Translating Shakespeare to English?

Over at The New Repub­lic are duel­ing columns on the sub­ject of whether or not Shake­speare should be, effec­tive­ly, trans­lat­ed into mod­ern eng­lish. The pro argu­ment is deliv­ered by John McWhort­er and the con by Antoni Cimoli­no.

In the first place, this is a sil­ly dis­agree­ment. It is not like the orig­i­nal Shak­s­peare plays will be lost to future gen­er­a­tions if some­one rewrites them into mod­ern eng­lish (I own four com­plete Shake­spear­es myself!) So if some­one wants to make the attempt then best of luck to them. If some­one actu­al­ly man­ages a rewrite that is up to (or near­ly so) Shake­speare’s orig­i­nal, then that strikes me as a big win. And if they fail, then no loss. Just con­tem­plat­ing this is a good reminder of what one might be miss­ing when­ev­er read­ing a trans­lat­ed text. 

It hap­pens that I’ve been read­ing a lot of Shake­speare late­ly. I’ve read nine plays and in the mid­dle of num­ber ten. I start­ed by read­ing from The Yale Shake­speare edi­tion because each play is its own vol­ume so there is no heavy book to haul around. But for some rea­son, my The Yale Shake­speare does not include the three parts of Hen­ry VI and Richard III. So when I got to Hen­ry VI the choice pre­sent­ed itself of read­ing from The River­side Shake­speare or from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago’s Great Books edition.

The River­side is in one vol­ume with lots of notes and intro­duc­to­ry mate­r­i­al mak­ing it a large heavy book. The U of C edi­tion is in two vol­umes and no notes with just one page of biog­ra­phy mak­ing it a much eas­i­er book to han­dle. So I went with con­ve­nience over notes.

I dis­cov­ered almost imme­di­ate­ly that read­ing Shake­speare with­out the notes is more enjoy­able and, to my mind, more com­pre­hen­si­ble. Yes, I’m sure it helps that I took a cou­ple of Shake­speare class­es in col­lege (30 years ago!) and that I had just read sev­er­al plays with the notes before read­ing with­out the notes, but when I read Mr. Cimoli­no arti­cle in defense of the orig­i­nal plays it made a lot of sense. He points out that a tal­ent­ed actor will deliv­er the lines in such a way as to con­vey their mean­ing. I have found that read­ing straight through with­out stop­ping to look at a foot­note has a sim­i­lar effect.

Some­times I have had to read a giv­en speech or con­ver­sa­tion twice to under­stand it and I am cer­tain that there is plen­ty that I am miss­ing. I look for­ward to reread­ing the plays some­day to under­stand more.

The argu­ment in The New Repub­lic has more to do with the plays as per­formed than as read. I am not sure I’ve ever seen a per­for­mance of a Shake­speare play. I do remem­ber attend­ing an Eliz­a­bethan play and hav­ing a dif­fi­cult time fol­low­ing what was going on so I can sym­pa­thize with those who might pre­fer a trans­la­tion. But I felt that my lack of under­stand­ing had as much to do with not under­stand­ing what the actors actu­al­ly said as much as not under­stand­ing the mean­ing. So I also sym­pa­thize with the notion that com­pe­tent actors might make the mate­r­i­al more accessable.

And there is always the idea of read­ing the play before watch­ing the performance.

So, rewrite if you want, but like any trans­la­tion, it will nev­er be as good as the original.

The more things change…

About 410 years ago, Shake­speare wrote in The Sec­ond Part of King Hen­ry the Fourth:

Like one that draws the mod­el of a house

Beyond his pow­er to build it; who, half through,

Gives o’er and leaves his part-cre­at­ed cost

A naked sub­ject to the weep­ing clouds,

And waste for churl­ish win­ter’s tyranny.


And a love­ly addi­tion to the land­scape for the rest of us!

Unfinished house