Blasphemy, Sirrah!

Shakespeare as a young man with tattoosIt may be 100 years too soon for me to say this. I think it’s time to translate Shakespeare into modern English. There are various reasons why Shakespeare is difficult to read. In part, he is simply a complex writer, in terms of the intricacy of plots, the subtlety of characters, or the twists and turns of presenting these things. He is also difficult not simply because he was writing 400 years ago, but because he was usually writing in poetry, so that he often uses descriptions, metaphors, and oblique phrasing to say things.

When I advocate translating Shakespeare, I mean that such characteristics in his writing should not be touched. Modern readers, if they care to, are capable of reading intricate plots with inventive language. But what we cannot do without special study is get past the third reason Shakespeare is so difficult to read: much of his language has simply passed out of normal use, and is no longer comprehensible.

The poetic character of Shakespeare’s writing should not be altered, as in the following example. In Richard the Third King Edward has given an order to kill his brother Clarence, but then gave a second order cancelling the first. He is afterward told of Clarence’s death: “But he, poor man, by your first order died,/ And that a winged Mercury did bear;/ Some tardy cripple bare the countermand,/ That came too lag to see him buried.” While there is some old language here—countermand, lag—in general the vocabulary is not too hard to get through. What may slow some readers down is the two metaphors, that the order which arrived quickly was carried by the flying Greek god Mercury, and the order to leave Clarence alive came by a crippled human hobbling along.

Let that be. But what about this example from Henry the Fourth, Part I, which may begin understandably (though still poetically), but which grows murky as we read on: “To see him shine so brisk and smell so sweet,/ And talk so like a waiting-gentlewoman/ Of guns, and drums, and wounds, God save the mark!/ And telling me the sovereignest thing on earth/ Was parmiciti for an inward bruise…”

I don’t support translation lightly. All translation has its problems. I love and admire the brilliance of Shakespeare’s language, the beautiful way he could put words together, the metaphors that can delight us with the shock of newness, or his clever wordplay and puns. I also understand that he invented both words and phrases that are now everyday parts of English. Shakespeare could be simply brilliant with language, a man who could describe an attitude change in Richard the Third as “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer…”

And yet for people who do read Shakespeare in translation—everyone in the world except English speakers—his work is more comprehensible than it is for those of us reading it in his language. As to whether or not to translate him, ever, I will cite one literary example, Geoffrey Chaucer. His Canterbury Tales (from 200 years before Shakespeare) is considered one of the great works in English, but who would argue that we should not translate a line like this: “With-outen him we have no might, certayne,/ If that him list to stonden ther-agayne.”

An honest translation of Shakespeare will not make his work very easy to read, nor should it. But when readers are shut out by changes in the language itself, then he is read less, understood less, and enjoyed less. Shakespeare portrait in very digital formI want Shakespeare to be read and understood, and I think this can be more common if his work is carefully updated by talented writers who understand the Elizabethan dialect. We should not make such a fetish of the language that we lose the literature.

[The word “sirrah”, which I used in the title, was a form of address to inferiors or to someone who you wanted to insult. It might be compared to saying “sir” sarcastically. It occurs fairly commonly in Shakespeare’s plays.]

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