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Interview: Shakespeare Translations in Modern English
With English Department Lecturer Kent Richmond for Beach View (4/24/01)
I was making fun of literary theorists one day. I said, instead of all this arcane theorizing, why don’t you theory people do something useful like translate Shakespeare into modern English? After a year or so of convincing nobody, I decided to translate a single scene to show my colleagues what I meant by a faithful translation. When I’d shown it to a few people and they seemed positive, I wondered if I might not be the one to do it. Although I’m not a Shakespearean scholar, I am a linguist; I know a lot about sound and meter. And I thought that combination would work to my advantage because, to me, Shakespeare’s language is still strange. Scholars seem to forget that. Sometimes I worry that if I get too good at Elizabethan English, it will stop being strange. I’m almost to the point of not letting myself hear Shakespeare unless I’m working on my translation.
My first try was in the spring of 2000. I picked Twelfth Night because it is a fun play, has good roles for women in a case a high school might want to stage it, and is 55% prose. I figured that would reduce the burden of having to translate too much poetry. After brushing up on Shakespeare-style iambic pentameter, I translated the first scene. When I looked down at what I’d made, I had a kind of Dr. Frankenstein moment. “It’s alive! It’s alive!” My goal had been to sound just like Shakespeare down to the same iambic pentameter he used 400 years ago. I wanted to make sure that when Shakespeare wrote verse, I wrote verse; when he rhymed I rhymed; when he wrote prose, I did too. It had to seem highbrow, yet be comprehensible to modern audiences. I didn’t believe that a great writer would include 30 lines of incomprehensible poetry that didn’t matter in the plot. Every word matters and it is important for us to understand what they mean without looking at footnotes.
I’m not sure it’s the period. No other plays from that generation are regularly performed. There are no other universally popular writers, not even Ben Johnson, Edmund Spenser, or Christopher Marlowe. I think it is Shakespeare himself. His language and his characters are magical. Look at the film Shakespeare in Love. The screenwriters captured the style of Shakespeare using modern English, and people obviously liked this. It underscored the continued relevance of Shakespeare. I saw it at a local multiplex with a mid-day crowd and they were cheering. But I wonder how many were disappointed when they decided to see an actual Shakespeare play.
I remember teaching Moliere’s Tartuffe, written about 60 years after Shakespeare’s day. I used Richard Wilbur’s modern translation of the play. The students liked it so much that it occurred to me they probably liked it more than French kids who probably have to read it in its 1660 original. People around the world get to hear Shakespeare translated into their native languages and they have come to like it as least as much as we do. There are stories of new Shakespeare translations hitting Japanese bestseller lists. Look at the success of the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf.
Shakespeare must have been raised to sainthood to make him so immune to translation. In the 18th century, theater people were very happy to mess around with Shakespeare. It was their idea to improve him and make him more moral. Nobody really wanted poor Cordelia to die in King Lear so there were productions that gave it a happy ending. If Shakespeare had had a stronger producer back then, Lear might have had a different ending. At any rate, purists have collected a stock vocabulary for describing harmless adaptors and translators and "bowdlerizers" normally reserved for depraved despots: corrupt, debased, defiled, bastardized, vile, base, demeaned, vulgar, shameless, shameful, an insult, and so forth. I expect to hear some of it.
I have been concerned about the “highbrowing” of the arts for some time. Lawrence L. Levine wrote a book in the 1980s called Highbrow/Lowbrow where he talked about how certain art forms like classical music had become high brow. His other good example was Shakespeare. For many of us, the “arts” means listening to unamplified music at classical concerts and trying to sit still without coughing. After all, wouldn’t clearing your throat ruin the experience for everybody? Shakespeare was not highbrowed until the second half of the 19th century. Instead of doing whole plays, performers would do favorite parts. People got so passionate about it that riots broke out in New York's theater district in 1849. There were 22 people who ended up dead in a fight over Shakespeare. There were two rival versions of Macbeth in New York simultaneously. One had an American star, the other a British star. This was a time when there was still plenty of tension between Britain and its breakaway republic. Apparently, the British actor badmouthed the American production and fighting broke out. When the Army was called in, they panicked and fired into a crowd killing 22 people. It's still one of the deadliest riots in New York history. Plays that were at one time changed and re-written have been highbrowed to the point that no one can touch Shakespeare.
But my strongest influence was John McWhorter, a linguist at UC Berkeley [now a fellow at the Manhattan Institute]. His book Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of "Pure" Standard English made a strong and very humorous case for translating Shakespeare.