On Shakespeare’s own translations

Shakespeare offers us all manners of translation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from translating Bottom’s head into an ass, to Helena wishing to be translated into her best friend Hermia. But even more interestingly, Shakespeare himself is actively involved in the act of translation, and perhaps the modes of translation and the difficulties in doing so are reflective of Shakespeare’s hand and his own difficulties at work.

To translate, in the OED, can mean the following: ‘to bear, convey, or remove from one person, place or condition to another’; ‘to turn from one language into another’; ‘to interpret, explain; to expound the significance of (conduct, gestures, etc.)’; and ‘to change in form, appearance, or substance; to transmute; to transform, alter’ and “to transport with the strength of some feeling; to enrapture, entrance.”

The word first appears when Helena proclaims to Hermia, ‘Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated, / The rest I’d give to be to you translated’ (I.i.190-1). Here, the word “translated” invokes the meaning of transformation. From the scene and their conversation, it seems that Helena and Hermia were best friends pulled apart by heteronormative relationships. There used to be an absence of boundaries between them, and now the reason behind her desire for translation into Hermia is because of Demetrius. Such a desire arises in imitation of others to whom we feel closely bound; another example would be the imitative desire between Titania and Oberon. He wishes for the translation of what TItania has (the child) into his own possession, to “bear..from one person..to another”. (OED)

Translation is used most interestingly in the case of Bottom and his metamorphosis. When Bottom’s head is transformed into an ass, Quince responds with surprise and suggestive humor: “‘Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated.’ (III.i.112-13) If you take a closer look at this scene in a metacognitive sense, Lucking points out that the mechanicals are also working on a translation project of their own – to perform the story of Pyramus and Thisbe that is found in the work recalled in Falstaff’s transformation: Ovid’s Metamorphoses. They have taken upon themselves the responsibility of reinscribing a literary artefact into a performance, and Shakespeare was perhaps trying to show us the anxieties in putting such a classic story onto the stage. For example, Bottom is afraid of his audience being in emotional distress and suggests to include in the prologue that ‘we will do no harm with our swords, and that Pyramus is not killed indeed’ (III. i. 17-18), which eventually leads him to proclaim that ‘I, Pyramus, am not Pyramus, but Bottom the weaver’ (III. i. 19-20). The mechanicals make further plans to present the face of the actor who is performing the part of the lion, to avoid scaring the audience. The troupe seems to fear the efficacy of translation, and want to underscore the fact that such translations are not set in reality.

By performing the work of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a work that is conscious with the phenomenon of transformation and translation, Bottom himself is translated. Shakespeare was likely conscious, as modern day readers are, that “Bottom” and “ass” are two signifiers of the same thing. Shakespeare suggests his awareness of this when Bottom complains that his fellows are making an ass of him. (III. i. 114-15) Even the dullest characters in the troupe are conscious that Bottom has assumed the character of an ass. Yet this transformation and illumination of Bottom as the ass is not fully demeaning: Bottom has found himself in a fortunate position to be loved by the queen of fairies.

Perhaps Shakespeare was drawing from his own experiences in translation. Not only does Shakespeare translate texts and read translations of plays (as he read the english translation of Ovid by Arthur Golding), he also has to translate them into plays. Bottom and the rest of the troupe help to show the difficulty in such translations.Translations have also been definitive to Shakespeare’s literary primacy. Since the 16th century, his plays and sonnets have been translated and performed all over the world in an ever-growing number of languages, dialects and styles. Yet when Shakespeare plays with words such as “Bottom” and “ass” to show translations and transformations within the play, to express his wit and humor, it may be ever more difficult for translators to translate his work into foreign languages.


David Lucking. Translation and Metamorphosis in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Essays in Criticism (2011) 61 (2): 137154