Translation musings: O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou… what?

May 31, 2016 | Language, Literature, Musings, Translation

William Shakespeare First FolioThis year is the 400th anniversary of the death of the “Bard of Avon”, William Shakespeare. Everyone knows the name of this prolific poet, playwright and actor and we can all quote some of his immortal lines. You probably met some of his plays or poems at school, even if you spent your school years outside the UK. And most likely you were able to enjoy his plays in your mother tongue as his works have been translated into more than 80 languages. (Including Klingon and Esperanto, by the way.)

Did you really enjoy reading them though? Chances are that the translation you read was written in an old-fashioned language just like the original seems today. The Hungarian translation I had to read for school was a heavily ornamented, complicated and archaic 19th-century text which terrified me as a 14-year-old teenager. At the time I thought, oh well, this is how it is, Shakespeare’s English is difficult, so the Hungarian version must be challenging to read, too.

I wonder though if it really has to be a challenge. Do we really need to struggle through these age-old translations? In his time Shakespeare was more than contemporary, he was innovative and original. He alone created over 1700 new words and introduced them to the English language, including “fashionable”, “gloomy” or “excitement”, just to name a few. He is famous for his puns and word plays. He played with language and helped shape modern English. Shouldn’t his plays and poems be translated in a manner that matches his resourcefulness and readiness to experiment with language? Should we have modern, up-to-date translations of Shakespeare that help bring his timeless stories and messages closer to our time? Nowadays there are more and more re-translations, and even modernised English editions.

What do you think? Should a translation follow and imitate the original’s now old-style period language or should we have access to fresh translations that treat the language as playfully as Shakespeare did in his time?


Source of image: Wikimedia Commons