Translating the Bard

Shakespeare is unquestionably an icon of English literature.  His plays and poems are, seriously, SO ENGLISH.  He is estimated to have contributed at least 1700 words to the English language (or at least to have been the first to write them down), and he coined dozens of phrases that we still use today.  His plays drip with allusions to the Bible and classical mythology, topics that would have been well-known to his Elizabethan audiences.  His plays are full of contrasts between English dialects, and his wordplay and puns are knife-sharp, slicing through his dialogue in every play.

It is interesting then, that the works of Shakespeare–the most popular English author of all time–have been translated into at least 80 different languages, including Klingon.

The first part of Henry IV poses several interesting problems for translators.  The first is the interplay between English dialects.  The polished speech of the nobles–Harry, Hotspur, the advisors, and the King himself–clashes with the rougher speech of commoners like the tavern hostess.  When this hostess converses with Prince Hal and Falstaff at her tavern, her speech is very plain and Tavern Hostessunadorned.  She answers the questions put to her in a blunt manner, and her short speeches are starkly different from the long, embellished passages spoken by the Prince and Falstaff.  Falstaff  teases her and refers to as a “pintpot” and “ticklebrain,” noting that her profession belies her limited education.

In stage portrayals of the character, the tavern hostess often has a strong Cockney accent, which gives her a very different speech pattern from Falstaff and Hal.  It is this difference in vernacular that makes the translation question so interesting.  There is no Cockney accent in Spanish, German, or Chinese.  So how does a stage performance of a foreign translation communicate that this character is of a different social class?  What vernacular is employed to demonstrate her lack of education?  There is significant literature on the phenomenon of different English dialects being used to represent different social classes.  For example, in an essay about the use of British accents in television, the author discusses the various implications of a character who speaks with a posh accent versus a Cockney accent.  However, I have been able to find little to no literature about the opposite.  I can imagine that in an American adaptation of the play, a similar character to the hostess might speak with a stereotypically southern “hillbilly” accent or a stereotypically Midwestern “yooper” accent.  But how would a non-English troupe change their speech patterns?  The Royal Shakespeare Company announced last September that it will translate the entire collection of Shakespeare to Mandarin.  If this new translation of Henry IV – Part 1 is performed, what Chinese dialect will the hostess be given?  Are there factions in any population whose speech patterns convey the same meaning as a Cockney accent?

I am also curious to know how the character of Mortimer’s Welsh wife would be played in a performance of a foreign translation.  It is fairly simple in a written translation to describe that the character speaks in Welsh, but on an Asian or South American stage, where would one find an actor who speaks Welsh to play the part.  What language might they choose instead?

Though I was unable to answer some of these questions, I did find an essay written by one of the foremost French Shakespeare translators.  He describes his own painstaking process to translate Shakespeare to another language while preserving its wordplay, meter, and poeticism.  He also describes the research he had to do in order to get enough understanding of Elizabethan culture to execute an adequate translation.  Though he bemoans his own inabilities to reconcile the two languages at times, he does say that all of Shakespeare is poetry, and treating it as such is the first step toward translating the Bard.


A final point of interest (only tangentially related to this topic):

I also came across an interesting project by an American scholar named Kent Richmond who is “translating” Shakespeare from Elizabethan English to the style of English we use today.  He promises to do his utmost to preserve as many of the original qualities as possible, including wordplay and meter.  He was inspired by an essay bemoaning the modern inability to understand all the nuances of Shakespeare’s writing upon listening.  This project, though it doesn’t answer any of my questions about foreign translation, does raise interesting questions about whether Shakespeare can reasonably be understood by an audience today, to the same degree it could have been understood by an Elizabethan audience.