“You must translate; ’tis fit we understand.”

Sarah works with students during a Little Academe.

Sarah works with students during a Little Academe.

As ever, I find myself wrestling with “Shakespeare in Translation.”  I have been invited, as part of the Shakespeare Theatre Association Executive Board, to travel to Brazil for 10 days next month to serve as an adviser on a reconstructed Globe that the Instituto Gandarela is looking to build.  Never mind that this is a trip to Brazil (!!!) or that I will get to work with the amazing Peter McCurdy, the builder behind Shakespeare’s Globe and their new indoor playhouse, The Wanamaker (and a good friend to the ASC). As I prepare for this trip, I am wondering how to get past our condemnation of “No Fear Shakespeare”-style translations (as so eloquently argued by our friends at the Folger Shakespeare Library) yet fight the good fight for Shakespeare in other languages.

Word has it (how I wish I could personally confirm) that the productions at Shakespeare’s Globe in London last summer as part of the Globe to Globe celebration were stunning and amazing explorations of theatrical production.  I have personally, and to my delight, had the opportunity to see Der Brudermord, a German translation of Hamlet directed by Christine Schmidle at the Blackfriars Playhouse.  The play was fun, and I didn’t have too much trouble following the story, despite it being in German (full disclosure: I am familiar with the English version).  I thought the experience brought me closer to what German audiences seeing the play in English in the 17th century may have experienced, but I didn’t note any particularly stirring phrases or textual expertise that stirred me to embrace the play as I did when I saw Hamlet performed for the first time by Khris Lewin on our stage.  At that performance, the “nunnery” rang in my ears, the “rant” struck my senses, the players “did not saw the air too much,” and I knew why.

My original training, in Theatre Arts, should provide a clear answer to my questions about these translated productions.  Good theatre, good productions, good performances should satisfy the quandary. But, since immersing myself in the performance of Shakespeare here, I find that I cannot break those things from the text. From the words. From the arrangement of the words to form verse, to shape rhetorical figures, and to provide clues like embedded stage directions.  Our practice is so engaged with the methods we think Shakespeare and his actors engaged with (see Tiffany Stern’s Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan, see the American Shakespeare Center’s Actors’ Renaissance Season podcasts, see our current education workshops list), that I don’t know where to begin with the question.  But I would love to start a conversation. Are you an ESL/ELL student who loves (or, for that matter, hates) Shakespeare? Are you fluent in language other than English and have read (or written) translations? Are you a professor in Japan or Taiwan (as some of our Conference attendees are) who is working with students? What are you focused on when you discuss or play with Shakespeare? Do you find that Shakespeare has an influence on Portuguese? Or French? Can you recommend a place for those of us engaged in building a Global network of Shakespeare theatres (including education departments) to go to find a common thread for exploration with our foreign language students and audiences?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and, working with Cass and Kimberly and our fabulous interns, to finding ways to make the work with do with all of our students deeply engaging and illuminating.

–Sarah

3 thoughts on ““You must translate; ’tis fit we understand.”

  1. Sarah: another way to approach your questions (or dilemma) is from the “no-language” perspective. I’ll be posting on Shakespeareances.com in the next day or two my review of the 1966 Royal Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet (on DVD), and in that I mention Nureyev’s subsequent version. My site already has three Synetic reviews of “Silent Shakespeare.” At issue in these reviews is, without the text, how much do they tell not only the story (and backstory), but portray Shakespeare’s singular characters and translate Shakespeare’s imagery? Language is twofold: what’s in the text, and what’s beyond the text, and Shakespeare was a master of both. Translating Shakespeare into dumbed-down English dumbs down every layer, but translating to another language (or no language) can still capture Shakespeare’s extratextual poetry (and if the Brazilians are as good at translating Shakespeare as the RSC was at translating French for Les Miserables, they’ll capture the textual poetry, too–we just won’t know it).

    And on a practical note, check out http://thespace.org. That site webcast the battlefield H6 this past weekend, and they supposedly have the entire Globe-to-Globe series on there. I’ve not confirmed this (but if they do, be looking for reviews of every one on Shakespeareances.com in the next year).
    Eric

    • Eric, first: thanks. That is a helpful viewpoint. It goes back, in a way, to gesture work in the period. I am with you as far as the gorgeous “beyond” that Shakespeare manages to capture but I am curious about how “two-fold” versus “fan-fold” it is. By that I mean that, rather than having two pages of similar shape and content mirroring one another, there are many dimensions existing together and dependent on one another. If, as Cass is currently researching, a piece of punctuation changes from one edition to the next, what changes in the performance. And, more to the point: who makes that choice. I believe the choice for what to do with the text in performance/study rests on the performer/student rather than the editor/translator. That, therefore, delivering the text in its purest form, or–at a minimum–with the changes made clearly explicated, allows the exploration of more possibilities. To use the example one of our students (Cyndi Kimmel) gave in her thesis presentation, if a translator changes the word “be” in the most famous speech in the canon to the “condition” rather than the “essential” verb, a decision has been made for the actor. That one word change multiplies in effect across the play. When a dancer or Synetic comes to the play, they look at the text and make choices (I am assuming) based on what they see there. When a foreign language speaker comes to a translation, those choices–in large parts–have already been made. Not to mention what information the meter and syntax can give–how does a translator reliably deliver then bits of that information? Eric, you should come to one of our workshops one of these days–heck, you can even write a review if you like–and see the approach we take and its reliance on the arrangement of the words and how we believe that translates to the beautiful open ended work we believe Shakespeare leaves for the delight of the performer and students…my concern, ultimately, in the education side of things, is showing students how much they already know or can find when they learn a couple of tools, I am still looking for the tools to give our foreign language students. But, you’ve helped me get closer–as every opportunity to converse does!

  2. Have you read Terry Teachout’s recent WSJ “Sightings” column on plays in English translation? His overall point — which he supports with two excellent illustrations — is that translations of plays, like the plays themselves, should be written with oral performance in mind. My own addendum: The reason “No Fear Shakespeare” translations don’t work is that they turn Shakespeare’s “speakable” verse into “unspeakable” verbiage. They’re useful examples of how NOT to translate a play.

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