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GUEST Post: Translating Shakespeare to “Modern English”: A Defence

Translating Shakespeare spans centuries and many languages. Late in the 20thC it has become the turn of Early Modern English to be made into Modern English. Many are against this practice. I mean would we do the same for Middleton or Marlowe? Then neither of those has the place in the curricula of modern education that Sh does. And this seems to be the reason why these modern english translations are happening.

It is with pleasure then that I accepted the offer of No Sweat Shakespeare to do this guest post. Enjoy and if you have comments please post them on the FB group page.

Academics interested in the works of Shakespeare often ask the question: ‘Is it necessary to translate Shakespeare’s texts into “modern” English?’ Some take the view that it is but most argue against it.

Although my website, NoSweatShakespeare.com is a site that focuses on translating Shakespeare into modern English and although I have spent a great deal of time translating Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, I actually agree with those who say it’s unnecessary. Unnecessary as it is, though, it is harmless and can be useful.

The well known linguistician, David Crystal, professor of linguistics at Bangor University in Wales, argues eloquently against translation. His main point is that Shakespeare’s texts already are in Early Modern English, with the language already well developed in the form that we use today.

He is right, of course, and he doesn’t just make that point: he goes on to demonstrate it with facts and shows that ninety percent of Shakespeare’s words, for example, are modern English words still in use.

Other arguments against translation are that it’s a kind of dumbing down that would destroy, for the readers of translations, the challenge that Shakespeare’s texts offers; that the rhythms of Shakespeare’s poetry are ruined in translation, and that the multiple meanings produced by his poetry disappear.

All of this is undoubtedly true. However, one has to ask the question why it is that modern English translations are so popular among teachers and students, to the point where there is fierce competition among those who produce them for the growing market. Student forums on the internet abound with questions about where one can get a translation of a particular line of text or Shakespeare quote, or a scene in one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Many years ago, as an English teacher, I took a special interest in ways of introducing and teaching Shakespeare texts to children and young people. During the last quarter of a century a great deal of work has been done on that and now, with a good teacher, a student can have a wonderful Shakespeare experience in the classroom.

In those days, when I was exploring the subject, I used various methods to introduce Shakespeare in the classroom but I felt that there must be something I could do to hand the play over to the students before the actual study of the text began – to allow them to take possession of it and then want to explore the actual text.

I came up with the idea of creating a novelised version of Macbeth. It would be full of action, suspense, violence – a great story with ‘real’ characters with whom readers would identify. They would be able to read it independently of the teacher. Or the teacher could read it with them.

I began work on it. I found, exactly like David Crystal, that the language was almost exactly the English that we use today. But set out as a play, it was alien to student taste.

We should always remember that for Elizabethan writers the text was unimportant: the important thing was the performance. In fact, it was the only thing. Members of the public of the time never read a text – even the actors never read a full text.

In our time we study the text as a piece of literature and often a student will study the text and never see a performance. So the student is looking at the play in a way never dreamt of by its author, which is bound to be problematic in many ways.

Moreover, students rarely go away and read play scripts on their own so they are unfamiliar with that form. A play script is, after all, a most alienating thing. My aim was to create a step between the student and the Shakespeare text, using a form familiar to, and loved by, her, which would not only give her a complete view of the play – its story, its themes and its characters, but also of the language.

I therefore resolved to write something that felt like a novel in the reading but leave the language as intact as possible. However, there are some archaic words, some words whose meaning has changed completely, and some constructions, because of the density of the poetry, that are difficult to unravel.

So my approach was to use Shakespeare’s language and tweak it a bit to make it read fluidly, with the student not having to interrupt the read to try and understand something. She doesn’t have to stop reading a well-written novel to try and work something out so my top priority was to imitate that fluidity. That meant that it had to sound ‘modern’ to the reader’s ear and the result was that Shakespeare’s rhythms were lost for the most part.

It also meant that much of the depth created by the poetry had to go – multiple meanings had to be sacrificed to the needs of an unambiguous, straight read.

However, Shakespeare’s language is still there, almost intact, in the translation. I also used bits of descriptive dialogue to create the kind of authorial narrative that novelists create, giving the text a seamless forward thrust. And in every other way I used the novelist’s methods, retaining Shakespeare’s language wherever possible.

When I began using a modern English translation of Shakespeare in the classroom I found a response that went even beyond my hopes. Children read the text and then were able to talk about the plot, the ideas and the characters, before even catching a glimpse of the Shakespeare text. Their enthusiasm for the play was very satisfying as a teacher. The subsequent engagement with the text was then a teacher’s dream.

And, so, while agreeing with those critics of Shakespeare translations, in practice they can be very useful: the kind of translation I’ve referred to is a powerful item in the English teacher’s toolbox.

The use of the tool does not mean that the student avoids the Shakespeare text. That would, of course, depend on the teacher but if a teacher does not proceed to the text they, not, the translated text, is at fault.

By Warren King, NoSweatShakespeare

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