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PUNDITS AND PURISTS - Why Translate Shakespeare?

In a previous issue of The Link we had described the Access to Shakespeare series of plays, featuring the original Elizabethan text alongside a translation into contemporary English. 
You might ask, why translate Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English? Isn’t it almost a sacrilege to tinker with The Bard’s canon? And when you had to study Shakespeare during your high school years, nobody handed you an easy-to-read version on a silver platter. 
For some probing questions into the rationale of these translations, we feature a discussion between Dr. Jonnie Patricia Mobley, Cuesta College, San Luis Obispo, editor and translator of the Access to Shakespeare series of plays, and Raymond Walters, publisher, Lorenz Educational Publishers, Chicago.

The Mind Is Refrigerated by Interruption

WALTERS Some would say, Dr. Mobley, that what you have done in these new Shakespeare editions is to sugar-coat Shakespeare.

MOBLEY I suppose they might, but that’s not accurate. To begin with, each edition has a complete version of the original play, incorporating recent scholarship and insights. Then, on facing pages, there is a translation in contemporary English. Shakespeare is there on every page, unabridged.

WALTERS What is the point of having two versions of the same play? Is the reader supposed to read both versions or only one?

MOBLEY The reader – in most cases, students – can read either version or both or part of one, then part of the other. The translation is meant to take the place of the notes usually found in the standard editions.

WALTERS What’s wrong with notes? 

MOBLEY I’m awfully glad you asked that. Even when the notes are well done -- and by that I mean when they go further than simply plugging in synonyms -- they are still interruptive, distracting. 

I brought along today a quotation from Samuel Johnson. Dr. Johnson, as you may know, was himself an editor of Shakespeare. Here’s what he had to say about notes in his 1765 edition of Shakespeare: “Notes are often necessary, but they are necessary evils ... [and] the general effect of the work is weakened [by them]. The mind is refrigerated by interruption: the thoughts are diverted from the principal subject; the reader is weary, he suspects not why; and at last throws away the book.” And don’t forget, Johnson was 240 years closer to Shakespeare than we are.

WALTERS I like that. “The mind is refrigerated by interruption.” Now, can you give me an example of how your translation works? And why it’s needed?

MOBLEY Of course. It’s important to recognize two things first. One is that most people require some help in reading Shakespeare. And second, curiously enough, is that not everything needs to be translated; much of Shakespeare is clear to modern readers with only a few changes in spelling and punctuation. But let’s take a passage with some problems to show how the translation works. These lines are from the last act of Macbeth. An officer in the opposing army describes Macbeth’s situation:

Now does he feel
His secret murders sticking on his hands

These two lines are as colorful and as clear to a modern audience as they were to the Elizabethans. The trouble begins in the third line:

Now minutely revolts upbraid his faith-breach

A modern reader might interpret this line as, “A small number of revolts upbraid his faith-breach” because minutely now means “in a small quantity.” To the Elizabethans, however, it meant “every minute.” Compounding the problem is “upbraid his faith-breach,” which is not current idiom. The passage continues:

Those he commands move only in command,
Nothing in love.

A modern reader might construe these lines to mean that Macbeth’s troops were obedient, which is the opposite of what an Elizabethan audience understood. To the Elizabethan, “Nothing in love” meant “not from personal devotion,” but the phrase is pretty much of a blank to most Modern English speakers.
To be effective, I feel that this translation must meld the original and the modified parts seamlessly so that, if you did not have the original at hand, you might think you were reading it:

Now does he feel
His secret murders sticking to his hands;
Every minute rebellions reproach his treachery.
Those he commands move only because they’re ordered,
Not from love. Now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.

WALTERS But, of course, the reader has the original at hand and can easily tell which is which.

MOBLEY Exactly. The original is on the left page and the translation on the right. The translation follows the original line-for-line. It’s easy to switch from one to the other. But it’s important to have the original there. 

Some years ago, an editor produced an edition of Shakespeare in which modern words were freely substituted for Elizabethan words and meanings. It was often difficult to tell what was Shakespeare’s and what was the editor’s. I think that’s a serious mistake.


MOBLEY Because my goal is to have students read, understand, and enjoy Shakespeare’s plays as he wrote them. That is, to have students read the original plays.

WALTERS That brings me back to my original question. Isn’t the translation merely sugar-coating: Wouldn’t it be better to have students sweat a little and master both Elizabethan English and Shakespeare at the same time?

A Means to an End 

MOBLEY That would be the ideal. But experienced teachers know that for many students that’s just too much all at once, and the result is that these students are turned off Shakespeare for life. And that’s a shame; to miss out on an experience of this kind. 
Also, this translation saves valuable class time for the teacher. He or she can have students read a scene or an act in the translation for homework to get the plain sense of the text. Then, in class the teacher can spend time more profitably offering insights into the language and structure of the plays.
A number of years ago, Nevill Coghill produced a superb translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Now, I’m reasonably sure that Mr. Coghill hoped that people would not stop with his translation but would read Chaucer in Middle English. What he was doing was offering a “way in” to a great writer. I see my translations as a means to an end: To give students access to one of the world’s great writers, perhaps the world’s greatest writer.

WALTERS You seem to feel this strongly.

MOBLEY I do. For more than four hundred years now, the writings of Shakespeare have enriched the lives of millions of people. There’s something there for everyone, not for just a small group who unthinkingly call themselves purists. 

Throwing Away the Book

Dr. Samuel Johnson expressed in a very graphic way the frustration that your child may experience when faced with only the original version of a Shakespeare play. 
Dr. Jonnie Patricia Mobley, editor of the Access to Shakespeare series of plays, agrees with Samuel Johnson. Having taught theatre and drama at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, California and directed the community theatre there, Dr. Mobley is familiar with the hesitation of modern readers to tackle Shakespeare.
She recognized a great need to make it easier for students and adults alike to understand obscure words and phrases in Shakespeare’s plays. This realization gave rise to the creation of the translations into contemporary English. 
For example, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Demetrius and Hermia have just exchanged some bitter words, and Hermia has stalked off the stage. 

Shakespeare’s Original 

DEMETRIUS There is no following her in this fierce vein; 
Here therefore for a while I will remain. 
So sorrow’s heaviness doth heavier grow
For debt that bankrout sleep doth sorrow owe; ...
Doesn’t the following translation make it easier to grasp what Demetrius is saying? 


DEMETRIUS No use following her, she’s in an angry mood.
Therefore, I’ll stay awhile in this wood.
The weight of sorrow even heavier seems
Since I’ve had no sleep to dream sweet dreams...

In addition to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, translations into contemporary English are available for Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Macbeth. ■ Irene Walters, Lorenz Educational Publishers