MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Shakespeare in “Translation”


Stop right there: “Most educated people are uncomfortable admitting that Shakespeare’s language often feels more medicinal than enlightening.”

This absurd claim (“medicinal”??) is just one of the hopelessly faulty assumptions in John H. McWhorter’s Wall Street Journal piece “A Facelift for Shakespeare”, which attempts to argue the case for “translating” all of Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English — an initiative commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — “because Shakespeare’s English is so far removed from the English of 2015 that it often interferes [sic] with our own comprehension.”

This is the level of argument McWhorter puts forward: “It is true that translated Shakespeare is no longer Shakespeare in the strictest [sic] sense.”

Let’s not forget to rewrite those passages that make us “uncomfortable,” right? After all, they gave King Lear a happy ending back in the Restoration.

And why hesitate when it comes to the other arts? I guess Walter Murphy was way ahead of his time in 1976 when he translated Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to “A Fifth of Beethoven,” making it safe and trigger-free for the disco era:

Filed under: Beethoven, Shakespeare, stupid ideas

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. grinite12015 says:

    Bunch of crappo — What would be gained from “translating” Shakespeare? Consider what the loss would be?

  2. Thomas May says:

    I’m transferring the comments gathered from my Facebook posting of this:

    Just thought of the ideal solution: let’s go ahead and toss loads of commissioning funds for the “translations” and have them projected as surtitles while the actors perform Shakespeare’s text! (It’s my “Ariadne auf Naxos” solution.)

    Benjamin Donguk Lukoff It’s either that or educate folks
    Like · Reply · September 27 at 9:59pm
    Benjamin Donguk Lukoff
    Benjamin Donguk Lukoff Oh, wait—that’s what I get from commenting without reading. I like
    McWhorter and this seems specifically for performances. People have been “updating”
    the Bard all the time. As long as they don’t bowlderize… it’s not…See More
    Like · Reply · September 27 at 10:02pm
    Thomas May
    Thomas May Except this isn’t the argument about “updating” in performance — an approach I’ve always supported as a viable option for directors, designers, etc., when done with artistic integrity and deep understanding of the text. This is precisely about denying…See More
    Like · Reply · 1 · September 28 at 7:10am · Edited
    Benjamin Donguk Lukoff
    Benjamin Donguk Lukoff What’s the difference in your mind between translating Chaucer and Shakespeare? (Though I do agree reading the original with glosses is preferable.)
    Like · Reply · September 28 at 7:56am
    Thomas May
    Thomas May Shakespeare is first and foremost theater and is intended for the full reality of live performance. Which is why good actors and directors are able to do all the “translation” necessary. Otherwise you get at best a pallid version — it’s not just the “sense” of the words but their irreplaceable word music, which good actors know how to articulate.
    Like · Reply · 3 · September 28 at 8:07am
    Thomas May
    Thomas May See my other post about this, which has some very good comments from others.
    Like · Reply · September 28 at 8:07am
    Benjamin Donguk Lukoff
    Benjamin Donguk Lukoff OK. I was thinking in terms of written literature.
    Like · Reply · September 28 at 9:04am
    Benjamin Donguk Lukoff
    Benjamin Donguk Lukoff OK, took a look. So this is in fact about theatrical productions, eh?
    Like · Reply · September 28 at 9:23am
    Thomas May
    Thomas May Yes, that’s the travesty…
    Like · Reply · September 28 at 10:20am
    Thomas May
    Thomas May But certainly there’s no problem with reading a translation – nor is there anything new about that.
    Like · Reply · 1 · September 28 at 10:20am
    Thomas May

    Write a reply…
    Choose File
    Joseph Lavy
    Joseph Lavy The comparison to Chaucer is inexact. Chaucer wrote in Middle English, arguably a different language. Shakespeare wrote in Modern English. Early Modern, but modern nonetheless.
    Unlike · Reply · 4 · September 28 at 10:28am
    Thomas May
    Thomas May Good point. To which I’d add: a good teacher will make students aware of what’s being lost in translation with the Chaucer and inspire a desire to somehow try to make contact with the original. Whereas Shakespeare’s very language has informed a vast amount of the “English” we claim as moderns: not just specific vocabulary, but the substance and cadence even of non-“literary” discoure.
    Like · Reply · 3 · September 28 at 10:58am
    Benjamin Donguk Lukoff
    Benjamin Donguk Lukoff Certainly it’s inexact. Closer would be the King James Bible, I think. Although the dividing line between Middle and Modern English isn’t clear-cut… no such lines are, when it comes to language. But anyway, now that I realize we’re talking about theatrical productions, I don’t think we’re too far apart on this at all. When it comes to the plays, etc., as literature to be read, though, I still don’t think the existence of a more modern version is a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t replace the original. There is so much to be said for reading in the original, whether it’s Shakespeare or indeed Chaucer (it can certainly be done, with help) or something in an entirely different language. I think there’s a place for the “Bible in modern language” as well as the KJV, even though the KJV is said to be up there with Shakespeare in terms of contribution to modern idiom.

    I can tell you that Shakespeare was completely over our heads when we read him in middle school. I bet a “modern language” edition would have helped us better understand what we were reading and might have sparked an interest in literature in more of us than did what we read.

    But, back to the theatre, yes… either do it in the original language or adapt it somehow.


%d bloggers like this: