Shakespeare: To Translate, or Not To Translate? Interesting question.

There is a wonderful article by John McWhorter on the TCG website right now, and it’s in the January American Theatre magazine.

His premise is that the world would be better served if we started translating Shakespeare, from the centuries-dead language that happens to sound like ours, into modern English.

A snippet:
I submit that here as we enter the Shakespearean canon’s sixth century in existence, Shakespeare begin to be performed in translations into modern English readily comprehensible to the modern spectator. Make no mistake—I do not mean the utilitarian running translations which younger students are (blissfully) often provided in textbooks. The translations ought to be richly considered, executed by artists of the highest caliber well-steeped in the language of Shakespeare’s era, thus equipped to channel the Bard to the modern listener with the passion, respect and care which is his due.

It’s a great article, with some solid points, and I think I could be swayed into agreeing with him.

What does anyone else think?

10 thoughts on “Shakespeare: To Translate, or Not To Translate? Interesting question.

  1. I think that what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare is his words, his language. Without them, it’s not Shakespeare anymore, it’s just the stories, which weren’t his to begin with.

  2. This is what happens for me– I hope it happens this way for other people, because I love it–
    At first the language washes over me and I can’t really decipher it all, but if I relax and don’t try too hard, I “get” most of what’s going on. Then, as I begin to enjoy the story and the characters, the language stop being an obstacle (entirely) and becomes part of the art, part of the story, part of the experience. I don’t mind “translations” and adaptations, but they don’t have the eureka moment when my ear finds the rhythm and begins enjoying that aspect.

    • Mary, I love this description – you’re right, a lot of times when I see a play I have a moment like this.
      I have a tendency to think of the first few minutes of a play as the ‘rule-setting’ time. We learn the conventions, the rules of the game are set for us to follow, and I love those moments when we ‘get it’… especially when they’re followed by a good story that drags us in with more surprises!
      Thanks for sharing!

  3. I’ll re-post a comment I posted on Facebook here, to clarify my position:
    (And to be clear: I’m not advocating anything, I just found it interesting. I DO think part of the reason so much of the general populous groan and picture long nights of watching men in tights saying incomprehensible things is from years of productions with the difficult language not being handled well…)
    Maybe the simplest answer is the approach we should try to take with every play: whatever the language, tell the story effectively and evocatively!

  4. C. Hayes (who doesn’t have an LJ account) says:
    Sure, there’s room for an approach like this. Shakespeare has gone through a lot of interpretations and approaches, from Complete Works to this new version of Romeo and Juliet that I wish to God I could go see:
    It would be an interesting exercise to see how a competently translated version would play. Plus, it’s not like we’re burning the folios, here. It’s not an all-or-nothing decision.
    Finally, I saw the Blackbird’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream back in October, directed by Bart Bund, and the dialogue there was as smooth as conversational English. I understood it more easily than when I was IN A Midsummer Night’s Dream — proof positive that Shakespeare doesn’t have to be intimidating to audiences. So perhaps a more pressing question is, how can we better instruct actors and directors to stop treating Elizabethan English like a foreign language?

  5. “It’s not like we’re burning the folios here.”
    That’s a great way to look at it, too – and by that I mean this: The more I read folks answers, and think about it, the more it seems to me that this “translation” of the pieces should be done, but it should be done in the same spirit as ANY of the “conceptual productions” of Shakespeare are.
    I mean his works are often placed in specific locals and times that are there to, in theory, “enlighten” us or “heighten” some aspect of the story – we see it all the time: Shakespeare in WWII, Shakespeare staged with street gangs from the ’60s, Shakespeare in Africa under apartheid… all because someone said “This would be a neat way to see this classic, and it might be a neat way to try and tell the story cleanly.” Well, if that’s the case, wouldn’t translating the text into 20th century English be another way of doing that?
    And, as you said Carolyn, NOT replacing the originals, but simply another version out there for people to see.
    Just my 2 cents for today… who knows, tomorrow I may have a whole different take on it! ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Shakespeare Translation
    McWhorther mentions my Shakespeare Translation Project in the article. Those interested in seeing what fully realized translations look like can view excerpts an or
    By the way, Michael Boyd, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has talked about commissioning Shakespeare translations to premiere during the Summer Olympics in 2012.
    Kent Richmond

    • Re: Shakespeare Translation
      Thanks for checking in and commenting! It’s a fascinating topic, one that clearly spurs a lot of conversation. I hope all of your projects continue to go well!

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