“Translated” Shakespeare

Over the last several years editions of Shakespeare’s plays such No Fear Shakespeare have become increasingly popular among everyone under the sun who picks up Shakespeare to read. People love the simplicity of being able to read a “translated” Shakespeare play. These have been created to combat Bardophobia. But are these convenient little volumes the solution to heal the masses of their inability to understand Shakespeare?

It seems like a little bit of a double-edged sword to me.

Translations into a different language always lose something, you can never say exactly what is meant in another language. One problem with “translating” Shakespeare’s text is that it isn’t another language, it’s still English! Any time you substitute words for other words the meaning is not going to be the same. Yes, the English isn’t modern and can be hard to understand but the language didn’t evolve to give a modern substitute for everything. When you change the words, the meaning is changed. Each word has a distinct meaning, sounds, feeling. Accept no substitutes.

Now I’m not saying that there is no merit in these books. I am saying that the translation is not a substitute for reading the play. The modern English is there as tool, not a crutch. When one ignore’s Shakespeare’s text in favor of the modern you aren’t reading Shakespeare. Often Shakespeare’s words have a double meaning. That doesn’t happen when the words are changed. Sometimes footnotes in other editions are more useful in this respect. In other places, the translation may not be the most accurate words to use in place of the text.

Again, the modern is to be used as a tool to help you understand what is being said when it is tough. In that respect these books can be a GREAT help. Some passages in Shakespeare just are too weird to comprehend right away and looking it up in one of these is a wonderful and painless way to get an “Aha! So THAT’S what that means” moment.

No Fear Shakespeare doesn’t solve the problem of getting people to understand Shakespeare and overcome a fear of it. If used alone it is only a cover for the effects, not the problem.

If you like these versions, great! If you teach using these books, awesome! There is nothing wrong with using them. But whatever you do don’t fall into the trap of taking the “easier path” of looking at only the modern text. Shakespeare’s text isn’t simple without some experience first, but if you take the time it is a much more rewarding experience. Try to read the play in its original form as much as possible and glance over to the translation when you need it. In general when you want a short passage in modern English, spend a little time and try to do it yourself. Look up some words, spend some time with it. When you put Shakespeare in your own words you will understand it better, you’ll connect to it more easily, you’ll enjoy it more. When you need a quick answer use the translation, but don’t cheat yourself. It’s a puzzle – and always more rewarding when you piece it together yourself.