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.

    King James Onlyists of the World

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