Shakespeare in translation

  • Share on Tumblr

Wu Hsing-kuo as King Lear

Earlier this year Declan Donnellan’s Cheek By Jowl company toured the UK with their production of The Tempest in Russian. The Edinburgh International Festival is bringing two Shakespeare plays to the UK in August, The Tempest in Korean and King Lear in Mandarin. Last year The Globe Theatre in London staged a season of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets in German and next year they will host productions of the complete works in translation as part of the cultural Olympiad. What happens to Shakespeare in translation and why perform it to an English-speaking audience?

Four hundred year old iambic pentameter verse is not the easiest job for a translator. Andre Gide, who translated both Hamlet and Antony And Cleopatra into French, said,though there is no writer who deserves translation more than Shakespeare, he is without doubt the most difficult playwright to translate. But Peter Brook, who has directed Shakespeare in both English and French, thinks it’s worth the effort, ‘at home,a Shakespeare play is a cultural event. Its language is fixed in its archaic state, and the spectator guesses more than he understands. In an adaptation, by contrast, the actors use current words; the text has a direct, actual resonance.

So foreign audiences can see centuries-old classics rendered in their own language by the best contemporary playwrights but what does an audience with English as their first language get out of it? Declan Donnellan believes watching Shakespeare in translation shifts an English-speaking audience’s attention from the words to the action. ‘It’s limiting to think words are the most important part of the experience. The great writers all know that words don’t work, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Pushkin, these people all know that words don’t work very well. The words, the story, are a delivery system for experience, but it’s the experiences that matter.’

I’m not sure everyone would agree that Shakespeare’s words are an imperfect delivery system for experience but we certainly watch foreign language Shakespeare differently from English language productions. As John Russell Brown says in his essay, Foreign Shakespeare And English-speaking Audiences, ‘Well-known characters seem to move on that stage according to unfamiliar principles or unforeseen impulses…Ordinary reactions are bypassed or displaced, and perception is quickened.

The Japanese director, Ninagawa Yukio, presents Shakespeare within a Japanese theatrical tradition which transforms the work for a European audience. We get two experiences in one; the unfamiliar language and theatre conventions have a Brechtian verfremdung or distancing effect so we see a familiar play through fresh eyes and we also get to experience an unfamiliar form of  theatre via a story we already know.

But there is a grey area between cultural exchange and cultural imperialism. A contemporary of Ninagawa’s in Japan, Deguchi Norio, resists the ‘Japanisation’ of a European cultural icon. In his opinion, Ninagawa’s extravagant production of Macbeth with its cherry tree Birnam Wood, Samurai warriors and Kabuki witches reinforces a Western stereotype of exotic oriental culture, ‘you can’t cross borders by ‘Japanisation’. ‘Making it Japanese is already about marking a border where exoticism begins… For that reason, I don’t think we should emphasize our ‘Japaneseness’.

Do you agree with Donnellan or Deguchi? Do foreign language productions shed new light on the classic repertoire or are they just a novelty for audiences jaded from seeing too much Shakespeare?

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Author:Andrew Cowie

Andrew Cowie is an actor, director and freelance drama facilitator living in Birmingham, England
  • Frank Beeston

    The first Folio produced Hemminges and Condell is sufficient as a base to establish Shakespeare’s abilities with english and the beauty and power of his expression. We do not have the plays left to us in Shakespeare’s hand, so yes Andrew we rely on his fellow actors, printers,publishers and editors to furnish us  with what we must hope is an accurate picture, albeit somewhat modernised for our reception.
    Their contribution is worthy but still far less important than his !
    Plays were not for publication, being the property of the Theatre Group for whom they were written.
    The Sonnets, however, were published. They are the added evidence of his genius !

    I have read Proust (much influenced by Shakespeare) and find him hugely impressive, but that is in English and I understand French Scholars claim that even the most faithful translation is not as good or worthy as the original.

    One final thought .  I agree with the claim that Charles Dickens, among the greatest of writers – but in awe of Shakespeare,  wrote better prose than the bard.  As most of Shakespeare’s work is in verse, this does not allow Dickens equal rank and well he knew it !

  • Frank Beeston

    The first Folio produced Hemminges and Condell is sufficient as a base to establish Shakespeare’s abilities with english and the beauty and power of his expression. We do not have the plays left to us in Shakespeare’s hand, so yes Andrew we rely on his fellow actors, printers,publishers and editors to furnish us  with what we must hope is an accurate picture, albeit somewhat modernised for our reception.
    Their contribution is worthy but still far less important than his !
    Plays were not for publication, being the property of the Theatre Group for whom they were written.
    The Sonnets, however, were published. They are the added evidence of his genius !

    I have read Proust (much influenced by Shakespeare) and find him hugely impressive, but that is in English and I understand French Scholars claim that even the most faithful translation is not as good or worthy as the original.

    One final thought .  I agree with the claim that Charles Dickens, among the greatest of writers – but in awe of Shakespeare,  wrote better prose than the bard.  As most of Shakespeare’s work is in verse, this does not allow Dickens equal rank and well he knew it !

  • Frank Beeston

    The first Folio produced Hemminges and Condell is sufficient as a base to establish Shakespeare’s abilities with english and the beauty and power of his expression. We do not have the plays left to us in Shakespeare’s hand, so yes Andrew we rely on his fellow actors, printers,publishers and editors to furnish us  with what we must hope is an accurate picture, albeit somewhat modernised for our reception.
    Their contribution is worthy but still far less important than his !
    Plays were not for publication, being the property of the Theatre Group for whom they were written.
    The Sonnets, however, were published. They are the added evidence of his genius !

    I have read Proust (much influenced by Shakespeare) and find him hugely impressive, but that is in English and I understand French Scholars claim that even the most faithful translation is not as good or worthy as the original.

    One final thought .  I agree with the claim that Charles Dickens, among the greatest of writers – but in awe of Shakespeare,  wrote better prose than the bard.  As most of Shakespeare’s work is in verse, this does not allow Dickens equal rank and well he knew it !

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TIXT6IP5TPICIDPS7ERSFRLYGI Andrew

    I can’t argue with that, Frank, and I wouldn’t suggest that translations should replace the original versions but I have certainly found that I learn something new from watching Shakespeare in translation. I’m fascinated by the status of Shakespeare in Germany, where he is performed more frequently than in the UK, and our own love of translated playwrights such as Ibsen and Chekhov so a translation might have a different value from the original but that’s not to say it has no value. I also think it’s worth remembering that Shakespeare’s ‘mastery of the English language’  owes as much to contemporary editors and directors as to his original authorship. Every production has to choose between hundreds of sources and editorial interpretations to arrive at a performance script and it is rare for any of the plays to be performed uncut so even Shakespeare in English is subject to mediation. 

  • Frank Beeston

    The whole point of shakespeare and the pre-eminent position he occupies in written/spoken english, is his mastery of the english language ; the power and beauty of his expression.  Plots have their importance, but they are secondary to his gift with words.  All but four of his plays borrow the plots/themes from others.

    The process of translation, however thorough, substitutes a parallel or similarity which is no longer the work of the author and which changes it.

    Can you imagine the same plays having been written by a twentieth century englishman, with the same detailed plot, using today’s english in typical modern fashion ? 

    What would their value be then ?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TIXT6IP5TPICIDPS7ERSFRLYGI Andrew

    Sylvia Morris has written an interesting blog on Asian interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays here: http://theshakespeareblog.com/2011/08/asian-shakespeare-brought-to-the-far-west-in-edinburgh/ 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TIXT6IP5TPICIDPS7ERSFRLYGI Andrew

    The Chinese premier’s love of Shakespeare and his recent visit to the birthplace in Stratford provided an interesting postscript this week: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/28/china-shakespeare-wen-jiabao-visit 
    Thanks to Liz for drawing my attention to this.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TIXT6IP5TPICIDPS7ERSFRLYGI Andrew

    Fair comment, Annie, but if you watch Three Sisters or A Doll’s House translated into English have they ceased to be Chekhov and Ibsen? I feel I only really discovered King Lear when I saw Kurosawa’s film, Ran, so if you love the plays, which you obviously do, don’t you find it interesting to see them reimagined in new forms?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Annie-Martirosyan/100000005026549 Annie Martirosyan

    Shakespeare ceases to be the Shakespeare in any other tongue, in any other variety but HIS!

Download a free book written by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells about Shakespeare, Conspiracy & Authorship. Download the Book.