Translating Shakespeare into German

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.

Ein Sommernachtstraum

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.

Verlorene Liebesmüh

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.


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