PerformanceShakespeare's Words

Translation Machines, Star Wars and Shakespeare.

By November 23, 2013 No Comments

Two opposing trends seem to be going around the news right now as people deal with the trickiness of Shakespeare’s Language. People either think of Shakespeare as too difficult, too foreign, too hard, and needs a translation into current English, or people embrace the bits of Shakespeare that are supposed to be too difficult in geeky delight, and translate popular lyrics, stories or even entertainment of today back into Shakespeare’s language.

shakespeare memeA new translation of the complete works of Shakespeare is now out in Finnish. The last edition of the whole canon is over a hundred years old, the publishers and translators felt that it was a “one-of-a-kind and important undertaking.” The hope behind this new translation is that the people of Finland will think of Shakespeare as not too obscure. One translator writes, “Now it’s written in modern Finnish people can no longer say it is difficult to understand.” And this makes sense. I would much rather read a recent, quality translation of Homer or Ovid than a translations that someone did a couple hundred years ago. People know more about Ancient Greece and Greek now than they did hundreds of years ago, so I’m more likely to trust a good scholarly edition with a recent translation than an old one. But some publishers seem eager to translate Shakespeare from English to English. Shakespeare Made Easy or Spark Notes’ No Fear Shakespeare, publish editions of Shakespeare’s plays with the original text on one side, and a “modern” English translation or paraphrase on the the other side. Both of these lines of books have good things about them, and if they make nervous readers more confident, that’s wonderful. I’m very fond of the essay questions in the back of the Shakespeare Made Easy texts, and No Fear is conveniently available online. However, both of these texts like popular memes, present Shakespeare as language so remote that it needs to be translated.

The Baltic Review shared a story recently about the Estonian President doing the formal first use of a new machine translation system. The text he chose to use was from Hamlet, “Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer / The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune” and used the machine to translate it into Estonian. It would have been very silly if he had used the Spark Notes version, “Is it nobler to put up with all the nasty things that luck throws your way, or to fight against all those troubles by simply putting an end to them once and for all?” The Spark Notes version doesn’t matter the way Shakespeare’s version does, because those are not words that have shaped history. And they don’t sound as good.

On the other side of the spectrum are people who like the old-time sounds of Shakespeare’s language so much that they want to make more of it. Improvised Shakespeare is a wonderful example getting lots of press as they tour. As an improv troupe, they produce new plays on the spot, but do so in the style of Shakespeare, complete with rhymes, sometimes blank verse, and plenty of physical comedy. They have some fantastic clips on YouTube, and are able to do their shows because of an intimate knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays, both on the part of the actors, and in the delight of recognition in much of their audience.

On a less performative scale, encourages people to use the unfamiliar pronouns and antiquated phrases for which Shakespeare is famous. One immensely popular twitter account,“ShakespeareSong” operates on the same principal. The writer translates popular song lyrics into “Shakespearean,” with “What quoth the fox?” or “We all reside in a vessel that submerges under the ocean sharing its colour with the Sun” as classic examples. Also popular in geeky circles is the book, Shakespeare’s StarWars. Written in iambic pentameter and beautifully bound in a pompously large hardcover, the book is a colossal achievement of humor and parody, complete with a publishing trailer, and has been getting many enthusiastic reviews.

This other side of the spectrum asserts that Shakespeare is cool, even trendy, and that the alienating bits of speech can and should be replicated as a means of gaining an audience. This side doesn’t promote fear or say the Shakespeare needs translation for those who speak and read English, but perhaps this side of the spectrum is also missing an important part of what makes Shakespeare great.

Much of Shakespeare’s writing borrows from the writing that came before him, what makes his language great is how he changed those plots and characters he lifted out of other literature. What infinite variety he added, what complexity in words and in motivations, how much he makes us think when read his words, or how the phrases stick with you, after a good show. He is great because he got right up inside the English language and rearranged it to suit him better. What a fantastic vocabulary: words he had and words he constructed—bending nouns into verbs, and verbs into adjectives. Maybe Shakespeare would be excited about StarWars re-imagined in his honor, but I think he might be more excited about the way the internet is changing language, such as the prepositional shift of the word “because” or how his words sound when read in Estonian.

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