Hamlet: A Verse Translation

ISBN-13 9780983637929
190 pages
Full Measure Press

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New Friends, False Friends, Strange Partners:
Why Shakespeare is Difficult

An inside look at why Shakespeare's vocabulary baffles us

Modernizing vs. Dumbing Down

"You're dumbing him down." That's the response I occasionally get when people learn that I am translating Shakespeare. But translating Shakespeare into more modern and comprehensible language is not the same as dumbing him down. After all, a translator could choose to make a work of literature even more difficult than the original. Compare Robert Fagles’s popular translation of Oedipus the King with a version by an earlier translator.


O the terror—
the suffering for all the world to see
the worst terror that met my eyes.
What madness swept over you? What god,
what dark power leapt beyond all bounds,
beyond belief, to crush your wretched life?

     (translated by Robert Fagles, 1933-2008)


O sight for all the world to see

   Most terrible? O suffering

Of all mine eyes have seen most terrible!

   Alas! What Fury came on thee?

   What evil Spirit, from afar,

   O Oedipus, O Wretched!

      Leapt on thee to destroy?

       (translated by J.T. Sheppard, 1881-1968)

After reading Fagles accessible version, it is hard not to conclude that Sheppard is doing his best to make reading difficult. Does Sheppard’s old-fashioned use of terrible clarify the meaning or mislead us? Does the odd syntax of the line “O suffering/ Of all mine eyes have seen most terrible” elevate the language in an artistic way or is Sheppard forcing it to sound old-fashioned? Does the endstop punctuation mark ! nested inside a question throw us a little, causing us to bactrack to find the subject of "Leapt". Was Sophocles usually this obnoxious? Both Fagles and Sheppard were serious translators trying to produce a work of literature, but the results were remarkably different.

Dumbing down happens because the translator wants the work dumbed down. As it stands today, most published translations of Shakespeare in English are dumbed down, and they are honest about it, promising an easy or simplified Shakespeare. They are study guides more than works of literature. Foreign translations of Shakespeare, on the other hand, can be quite complex. Whether you can read German or not, you will sense complexity in August Wilhelm von Schlegel’s (1767–1845) translation of the opening lines of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy from Act 3, Scene 1. It mimics the line and sentence structure of the original and packs a lot into one sentence.


Sein oder Nichtsein; das ist hier die Frage:

Obs edler im Gemüt, die Pfeil und Schleudern

Des wütenden Geschicks erdulden oder,

Sich waffnend gegen eine See von Plagen,

Durch Widerstand sie enden?


To be or not to be—that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And, by opposing, end them.

Like von Schlegel, I want a complex Shakespeare. Is there a way, other than intuition, to determine if I am dumbing him down? If I am, then you would expect my translations to employ a smaller vocabulary and simpler sentence structures than Shakespeare used. Fortunately, we have software that can quantify such things and show that I am not.

Fardels and Bodkins

Let's begin by counting vocabulary. Using the Range program,1 software I use in writing reading and vocabulary materials for English language learners, I counted the range and frequency of words in both Shakespeare’s original Hamlet and the published version of my translation. The two versions were remarkably close despite the fact that I am not conscious of word counts when I am translating.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet used about 4,650 different words with about 44.5% outside the 16,500 most common words tracked by the software. Since common words appear multiple times, the true frequency of off-the-list words is about 15%. My translation of Hamlet has 4,740 unique words with 34.3% outside the 16,500. Rarer words make up about 12% of the total words used.

I am surprised how close these figures are, a difference in vocabulary size of less than 2%. Shakespeare, of course, uses more words off the frequency list than I do (such as fardel and bodkin), but that is to be expected. After all, words drop out of the language, and words that may have been frequent in Shakespeare’s time are not on the list of the most frequent words used today. In any case, these word count statistics suggest that a modern translation using my approach will produce a range of vocabulary that matches Shakespeare’s.

The translations are equivalent in variety of vocabulary, but what about syntax? To test for sentence complexity and general readability, I compared Shakespeare's version of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy from Act 3, Scene 1 with my translation and a prose version from the popular No Fear Shakespeare series. After making sure the three versions followed identical punctuation conventions, I tested them for readability using the the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Levelmeasures. Here is how the three compare:

Table: Readability of Hamlet's Soliloquy

Shakespeare’s Original

My Translation

No Fear

Flesch Reading Ease




Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level








Words (as counted by Range)








Words per sentence




Characters per word




(See this Wikipedia article for information on these readability measures.)

As advertised, the No Fear series has grade level figures aimed at what is comfortable for adolescents aged 13-15. The original and my translation are more challenging with grade level figures at the early college level. For all three works, the reading ease figures (lower means harder) fall within a range that should be comfortable for the age-14-and-up crowd. Keep in mind that the Flesch-Kincaid tools offer only a crude measure of vocabulary difficulty. They assume that longer words are statistically more difficult and less frequent than shorter words. That means fardels and bodkin are considered equivalent in difficulty to mothers and father.2

These figures show that I have not dumbed down Shakespeare. I use as many different words as Shakespeare used and have similar scores on readability scales of sentence complexity. The question then is whether my translations do much at all to make the reading of Shakespeare easier. The answer is yes, and I’ll explain why in the next article “New Friends, False Friends, Strange Partners.”

Kent Richmond


1 The software combines three different baseword lists and is used for analyzing academic materials. I chose it because, with the larger word list, it handles advanced materials better than measures such as the Dale-Chall which work better for selecting material for younger grade levels. You will find the software produces a higher count of words than you might get by hand because it counts 's and contractions as separate words. In my articleNew Friends, False Friends, Strange Partners ," I use a larger word list that tracks a larger number of words. The two analyses, though consistent with each other, will produce slightly different statistics on word frequency. [back to article]

2 Shakespeare’s plays and my translations are written mostly in iambic pentameter, a verse form that places constraints on both rhythm and the number of syllables per line. That makes it difficult to work longer words into a line without meter problems. Of the 267 words in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, only five scan at four-syllables (consummation, calamity, undiscovered, resolution, enterprises) and no words are longer than that. My translation has just three four-syllable words. However, the No Fear version has three five-syllable words (considerations, humiliations, inefficiency). The Flesch formulas do not take into account or correct for the constraints imposed by verse. [back to article]