Love English

Translating Shakespeare

© THSCOur second guest post from The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company is by Mish Jani. THSC is a music theatre production company that explores the social, cultural and linguistic parallels between the works of William Shakespeare and that of modern day hip-hop artists.


There are virtually no other writers in history that we can say have an entire form or style of language named after them apart from our dear old friend – Bill ‘The Bard’ Shakes. We can and do speak of an Orwellian dystopia, Dickensian poverty or Platonic love to describe the particular ideas that were captured by those people in their works, but never to denote their style of writing for performance. This aspect of ‘performance’ is a critical feature of Shakespeare’s work, for it was written to be a one shot drop of visceral experience delivered in a bustling theatre in London’s red-light district. This lies in stark opposition to the way many students encounter Shakespeare in the modern day: a laborious dissection for scrutiny with the only noise audible the ticking of the clock as the time runs out for one to examine the parental roles in King Lear.

For anyone, pupil and scholar alike, who may have the task of unpicking and decoding Shakespearean language, the process is multi-layered. The earliest translations of Shakespeare were taken down by hand one week in the pits of the Globe and performed the very next in the theatres of Europe, often giving credit to an entirely different author. There are endless articles about the First Folio – the first printed collection of Shakespeare’s works compiled by two of his actors Henry Condell and John Hemmings after his death – without which his 39 plays would have been lost forever and the proliferation of what historians label the ‘bad quartos’ would have remained his only legacy, if any.

The mellifluous cadences of The Bard’s words invoke such a distinct feel from the page to the stage that Shakespearean language is in a realm of its own when it comes to describing and naming a literary and theatrical style after one person. If we look at a play like Stephen Berkoff’s East: Elegy for the East End and its Energetic Waste we see how deftly he blends the rhythm of Shakespearian language with the swagger of Cockney rhyming slang to tell a tragic tale of a family living on an East London council estate in the early 70s, and we can begin to see more clearly what brilliant devices Shakespeare relied upon in his audience to meet him half way. Both Shakespeare and Berkoff handle the breaking of the fourth wall with a soliloquy expertly. The effect of East is to bring a modern audience as close as possible to the experience of poor theatregoers in Elizabethan times without removing the complexity of the poetry utilized and whilst embedding it in a very different idiomatic colloquialism as a form of translation.

When translating Shakespeare into other languages we see the nuance in the translator’s comprehension of the text begin to take effect.  If you have a translator working to convert something into Arabic, for instance, they are faced with many subtle decisions like “Do I translate this into the Arabic of 400 years ago so it is the classical Arabic vernacular equivalent of Elizabethan English?” “Do I replace entire metaphors with ones that give more linguistic coherence to the desired meaning in the target language even if they are completely different?” Sometimes there are fortunate overlaps that allow for puns in the translation that rely on the meaning of the English word in the target language.

We are all of us translating Shakespeare all of the time, from decoding metaphor to literally recoding meaning into another language and herein lies his magic … when you work with human truth as your source material, the possibilities are endless.  After all, which one of us has not experienced the shock of betrayal, the despair of death, the churning of unrequited love or the sharp pang for revenge?  So the task becomes less about translating Shakespeare and more about translating humanity.

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Mish Jani

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