Britain’s most famous plays have been translated into Maori, sign language, even Klingon. But can Shakespeare’s bawdy jokes and tragic plotlines really transcend language?

It’s a matinee performance of Richard the Third at London’s Globe theatre when the title character’s lamentation ‘My kingdom for a horse’ gets an unexpected laugh. The reason? After two and a half hours into the production, they are the first and only words uttered in English.

In a year which saw the rediscovery, reburial and subsequent reassessment of the non-fictional Richard, this Mandarin production by the National Theatre of China is among a wave of Asian translations that are refashioning the legacy of Shakespeare.  In August at the Globe, ‘The Scottish Play’ will, for a brief run, be ‘The Cantonese Play’ when Hong Kong’s Tang Shu-Wing Theatre Studio performs Macbeth.

All the world really is a stage with one of his plays being performed every minute of the day.  So far in the 21st century, there have been performances in Maori, sign language and even, for the benefit of Star Trek fans, Klingon. His work does live long and prosper, but how well is his work rendered in languages that weren’t the Bard’s own?

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s artistic director Gregory Doran is working on Chinese versions of Henry IV and Henry V which the RSC will take to Beijing and Shanghai next year.  He says the challenge of a foreign language version of the Bard is immense.

“There’s an Italian saying, ‘traduttore, traditore’ or ‘translator, traitor.’ I did a production of the Merchant of Venice in Japan and they said:  do you want a translation for poetry, pace or meaning? I thought, I want all three, it is difficult to translate the meaning but that is only one part of the experience,” he said.

“The sound is important too, how he quickens the pace, how the vowels and the consonants slow down and speed up. There is something infinitely translatable about Shakespeare because of the hugeness of what he does.”

Even in tragedies, lighter moments are a mainstay of Shakespeare. The murderers in the Mandarin version of Richard the Third deliver comic physical performances which are funny even for non-Chinese speakers. Gregory Doran says comedic situations, rather than the witty lines, are easier to get across.

“It is so easy to deliver a punchline and just miss. In another language it is harder. I notice the Chinese translations rarely translate anything bawdy.”

The Globe’s executive producer Tom Bird was director of the Globe to Globe festival in 2012 which showcased dozens of foreign language productions of Shakespeare ranging from Arabic to Lithuanian. He is also heading a tour which is taking Hamlet to every country in the world by April 2016.

He says that the Globe takes a hands-off approach towards any foreign company’s translation.

“In some ways the translation can be more eloquent than the original and they tend to be more colloquial but we don’t get involved in that process. The job for a foreign company is hard enough without the worry about the Globe’s view on it,” he said.

“It is so easy to deliver a punchline and just miss. In another language it is harder. I notice the Chinese translations rarely translate anything bawdy,” – Gregory Doran.

Whatever linguistic losses that might accompany translation there can be surprising gains, especially as the distance grows between modern English audiences and the language used in Elizabethan England.

Dennis Kennedy is a theatre historian who has directed a Chinese version of As You Like It in Beijing where he will return in 2016 for a production of the Merchant of Venice.

Even though the first renowned versions of Shakespeare in German by August Schlegel date from the late-eighteenth century, he considers them to be a lot closer to the language of the street of contemporary Berlin than Shakespeare’s English is to the language of today’s London.

“There are two elements to Shakespeare’s humour, one is verbal, and of course sometimes that does not translate, but it also does not translate in English because it is fair to be reminded that we don’t speak the language of Shakespeare.”

“In As You Like It, I fiddled around with the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech but it just didn’t work. It just came across as a series of expressions. In English Hamlet is a series of well-known quotations, in Chinese, it is a new play.”

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Director of the Shakespeare Institute, Michael Dobson, says that Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is virtually impossible to transfer into other languages, and so often the language has to be made more colloquial, itself a bonus as it means that the language is more closely shared with the spectators.

“Most languages don’t have as many mono syllables as English does so if you translate Shakespeare word for word in any other language, it takes nearly twice as long to perform.

“In Bulgarian for example, Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night has to become ‘Sir Toby Hiccupp’ because the word ‘belch’ takes too long in Bulgarian, while its word for ‘hiccough’ is one syllable.”

“The great Romanian director Ion Caramitru said that Romanian was the only language that can render Shakespeare’s rhythm effectively. He thinks the translation of ‘to be or not to be’ is rhythmically closer to the original than the French version which is 12-syllable Alexandrine instead.”

“In Bulgarian for example, Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night has to become ‘Sir Toby Hiccupp’ because the word ‘belch’ takes too long in Bulgarian, while its word for ‘hiccough’ is one syllable,” – Michael Dobson. 

It is not just language but the nature of the performance can be affected by local cultural and social conditions. An English audience may consider the ending of Romeo and Juliet to be tragic, but no necessarily so in Japan, where the dual suicide might be seen as socially acceptable, even honorable.

Shakespeare did not travel any further afield than Lancashire and if he returned like Banquo’s ghost, he might have found the view that he is quintessentially English a curious one as his interests lay far beyond this sceptred isle.

Andrew Dickson, author of Journeys around Shakespeare’s Globe, said: “It is often said that only one of his plays is set in the England he would have known, the Merry Wives of Windsor but that’s it. The rest were set in Denmark, Venice, and Verona.

“People tend to say he is a universal writer. It is more complex than that. What makes Shakespeare so mobile around the world is that they are hugely flexible texts, there is something in them that you can play around with, you can pull it apart and put it back together again and it still works.“

He confesses to even a sneaking feeling of envy for foreign audiences. They get to hear it for the first time.

“With each translation, it becomes fresh, and in a way foreign audiences are hearing it like Shakespeare’s audiences did, as a new text and not a series of quotations. In a funny way, we never have that proximity to the language that an audience in Germany or India would have.”

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