A pox on Shakespeare in “translation”

Hansel and Gretel

Perhaps high schoolers should simply be issued Little Golden Book editions of Romeo and Juliet

The latest bad idea is that Shakespeare needs to be “translated” for the benefit of bored schoolchildren who can’t make sense of 16th-century English. Reading about this recently gave us a slow burn. Emsworth has put a lot of time into learning to read and understand Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida; now reading Shakespeare is as easy for us as rolling off a log. But what was it all for, if this push for Shakespeare in “translation” catches on?

So we were relieved to see that Antoni Cimolino, boss of bosses at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, is stoutly against it. (See this article.) Relieved, but not surprised: as a classical actor, Mr. Cimolino has a lot more invested in the “original” Shakespeare than we do. Having him on the right side of the issue should guarantee that we’ll be able to hear the immortal and original (if sometimes impenetrable) language of Shakespeare in Stratford, Ontario, for at least a few more years.

Kent Richmond's Romeo & JulietWhat might Shakespeare in translation be like? Well, a fellow named Kent Richmond, who teaches English at some college in Long Beach, California, is already at it. He’s selling “verse translations” of King Lear and several other plays for your Kindle (also in paperback) (here’s his website), and he’s put a little of his new and improved Macbeth online.

Here’s some of it.  Macbeth, Act II, Scene 2. Macbeth has just heard Duncan’s death knell. Spurred on by his loving but bloodthirsty wife, he has gone off in the night to dispatch Duncan to the next world. Back in her chambers, Lady Macbeth wonders aloud how the murder is going. First, Shakespeare’s original:

[Within] Who’s there? what, ho!
Alack, I am afraid they have awaked,
And ’tis not done. The attempt and not the deed
Confounds us. Hark! I laid their daggers ready;
He could not miss ’em. Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done’t.

(These, we trust, are the lines we’ll hear later this summer in Stratford, where by coincidence Macbeth is on the playbill along with Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)  But here is Mr. Richmond’s “verse translation”:

[from beyond the door] Who’s there?—What’s that?

Oh, no! I am afraid they’ve woken up
And it’s not done. Attempt without the deed
Will wreck us.—Listen!—I laid out their daggers.
He couldn’t miss them.—Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I would have done it.

See how much better it can be said?  We don’t.  Mr. Richmond apparently thinks that the meaning of the phrase “What ho!” has become obscure over the centuries.  But P. G. Wodehouse, master of 20th-century colloquial English, clearly didn’t think so; in stories written from 1920 to 1965, his character Bertie Wooster  said “What ho!” all the time.

And who, really, would fail to understand Lady Macbeth when she says, “Alack, I am afraid they have awaked/And ’tis not done”? And what sort of person would want to banish “alack” from our vocabulary?  It’s a pearl of a word!  And who wants to pay good money to see Macbeth and hear Lady Macbeth say “Oh, no!”

And does Mr. Richmond really think that audiences will understand “Attempt without the deed/Will wreck us” any easier than Shakespeare’s original?

We have a few more questions. First, isn’t Shakespeare suspiciously popular for a playwright that audiences don’t “get”? Know how many theater companies exist mainly to put on the works of Shakespeare? Nearly 200 of them in the United States alone! (They’re listed here on playshakespeare.com.) Why try to fix something that ain’t broke?

Here’s another: When did Shakespeare suddenly become so hard to understand? Standard English really hasn’t changed much for nearly two hundred years. No one literate enough to read Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982) comfortably will have any trouble with Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford (1851).  Pride and Prejudice (1813) is read and loved more than ever.  If kids today have more trouble making sense of Hamlet than they did 100 years ago, the reason is not that the American language is changing, but that the kids aren’t being given the intellectual challenges that might prepare them for Hamlet.

John Mcwhorter

John McWhorter

One of our favorite thinkers, the usually sound John McWhorter, has unfortunately come out on the wrong side of this. In an article in The New Republic (here it is), McWhorter says that we’re so far away from Shakespeare’s time that “we cannot understand what the man is saying.” Understanding Shakespeare, he says, “has become too much of a challenge to expect of anyone but specialists.”  But he makes his case, in part, by quoting an  article in an 1898 issue of The Atlantic in which someone complained about a puzzling passage in Hamlet.  We say: if it’s been a problem that long, it’s one we can live with.

True, we’ve sat through Shakespeare performances ourselves (even at Stratford) where, for a minute or so, we didn’t understand what the actors were saying.  But more often than not the problem lies with inexperienced actors who (a) don’t seem to fully understand their lines and (b) merely speak the words without giving the audience the inflections, the pauses, the gestures that communicate meaning where mere words don’t.

When Shakespeare is acted well, one hardly notices obsolete words and phrases. Several years ago at Stratford, when the late William Hutt appeared in The Tempest, Prospero was as easy to understand than Walter Cronkite delivering the evening news.   We can almost say the same of this year’s Julius Caesar at Stratford (see this Emsworth review), so well acted that we don’t think there was a single line whose meaning that escaped us.

Why would anyone want to settle for Shakespeare filtered through someone else’s sensibilities? We don’t love the Shakespeare plays for their plots, but for the beauty and power of the language and for the playwright’s insights into human nature. But Shakespeare’s language, by definition, won’t survive a translation (you saw what happened to Macbeth!). And the insights won’t be the same either; language and ideas are too closely connected. We won’t have Shakespeare unalloyed anymore. No matter how beautifully a “verse translation” of Shakespeare turns out, there will be too much of the translator and not enough of Shakespeare.

Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

The musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (see this post)

The Ben Jonson play Bartholomew Fair (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)

The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)

The musical West Side Story (see this post)


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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “But understand that I am imagining how Shakespeare would likely say it if he were writing the play with today’s English.”

    But, Mr. Richmond, no one TODAY who is truly interested in ‘Shakespeare’ is interested in what you imagine about how he would write TODAY, any more than they might be interested in what you might surmise how Dickens or Chaucer–or Margaret Mitchell, for that matter, might write TODAY. The beauty of the language displayed through the literary character of the author and THEIR (not your) ability to employ that language is the point. I’m sure many, although I am not, are impressed with your ability to compose mundane language in iambic pentameter. Fine. Just please don’t have the egotistical audacity to call it “Shakespeare”. It is NOT, in any way, shape, or form. Let it be. Thank you so much.

  2. No doubt! But even though people are usually joking nowadays when they say “what, ho!”, my point is that we understand very readily that it was a serious greeting in Shakespeare’s time.

    I can only imagine that Bertie Wooster and his adolescent pals at the Malvern House Preparatory School attended a production of Macbeth and all snortled in a disgracefully juvenile way at “what, ho” and all the other antiquated words and phrases. After the show, I suppose, the boys simply kept saying “what, ho” to each other until that and other Macbethian phrases were integrated into their daily vocabulary. As Bertie never grew up, he kept using them all into his adulthood and brought them with him to the Drones Club. So I surmise.

  3. Citing Bertie Wooster (or any Wodehouse character) as exemplifying contemporary English in any decade is perilous to the point of foolhardiness.

  4. Mr. Richmond —

    You’ve found my weak point — I haven’t actually read any of your translations (or anyone else’s)! Perhaps I will now.

    I see your point: you weren’t confining yourself to paraphrasing the lines in Macbeth that are obscure, but were seeking to use contemporary idioms throughout.

    At any rate, I feel sure that you wouldn’t have undertaken the challenge of translating Shakespeare if you didn’t care for these plays as much as those of us who are content with the challenges of the original texts.


  5. Consider reading an entire Shakespeare translation to see the cumulative effect of more comprehensible language. Obviously we can understand much of what Shakespeare said, but reading through or listening to a 2500 line play certainly wears us down.

    You picked on “What, ho?” I also change “aye.” But understand that I am imagining how Shakespeare would likely say it if he were writing the play with today’s English. No one today would say “What, ho?” unless clowning. I wanted to avoid having a “neither here nor there” hodgepodge of old and new.

    By the way, Blackadder has fun with “What, ho?” in this Youtube clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5wxM4Anh7w

    Kent Richmond

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