting in the name of “culture” and keeping our confusion to ourselves? Should we have to pour laboriously over Shakespeare on the page before seeing his work performed?”

I agree with this statement in one essential: Shakespeare should not be a museum piece, curated for a hand-picked elite. Shakespeare wrote for the masses, combining high and low culture, comedy and tragedy, the most up-to-date references with the most antiquated mythology. So yes, he needs to speak to the audience—whoever they are, wherever they are. However, I also want to suggest something equally important. Shakespeare is literature, an artificial performance that echoes life without pretending to be life. Literature becomes dated the moment it’s written down, and sometimes a month or two later requires translation to understand every single world or reference (imagine how impenetrable Seinfeld will be in 50 years!). By this logic, anything we don’t understand 100% needs to be translated and edited and arranged to modern understanding, which itself will require a translation in a few years. In short, a “modern” language changes by the hour, so this is a fruitless enterprise, or one that is necessarily done for a few performances and then abandoned for a new translation. But that seems a pitiful reward for the Herculean task of translating Shakespeare, and deciding what beautiful words or carefully turned lines of imabic pentameter need to be shorn in favor of something more mundane—and possibly less inspiring.

Translating Shakespeare also suggests that his language was once 100% comprehensible and ‘modern,’ and thereafter, it slowly fell into decline, no longer speaking to its audience. But was this ever so? The demands of the Elizabethan/Jacobean theater were greater than those placed on any other era or playwright: to captivate the attention of multiple levels of society, the illiterate and the super-literate, when the gulf between the two was truly enormous, much more so than today. Could the groundlings (those who got in free and sat in front of the stage, where they could scarcely be see and be seen—the true reason to go to the theater, after all!) truly follow every word and reference in a play by the greatest playwright of the age? Indeed, how much more likely is it that we understand far more than they do, and how easily is our occasional ignorance corrected by the very technology at our fingertips?  In the same way, though the upper-classes were well-grounded in mythology and rhetoric, the chances are that many college graduates (in the humanities, at any rate) have read a wider range of books than they have, and stand a pretty good chance at catching most of the references, which are pretty standard: Greek mythology, English and Roman history, some French phrases, etc. In short, nothing that the liberal arts doesn’t prepare you for; and we still have those, at least for the moment...

I seriously challenge the idea that Shakespeare’s audiences followed him effortlessly through his hedge maze of language and logic: on the contrary, they were probably (and quite often) at a loss, which is why repeated performances were encouraged—and his plays were generally performed much more than many of his forgotten contemporaries. Indeed, Shakespeare’s plays appeared readily as quarto volumes on the street, and were one of the first works by a playwright to appear in a collected volume, the celebrated First Folio. Why? Because people wanted to read them, to decipher this or that speech, and understand what initially eluded them. This is why people continue to both watch and read Shakespeare, and why I don’t buy actors or theater professors who claim Shakespeare should be performed and not read. Quite clearly, we should do both, and ironically it is only in the 21st century that we are uniquely qualified to do both: innumerable editions of Shakespeare are available for pennies (or even free), and performances abound on DVD and You Tube. We could ostensibly watch every single performance ever committed to posterity and read every scholarly edition of his plays. Not something his contemporaries could do, and that certainly puts us a leg above them, doesn’t it?

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest the plays were incomprehensible to the original audiences, any more than they are incomprehensible today. Watch Macbeth and tell me you can’t understand the ins-and-outs of the piece. The same goes for The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, The Merchant of Venice, or Much Ado About Nothing. Sure, the histories are challenging, and the late, so-called “problem plays” are indeed problematic.  But are the works of Tom Stoppard grasped in a single hearing? As an undergraduate, I sat through his Arcadia and didn’t understand more than a few minutes here and there, and it was in absolutely ‘modern’ English. The same goes for Beckett or Brecht as well. Literature is challenging. But I would also argue that Shakespeare writes so well for the stage, and is such a masterful storyteller that the language never gets in the way. You always know what’s going on, particularly if you watch it on stage (true, it’s much harder if you start with the book—which is why you should watch it first).  Certain subtleties of meaning are lost, perhaps, but the plot is all there; the characters are dynamic and clear-cut; and the morals ambiguities all shine through.  The language isn’t a barrier to understanding, it’s an aid to it. They help you dive deeper into a character’s mind and thoughts, as well as appreciate the genius and humor of a single line or moment. All the clever linguistic tricks and puns are (largely) lost on a first-time playgoer. However, it’s all there to read at your convenience; then, when you return to the theater, you’ll hear and see things that escaped you the first time, and the play will become more exciting and entertaining. So it is with any work of art. 

What it comes down to, ultimately, is how art works: is art supposed to be taken, consumed, and disposed of all in an evening? Or is it supposed to be a gradual process, or even a never-ending process, more like a religious ritual or an education? Simply put, does Shakespeare ever have to end? Take music for example: even a pop album requires repeated listens to get into the songs, and some songs stubbornly resist memorization for years until one day, the music and lyrics click and it’s your favorite song. And these are 3-4 minute songs: imagine if Beethoven’s Third Symphony (clocking it at just short of an hour in most versions) had to be grasped and completely understood in all its complexity on a first hearing. Indeed, audiences were bewildered back in 1805—some didn’t understand a note, and most said it was too damn long! Now, of course, the music makes total sense, even seems tame when compared to later works of Mahler, Shostakovich, Bartok, and Schoenberg. So much for the original audiences not needing a translation!

Instead, we continue to live with Beethoven much the same as Shakespeare, never entirely getting a work, but appreciating the general shape, and slowly filling in the individual pieces.  Otherwise, a work would come and go and we would never think twice about it. This is why so many plays of Shakespeare’s time disappeared: they were composed for immediate consumption and then disposed of. They had nothing more to say. Not that this was unique for Elizabethan theater; The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, even Iron Maiden have survived the violent death of so many other rock and metal bands of their day. Why? Because we didn’t get them at once; they required time and thought, and the slow maturation of our own understanding. Their music as a performance continued to grow in our minds, demanding that the musicians continue to perform it, even though it remains for all time on disc. Yet we love the idea that a work can change, even if slightly, in a new performance. In this way, music and theater remain one of the imperishable art forms, particularly if we pay heed to the original ‘music.’

Of course, many will argue that if Shakespeare sounds meaningless to playgoers, who will stick around to follow the plot—or read it again? To me, this comes down to the individual actors and director. Body language, intonation, props, and simple rapport with the audience can make even the most arcane speech come to life and have surprising relevance. Words and not just words in the theater: they are props and costumes, to be used and displayed by their actors. The great actors (hell, even the pretty good ones) know how to do this. That’s why they study and train and perform. To act is to translate for an audience, the same in Shakespeare’s day as in our own. Speaking of the role of language in Shakespeare, the famous Shakespearean actor, Mike Gwilym noted,

“I think the main thing is to trust the language. Every actor comes to this point when he approaches a Shakespeare text. Especially in an emotional scene where he thinks, “I know exactly how this character feels, I know the depth of his passion, and I know about what his brain is doing, but why have I got these flipping words in the way?” We have to come to terms with the fact that a character is not just what he says but how he says it.”

In other words, even the actor often pauses at the language and thinks, “my God, can’t I just say what I feel, what I know?” But ultimately he/she realizes that the language is the character; to change a word would be to change the character, how he/she thinks, feels, performs their role in the world. Another great Shakespearean actor, the late Alan Howard, remarked,

Elizabethans…didn’t have the distractions we have in our day. They depended more than we do on the spoken word. It was like food, and they probably used words much more sensually, almost eating words.”

To me, this is the most profound point of all: though Elizabethans weren’t necessarily smarter or better read or wiser than we are, they were more aware of the sound of words. Imagine, they lived in a world without the endless white noise of words all around them. No television, no radio, no commercials, no billboards. Words were relatively rare in such an environment, so each one meant something, and the levels of speech were felt much more keenly. They would “eat” words since words contained everything they needed for sustenance: even social rank was carefully encoded in a speech, as a servant couldn’t use his master’s language. This is captured so beautifully—and often, obscenely—in Shakespeare’s plays, when verse and prose clash, the music of two worlds, mixing like a great symphony of human thought. Should we translate this music away, making it more clear at the expense of its linguistic architecture? Hmm...why not re-write a few of Bach’s fugues while you’re at it! 

As a final test of this theory, look at a random “great speech” from one of his later plays (to compound the difficulty)—a moment when Antony’s servant, Enobarbus, describes to eager Romans what it’s like to view the full glory of Cleopatra’s beauty:

The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne
Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them. The oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggared all description. She did lie
In her pavilion—cloth of gold, of tissue—
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-coloured fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did. (2.2 lines 197-211).

Is this speech obscure—impenetrable? Hardly. Enobarbus is merely saying that Cleopatra played a consummate role, dolled up in the stagecraft of her office. Music played all around her, servants added to her charms, but also paled against her own magnificence, which was designed to excite awe and arousal. The references here aren’t particularly trying: Cupid and Venus, which most grade-school kids have passing familiarity with (or anyone who has opened a Valentine). The trickiest points come in the syntax itself, which often sounds familiar but doesn’t always make sense on second thought. A good actor, of course, will deliver the tenor of this speech without effort: we know that Enobarbus was mesmerized, though at pains to explain why it moved him so. Clearly his description, for all its beauty, falls short of reality, as he himself claims: “It beggared all description.”  Yet when we look closer, individual lines excite us and we start to understand why it sounds so good. We might not understand why a melody works in Mozart, but when we listen to it again and again, or examine the score, we realize the art in a simple, sing-able tune. So, too, with this speech, and here are two examples:

The oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes

A beautiful image, but much more interesting when you visualize it all in your head: the flutes are keeping time with the oars, which also inspires the oarsmen to keep rowing, which in turn makes the boat go faster. Yet Shakespeare takes such an ordinary act and makes it ever-so-slightly dirty: the flutes stroke the oars which beat the water and makes it amorous of the oars. What a clever way to suggest sex in the very movement of her vessel!  Everything in this passage is racing to a climax. We might not be aware of this, yet when delivered by an actor, we’ll hear this nonetheless. The music, the melody is there, on stage, to be understood with our eyes and mind at another time (if we choose). Here’s one more:

On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-coloured fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did

A simple image: servant boys fanning Cleopatra, creating a languid spectacle of “Oriental” beauty. Yet the last lines are telling: the fans cool her by making her glow, and “what they undid did.”  Shakespeare loves twisting language like this, often using two words together that sound the same but have different meanings. What does it mean, “what they undid did”?  This sentence evokes the earlier passage of the oars, as each stroke arouses the water; so the boys, who are ostensibly cooling her down, are heating her up. By “undoing” her perspiration they are making her “hot” for the onlookers, who equate the driving music and the beating oars and the swaying fans with a symbolic orgy. Even the words are a pun of sorts, since “undid” suggests unclothing, and “did” suggests the deed is done. 

In short, everything around her hints at sex, and as Enobarbus looked at her, he realized that she was performing for him, showing off her power, making every man her willing slave. This is all the more amusing when you consider that in Shakespeare’s time, a boy/teenager was playing Cleopatra (no women were allowed on stage until after the Restoration); so what a performance it must have been, to have a young man masquerading as an ancient queen work his magic on the audience. Since we, the audience, have already seen Cleopatra do this in Act 1, this speech should confirm what the actor has already shown us. But the language adds to the spectacle, like another costume that once worn, changes how we see her forever. Sure, we could translate this, make it easier to understand, lose the metaphors, but then what? All that’s left is an old queen strutting her stuff for all and sundry. Sex is most exciting when it’s mysterious and poetic, hence the creation of Victoria’s Secret catalogues. All of them are ripping off Shakepseare, by the way! 

So I end with a final question: what harm is there in meeting Shakespeare on his own terms? You don’t understand him? A better question is, on what level don’t you understand him? Watch the entire play and you will understand the play. Will you comprehend every word, every reference? No, but in what book, or play, or film is this possible—or expected? Shakespeare’s plays are sublime works of art, that have transcended their age because they are so easily translated for new words and times. Ironically, it’s the language that does this: it allows new voices and actors to inhabit it, and when you mess with that, something remarkable happens: it seems silly and earthbound, like poring over Spark Notes of The Old Testament. Belief is in the word of God, not how someone annotates it. Not to equate Shakespeare with God, but in the theater, he is a kind of god, a god who represents the power of language to transform individual men and women into whatever the occasion demands. We believe in the actors because of the language, and the actors makes us believe in the power of the words. Translation is already occurring whenever an actor opens his or her mouth. Changing what comes out of that mouth defeats the purpose of acting. In the end we simply have to trust our actors and our audience (in other words, ourselves). Once we start ‘improving’ works we start doubting ourselves, and art itself becomes a relic of the past. 


  1. At your suggestion, I’ve read the WSJ article by John McWhorter (students in my Grammar course have also been reading him this semester, coincidentally).
    My thoughts:
    1) I don’t have a problem with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioning these translations as a marketing gimmick. Let a thousand flowers bloom.
    2) Based on the examples McWhorter provides, these “translations” seem more like interior decorating than foundation repair and are unlikely to have much if any effect on audience engagement.
    3) McWhorter vastly overestimates the difficulty Shakespeare’s dated language presents to audience enjoyment of the plays. By the end of the article, he has talked himself into arguing that most of us only understand “half” of Shakespeare’s work. But as you point out, in staged productions especially, an odd word here or there (even 10% of the words) is not going to interfere significantly with comprehension.
    4) I agree with you that the “strangeness” and the “difficulty” of Shakespeare’s texts are part of what make them valuable, in the same way that we value friends who have different perspectives and come from different backgrounds. That’s part of what makes human interaction interesting. And, as you point out, it’s also part of what makes us want to read and re-read Shakespeare.

    We're going to be discussing "Hamlet" in my Honors course staring on Friday, October 12. We'll dedicate 7 class periods to the play in anticipation of the ECU SCREENS event on November 7. I'd love to have you in as a guest, if you anticipate having a break in your busy schedule. We meet MWF from 1-1:150. Let me know when you get a chance.

    1. Yeah, I think if we only read Shakespeare and he was a "closet dramatist," then he would have more of a point. However, I enjoyed Shakespeare from my late teens on, and I certainly didn't understand all the language and references--but I loved the plays and the characters. To think that audiences long ago just got him and breathed him like air is erroneous, especially since the 18th century was constantly adapting and translating Shakespeare to make him "palatable" to their own audiences. I think we're more in tune with Shakespeare now than ever, generally. But yes, these translations aren't whole sale translations and are merely cosmetic, and therefore, almost beside the point.

      Hmm...I have class at 1 on MWF, so let me see if I can miss a period. I would certainly love to come (as always). I might be able to come this Friday...isn't the 12th a Monday? Today is the 4th, right? Well, let me know and I'll see what I can do in my Non-Western class. Thanks for reading and responding, too!

  2. Sorry for the confusion about the dates--my class will start discussing Shakespeare on Monday the 12th. We'll also discuss the play on the 14th, the 19th, the 21st, the 28th, November 4th, and November 6th. I should have checked to see if you had class from 1-2 before I mentioned this possibility!

  3. I can't do Monday, but let me see about the other dates...