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I’m really not. That’s the key. That’s my first concern. There are cheat sheets that print prose next to the poetry. My Shakespeare translations retain the same number of lines and syllables except in a couple of cases where the prose runs a few words over. I get every version of the play I can find from the scholars. There are 300 years of annotations out there. I lay out the copies and go for consensus. If there is no consensus, I go with what is less taxing for the audience. Simplifying Shakespeare has already been done. For years, they’ve had prose translations of Shakespeare dumbed down for kids. These are not what you would call “poetic.” They are only interested in catching the gist of Shakespeare. My translation goes line by line in the same kind of iambic pentameter that Shakespeare used. If Shakespeare runs a line long, I figure he did it for a reason and I do the same. Maybe he was tired. Maybe the actor was having trouble with it. To assume a translation makes Shakespeare simpler simply isn’t true. It is not true that Elizabethan English was more complex and nuanced than Modern English. That’s a myth. We are perfectly capable of expressing nuanced meaning, even in the 21st century. I’m just trying to think of a 21st century way of saying it.
Look at “thee” and “thou.” Shakespeare sometimes uses “thee” and “thou” when his characters speak to underlings or servants or buddies. Or a character might use “Thee” and “thou” to show disrespect to a king or knight. These pronouns represented a distinction in formality in Shakespearean English. But today we associate “thee” and “thou” with the King James Bible, as appropriate to elevated religious writings couched in a sacred setting. Modern audiences do not interpret them as informal or familiar, and they haven’t for centuries. Even in 1600, “thee” and “thou” were rapidly being replaced with “you.” Shakespeare himself used these pronouns inconsistently. Since Shakespeare’s time “Thee” and “thou” have become a part of the grammar of stylized poetry. And for 300 years, poets would say things like “mine eye” and “My country, ‘tis of thee.” Poetry had a separate grammar, and it persisted into the 20th century. The result is today’s audiences don’t pick up on the 16th century meaning of “thee” and “thou,” especially when it is coming at them from a stage at 150 to 200 words a minute. No one has time to think, “but wait! In those days, ‘thee’ was street talk!”
I divide the computer screen down the middle with the original on one side and my translation on the other. I’m armed with the Oxford English Dictionary, several Shakespeare glossaries, a thesaurus, and as many as twelve annotated versions of the play. When I’m translating, I never rely solely on my intuitions. I check what the scholars have said and read every footnote no matter how arcane. Even when I think I understand a line, I don’t trust myself. For example, in Othello, there’s a line that says, “if I do prove her haggard.” Well, my modern English tells me that must mean something like “if I convince you she’s a hag.” Haggard, of course, did not mean in Shakespearean England what it does today. It referred to “an undomesticated hawk.” Naturally modern readers will read Desdemona described as “haggard” and they’ll have a right to be confused. Even if we think we understand Shakespeare, we may not. So every line must be scrutinized.
In Twelfth Night there’s a line where Malvolio, in the process of having a horrible trick played on him, says his tormentors have done him “notorious wrong.” The scholars I read said “notorious” was a strange word in Shakespeare’s day. It is Shakespeare’s way of making fun of Malvolio’s pretentious speech. The question I had to ask myself is, is it the right word for the modern ear? So I changed it to “egregious.”
Then, of course, there are the puns. Few of Shakespeare’s work today. I try to think of a modern equivalent.
He’s greater. I was reading some of the translation to the family and they were surprised. Then I would say, “Shakespeare’s good, isn’t he?” As unnatural as it to stand up and speak in iambic pentameter, Shakespeare makes it seem natural and was truly gifted in having a speaker compose his thoughts. I’m fascinated with how powerful the drama can be despite the highly stylized language, and now I better see why he was so successful in his day.
I’m also impressed with his prose, and not just the comedy. When he switches to prose, he is so much more precise. I find that this precision makes his prose nearly as difficult to translate as his verse.
Everybody who reads Shakespeare wants to make improvements, it seems. Among the supposed villains of Shakespearean scholarship are Samuel Johnson, who couldn’t resist correcting Shakespeare’s grammar and logic, and Alexander Pope, whose edition of the plays has been panned for 250 years. These two recognized Shakespeare's genius but pointed to what they saw as “corruptions.” They both came out with versions of Shakespeare that were criticized. Other scholars have added what they call “emendations” to try to restore some coherence to the somewhat ragtag early printings of the plays. I don’t think Shakespeare would have been as angry with Pope and Johnson as modern scholars are. Shakespeare was a man of the theater who was used to rewrites. And he never really finished anything.
There are also moments when I find an unmetrical line and I ask myself, was Shakespeare tired when he wrote this? Or did actors speak differently 400 years ago? I am tempted to make it metrical but try to resist.
I really see these as actual plays now and imagine all the compromises that must have been made as the words were turned into a production. In one scene of Twelfth Night, a fake love letter is dropped where Malvolio will find it. As he reads it, there is some funny dialogue from behind a hedge where the three perpetrators spy on him. A minor character Fabian has the funny lines while Sir Toby Belch simply tells him to remain quiet. Scholars have noticed that it doesn’t seem to make sense. Fabian is usually cool, calm and collected while Sir Toby is a drunk who can’t shut up. Some scholars think a printer mixed up their dialogue! I am inclined to agree and thought about giving all the funny lines to Sir Toby. But then I wondered: maybe Shakespeare originally wrote those lines for Sir Toby but turned them over to Fabian to appease a complaining actor. Could it be possible that an actor complained that he’d been promised a good part but all he go to say was “hush?” Ok, says Shakespeare, I’ll give you some of Sir Toby’s lines.