Shakespeare in Translation

Romeo and Juliet performed in Nigeria

London 2012 is going to be big. As part of the celebrations there is to be Cultural Olympiad’s London 2012 festival  and a major component of that will be a huge, international Shakespeare festival.

We always talk about Shakespeare’s relevance in the modern world – Shakespeare for every generation, usually referring to the English speaking community – but Shakespeare’s plays are relevant for every other culture as well. Shakespeare’s themes of love and death, authority and power and his dominating theme of what reality is and how it is obscured and disguised by appearance are universal. Any culture can see itself in those themes although performances of Shakespeare’s plays are very different in the different cultures, where they are designed to appeal, not only to the universal instincts in those audiences, but also to create a recognition of themselves as they relate to their own cultures.

The London Shakespeare Festival’s programme reflects a very wide range of those performances, and this brings us to the question of translation. Much is always lost in translation as Shakespeare was decidedly English. One of the main reasons that Shakespeare’s expression of the English language is so far above any other English writer is because he somehow connects words so closely and exactly to the objects, ideas and emotions they are depicting that the words actually are those things – they don’t just describe things but they become the thing itself. Actors know that, and those who train actors use exercises that make the actors actually feel the emotions described. It doesn’t work nearly as well with other writers.

Othello in India

There are academics who mock attempts to translate Shakespeare, and indeed, NoSweatShakespeare has come in for criticism for translating Shakespeare into modern English. It is not our intention to replace Shakespeare, however, but to offer actors, teachers and students a starting point, from which they can progress to the Shakespeare text. Nosweatshakespeare’s range of ebooks offers easy to read modern English translations, written in the form of novels, while adhering as closely as possible to Shakespeare’s language which is, after all modern English – what’s usually referred to as Early Modern English. The website contains translations of the plays that are most popular in teaching and learning, and includes plays especially simplified for children – the Shakespeare for Kids range. Nosweatshakespeare has also translated all the sonnets into modern English.

But the plays that will be performed at the London Shakespeare Festival, beginning on Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23, 2012, continuing for twelve weeks, will have performances in thirty-eight languages, by theatre groups from thirty-eight countries. It’s mind-boggling. In spite of the criticism of translating Shakespeare, isn’t it better to do that than to deny those wonderful stories, characters and ideas to those billions of people outside the English speaking community?

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