Monday, March 22, 2010

Why Translate?

Another quarter ends, another paper is written...


One of my earliest experiences with Shakespeare was with Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing in 1993. My mother drove me to the movie theatre in the hopes of pulling me out of the house, away from video games, and experiencing a little culture for once if she had to shove it down my throat with a funnel. On the way to the only little independent theatre that was playing the film in Dallas, she explained the plot to me so that I wouldn’t be entirely lost in a torrent of unfamiliar language. Resistant as I was to being pulled away from my otherwise unoccupied afternoon, I grudgingly found within myself a growing curiosity and interest in the story of Beatrice and Benedick; two people too proud to realize the depth of their mutual love masked under their adversarial habit.
One of the focal points of the discussion in the car was the importance of Shakespeare’s language. It was this, my mother described, that set him apart from playwrights before or since. It is why we’ve continued to produce his work for so many generations since his death. The notion of language had me intrigued; wasn’t Shakespeare from England? Wouldn’t the film, therefore, be in English? I was now excited to explore an undiscovered country of storytelling. I was wholly unprepared, however, to meet the challenge. Armed with my mother’s plot synopsis combined with the performers’ knowledge of the text and communication thereof I understood enough about what was going on to be able to enjoy myself. It was the first movie I ever saw where people clapped at the end.
Yet I still knew something critical was missing. I had the sense of what was going on, and from time to time I could pick out an intelligible string of words. But each victory was short-lived. Before long I’d be hit with another volley of metaphors in a vernacular to which I had never been exposed, and my confusion and frustration proved a valiant force against my curiosity and enjoyment in the story.
When the film was released to video I nabbed a copy to be watched and re-watched in an attempt to further unravel the mysteries of the play. I found I had a solid grasp of the plot, but the individual conversations eluded me time and again. I tried to read a copy, but the words themselves without an actor’s intention to back them up were woefully dreary. What was the sense of this remarkable language if I couldn’t understand it?
Later that year I was exposed to Romeo and Juliet in my high school English class. We listened to a recording and read along with the play, stopping about once each verse to breakdown, analyze, and interpret what was being said. We looked up the words we didn’t know as our teacher explained the metaphoric linguistics, but it was such a dry, sanitized experience that wiped all possible appreciation I could otherwise have had for the story itself – much less the prose. At the end of the section I had a comprehensive understanding of how to reconstruct the language, and an abysmal, mind-numbing memory of being mentally dragged over coals.
It seemed to me at that time, and ever since, that a middle ground should exist between one type of experience and the other. The plays were written for the purpose of performance, not to simply be read, and thus the joy of the experience must come from an (at least) adequate realization thereof; but without proper training and preparation on the part of the audience the full measure of appreciation is somewhat lacking. One possible solution – vehemently debated, yet rarely explored – is to translate the works of Shakespeare into the language of the contemporary English speaker.
Why Not?
This is a topic to heat the blood of academics and actors alike. For those of us who have explored the depth and breadth of Shakespeare, the notion of changing his words to better suit ourselves is appalling. There is transcendence in his use of the language that creates an unparalleled magic when performed. The words wash over us in a variety of styles, from rhyming poems to free-verse prose. He altered his voice to complement his characters, masterfully capturing the very essence of royalty and peasantry, the proud and the humble, the virtuous and the villainous. 
Shakespeare put a lot of work into the creation and execution of his scripts. His writing had a level of beauty and complexity that enabled his work to survive where others have not. It has been argued that the greatest contribution Shakespeare left to the world lies not in the stories themselves as much as the manner in which he told them. If we accept this to be true (and many do), changing the words would strip from Shakespeare the dominant reason we continue to honor, revere and perform his work.
There is a fear that a reimagined update of the texts would dumb them down, sanitize them until they’ve lost the density of the original material, and this fear is not unfounded. Full-fledged remakes of the plays often take the form of films (1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You, or 2001’s O for example) aimed at a high school crowd, whose own lexicon consists of such an innate lack of poetry even compared with an audience whose average age is a mere ten years their senior. These films tend to seek out the broadest possible audience, and therefore tend to abjure any level of depth, complexity, or imagination that allows them to be remembered by the time they’re shelved at your local video store. If this is the only example of what we can expect from a contemporized version of these plays, it’s no wonder the resistance to translate is so passionately adhered to.
It’s also worth mentioning that the difficulty in understanding Shakespeare’s writing advances our intellectualism. The process of wrapping our brains around that which we do not understand challenges us, makes us grow. Much of the purpose of public education is not merely to teach us the lesson, but to teach us how to learn. Shakespeare’s use of a now largely archaic lexicon keeps our vocabulary broadened as we seek the meanings of each word we do not understand. The metaphor excites our imagination, bringing about a fuller world of color and complexity. If we pander to a lazy populace with a contemporary translation, we run the risk of breeding a generation of people who are less well equipped to broaden their minds when called upon.
Furthering the challenge is the question of whom do we trust to carry it out? The work of Shakespeare is so revered, so honored; many people believe there is no living soul up to the task of truly capturing the glory and spirit of the original. They who understand the work well enough to be capable of penning an elegant modern translation would most likely choose to propagate a more widespread comprehension of the original. If there was someone who believed himself capable of taking up that particular gauntlet, the world of literary criticism would be awash with vilification before it could even be published. Who, when faced with such a possibility, would find and maintain the resolve to carry the project to fruition?
Finally, let’s suppose a respectable, broadly accepted version were to be completed, published, and made readily available to anyone who wanted it. Would anyone be bold enough to mount it into production? Who would choose to forsake the original, in all its glory (and royalty-free, I might add) and adopt the Monkey’s Paw of a wholly “new” work?
The most prevalent argument for translating Shakespeare’s work is to bring about a broader level of accessibility to the material. Not all of us are blessed with an educational system that’s up to the task, or teachers passionate and talented enough to encourage a gaggle of willful souls to embrace a set of 400-year-old stories with an antiquated vernacular. In the absence of assistance, it’s rare to find a person gifted with the self-directed dedication necessary to tackle the task of comprehending, much less mastering, Shakespeare.
Educators have long since implemented a graduating level of exposure to a variety of subject matter. Children learn the mechanics of addition and subtraction long before multiplication and division rear their heads. History may teach us of the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620, but the content containing plague-ridden blankets and broken promises is reserved for later. Likewise, the work of Shakespeare is advanced material to a 21st century mind, regardless of age, experience, or level of maturity. Even someone skilled with a broad vocabulary and excellent reading comprehension can find Shakespeare’s plays to be a challenge at first exposure. To attempt a full-scale comprehension of his plays without proper preparation can be as fruitless as a full-scale water balloon assault against a herd of stampeding elephants.
But the benefits of a contemporary translation of the work wouldn’t be limited to schoolchildren. Many people who aren’t exposed to the pleasure of discovery in childhood rarely find the impetus to seek it out as adults. Even then, Shakespeare is treated as a genre unto himself. Even the most seasoned readers and theatre goers never venture beyond the comfortable zones of contemporary literature as it is. People who take it upon themselves to broaden the horizons of their exposure to the literary and theatrical worlds rarely have been exposed to the challenges inherent in tackling Shakespeare’s work. Everyone needs a launching point, and that point is variable, unique to the individual. Plot synopses and summaries are fine for an overall picture, but to go from reading the Cliff Notes to encountering a production may be too big a step for some.
It has been noted that an actor’s job is to properly convey the meaning of the text even if the words are unfathomable. As an actor I know this to be true, but this argument has nothing to do with the question of translating the work. If someone witnessing a performance gets the meaning without understanding the words, of course the actors, directors, and designers have done their task well. But this has more to do with the performer’s understanding and communication, not the audience’s. I can be the best actor I can be, interpreting and communicating the text with the full range of my skill; but when there comes a point that I make myself understood without use of language, then the language is already lost. If it’s going to be lost no matter what I do as a performer, it won’t get more lost if I’m speaking a text other than the original.
Too late
Whether one believes in the necessity or the benefits of translating Shakespeare, the plain truth is that it’s already been done, and repeatedly. 
Modern translations of Shakespeare’s work are nothing new. Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, a retelling of twenty of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, was first published in 1807. Its goal was to give young readers an introductory exposure to the plays in the style of a novelization. It’s true this was more of a synopsis than a translation, but the fact remains that 200 years ago – only half the years removed from Shakespeare that we are today – it was recognized that a deeper appreciation of the work can be assisted by amending the text. Even then, great care was taken to make sure the language and spirit of the original remained intact.
No Fear Shakespeare provides a side-by-side, line-by-line comparison of the original text with its modern equivalent. Of course these publications are intended for use as study guides as opposed to pleasurable reading, much less performance. Nonetheless its existence and prevalence in the market demonstrates that there is both a need and a desire to understand the work. People are seeking, and finding, a method of discovery that exists between the synopsis and the performance.
When one of Shakespeare’s plays is brought to a country where English is not the dominant language, it’s translated into the contemporary equivalent of that language, not the 17th century equivalent. We don’t expect native speakers of Russian, French, or Japanese to learn English in order to read Shakespeare any more than we learn Russian to read Dostoyevsky, French to read Dumas, or Japanese to watch Seven Samurai. We could do these things, of course – but we can (and do) also translate the works themselves, understanding that this is a halfway point from where we stand to the original and should be respected as such. As an audience we can choose to go further in our exploration if we choose.
As for the argument that a translation is an adaptation, the truth is Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted from their original performance days from the beginning. Multiple versions of the plays exist, from the Quartos to the Folios, each containing lines that exist in one but not the other, or variations of the lines themselves. Any director who decides to pick one over the other, or cut a bit he doesn’t think quite fits, is already altering the original work. Not to mention the variety of meanings that can be inferred from punctuation; a comma is not a semicolon is not a period is not an exclamation mark, yet each of these can be found in the same sentence.
But translations exist in a more insidiously subtle form as well. The spellings used in contemporary printings are frequently at odds with the original, and can provide drastically different interpretations when explored, according to Ron Rosenbaum’s The Shakespeare Wars. When Hamlet says “The air bites shrewdly”, an original (Quarto) spelling has shrewdly written as Shroudly. This “gives the word a dimension more than temperature. Gives a more frightening resonance to Horatio’s response—‘It is a nipping and an eager air’—which is often read as having erotic overtones, but which could just as well—with ’Shroudly’—express the apprehension that death is nipping eagerly at our heels.” (Rosenbaum) 
And if you’re dead set against it, brace yourself; a man named Kent Richmond has already broken the ice with his Enjoy Shakespeare series. Since 2004 he’s been making available an assortment of line-by-line verse translations both in paperback and for your favorite e-book medium. Richmond has clearly taken great pains to preserve as much of the source material as possible, including iambic pentameter. Witness, for example, a comparison between Shakespeare’s original next of Twelfth Night and Richmond’s own:


There is a fair behavior in thee, captain; (11 syllables)
And though that nature with a beauteous wall (10 syllables)
Doth oft close in pollution, yet of thee (10 syllables)
I will believe thou has a mind that suits (10 syllables)
With this thy fair and outward character. (10 syllables)


I sense a decent man inside you, captain. (11 syllables)
And although nature often hides what's foul (10 syllables)
Behind a lovely wall, I can have faith (10 syllables)
That you, sir, have a mind that matches well (10 syllables)
This fair and outward character I see. (10 syllables)

What’s the difference? 
If you don’t want to read an updated version of the plays, the solution is simple: don’t. No one is going to make you. If you find the notion of seeing a translated version of the plays to be distasteful, don’t see one. It’s really that simple. Shakespeare wrote beautifully and Shakespeare wrote well, but in his day, Shakespeare wrote for everyone. It’s disingenuous to that spirit of inclusion if we take an action that blocks anyone from the experience. 
No one is advocating eliminating the original work. A contemporary translation doesn’t mean we have to throw out the Ardens and the Pelicans and the Penguins. No one is going to burn all of the Folios and the Quartos, and Shakespearean theatres around the world won’t stop producing works based on these texts. A contemporary edition of the play will simply add another book to the shelf, not take any away. It will be one more facet of a multi-hued gem through which we attempt to explore and uncover the mysteries of perhaps the man we all know when he’s referred to simply as “The Bard”. 
In the end, I find myself sympathetic to those who would choose to translate. While they may lack the quality of the Folio edition, contemporary versions of the plays will grant Shakespeare a broader audience than before. My mother is an educator, serving as a librarian in a public middle school. She doesn’t discriminate when it comes to finding methods of getting children to read. When Peter Jackson made Lord of the Rings into feature films she helped to publicize them among her students because they were based on books. The vast majority of the film audience probably stopped exploring the work of Tolkien with the movies, but if the movies encouraged just one more person to pick up a book than otherwise would have, that’s a victory for the reading side. 
Similarly, a contemporary Shakespearean translation will probably lead most people to choose to read only the newest version and stop there. But if it convinces just one person to take the next step and explore the source material than otherwise would have, that’s a win.
Let’s take all we can get.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


As a child, my parents never treated me to the full experience of Santa Claus. Perhaps they tried with my elder siblings, but by the time I was old enough to appreciate the magic, the spell had already been broken. We still made cookies (peanut butter, with red and green candy sprinkles) and left them with a glass of milk on the fireplace mantle. Christmas morning there were always full stockings (mine had a teddy bear on the front, which in later years I had smudged with chocolate-stained fingers), and a bundle of presents that weren’t there the previous night labeled “From Santa”. But the fun for me became in trying and catch my parents in the act of laying out presents and having the milk and cookies we left out. I remember one year my brother and I camping out in the adjacent room with a Polaroid, desperately trying to stay up late enough to snap a shot of evidence. My parents were in on the joke, innocently raising their eyebrows in defense with cheeky replies of “We don’t know what you’re talking about,” when confronted.

Instead of Santa, one of the best parts of growing up in my house was getting presents of fudge from my grandma. She lived out of state, so from time to time we’d get a package in the mail addressed to all of us. Contained within was a tin full of the softest, most delicious treat of my childhood, cut into neat squares and separated layer by layer with wax paper. There were even two kinds she sent, one with nuts and one without, to accommodate the fact that my older sister was in braces at the time. Nobody made fudge like my grandma, and I was so proud of the fact that we had what could be considered a Family Recipe.

As much as Grandma’s Fudge was a special treat, I wanted to be able to make it within our own house, whenever we wanted. More importantly, we would be the bearers of the Sacred Recipe, something to be handed down through the generations of our family. One day I grew bold enough to tell my father to ask his mother for it.

We just so happened to be in the local grocery store at the time. My fear was that he’d say no, and I would be abashed and ashamed for having asked him. Instead he made a rather favorable expression, and started marching through the store. I grew intensely excited – did he already have the recipe? Did he already know it? I was nearly offended then; if he knew it, why had we never made it before? But that indignation was quickly squashed as my father seemed to be looking for something specific. He was going to gather the materials, and we were going to be able to make the fudge tonight!!!

He went to a shelf and pulled off a jar of Marshmallow Creme, handed it to me, and pointed to the Fudge Recipe on the back. “That’s it right there,” he said.

I thought my chest was going to collapse. All this time, it wasn’t a Secret Sacred Recipe at all, it was on the back of a damned jar of something made by Kraft?! Attempting self-consolation, I tried to convince myself that maybe there wasn’t much opportunity for this to get out… then I looked up at the shelf. There must have been 200 jars of the stuff. Anyone could grab one.

God dammit.

When I tell people I never had a Santa Claus experience as a child, sometimes people feel sorry for me. They pity me for not having the magic, and they’re jealous of my not suffering through the disappointment of finding out the dream was false. But I still got the lift of magic and the letdown of reality as a child – and I got it in a way no one else did, making my experience both completely unique and utterly homogenous.

And now, as an adult, I get to make the fudge whenever I damn well please. And I don’t have to wait to have kids to experience it, either.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Review: The Shakespeare Wars

For all the childhood joys and wonders grad school has held for me thus far, there's still hard work to be done. My first paper for our Graduate Seminar class this quarter was to read and review a book about Shakespeare, chosen by our own discrection.

Silly me, I picked a 600 page critique and analysis. It would have taken me three weeks to get it all read if I hadn't put it off until the last mintue - I read the whole thing in four sittings across seven days, one of them (yesterday) lasting ten hours.

And how did it go? You tell me, I only just emailed it to my professor a few mintues ago...

Who was the man named William Shakespeare? More importantly, what difference does it make? Ron Rosenbaum has given us a comprehensive analysis of exactly how little it matters. Shakespeare’s life has so few known facts, allowing for extremities of conjecture and supposition to become more important than the body of work which spoke to us as a world culture, made us care about him in the first place.
In The Shakespeare Wars, Rosenbaum places primary focus on the most important part of Shakespeare’s life – the written materials published under his name. He argues the detrimental effect of using the few known facts about Shakespeare’s life, saying
Just as in the old story of the man who persists in searching for his keys under a streetlamp (even though they’re not there) ‘because that’s where the only light was,’ Shakespearean biography, especially the obsessive—often circular—attempts to make inferences about the work on the basis of the few known facts and anecdotes about the life, can be a distraction from the true mystery and excitement, the true source of illumination, the place the hidden keys can actually be found: the astonishing language. (Look how little we know about Homer and how little it matters.)
Thus most efforts to forge, fabricate or flesh out the life (as opposed to placing the work in its cultural context) have ended up doing a disservice to the work because they lead inevitably to a reductive biographical perspective on the work and use the work to ‘prove’ suppositions about the life.
Throughout his book Rosenbaum does a fantastic job of keeping quite well away from Shakespeare the man. Instead he focuses purely upon the written material attributed to him in all its glorious versions and alterations. When he speaks of Shakespeare, he is clearly referring to a personage, not a person. He spends much of the first third of the book reminding the reader that no one knows exactly who the man was, and thus every supposition about what he wrote and/or rewrote is nothing more than that.
Rosenbaum begins with his transcendental theatrical Shakespearean experience that began the depths of his passion about Shakespeare’s material – Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Shakespeare Company in September of 1970 (an experience unfortunately lost to time as the RSC didn’t record the performance). He describes most pointedly the actors’ performance, “as if the words were not recited so much as thought up and uttered, freshly minted, for the first time,” an utterance that makes the actor in me jump up and shout Yes, you idiot! That’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be! What had you been watching before?! (Fun Fact: I really did shout this out loud when I read this passage. My cat, accustomed to my behavior, was unsurprised).
Rosenbaum goes on to discuss the three competing texts of Hamlet (the Bad Quarto of 1603, the Good Quarto of 1604, and the Folio version of 1623) pointing out their differentiation. Through an extensive series of interviews and discussions with various Shakespearean scholars he illuminates the additions and omissions of each, and how the whole of the text is altered both stylistically and thematically with each version. He does the same thing with the two differing endings of King Lear, eloquently delineating the enormity of the themes based upon the sole difference of Lear’s last two lines.
Rosenbaum continues by pointing out and exploring what he calls “The Great Shakespeare ‘Funeral Elegy’ Fiasco”. Here Rosenbaum tears into Don Foster with a passionate tenacity for using a computer program, SHAXICON, to analyze the poem and prove it definitively to have been written by Shakespeare. Whereas throughout most of The Shakespeare Wars Rosenbaum delights in the intellectual stimulation of discussion and discovery, this chapter sees him enjoy a perverse childish delight in making Foster eat his words. He sparked within me a mutual disgust for the audacity of SHAXICON, as if a computer program can be supplanted for the intellect and intuition of human sophistication to answer the question of what is Shakespearean.
He goes into detail about the mysterious Hand D, the person behind the section of a never performed, never printed work called Sir Thomas More. The handwriting of Hand D is believed to be Shakespeare’s own.; the very handwriting which crafted Othello’s last words condemning either the “base Indian” (as it was published in the Quarto version) or the “base Judean” (in the Folio), and the drastically divergent ramifications of either option.
He picks the brain of Sir Peter Hall, founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who makes a most passionate, table pounding argument insisting the necessity of a pause at the end of speaking a pentameter line.
Though interviews with John Andrews Rosenbaum gives a new insight into the unique facets of exploring Shakespeare’s work through its original spelling (“Tomorrow and tomorrow” vs. “To morrow and to morrow”). He illustrates just how thoroughly we have in a sense adapted, translated, altered and diluted the original depths of meaning without altering the pronunciation of the original text.
He goes into detail of The Merchant of Venice and the nature of Shylock. Through the portrayal of that character, Rosenbaum explains how the play doesn’t necessarily have to be anti-Semitic, but can rather be viewed as a play about anti-Semitism.
He makes a strong case for the superiority of Shakespeare’s work on film. Through pointed examples of close-ups, voice-overs and eye contact, Rosenbaum describes how (in some cases) the plays work better as movies than they ever could have on stage. He even explains the merits of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet in a way that will make me decide to finally watch it.
With an appropriate amount of self-effacement, Rosenbaum describes a heat-of-the-moment comment he made at a Peter Brook Dialogue, and includes his subsequent letter of apology to Brook. He uses this as a segue to get into the mind of Brook, and thorough a series of interviews, attempts to discover what Brook means about his notion of a “secret play” within each of Shakespeare’s plays.
Rosenbaum takes on a second foe in Harold Bloom and his “Santa Claus-like interpretation” of Falstaff. It becomes clear that Rosenbaum’s most pointed irritation with anyone’s opinion of Shakespeare comes down to the inflexibility of said opinion. Like Foster with his SHAXICON, Bloom’s vision of Falstaff is in direct conflict with Rosenbaum’s love of the unfathomable depths and reverberations of exploring Shakespeare’s work. The audacity of thinking one has nailed an aspect of Shakespeare to the wall sets Rosenbaum over the edge, repeatedly quoting director Jack O’Brien’s tirade about Bloom’s vision of Falstaff: “Oh, shut up, Harold. Enough already—we get it. You can’t have him! You can’t have him, Harold. You can’t contain him. You can’t nail him. You can’t put him in amber. You can’t define him. You can’t reduce him. You can’t have him.”
He explores Stephen Booth’s analysis and interpretations of the sonnets, referring to Booth as one who “represents in the realm of close reading what Peter Brook represents to me in the realm of directing.” His admiration for Booth is so strong that he uses it to further delineate the disgust of the previous chapter, calling Booth the “un-Bloom”. Rosenbaum counts and recounts Booth’s work with such a thought-provoking analysis that it earns its place amongst Booth’s own; a footnote to the footnote, if you will.
Through a conference in Bermuda on the pleasure contained and expressed within Shakespeare, Rosenbaum explores the pleasures expressed in As You Like It and R&J. Pleasures of the heart and pleasures of sex so profoundly conveyed that it seemed to un-rust the gears of the otherwise stodgy old scholars in attendance.
And finally, the discourse on physical pleasure melds into the repetitive theme of forgiveness within Shakespeare’s plays, describing it as “perhaps the ultimate pleasure.” Here Rosenbaum explores several examples of forgiveness, from his delight at Puck asking for the audience’s forgiveness in Dream to his shock of pleasure at Cordelia’s forgiveness in Lear with “No cause, no cause.” He ends the book asking for the forgiveness of the reader, “for all I’ve left out of the book, and yes, for what’s in: for my necessarily limited perspective on a limitless subject.”
Personally, I found The Shakespeare Wars the most pleasurable non-fiction read of my limited life. Rosenbaum’s love and passion for the seven-year project of writing this book is quite clear. His conversational writing style made all the notions and experiences he related a most enjoyable pleasure to read. I respect and admire his notion that the exploration of Shakespeare is bottomless, for it has a reverberative quality that makes each pass of the material unfold deeper possibilities of discovery than the last. He takes his appreciation for and exploration of Shakespeare to an art form in and of itself; it is art that describes art, a work that will never finish. In so doing it heralds the words of Leonardo daVinci, that “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”