Coriolanus was one of the most popular plays under the Nazis in 1930s Germany. This fact in itself, to us, is unsettling – the fact that a beloved English playwright like Shakespeare could also be adored by a fascist regime is quite startling. But, as freelance Shakespearean James Sheldrake recently said in his lecture on Shakespeare and Evil, we have to stop seeing Shakespeare exclusively in a national context and realise that, ultimately, the Bard can be just as significant on an international level.
But seeing Shakespeare the playwright as a global phenomenon raises some important questions: Does the process of translating Shakespeare alter the meaning of the text? Can foreign translations diminish the quality of his plays? Why exactly does such a national treasure how such an allure for foreign nations?
In September 1912, Arthur Benington’s article for the North American Review on the ‘Translations of Shakespeare and Others’ was rather pessimistic when it claimed ‘good translations are rare’, and that some translators were little more than ‘traitors’ who often produced ‘caricatures’ rather than adequate translations.
While Benington’s skepticism was incredibly emphatic a century ago, he did raise some important points with regards to the process of adaptation. Some foreign translations of Shakespeare may be awful, but so too were some English translations of French or Italian texts, to the extent that ‘a Frenchman reading Corneille in English is reduced to tears with laughter’.
Benington doesn’t exactly paint a very positive image of the Bard in a foreign context. In Germany, Shakespeare was only just being discovered, while in France there were only seldom successful productions. In Italy Benington heaps the most praise for a string of recent translations by Diego Angeli that translate not only the words, but also transform the English blank verse into a hendecasyllabic form and uses Italian meters.
From this account, it seems that translations of Shakespeare had to tread a very fine line in preserving the Bard’s quality while also adapting the plays to make them accessible to foreign audiences. Of course, Shakespeare’s original intentions may not match the translator’s. James Sheldrake mentions how Coriolanus in 1930s Germany, for example, emphasised above all else the martial character of the protagonist Caius Martius. By extolling his military virtues, downplayed the deficiencies in the protagonist’s own personality. Coriolanus lost his nuances and complexity, instead becoming a propaganda poster boy for a Nazi cultural regime.
The Nazis spent twice as much on theatre during the 1930s as they did on film – clearly live spoken word had a significant symbolic impact. Thousands of performances of Shakespeare happened every year, bringing his plays to audiences across Germany. The Merchant of Venice, with its depiction of the devious Shylock, took on an obviously anti-semitic tone when placed in this Germany context.
More recent studies of Shakespeare in a foreign context, especially in places like China, reveal a rather different portrayal of the Bard’s works. Shakespeare is loved in some parts of China, where scholarship in the last 50 years has analysed the various plays through Leninist and Marxist frameworks, where Romeo and Juliet becomes ‘the desire of the bourgeoisie to shake off the yoke of the feudal code of ethics’.
In a 1986 Shakespeare Quarterly article on China’s relationship with the Bard, Qi-Xin He plots the turbulent twentieth century relationship between the nation and the playwright. During the 1950s and 1960s, sharp attacks on the aesthetic and bourgeois nature of Shakespeare were prominent in Chinese intellectual and cultural discussion. Political circumstances, once more, were pivotal in how the works were perceived. Pnly in the wake of the decline of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s did Shakespeare become a household name, and many of the humanistic ideas within Shakespeare’s plays were brought once more to the fore.
He, in his article, celebrates the new lease of life that the Bard’s plays were receiving during the 1980s, and the golden age of Shakespearean work has continued ever since. Plays such as King Lear have been massively popular across the country, where questions over the tension between modernity and feudal society are still relevant. A 1993 Cantonese and Mandarin translation of Lear, for instance, sold out its 7-night run at the 1750-seater Hong Kong Grand Theatre. Reviewers from England and American praised the fact that, even though they had no comprehension of the language, the ideas and subtleties of the adaptation were no less prominent.
Hong Kong may have been the exception however; according to director and translator Daniel S. P. Yang, the city was an ‘oasis’ in an otherwise cultural dessert. Audiences there may rather have been only so enthusiastic with their Shakespearean affection as the area had an Anglophile association at the time that had lasted for centuries.
While translations of Shakespeare may have been used as a means of propaganda in the case of the Nazis, or as responses to cultural tendencies as was the case in China, they can also be used as a means of commenting upon contemporary issues and problems in specific national contexts. Turning perhaps to one of the most recent translations of Shakespeare, Cheek by Jowl have recently run an international tour of Measure for Measure in Russian, placing the characters in a contemporary Russian society where spectacled Russian bureaucrats rub shoulders with nuns, priests, prostitutes and prison guards. Though Measure for Measure was always a comedy, here the darker themes of totalitarian power (embodied in the defacto ruler Angelo) and destructive ideas of romance are brought to the fore. The society depicted in this Measure for Measure is corrupted, broken and decaying; leaders stroll along red carpets to deliver manufactured speeches as a means of establishing their own forms of rule.
This performance was not simply a translation, it was also an adaptation, a mutation of Shakespeare’s original play. Through the act of translation, new themes and subtexts are brought forward and made much more important, while the comedic farce and character integrity is preserved. Much like how Italian adaptations of Shakespeare can bring in new rhyme schemes, here new political importance and urgency is explicitly laid out for the audience.
Translations of Shakespeare work, it seems, not rather through a preservation of the original textual intricacy, but through the supplementation or synthesis of new levels of relevance or complexity. The aim is not, it seems, to capture what Shakespeare attempted originally, but instead to find what makes Shakespeare so captivating. To return to Arthur Benington’s 1912 article, which still holds some truths a century later, ‘to successfully translate a play, ‘more than words are to be translated; thoughts, spirit, atmosphere, art, are more important than words’.
[LEAD IMAGE: Liu Haifa]