“How can anyone translate Shakespeare?”
asked an audience member at the end of my Shakespeare talk to the Cumbrian Literary Group recently. The questioner was clearly dubious that the language of the plays could be transferred to another tongue with any degree of success.
I thought of Shakespeare’s puns, his imagery, his delight in specialist vocabularies – such as thieves’ cant, that ridiculous hairy exchange between Launcelot Gobbo and Old Gobbo in the Merchant of Venice - the scene itself a skit on the Biblical Isaac and Jacob. (I also thought of the time I tried to explain to a young German friend the English colloquialism “Pull the other leg, it’s got bells on”. Her eyes widened in increasing disbelief as I started to tell her about Medieval jesters). Alas, I completely forgot the performances of Shakespeare’s plays in 38 different languages at the Globe in 2012 to mark the Olympics.
Time was short. I fudged the answer. “Yes, it does seem extraordinary, but Shakespeare has been translated into and performed in a large number of languages all over the world.” Later, poet and translator, Chris Pilling, who happened to be in the audience, muttered to me, “One day I’m going to do a defence of translation”.
I know people who refuse to read translations, even though it means depriving themselves of fine literature written in a language they do not understand. Their assumption is that translation is not even second best, that too much is lost in translation. Perhaps they have ploughed through a poor, stilted translation, where readability has been sacrificed to a rigid literalism.
But the best translations can take us into the world of the original text and also relate to the reader to such an extent that we forget we are reading a translation. I think of Anthea Bell’s superb translations of W G Sebald and Asterix, Sandra Smith’s translations of the French novelist Irène Némirovsky, Clive James’ Dante. Working in the other direction it’s said that Germans think Shakespeare is better in German than in English. Goethe and Schiller adopted Shakespeare as a classic of German literature: “unser” (our) Shakespeare.
I’ve been discovering a few things that have been gained in Shakespeare translation, rather than lost.
*Andrew Dickson states that the wall in the rude mechanicals’ play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be translated in German as Die Mauer. So what? we might think. Except that Die Mauer was also the name given to the Berlin Wall. Lovers separated by a wall – the irony was not lost to German speakers in the days of the Cold War.
**Vahni Capildeo has written illuminatingly about translations of Hamlet’s words about death in the famous “To be, or not to be” speech:
“That undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns.”
Here’s Pierre Le Tourneur in the late 18th century with a colonial spin: “Cette contrée ignorée dont nul voyageur ne revient.” The word “revient” also suggests “revenant” (ghost, as in Hamlet’s father). Victor Hugo in the mid 19th century has “cette région inexplorée” and I think of Livingstone in Africa. André Markowicz translated the phrase as “Cette inconnue dont les frontières/Se referment sur tous les voyageurs.” A strange land where the borders close on all travellers is chillingly contemporary. André Markowicz’ translation was published in 2009 – his words are even more apt today when we think of the plight of thousands of refugees for whom the borders have closed.
As Vahni Capildeo says “Translation captures the conscience of the time”.
*Andrew Dickson Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe (Bodley Head/Penguin Random House 2015).
**Vahni Capildeo “Use All Gently” PN Review 42:3 January- February 2016, issue 227.