As I sit in Prague watching snow fall as darkness descends, I can truly say that this section title is completely accurate. I am attending the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference this week and our host, Prague Shakespeare Company, provided us with ample opportunities to engage with international artists and to think about Shakespeare in Translation. I have wrestled with Shakespeare in Translation throughout my time at ASC (like in this blog post from 2013), largely because I have a difficult time trusting that meter and rhetoric can be respected when the translation is in Spanish, French, American Sign Language, or any number of other languages. My bias is a direct result of ASC’s connection to the language–we believe meter can indicate emotional shifts, rhetoric can reveal character choices–but listening to practitioners from France, Germany, Poland, Georgia (the country, not the state), and, of course, the Czech Republic this week has been illuminating. I am moving closer to trusting translators and, therefore, to acknowledging that it would be selfish to say Shakespeare can’t be truly experienced by those who don’t speak the language he wrote in.
The conversation this week has been about the universal appeal of Shakespeare. About how the careful translator respects the moment of the translation as well as the value of each shift and word. I admit that I do not have a second language (I really, really should–perhaps a new year’s resolution) so I cannot evaluate a good translation, but since I have so recently heard from many brilliant people who love Shakespeare and who present it to their audiences in translation, I must acknowledge a shifting take. From the European Shakespeare Festivals Network, we met representatives who value Shakespeare in every tongue–and who attract audiences to see Shakespeare in droves in 12 countries. It begs the question: what do we gain and what do we lose when we see Shakespeare in another tongue (or, in the case of ASL Shakespeare, another gesture)?
As a teacher (and a teacher of teachers), my emphasis has been on letting students make the “choices” with Shakespeare. Strip the text back to the folio or quarto punctuation, word choices (even if it’s hard to tell what they might be), delineation, etc. Arm the students with tools to dive in and see how in a moment Macbeth can be both conflicted and plotting, loving and conniving. Give the choices for playing to the student who can scan, analyze, and imagine. By virtue of necessity, translations take those choices away from the reader and insert an authority who is making the choices and relaying them. Which, I have to admit, is also what any director in a production does as well. So. Compromises to spread the gospel of Shakespeare? I may be getting there.
This morning, we went to the Estates Theatre (where Don Giovanni debuted with Mozart himself conducting!) to hear from Prague’s second-most prolific translator of Shakespeare, Martin Hilsky. Martin dug into “political Shakespeare” with a careful examination of his work to translate Love’s Labour’s Lost. I know what you are thinking, Love’s Labour’s Lost is not a political play. But the translation was created in 1986 when Prague was still under Soviet control, so there was much about it that could be seen as political. Martin talked about the fire curtain that flew in and out several times in the starkly designed production. You see it was made of iron and in Czech, it was called the Iron Curtain. Without any translation at all, the metaphorical Iron Curtain became a centerpiece of the play, making the first statement without any the need to change a single word. Thinking through the play with us, Martin pointed out that there are 400 some odd untranslatable puns and quips and went on to walk us through his experience of wrestling with just a few.
He mentioned this bit in 4.1:
COSTARD: God dig-you-den all! Pray you, which is the head lady?
PRINCESS: Thou shalt know her, fellow, by the rest that have no heads.
Acknowledging that this piece of text will take less than a minute of stage time, Martin explained the choices he made to bring some meaning to the crowd of Czechoslovakians in the house. Focusing on Costard’s (whose name means head, by the way) request for the “head lady”, Martin pointed out that in Czech, the “head” is the person in front of a movement the political (in this case) oppressor, and went on to say that he chose the word for “sit” in Czech rather than “headless” because of a similar political connotation that “to sit” means to be in jail–powerless. He justified this choice by pointing out the heads of traitors on the bridges and town gates of London–truly to be headless was to be incarcerated (or the step after that). He explained that he frequently attended the play to see how the translation landed and was gratified to hear the reactions of the audience who connected the dots.
Anyone familiar with the play (and if you aren’t, I hope to win you over) knows that act five features a scene in which the four young men who have fallen for the four young women have broken every oath, and then go on to dress up as Russians. And then the young women make fun of them, in the original. In a Soviet-controlled country, that joke could not be played at all without endangering everyone. So, the Russians became Persians. But, as Martin pointed out, Czech theatre audiences are well-educated and informed. Most of them would see the change and the resonation of the choice would have been as loud or louder than leaving the original intact.
These examples really hit home for me given the words of both Martin and several other speakers I’ve seen this week. Martin concluded his exploration of my favorite play by saying that the lies in it resonate today–do we even know the truth versus the lie anymore? Shakespeare examined that question 400 years ago, and yet, we still struggle with it today. We have also explored how theatre, and Shakespeare in particular, is a place to raise big questions. To gather, to think through avenues toward change. I love that the Czechs, as Martin pointed out, do not have their parliaments or congress visible to visitors (the seat of government is inside of a castle) as they are in Vienna, or Washington DC, even. Rather, their theatre, the gorgeous National, the Estates, the modern New Stage, and the Opera, are the focal points of the tourist attractions. The theatre offered them a place to converse during their oppression and continues to offer the same opportunity today. It is a place to raise tough issues and engage with the people who surround you. It is a place to find new ideas in the classical and bring new classics and ideas forward.
At the ASC, we leave our audiences little choice but to be together. The lights are on, the audience is part of the show. As we share the place of joy and exploration, I hope we will also see the deeper meanings that the plays continue to open us to us. I believe Shakespeare’s work continues to resonate here and around the globe, because each time we see it or hear it, it continues to show us new things—whether in ASL, or French, or Spanish, or Czech. Let’s keep seeking the humanity and embrace the ways we can each offer our fellows (citizens, audience members) a shared experience that builds and strengthens our world.