This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
In Praise of Translation: On Watching Shakespeare in a Foreign Language
By Margherita Laera, Queen Mary University of London
You might not agree with me but, in recent years, I believe that some of the best Shakespeare productions seen in the UK have been those visiting from abroad. I am thinking specifically of Ivo Van Hove’s Roman Tragedies (2007) in Dutch, Thomas Osthermeier’s Hamlet (2011) in German, Cheek by Jowl’s The Tempest (2011) in Russian and Romeo Castellucci’s Giulio Cesare (1997) in Italian. At the Globe to Globe Festival, the delightful Two Gentlemen of Verona (2012), performed in Shona by the multicultural company Two Gents Productions, confirmed this trend, although of course it had been staged in English before. Of those productions that never made it to Britain, I remember Eimuntas Nekrosius’ Otelas (2001) and Macbetas (2000) at Milan’s Piccolo Teatro, performed in Lithuanian with Italian supertitles, as one of the most engrossing theatre experiences in my life. In Macbetas, the Witches’ bodies, gestures and movements were addictive and I constantly longed for them to return when they were not onstage. In Otellas, the silences that Nekrosius had carved for himself within the dramaturgy – such as when, having just strangled Desdemona, a distressed Othello walked about onstage rearranging pot plants in the space, without uttering a single word for interminable minutes – rank among my most cherished theatrical memories.
As Globe to Globe audiences will have found out by now, there is something about the possibilities offered by translation, that any ‘original’ – not only Shakespeare – almost fails convey. As Walter Benjamin argued in his essay The Task of the Translator, translation is the measure of a work’s afterlife. Every literary work is incomplete until it is translated, and it is only through translation that it can truly come to life. But, to my mind, the uncanny efficacy of watching Shakespeare in a language one does not understand speaks of the favourable impact of distance upon spectators. Watching theatre in a foreign language heightens the otherworldliness of the stage, pushing it further away from everyday reality. This enables a more immediate perception of the performance as other. But given Globe audiences’ presumed familiarity with Shakespeare, what is at stake at the Globe to Globe Festival is the recognition of the other as alien and familiar at the same time.
However, my taste for foreign language Shakespeare did not immunise me from frustration, at times, at not being able to understand the language spoken onstage. Like many English speakers, I have felt excluded by the laughter of fellow spectators who ‘got’ the jokes and were able to access the production on its own terms. I have felt embarrassed when, as a standing Yard spectator, I was addressed by an actor (Denton Chikura) in Shona, and could not respond appropriately. This unexpected sidelining of the dominant language of the global middle classes is productive, not least because it temporarily empowers so-called ‘minority’ language speakers and communities. Of course, there are the side-titles, which offer brief but reassuring insights into the plot. But the Globe’s choice to provide scene summaries, rather than full side-titles, has been puzzling me since the beginning of the Festival with the Maori Troilus and Cressida. Is this really the best way to support audiences in their interpretive labour?
At first, I thought scene summaries were a fabulous idea, in that they channelled my attention onto the performance itself, the bodies, gestures and movements, alongside intonation, pitch and emphasis of the spoken word. They did not require that I switch my attention from screen to stage (Artistic Director Tom Bird has called this the ‘Wimbledon effect’ during a recent talk), allowing a more focused type of contemplation. On the other hand, the summaries provided by each company have proved decidedly insufficient for those who are not so familiar with the plays, and have prompted many spectators to bring along their own original English-language scripts. So much are audiences craving for more guidance, that some decided to split their attention between the book and the stage, which is arguably even more arduous.
During the pre-production period, three options must have been considered by the Festival organisers: 1) no subtitles, 2) subtitles, and 3) scene summaries. Moreover, within option 2, a further two options are available: a) to use Shakespeare’s own words, or b) to back-translate the foreign scripts into English. I realise that scene descriptions are much more affordable and manageable than commissioning back-translations, and that they equally make more sense than using the original text to subtitle the translation. But I must confess that, although I have enjoyed the challenge of scene summaries, my preference would have been option 2b.
Indeed, let us think for a moment about what might have happened, had we been offered Shakespeare plays in back-translation on the side-screens of Globe to Globe productions. A world of wonderful paradoxes and contradictions might have emerged, one that might have unsettled Shakespeare connoisseurs and English-speaking spectators alike. Might ‘unfaithful’ and ‘foreignising’ versions of Shakespeare have diminished, even ridiculed the Bard – a sort of lèse majesté? On the contrary, I think I would have taken a great pleasure had I been given the opportunity to experience such contradictions, the inevitable mismatches created by translation and the opportunities for new meaning offered by de- and re-contextualisation.
Imagine, for instance, a subtitle going: “Being or not being, that is here the problem”; or “Oh Romeo, Romeo, why are you Romeo?”. This would have made me more immediately aware of how Shakespeare ‘makes sense’ in other languages, for instance, through mechanisms of lexical and syntactical adjustment. This strategy would have revealed that translation is never transparent, that it can never efface itself, and that the target text never says exactly the same thing. Re-marking the act of translation might have further reminded us that it is not only about losses, but primarily about gains.
 And here is someone who agrees with me: Bridget Escolme, ‘Does Shakespeare Work Better outside Britain?’, Guardian Theatre Blog, 19 May 2012, <https://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/may/19/shakespeare-outside-britain-international> [accessed 24 May 2012].
 Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator’, in Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1969), pp. 69-82.
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