Thursday, January 14, 2010

Should Shakespeare be translated into modern English?

Linguist John McWhorter makes the case. I'm not convinced (if all it comes down to is the radically changed meaning of Shakespearean words and expressions, thus preventing modern audiences from grasping the work at first blush, then why not redouble efforts to understand the original context of what Shakespeare meant, instead of abandoning the language altogether? Oh, there's the bummer--effort), but his arguments are worth a read. Scroll all the way down here for readers' insightful reactions. The gist:

No, froufrou words and syntax, and the artificiality of meter, are not in themselves what makes Shakespeare such an approximate experience for most of us. The problem with Shakespeare for modern audiences is that English since Shakespeare's time has changed not only in terms of a few exotic vocabulary items, but in the very meaning of thousands of basic words and in scores of fundamental sentence structures. For this reason, we are faced with a language which, while clearly recognizable as the English we speak, is different to an extent which makes partial comprehension a challenge, and anything approaching full comprehension utterly impossible for even the educated theatregoer who doesn't happen to be a trained expert in Shakespearean language...

The tragedy of this is that the foremost writer in the English language, the most precious legacy of the English-speaking world, is little more than a symbol in our actual thinking lives, for the simple reason that we cannot understand what the man is saying. Shakespeare is not a drag because we are lazy, because we are poorly educated, or because he wrote in poetic language. Shakespeare is a drag because he wrote in a language which, as a natural consequence of the mighty eternal process of language change, 500 years later we effectively no longer speak.

Is there anything we might do about this? I submit that here as we enter the Shakespearean canon's sixth century in existence, Shakespeare begin to be performed in translations into modern English readily comprehensible to the modern spectator. Make no mistake—I do not mean the utilitarian running translations which younger students are (blissfully) often provided in textbooks. The translations ought to be richly considered, executed by artists of the highest caliber well-steeped in the language of Shakespeare's era, thus equipped to channel the Bard to the modern listener with the passion, respect and care which is his due.


PLUS: An exclusive--Morgan Freeman at the Tony Awards delivering Shakespeare's oft-quoted “Seven ages of man” from As You Like It. “The power of an actor on the stage with only the words of the playwright and his ability to deliver the great themes of the human condition has rarely been more beautifully conveyed,” as the intro puts it. Agree completely. No contemporizing needed--the clarity and comeliness of Mr. Freeman's recitation is, I believe, the perfect refutation to the “Shakespeare is too hard to get” argument.

(An exclusive, because this isn't available on YouTube until now. The clip comes from The Best of the Tony Awards: The Plays DVD. Watch it now before somebody notices and takes it down.)



6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think it is a good idea, although we shouldn’t do away with the original either. I haven't read Shakespeare since high school but I remember only understanding maybe half of what I was reading. Without resorting to cheat books, I was half-lost.

Kent Richmond said...

You can see excerpts of what a fully realized modern English translation of Shakespeare looks like at these links:

http://www.fullmeasurepress.com or http://www.csulb.edu/~richmond/.

By the way, Michael Boyd, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is talking about staging a translation in 2012 during the Olympics.

Kent Richmond

Anonymous said...

Hindi translation. adaptation. Sayang kasi iyong disiplina on reading and analyzing the text kung itratranslate. may nawawala. I think iyong may karapatang mag translate or adapt lang ay iyong alam na alam ang intention ng original text.

Anonymous said...

Newsflash: Patay na si Shakespeare so sino kaya ang "alam na alam ang intention ng original text?" Besides, if you looked carefully into the origins of the texts anyway, they were editorial versions first published in 1623 -- seven years after Shakespeare's death. Who's to say what a Shakespearean text is in the first place?

Anonymous said...

Newsflash: Patay na si Shakespeare so sino kaya ang "alam na alam ang intention ng original text?" Besides, if you looked carefully into the origins of the texts anyway, they were editorial versions first published in 1623 -- seven years after Shakespeare's death. Who's to say what a Shakespearean text is in the first place? --> duh?

dementedlittleboy said...

I remember how I understood most, if not whole, of Romeo and Juliet. Remember the 1990's movie Romeo+Juliet starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes. The adaptation really counts I think, there is no flaw in the text itself. Literature is not just for entertainment, it is for analysis and comprehension. By analyzing and comprehending literature, one could get the leisure on there.

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