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Please: no Bard translations
by Jake Highton
May 01, 2010 | 858 views | 1 1 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The dumbing down of America and is now reaching into culture. An article in American Theatre magazine urges that Shakespeare’s plays be presented in translation because his language is too dense.

John McWhorter, linguist and fellow at the Manhattan Institute, says in the article that the plays, whether on stage or in movies, are tiresome, wearisome and boring for most people.

First of all, Shakespeare is not for most people. Second, the top 15 plays in the canon are never boring no matter how many times we have seen and read them. Third, anyone tired of Shakespeare is tired of life, as Samuel Johnson said of London.

Sure, many words are archaic. Sure, many words have changed meanings over the centuries. But scripts can easily be trimmed or reworded for clarity. The plays need not be translated for dummies.

“Stage poetry can challenge us without being as dimly meaningful as Shakespearian language so often is,” McWhorter writes.

Nonsense. The listener need not understand every word or every line to understand the magnificence of Shakespeare’s soliloquies.

Only an illiterate can misunderstand these lines: “This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle / This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars / This other Eden, demi-paradise /…This happy breed of men, this little world / …This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” (Richard II)

“For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings!” (Richard II)

“Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. / He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.” (Julius Caesar)

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more / Or close the wall up with our English dead!” (Henry V)

“Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York / …Grim-visag’d war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front.” (Richard III)

“I have liv’d long enough. My way of life / Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf.” (Macbeth)

“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day / To the last syllable of recorded time / …Out, out brief candle / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player  / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more.” (Macbeth)

Hamlet? You could fill this page with nothing but quotes from Hamlet. Here are just a few:

“O that this too too solid flesh would melt / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew! /… How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!”

“This above all: to thine own self be true / And it must follow as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

“For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, / Th’ oppressors wrong, the proud man’s contumely, / The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay, / The insolence of office and the spurns  / That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes.”

“Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”

Shylock anti-semitic? These lines from “The Merchant of Venice” plead for humanity: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?…If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?”

And how about these fine lines:

• “The lunatic, the lover and the poet / are of imagination all compact.” (Midsummer Night’s Dream) 

• “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players.” (“As You Like It”)

• “A woman mov’d is like a fountain troubled / Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty.” (Taming of the Shrew)

And from the sonnets: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate” (XVIII) … “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past” (XXX) … “No more be griev’d at that which thou hast done: / Roses have thorns and silver fountains mud.” (XXXV)

McWhorter says: “The glory of Shakespeare’s original language is manifest.” No one would dispute that except the Shaws and Twains of the literary world who thought they were better than Shakespeare. But McWhorter concludes that we cannot allow “blind faith to deprive the public of a monumental treasure.”

More nonsense. Nearly 400 years after Shakespeare died in 1616 we still have — and still marvel — at the “monumental treasure” he left.

Shakespeare in modern dress? Fine — as long as the language is retained. Shakespeare in translation? No, no, no. Never. Not even 500 years from now.

Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. He can be reached at jake@unr.edu.
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Kent Richmond
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May 03, 2010
Inspired by an article by fellow linguist John McWhorter over a decade ago, I have completed verse translations of five Shakespare plays. My translations certainly do not dumb down the plays, and I work to maintain Shakespeare's verse structure. (If you are interested, you can see excerpts from my translations at http://www.fullmeasurepress.com or at www.csulb.edu/~richmond/Shakespeare.html)

You may be underestimating the difficulty of Shakespeare's language even for the literate. And you never tell us what you think these lines mean. Are we illiterate if we find the meaning of the noun "contumely" a little fuzzy? Shakespeare only used it once in all his works. And what about "and the spurns/That patient merit of th'unworthy takes." I suspect most of us will have trouble parsing that one in the two seconds it takes Hamlet to say it. (Stephen Greenblatt paraphrases it as this: "The kicks/insults that the deserving has to accept patiently from the unworthy." It may be magnificent, but when rapidly spoken, it might as well be Turkish.

Kent Richmond
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