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.



One thought on “Translating Shakespeare to English?”

  1. Rea­sons why Shake­speare should not be touched:

    1) Clos­er to the orig­i­nal is better.

    2) The Eng­lish style used then is far more poet­ic and beau­ti­ful than is today’s, mak­ing it clear­ly superior.

    3) Think of all the poor peo­ple who have already mem­o­rized the old style; they would sim­ply con­fuse any­one who is only famil­iar with the new style.

    4) And speak­ing of mem­o­riza­tion, the old style is more famil­iar, with sev­er­al pas­sages in com­mon use as idioms. Why mess with the sta­tus quo?

    5) Eng­lish has been defiled over the past sev­er­al hun­dred years and is far from as pure as it was in Shake­speare’s day. We call trash cans “waste recep­ta­cles,” for cry­ing out loud!

    6) The inabil­i­ty to under­stand the old style is noth­ing but an excuse; get an education!

    So clear­ly, Shake­speare should not be updat­ed to mod­ern English.

    Signed,
    King James Only­ists of the World

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