At the 14th annual Bharat Rang Mahotsav theatre festival in New Delhi, India, audiences had the choice of performances by companies from all over the world. Way ahead of the U.K.’s World Shakespeare Festival, this year’s BRM included, among its 93 productions in 27 languages, a Kannada-language version of Hamlet (from Karnataka in southwest India); a Mizoran A Midsummer Night’s Dream (from the northeast tribal areas of India); and two adaptations of King Lear: Badshah Pather from Kashmir, and Raja Lear, in Bengali. In each performance a screen above the stage provided a translation, not back into Shakespeare’s original text, but into popular English as spoken today in metropolitan Delhi, by the Indian middle class.
The screen text added another language to the many being spoken on the stage, and offered some interesting insights into the process of Shakespeare adaptation in any particular time and place. In Raja Lear, with the original text completely submerged beneath the Bengali speaking actors and the English/Indian interpretation on the screen, Kent’s words to Oswald in Act 2.2.40 “I’ll make a sop o’the moonshine of you,” became, to the audience reading the English, “I’ll make a korma out of you”. Somewhere in the chain of translation, Shakespeare’s “sop o’ the moonshine” (a kind of milk custard) became, as Duthie and Wilson have it, “mincemeat,” as in the popular English phrase “I’ll make mincemeat out of you,” meaning: I’ll mess you up. This “mincemeat” in Bengali became “keema” and this was translated on the screen as “korma” (a dish of meat in a spicy sauce), perhaps to give a better flavour to the image.
Needless to say, it got a laugh, thus subverting the rage Kent feels and the threat he makes against one of the most loathsome characters in the play, but certainly engaging the audience in a colloquial exchange between two familiar characters in contemporary Indian society: the servants of two different masters. In India’s most popular art form, Bollywood cinema, such characters are often presented as foolish and funny in the slapstick sense, even in tragedies. They offer light relief, and as such, perhaps instinctively, this translation was in keeping with that tradition.
Other interpretations were not so successful. Kent’s lament, “Vex not his ghost; O let him pass. He hates him / That would upon the rack of this tough world / Stretch him out longer.” (5.3.311-13) became the slightly incredulous and callous, “What’s amazing is how long he lasted. He was living on borrowed time at the end.” Colloquial English in contemporary India is heavily reliant on clichés, so the audience would certainly have understood this interpretation. But it hardly captured any sense of Shakespeare’s original meaning, nor did it cleverly enhance it for the modern context, as really good translation can.
But is this cause for concern? The screen with its populist translation poses the radical question: in adaptations and appropriations to different cultures and languages, does Shakespeare’s actual text even matter? At the U.K.’s World Shakespeare Festival, screens might show lines from the original as markers of where the story has got to, but this assumes either prior knowledge of each play, or that you don’t need to know what is actually being said. The original poetry becomes redundant.
So the question lies at the limits of the border between text and performance. How it is resolved on the stage says much about how modern audiences will continue to understand and interpret Shakespeare across the globe.