Thursday, 28 April 2016


“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.

Thursday, 21 April 2016


April 23rd: four hundred years since the death of William Shakespeare.

A couple of weeks ago I made my own modest contribution to the Shakespeare celebrations.  I was invited to speak to the Cumbrian Literary Group and decided that it had to be a Shakespeare talk.  I considered how a playwright who died 400 years ago became such an iconic figure of English literature.  It was my first powerpoint talk (never act with animals, children or technology) and, once I had got that sorted, I was able to liven things up with pictures of some of the key people who contributed to Shakespeare’s reputation over the centuries. 

Shakespeare’s plays seem to be infinitely malleable – they have been exported and translated all over the world, staged in weird and wonderful costumes and settings, interpreted to provoke thought about the politics of the day, edited, rewritten, and turned into operas, films, cartoons, musicals.  They have influenced artists, composers, novelists and poets. 

I’m fascinated by the way poetry can explore the characters imagined by Shakespeare.  Auden’s virtuoso The Sea and the Mirror consists of monologues in the voices of the characters in The Tempest.  It is also a compendium of poetic forms - each character is given a different poetic form.  It’s brilliant, though I do find Caliban’s prose section (lesser characters traditionally spoke in prose in the plays) somewhat impenetrable.

Still on The Tempest a fellow Cumbrian poet recently recommended Michael Hamburger’s “Gonzalo’s Afterthoughts” (Collected Poems 1941 -94).  It’s in the voice of Gonzalo, one of those good old honest counsellors in Shakespeare’s plays, and it begins after the play has finished:

“A happy ending?  Well, we might have carried
Corpses away, as usual, clamped into doom’s

But no, “We all went home”.  The poem goes beyond the play’s characters to consider illusion, creativity, dreams, imagination.  Gonzalo concludes “There is no end”.  This is a wonderful poem, worthy of many re-readings.

Samuel Johnson wrote of King Lear: “I was so shocked by Cordelia’s death that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play until I undertook to revise them as editor”.   Not a play to take a child to see, one would think, but Gillian Clarke was taken to see Lear at Stratford at the tender age of ten.   The experience fed into her poem “Llŷr” which blends Shakespeare, the Welsh Mabinogion stories and the Warwickshire and Llŷn landscapes. 

I’ve been reading Malcolm Carson’s new collection Route Choice recently and been intrigued by his Edgar poems.   There are six in the new book, but there are also seven at the end of Rangi Changi and a tentative three in his first volume Breccia. 

Edgar in Lear is an embodiment of the theme of appearance and reality which is so common in Shakespeare’s plays.  He changes from naively over-trusting brother, to “Poor Tom”, to anonymous warrior who kills his half-brother Edmund, to the moral good guy who restores order at the end of the play.  Even this is in doubt as there is textual debate over whether he or the Duke of Albany has the last word.  And order?  After what we have to go through in Lear order seems a simplistic term.  Rather a cessation of cruelty and violence.

It seems to me that it is Edgar’s capacity for morphing into different roles that Malcolm adopts for his Edgar poems.  So in Route Choice we have, for example, “Edgar Tends His Cacti” with the lines

“Too much love, too little,
  and all’s undone”

and “Edgar Regards His Attire”:

“Burrs cling to the troubled heart,
  Robin–run-the-hedge teases
  the skin to scratch away where nothing is”.

At Words by the Water last month I heard Andrew Dickson speak on Shakespeare world-wide.  He talked about how the situations in the plays have parallels with people’s experiences today.  In The Comedy of Errors, behind the knockabout comedy, there are journeys, mistakes, strange cultures, disasters.  Aegeon has spent five years searching for those he loves, he is arrested and put on death row.  Exile, refugees, imprisonment – news stories which don’t change with the centuries. 

On and off over the last few years I’ve been writing poems based on characters in some of the plays, (sometimes the minor ones – “Boy” in Henry V is probably my most obscure).   One character I’ve found fascinating is Cressida in Troilus and Cressida.  She has had a bad press – as true as Troilus, as false as Cressida is the persistent refrain from Shakespeare, as well as Chaucer and Robert Henryson.  But all these accounts are written by men, and I thought it was time to hear Cressida’s voice.  I would like to add that Cassandra wasn’t the only woman whose words were ignored.


Because you won’t believe me I will speak
the truth.  I woke up one morning and knew
that war would go on for ever, each side
claiming victory (only the merchants do well –
the procurers of flour, fish and flesh).
With one night’s pleasure Venus took my name
for a debt I cannot redeem.  In Troy
there is nowhere to hide.  Once, as a child,
I rolled a loom-weight down the stairs and watched
it smash on the final step.  A hostage exchange –
that’s all it ever was.  When I entered the Greek camp
the common soldiers pawed my skin, the lazars
begged with cop and clapper.  Read me truly –
sister of the first casualty of war.

© Mary Robinson 2011

(First published in Envoi issue 160, October 2011)

Wednesday, 6 April 2016


Today I visited the Outer Hebrides for the afternoon. 

   This shattered place, this place of fragments,
   A play of wind and sea and light,
   Shifting always, becoming and diminishing.
   ‘Hebrides’ from Salt and Light Kenneth Steven
   (Saint Andrew Press 2007)

I went to see the exhibition of photographs From the Land by Ian Lawson.  The images are taken mainly on the Isle of Harris and are completely absorbing to look at.  I felt as if I was there, out in the uncertain weather (there are no cloudless skies), hearing the wind and the waves, watching the crofters working their sheep.  

A picture of the vast sandy bay of Luskentyre reminded me of Norman MacCaig’s Aunt Julia (from the Isle of Scalpay) buried in ‘a sandy grave at Luskentyre’.  Several photographs featured the bare rocky landscape of the east part of Harris, where islanders in the past painstakingly built up the ironically named ‘lazy beds’ with seaweed taken from the shore (I overheard one person explaining what she called ‘the olden days’ to her grandchild).  The grassed over straight lines of the lazy beds could be seen perched above the shore in the image of the Old Post Office at Manish.  The picture  was a reminder of the way the Hebrides have changed:  this post office was ‘once home to the only telephone in the area ... a vibrant hub of community and communication ... letters from war-torn Europe, parcels to exiled family, an influx of news and goods’.  It’s a solid building, built of good quality quarried blocks of stone.  But now the rust red corrugated iron roof is fraying at the edges, birds fly in through glassless windows and sheep are the only customers, wandering in through the blank doorways.

But the vibrant colours of the photographs, especially of flowers on the machair, prevented me from lapsing into melancholy.  It’s good that Harris Tweed is thriving and provides additional employment on the Outer Hebrides.  The exhibition is held in collaboration with the Harris Tweed Authority and there is some interesting information about the making of Harris Tweed in the 21st century (no urine as a mordant now!).  The rich colours of the landscape are shown alongside the same colours in the tweed (if you thought Harris Tweed was just a – tweedy green, think again!).  I learnt some of the names for the weaving patterns:
‘bird’s eye’, ‘barleycorn’, ‘herringbone’ (how appropriate – the ‘silver darlings’ were once a big part of the economy of the islands).

The photographs are accompanied by a lyrical, romantic commentary.  Ian Lawson’s manifesto is ‘Documenting the places I have come to love’.  Is there a word to denote love of a place or a landscape?  Topophilia.  It sounds like a pathological condition.  Perhaps it is – but many of us have it.

Harris Tweed: From the Land is on show at Rheged near Penrith until Sunday 15 May 2016.