Shakespeare and the Cultures of Translation

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?


2 thoughts on “Shakespeare and the Cultures of Translation

  1. This has been an interesting and thought-provoking read. Was Prof Hoenselaars suggesting that contemporary English renditions should REPLACE the ‘original’ (if we have ‘originals’), or was he suggesting that we should be as open to the reconfiguration of Shakespeare’s texts into contemporary speech as we are open to local/global Shakespeares in other languages? One of the interesting points that came up in the ‘It is the East’ Study Days, and also the Worldwide Hamlet conference in Romania in 2010, is that Shakespeare in translation is often being renewed. In many countries in Europe, for example, a new production has a new translation. Are we in danger in the UK of Shakespeare musealisation? After all, we’re happy to read Heaney’s ‘Beowulf’ or Armitage’s ‘Gawain’. Now, I know that Old and Middle English are less accessible to the lay reader, so perhaps that’s not such a good comparison. However, we have no problems with modernised spelling and punctuation, nor do we have a problem with modernised pronunciation which, if you believe David Crystal,actually distorts the ‘original’ meaning. I’d be interested to hear your views on this.

  2. In no way was he advocating the replacement of the standard versions with modernised ones. I think your mention of the recent rewrites of Beowulf and Gawain are precisely the kind of thing he was driving at. His emphasis was more on the creative release that would follow jumping the intralingual translation barrier rather than a life-and-death struggle between competing versions to see which was ‘best’.

    The next in the Globe’s series of lectures is by Danish translator Niels Brunse, who has on many occasions done exactly what you described: produced a fresh translation of a Shakespeare play to order for a specific production. His website contains an essay (only in Danish) that sets out his approach to translation with some examples of how he has applied these principles to Shakespeare.

    He makes a point of saying that the relationship between the translator and the text is equivalent to that between the actor and an individual role or the relationship between musician and score. As he puts it, “Translators are literature’s practising artists”.

    The point of this being that translation adds to sum total of artistic endeavour facilitated by an original rather than chipping away at it. A new translation is like a new production, and so commissioning new translations for new productions, as seems to happen a lot in Denmark, makes perfect sense.

    If no one else brings up the question, I might ask Niels whether he agrees with Prof. Hoenselaars!

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