Niels Brunse, Nancy W Knowles Lecture Theatre, The Globe, 18 April 2012
The second in the Globe’s series of talks on Shakespeare in translation took the form of a conversation between Danish translator and writer Niels Brunse and the Globe’s director of education, Patrick Spottiswoode. The talks are the educational backdrop to the Globe to Globe multi-language complete works festival.
Niels Brunse is on the way to becoming the first person to translate the complete works of Shakespeare into Danish.
He grew up in Elsinore, the famous location of Hamlet, and was first introduced to Shakespeare by a comic book version of Romeo and Juliet. Along with the rest of the population of the town, Niels became enraptured aged 14 by the 1964 BBC/DR co-production of Hamlet that was filmed on location in the castle at Elsinore. This television version, with Christopher Plummer as Hamlet and Michael Caine as Horatio, formed Niels’ primary experience of seeing Shakespeare acted.
He dropped out of university, but succeeded in forging a career as a translator and writer.
A commission from a Danish theatre company to produce a translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream led to a chain of similar commissions from other companies.
After translating several of Shakespeare’s plays, he realised that not all of them would be translated as a result of theatre commissions. So to fulfil his ambition of translating the complete works, he approached the Bikuben Foundation and received financial support to translate the entire canon of plays and sonnets.
Niels outlined a brief history of the translation of Shakespeare into Danish, starting from the early translation of Hamlet by Johannes Boye in 1777, through to the first translation of the (then) complete canon by Edvard Lembcke between 1861-73.
Most of these translations were for the page not the stage, whereas Niels Brunse, starting as he did with theatrical commissions, has always had a practical approach to translation.
He normally translates an entire play and leaves cutting to directors, but for a translation of Richard III he was given the parts required for translation and produced a Danish version that was in effect pre-cut.
The Danish language lends itself to the translation of Shakespeare because it has the same pattern of stresses as English so that iambic pentameter and blank verse can be rendered.
However, Niels found that the preponderance of monosyllabic words in English created a problem, as these would often have to be translated by longer Danish words. This caused difficulties in rendering the complete sense of verse lines, as omissions were necessary to maintain form.
He tries wherever possible to respect the division between prose and verse and also to retain rhyme in his translations. The prose/verse division was especially important, he thought, because Shakespeare’s theatre was not a theatre of scenic effects and sets, but of language. The prose/verse distinctions between characters were in effect part of their costume. The rhyming couplets at the ends of scenes were important signifiers of exits.
Niels begins the task of translating a play by consulting the Arden or New Cambridge annotated versions together with secondary reading. He also owns a facsimile edition of the First Folio. A read through results in him staging the play in his mind.
Obviously, plays not translated for stage commissions can be completed with less time pressure.
Niels courted controversy with his translation of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” speech, which he rendered:
“At være eller ikke, sådan er det -”
Translated back into Engish this becomes roughly:
“To be, or not, that’s the way it is – ”
He said that he received angry phone calls for having translated this most famous of speeches in this particular manner, but he was prepared to defend his version. His translation uses the first sentence as an introduction to the rest of Hamlet’s ideas, so that the remainder of the speech is an amplification of what Hamlet means by “the way it is”.
It was pointed out that his translation resembles the Q1 version “Ay, there’s the point”, but he said that this similarity was not intentional.
To date, Niels has translated a third of the plays and two thirds of the sonnets, the latter proving particularly difficult with their multiple layers of language. He is encountering similar problems in his current project, a translation of Love’s Labour Lost for the Bikuben edition.
He rounded off the talk with an anecdote that demonstrated how Shakespeare can be improved by translation, or at least given a new twist.
In King Lear the disguised Kent finds himself in conversation with a Gentleman at the end of 4.3, saying to him “When I am known aright, you shall not grieve lending me this acquaintance.”
The Danish for “known” is “kendt”, which is pronounced the same way as the character’s name. This enabled Niels to translate this phrase so that the first part of it read both as a faithful version of the original English but also as a cryptic statement of the disguised man’s true identity “When I am Kent again”.
The subtlety and cleverness of this effect, made possible by the characteristics of the Danish language, is undoubtedly something Shakespeare himself would have appreciated and possibly envied.
Shakespeare found in translation indeed.
Sam Wanamaker Fellowship Lecture, The Globe, 20 March 2012
Dutch academic Professor Ton Hoenselaars gave this year’s Sam Wanamaker Fellowship Lecture, which dwelt on a subject currently close to the Globe’s heart: Shakespeare and translation.
The professor got off to a good start by praising Shakespeare’s Globe as “this ambitious, maverick organisation” for its decision to stage Globe to Globe, a multi-language complete works festival beginning in April.
The festival is part of the Cultural Olympiad and World Shakespeare Festival, which gave Professor Hoenselaars occasion to list some of Shakespeare’s sporting references: the wrestling in As You Like It, the tennis in Henry VIII, various instances of swimming, as well as Hotspur’s gallant uphill ride in 1 Henry IV.
He also pointed out that the London 2012 opening ceremony was being designed by Danny Boyle and its theme “Isles of Wonder” was a reference to The Tempest.
There were two assumptions underlying attitudes to literary translation in this country, he continued. The first was that translation into English was always worthwhile, because great literature would always survive when rendered into our language.
The second assumption was the translation out of English, of Shakespeare in particular, was a bad thing and that the works of the national poet were always harmed in the process.
Early modern players had left England 400 years ago and travelled Europe using simple staging. Now foreign theatre was returning to this country bringing us Shakespeare in their own languages.
This was part of the general internationalisation of the English stage. Professor Hoenselaars used the phrase “boomerang Shakespeare” to describe this inward import of translated Shakespeare plays.
The early modern theatregoer heard foreign languages in Shakespeare and early modern London was cosmopolitan. The professor pointed out that we have accounts of plays from foreign theatregoers like Johannes de Witt and Thomas Platter. At that time, English was not a global lingua franca as it is today.
The Professor claimed that the plays indicate that the English cannot in general speak foreign languages. In Henry V it was the French who were expected to learn English.
However, translation had played a pivotal role in English culture: it had been the key to the Renaissance.
He then itemised various references in Shakespeare to translation across the full spread of its various shades of meaning.
These examples included the famous “Bottom… thou art translated”; Touchstone’s translation of his own words in As You Like it, “abandon (which is, in the vulgar, ‘leave’)” as well as his threat to “translate thy life into death”; and Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Love as another self-translator.
The word “interpret” was also mentioned: in Timon, the poet speaks of “the dumbness of the gesture one might interpret”; Owen Glendower acts as an interpreter in 1 Henry IV, as does Alice in Henry V; in the same play the Boy interprets for M. Le Fer; and in All’s Well we see some mock interpreting of invented language.
Professor Hoenselaars deduced from these examples that Shakespeare was not enthusiastic about the concept of translation – he associated the idea with deceit and the potentially deceptive quality of beauty in Sonnet 96. The Latin translation lesson in The Taming of the Shrew was a spurious cover for wooing.
A rare positive association occurred in Timon of Athens where the soldier makes a wax impression of Timon’s epitaph that “interprets my poor ignorance”.
To summarise, Shakespeare considered translation equivalent to deterioration, while interpreting was seen as a process of elucidation.
After this lengthy excursion into Shakespearean references to the concept of translation, Professor Hoenselaars uncovered the central argument in his lecture by asserting that these two strands within Shakespeare’s thought corresponded to the two English assumptions about literary translation previously mentioned.
He maintained that Shakespeare’s use of the term had the same resonances as English attitudes to the translation of their literature into foreign languages. While the slightly more positive outlook the professor saw in the connotations of interpreting in Shakespeare, reflected English ideas about the beneficial inward translation of foreign literature.
This constituted a double standard that left the English wary of translation out of their own language.
But as the professor pointed out, translation can in some circumstances enhance the original work. He floated the idea that an original piece of writing can be unfaithful to its translation.
Early modern Europe had seen the beginnings of linguistic nationalism, a period of history which we were only now shaking off as we headed into what he described as the “post-nation” era.
The intralingual translation of Shakespeare, from early modern English into modern English, had been surrounded by fierce debate, with its opponents arguing that most early modern English was not a barrier to understanding or appreciation.
Its proponents countered that such translation was not an exercise in dumbing down, merely the updating of archaic forms. Professor Hoenselaars put it thus: “Would you have your child learn English from Shakespeare?”
He argued that acceptance of such intralingual translation would release the creativity of contemporary playwrights so that we could have Alan Bennett’s version of the Henry IV plays or an offering from David Lodge.
The abolition by the government of compulsory foreign language teaching in schools had resulted in a decline in language study. This in turn had meant that high-level research was becoming insular in outlook. The professor remarked that we were returning to the outlook of Shakespeare’s early modern London.
In the light of this, Ton Hoenselaars concluded, the World Shakespeare Festival was coming at precisely the right time.
It was rhetorical sleight of hand to take the associations Shakespeare made with the word “translate” across all its senses and then connect them with an underlying English attitude to translation in just its linguistic sense.
But the talk did raise some interesting questions. In particular, are our ideas about Shakespeare in translation a symptom of our insularity and arrogance that nothing happens until or unless it happens in English?
Modern language versions of Shakespeare are criticised for sullying the purity of the original or for pandering to those who cannot be bothered to read a play’s footnotes.
But why should we bother with updating the plays when audiences can largely still enjoy the originals?
Does a refusal to modernise imply that we regard contemporary English as an unfit or degraded medium for artistic expression?
Why is Professor Hoenselaars’ exhortation necessary, given that our exceedingly creative theatre culture could already have developed the idea of intelligent, modernised Shakespeare were it a viable concept?
Frank Günter, Nancy W Knowles Lecture Theatre, The Globe, 10 February 2011
Frank Günter is on course to become the first person to translate the complete works of Shakespeare into German, with the project due for completion by 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. His talk at Shakespeare’s Globe was the first in a series of lectures on the subject of Shakespeare in translation. These public talks will serve as background to the Globe’s multi-lingual complete works festival, being organised as its contribution to the World Shakespeare Festival in 2012.
The publication of the final volumes in Frank Günter’s series of translations will mark the culmination of over 30 years’ work: rendering Shakespeare into the language of a nation that has such great affection for England’s greatest dramatist that it hails him as ‘Unser Shakespeare’.
The talk began with a theatrical flourish as he entered carrying a small suitcase. He silently unpacked dozens of books from it on to a small table, earning a round of applause when he finished. But, he cautioned jokingly, it remained to be seen whether we would still be applauding at the end.
He started the talk by comparing the original text of a Shakespeare play with the contemporary English translation of a ‘No Fear’ edition. The simplified English version was evidently lacking a certain something. Conveying this missing element, he explained, was the essence of the translator’s art: how to render the poetry and style of Shakespeare’s writing into a language with its own poetic traditions and stylistic possibilities.
Taking A Midsummer Night’s Dream as his first example, he told how he had been influenced by John Dover Wilson’s insight that the poetry of the fairies is more eloquent than that of the lovers, which in turn is more elevated than that of the rude mechanicals.
Previous translations of this play into German had not made this distinction between the three sets of characters. Frank Günter prided himself on being the first to do so.
He found inspiration from the writing styles of three German poets when creating three lyrical moods of his own.
Noting that the lovers tend to use quite simple rhyming couplets, he found in Wilhelm Busch’s children’s book Max und Moritz a German model for this style, which he applied to the translation of Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius. He then went through the play translating only those characters’ lines as one block.
A loftier stylistic exemplum was required for the language of the fairies. He alighted on the style of Rainer Maria Rilke, which he said was characterised by a kind of structural dissolution that he found appropriate as a guide to translating the poetry of Puck, Oberon and Titania. Again, the fairy characters were translated in one go as a complete section.
Lastly, he required a German poet whose way of writing reflected the mangled language of the Athenian tradesmen. A writer known appropriately (but only mockingly) as the Swan of Silesia, Friederike Kempner, was chosen. Her poetry was so awful that she became a cult figure and the subject of merciless parody. She was therefore an ideal model for the unwittingly awful utterances of the performers of Pyramus and Thisbe.
The fact that Frank Günter had recourse to three different German poets in sourcing model styles for his translation of a single play tells us something important about the complexity of Shakespeare’s writing.
König Heinrich V.
But sometimes existing styles of writing can provide no useful guide to translation. This was the case in his rendering of the scene in Henry V where the four captains: Gower, Fluellen, MacMorris and Jamy discuss military strategy.
This brief exchange of dialogue brings together the four nationalities of the British Isles, with the nonstandard Welsh, Scots and Irish accents each presented with exaggerated quirkiness. So how to translate?
Frank Günter rejected the use of German dialects as substitutes for English ones. In his opinion this would make no sense: Bavarians at the battle of Agincourt? The solution he chose was to create three distinct but invented dialects to replicate the humour in the original Shakespeare text.
This is obviously a solution he felt comfortable with and one that must be appropriate to German practice. However, it struck me that when foreign television and film is adapted into English, it is possible for Scottish and other regional accents to be used to replicate the original work’s regional accents.
The importance of a thorough understanding of the cultural context of the Shakespeare text was underlined in his next example.
König Heinrich IV. 1 Teil
He read us a line from Henry IV Part One in which Hotspur describes a man in the following terms: “his chin new reap’d show’d like a stubble-land at harvest-home”. He then asked us if this was a description of a well-groomed individual or not. We took the reference to ‘stubble’ to indicate someone roughly shaven and therefore not particularly neat.
This was wrong of course. Frank Günter explained how the correct translation of this phrase required a knowledge of the facial hair fashions of the period. This was a description a particular style of beard that did not imply any negligent roughness. His chosen translation for the stubble simile involved a comparison with a freshly bathed baby’s skin, which suited the general air of foppishness in the rest of Hotspur’s description of the gentleman.
Romeo und Julia
Translators hate puns. They are rooted in specific similarities between words which are not replicated in other languages, making them almost impossible to translate directly.
He illustrated this with Juliet’s words to her Nurse in which she makes puns on four homophones: the affirmative ‘ay’, the letter ‘i’, the personal pronoun ‘I’ and the organ of the ‘eye’.
Hath Romeo slain himself? Say thou but ‘Ay’
And that bare vowel ‘I’ shall poison more
Than the death-darting eye of cockatrice.
I am not I if there be such an ‘I’,
Or those eyes shut that makes thee answer ‘Ay’.
Romeo and Juliet 3.2.45-49
The German equivalents are the affirmative ‘Ja’, the letter ‘i’ pronounced like the English ‘e’, the personal pronoun ‘Ich’ and the organ ‘Auge’. Clearly this would not fit together in the same way.
The translation Frank Günter arrived at was based on the realisation that this repetition of the same sound was Juliet’s externalisation of her shock, fearing Romeo’s death. Starting with the German ‘Ja’ which translates the basic affirmative to her question that Juliet dreads, his version continues to repeat the word, but then replaces ‘cockatrice’ with the German word ‘Jaguar’ to form a new pun.
Sometimes puns form part of subtle references which can cause problems in translation. Such is the case when Hamlet refers to the convocation of politic worms that are eating Polonius and how the worm is the only emperor for diet.
This is held to contain a reference to the Diet of Worms which sparked off the Reformation. But while the German city of Worms can be punned in English with the lowly soil-based creature of Hamlet’s speech, in German ‘worms’ are ‘Würmer’ and therefore this joke cannot be rendered easily.
The translation in this instance involved a rewrite that has Hamlet make another Lutheran reference. When referring to Polonius, Hamlet says that he lies where he lies and can do no other.
This is an instance where the translation aims to replicate an impact on the reader or listener equivalent to that of the original.
Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor
Bawdy double entendres can be difficult to transpose from one language into another. We needed Frank Günter to cite an example of this and so he gave us one.
The Merry Wives of Windsor 4.1 contains a series of double entendres based on Sir Hugh Evans’ Latin lesson and the misunderstandings of Latin words and grammatical terminology.
Mistress Quickly thinks he’s talking about a ‘hang hog’ or a piece of bacon, while all sorts of thoughts go through her head when she hears about ‘Jenny’s case’ and the ‘focative’.
This was rendered using Latin terms that sound similar to sexual terms in German. One of these was ‘confixe’ which approximates in sound to the German word ‘ficken’, which is very rude indeed.
Rewriting was at the core of the translation problem in Frank Günter’s next example. Love’s Labour’s Lost is Shakespeare at his most witty and verbally playful.
As for example in this speech by Holofernes, which is his “extemporal epitaph” on the death of a deer :
The preyful princess pierced and prick’d a pretty pleasing pricket
Some say a sore; but not a sore, till now made sore with shooting.
The dogs did yell: put ‘l’ to sore, then sorrel jumps from thicket;
Or pricket, sore, or else sorrel, the people fall a-hooting.
If sore be sore, then ‘l’ to sore makes fifty sores o’sorrel:
Of one sore I an hundred make by adding but one more ‘l’.
Love’s Labour’s Lost 4.2.56-61
This passage plays with the terms for bucks of various ages: a pricket is a buck in its second year, a sore in its third and a pricket in its fourth year. It also uses the more recognisable meaning of ‘sore’ as wound. Add to this the Latin numeral L for 50 and we have a cryptic wordplay puzzle that is stunningly difficult to translate.
Fortunately the German language does offer a neat pair of rhyming words that match the dual meanings of ‘sore’: ‘Weh’ means wound and ‘Reh’ is a deer.
Frank Günter then created a wordplay in German similar to the sore/sorrel of the original English. He took some German words connected with the forest, ‘Eiche’ (oak) and ‘Eber’ (boar), and by adding the L (for 50) as a prefix rather than a suffix formed the words ‘Leiche’ (carcass) and ‘Leber’ (liver).
He freely admitted that the nature of Love’s Labour’s Lost meant that he effectively rewrote half of it in this manner. He sought to replicate its linguistic games with ones of his own devising.
The complexity of the problems involved in translating even a brief passage like this, begins to explain why the translation of Shakespeare’s complete works was a 30-year project.
Wie es euch gefällt
Having spoken for two hours without a break, Frank Günter showed no signs of flagging as he entered the final section of his introduction to the life of a German translator of Shakespeare. This took the form of a live re-enactment of the stressful mental process involved in hitting on exactly the right translation of Touchstone’s jibe at Audrey in As You Like It:
I am here with thee and thy goats, as the most
capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among the
As You Like It 3.3.5-7
In a fast-paced stream of consciousness monologue he chewed the original English text into pieces mulling over the various options. Sometimes his repetition of a word descended into humorous but tuneful babbling as his head sank towards the desk, his hands clasping his face in desperation to find a workable translation.
Eventually his manic search for the correct terms began to produce results, like pieces of a jigsaw falling into place. He realised that ‘Ziege’, the standard German word for goat would not fit in with ‘Gote’, the word for Goth. Recasting the Goths as nonspecific barbarians would not work either. He hit upon the south German word for goats Geißen and the sentence came together in a satisfactory manner.
Despite his caution at the beginning of the talk, he was warmly applauded for this and all the other insights and entertainment he had given us.
Ende gut, alles gut
This detailed examination of the problems arising from the translation of Shakespeare into German highlighted the intricate webs of ideas that can underlie even the most apparently simple of sentences. Witnessing great writing being disassembled and reassembled before your very eyes engenders a fuller understanding of the richness of the original.
But it also underlines the extent to which any translation is essentially a rewrite rather than a direct mapping of the source language onto the target language.
Every translator of Shakespeare becomes an artistic collaborator.