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.