Enjoy Shakespeare in beautiful verse translations

Juliet on the Balcony

A Word from the Translator

I began this project of translating Shakespeare into more contemporary English after reading an article by John McWhorter in his book The Word on the Street: Fact and Fable about American English. In the article "In Centenary Honor of Mark H. Liddell: The Shakespearean Tragedy," McWhorter demonstrates how difficult Shakespeare is for modern theatergoers and calls for careful and thoughtful translations of the plays.

I was using McWhorter's book as a supplemental reader in an introductory linguistics course aimed at English majors and decided to test McWhorter's claim about the difficulty. To do so, I developed a cloze test from a prose passage by one of Shakespeare's contemporaries, Sir Francis Bacon, and gave it to my students. This cloze test mechanically deleted every 5th word from the Bacon passage. The students, all English majors, were asked to guess what words were deleted.

The idea behind such a test is this: If test takers can guess almost all of the missing words, let's say 80% or higher, then the reading passage is m atched to their reading ability and is not particularly challenging. If they score less than 80%, then it is more challenging but still within their competence. If they score 50% or lower, then they are reading at the "frustration" level. In an educational setting, that score indicates that the reading material is too difficult.

My English majors scored 50% or below on the Sir Francis Bacon essay, but they did very well when reading a sophisticated essay on a similar topic by the 20th century philosopher Sidney Hook. The students, thus, were quite literate and capable readers. Yet when they read 400-year-old prose, their comprehension dropped to what a non-native reader who was about halfway to full literacy might score on high school level reading material. If we agree that it takes about ten years of serious study to become fully literate in a second language, these students had the facility of non-native learners who had studied the language for about five or six years.

Did the English majors have low scores because they are poorly versed in older literature? Some may be, but all of them? The fact is we struggle with Shakespeare not because we are weak readers or lazy or the sorry victims of a crumbling educational system. We struggle because Shakespeare is difficult. He wrote difficult plays, and that difficulty is compounded because he spoke what is for us today an archaic dialect of English.

To produce these translations, I surround myself with edited and glossed editions of the plays. In the early drafts, I am not interested in the general meaning of the play--there is time for that later--but to get whatever help I can in understanding individual words and lines as I work, beginning to end, through the play. I become the empiricist. I trust none of my intuitions and assume that I am poor at reading Shakespeare. I am sure that I will fall for every false friend (words whose meanings have changed) and that I will miss all subtlety without the help of a team of scholars. Although I must sometimes guess at the meaning, I prefer the guess be made by a qualified scholar.

While I do not see myself as a Shakespeare scholar, I am good at taking what someone else says and rendering it in comprehensible English. I taught 230 composition classes to college students and more than half of those to non-native speakers. For three decades, I looked at what someone was trying to write, figured it out, and then suggested how to say it in a way more acceptable to literate native speakers. Now I am doing that for Shakespeare.

I also know a lot about iambic pentameter. I studied English phonology as an undergraduate and graduate student and took a special interest in stress, rhythm, and English verse. I taught English pronunciation for years in the early part of my academic career. Getting Shakespeare right and translating him faithfully requires understanding how his verse works. Unless a translation has the rhythm and phrasing of Shakespeare, it will not seem like Shakespeare. I am a musician, as well, and thus attracted to the musical qualities of Shakespeare's verse. This background gives me skills I can apply as I recast Shakespeare's lines in a way that does him justice.

I hope you find time to read one of my translations. The patina that builds up on an antique over time can no doubt add its own beauty, but it can also hide it. You might be surprised just how good Shakespeare is when a bit of the grime and discoloration left by language change has been removed.

Kent Richmond