Monday, July 21, 2008

Remind Me Never To Do This

Say it with me:  No matter how well, or how many different ways you translate Shakespeare, if you try to do it line by line, you are doing the source material a grave disservice.

The value is in the *poetry* first and foremost, so if you take that away, then you've got no obligation to try and swap out the words (unless you happen to be doing a side-by-side, which most often people are not).

Without the poetry, you're left with plot and character.  So forget about the line-by-line stuff and just retell the story in your own way, if that's what you really want to do.  If you want to get somebody interested in Shakespeare and you're afraid of the language, that's the way to do it.  Hook them with the story and the people, and then bring in the language.  Don't take away the language and say "Trust me, the original is much better than this."


catkins said...

Agree completely. This extreme example, though, also highlights a general problem that can be seen in scholarly Shakespeare editions that offer glosses on the text. The worst, I think, is the Folger Shakespeare Series, with its simplistic glosses, often of whole lines or even speeches. Yes, it tells you what goes on, but it doesn't allow you to understand the poetry. Even in betteer scholarly editions, editors often get lazy and gloss phrases or ideas without explaining the words so that the reader cannot understand how the words play with each other and how the poetry works (and the rhythm of the line gets lost). That is also why I think original spelling and puntuation is so important. The punctuation is important for the rhythm (and dometimes the meaning); the original spelling then becomes necessary or the punctuation looks wrong.

Alan K.Farrar said...

Hey - never improvised?

This is a seriously bad example - but paraphrasing is an essential to understanding - used in every classroom where Shakespeare is taught, either consciously or unconsciously.

Parroting the text without understanding is far worse.

The poetry is only one aspect of the text's success on stage - to reduce (Brook) Shakespeare to only poetry (words, words, words) is as equally sinful as to remove.

Duane said...

The point, Alan, was that if you're going to remove the poetry, then you are no longer bound to do a word-for-word translation of the text. It's that forced constraint that makes it garbage. I am all for extracting character and story and "paraphrasing" the entire play in order to improve understanding. It's how I expect my kids to learn this stuff.

catkins said...

I have no problem with paraphrasing, as long as it is accompanied with an understanding of the words. If you just paraphrase, without explaining the individual words, you rob the reader of the opportunity of a deeper comprehension (sometimes a deeper comprehension than yours!).

Alan K.Farrar said...

As I said - this is a seriously bad example (for us sophisticated ones - but maybe a rocket science leap for the original poster).
The 'poetry' aspect disturbs me:
1) Because I'll be in a very hot place (with the rest of my family) if I actually understand what the word 'poetry' means in the Shakespeare context;
2) I work all the time in a variety of languages - from types of English to 'foreign' - and the apparent simplicity of the concept of 'language' and 'original' and 'meaning' have long gone 'west';
3) Shakespeare works in translation - and adaptation.

catkins said...

You bring up some excellent points, Alan, but I have trouble believing that a clearly intelligent Shakespeare geek like you does not understand what poetry means in the context of Shakespeare.
1. Shakespeare wrote in blank verse. That is not the same as prose. Moreover, how meaning is conveyed is as important as the meaning itself. "What a piece of work is man!" is simply not the same as "Man is very complicated!" The former is poetic, the latter is not. Will admitting that get you into hot water?
2. Original spelling and punctuation are not the same as original meaning. But if you want to translate or adapt something, you have to know what you are starting with. If you know what words meant in the 16th century, and you know how the grammar was used, and how punctuation guided speech, it can help you interpret the text. Adapt away, but know what you are adapting from.
3. Shakespeare works in translation, but there are good translations and bad translations. One can translate with a sense of syntax and poetry or without it. In my work on The Sonnets, I had occasion to refer to Petrarch and found the translation of his sonnets not much better than the example that started this post. I am no Italian scholar, but I know enough Italian that I could see that the translations often gave the sense of the words without honoring the Italian syntax or poetry. Obviously, something must give with translation--you must either change the meaning or lose the rhyme, but even if you give up rhyme, you can honor the syntax and often rhythm and thus manintain a sense of poetry. Robert Fagles' translation of Homer is a great example of what it means to preserve poetry in translation, and comparing him to one of the older translations is a valuable lesson in the importance of verse.