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?