Saturday, September 22, 2012

Translation, Please

Someone I, uh, know rather well posted a comment on my Merchant of Venice post. The comment is essentially a re-post from another blog about the same play. In that post, that other blogger expresses appropriate indignation about the character Shylock and the legacy of anti-Semitism associated with him. The blogger also, however, goes on to dismiss all of Shakespeare as essentially unintelligible drivel. This I cannot condone! Reading Shakespeare poses difficulties for many. I get that. Indeed, I have previously written about that issue.

In that previous post, I tried to make the case that wrestling with the difficulty is worth it. What I did not do was specifically identify what makes reading Shakespeare so difficult. Here are some thoughts:

We have a basic translation problem. Many of the words that Shakespeare used have evolved; so they no longer mean what they once did. For Shakespeare, “artificial” meant “skillful” and “competitor” meant “partner”—to name just a couple that hinder communication.

Many of Shakespeare’s sophisticated tropes, analogies, puns, and verbal pyrotechnics are just too much to unpack in one sitting. Consider this little exchange between Hamlet and his former school chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The exchange takes place right after Hamlet has killed and then stashed the body of the king’s counselor whom Hamlet caught hiding behind a curtain in his Mama’s bedroom:

What have you done, my lord, with the dead body?

Compounded it with dust, whereto 'tis kin.

Tell us where 'tis, that we may take it thence
And bear it to the chapel.

Do not believe it.

Believe what?

That I can keep your counsel and not mine own.
Besides, to be demanded of a sponge! what
replication should be made by the son of a king?

Take you me for a sponge, my lord?

Ay, sir, that soaks up the king's countenance, his
rewards, his authorities. But such officers do the
king best service in the end: he keeps them, like
an ape, in the corner of his jaw; first mouthed, to
be last swallowed: when he needs what you have
gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you
shall be dry again.

I understand you not, my lord.

I am glad of it: a knavish speech sleeps in a
foolish ear.

These guys, Hamlet’s peers, can hardly keep up with him. So, understandably, modern audiences/readers can easily miss the point at the apex of this exchange when Hamlet says “Do not believe it--That I can keep your counsel and not mine own./ Besides, to be demanded of a sponge! What replication should be made by the son of a king?” What Hamlet means is that they shouldn’t expect him to keep their dirty secrets and yet divulge his own. He is alluding to his old pals being secretly in cahoots with his step-father, the new king. Then he compares these former pals to a sponge in a witty extended metaphor, which they do not understand either. Nor will modern readers understand most of Hamlet’s lacerating witticisms if they don’t slow down and think through the word pictures he creates. Yet who has time to do that in the middle of watching a play?

Shakespeare’s plays were composed to suit a different culture’s tastes. For instance, the plays are a tad long by our standards. Performing all of Hamlet would probably take 5 hours, which Elizabethans saw as getting their money’s worth. Also, the plays are replete with allusions to historical, literary, and folk tales—references that are no longer a part of modern audiences’ communal vocabulary. Unlike a contemporary audience, an Elizabethan crowd could be counted on to know a fair amount about court intrigue so as to see vital parallels between what was going on in the fictional Danish court with what went on in London—without the benefit of a “playwright’s note.”

ALL RIGHT ALREADY! I CONCEDE ALL THIS! But just because translation is hard, that doesn’t mean we should give up on the possibility of communicating across cultures, right? Or across eras? Or across the dinner table?

I certainly hope not. More on this subject to come.


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