How translation helps

Do you live in one language? Or more than one? I live perpetually in English and French, with a little Spanish in there too. I’d like to share an epiphany moment from last November when I saw a play by that most English of English authors, William Shakespeare, performed in French. It has been trotting round in my mind for a while now. Here are the first fruits from all that thinking.

Cet article est également disponible en, français. Vous avez donc le choix. To be or not to be?

Suddenly understanding every word

It felt strange being held in a room, face to face with a guy called Thibault, who didn’t seem able to stand up completely straight. We’d only just met, but I could see that he was going to be unpredictable. He started out pleasantly enough by saying that the war was over and better times had come. The war ? Which war ? He blinked, as if my question was not worthy of consideration, then smiled. It was a little forced, in my opinion, but he clearly wanted to be liked, in spite of his deformity. He pulled me closer until I could smell his sweat, sense his nervousness. Somebody called Edward had been put in charge of things, he said, but that was temporary. Thibault claimed himself to be subtle, false and treacherous ; the very reverse of Edward, who was true and just. He was almost funny in the way he promised murder and villainy, never threatening me directly, but threatening nonetheless. Then, all of sudden, somebody came. Thibault said it was Clarence, insisting that I watch. He had work to do, and he set to it.

There were 900 other people in the room with me, but it felt as if I was alone with Thibault Perrenoud who played the title role in a Sunday matinee performance of a new French version of Shakespeare’s Richard III. We were the usual mish-mash of a weekend audience, but he drew each of us in regardless towards the world his character proceeded to build before our very eyes.

Somewhere during the performance of this play, which I have read and seen on stage several times, I realized that, for perhaps the first time in my life, I could understand every word of what I was seeing and hearing. It was a revelation to me.

The longevity of Shakespeare’s plays is undeniable. Just seven years ago, in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of his death, there were multitudinous investigations into present-day perceptions of the playwright and his works. Among these was an enquiry led by The Times Educational Supplement (TES). When a reporter asked teachers in the UK how pupils related to Shakespeare, their answer was not what you might expect in a world where the great name still fills theatres.

More than half of English teachers say their pupils find it difficult to connect to the playwright’s work. And almost half of teachers say their pupils are convinced they won’t understand Shakespeare’s plays before they’ve read even a single verse.

TES, MARCH 15, 2016

Believing you won’t understand can be an obstacle to even trying. Why didn’t we feel that as we followed Richard III’s opening monologue in Toulouse ? Perhaps because, when you are in a theatre, you are drawn into a more-than-verbal situation. You are held in a room by a character, eye to eye, who wants you to understand what s/he is going through by any means necessary.

Unless Shakespeare is simply better in translation?

Better understood abroad than at home

In another publication to investigate the Bard’s influence 400 years on, the British Council quizzed 18,000 people in 15 different countries on whether they knew, liked and understood Shakespeare. The findings made sobering reading.

Shakespeare is more popular and better understood in emerging economies such as Brazil, India, China, Mexico and Turkey than he is in the UK, a new report for the British Council suggests.

A survey of 18,000 people in 15 countries reveals, for example, that 88% of surveyed Mexicans like Shakespeare, compared with only 59% of British people; 84% of Brazilians said they found him relevant to today’s world, compared with 57% in the UK; and 83% of Indians said they understood him, far more than the 58% of Britons.

The Guardian, APRIL 19, 2016

So, old William is not only better liked and respected abroad than in the UK, but also better understood ? Before we panic, let’s bear two things in mind.

First, this is an opinion poll, not a comprehension test. Only 58% of Brits said they understood him. So people were asked to say if they thought or believed or had the impression that they understood Shakespeare. It doesn’t mean that only 58% of UK-responders understand Shakespeare and 42% don’t.

Second, something which is not mentioned in the article, the majority of the non-UK responders in the countries cited will have read or seen Shakespeare in translation. What would that change? As luck would have it, the very next day after the French performance of Richard III mentioned above, there was an interview and signing session with the translator, Clément Camar-Mercier, at the Ombres Blanches bookshop in Toulouse town centre. So we went along.

The bookshop interview was actually intended to publicize the writer’s first novel, Le Roman de Jeanne et Nathan. However, he also talked about what he had learnt from translating Shakespeare.

Only translators really understand Shakespeare

Clémént Camar-Mercier : Source Ombres Blanches

Clément Camar-Mercier is an active translator of Shakespeare into French. He has announced his intention to translate the Complete Works, and the project is well under way. Along with Richard III, he has already published French versions of Hamlet, The Tempest and Richard II.

According to Camar-Mercier, translators understand Shakespeare, while many native speakers of English don’t. This matches the findings of the two reports from 2016 just quoted. But he went further. In fact, he added, only translators really understand Shakespeare!

He seemed playfully aware of the wilfulness of this provocation. After all, when a translator tells you that only translators really understand Shakespeare, a warning light flashes, and you remember the Cretan who said that Cretans were liars1 and wonder whether or not to believe him. But he was just warming up.

Shakespeare’s language is archaic and difficult, he said, making the plays themselves wordy and long, with pages and pages of notes by academics which make them even longer. And then there are too many characters.

The loneliness of the Shakespeare reader

This made me wonder about my own journey as a native reader of Shakespeare, having been introduced to certain plays at secondary school but then, as an undergraduate, discovering other plays for the first time. Because an English major had to read Ze Complete Works, n’est-ce pas? At secondary school we would spend a term, sometimes longer, with an enthusiastic teacher studying a tough play like King Lear. At university, however, we were expected to digest a Shakespeare play per week, with minimal guidelines as to how to proceed and much higher expectations concerning the level of analysis.

Locked in mortal combat with a passage in an unfamiliar work as the deadline for a tutorial or finishing an essay approached, it was often hard to come to grips with certain plays. The Roman Plays were particularly hard going.2 With hindsight, I can see that basically a play was a story, told through dialogue, and set in places we had to imagine from fairly vague stage directions. Yet all this was often mystified by the language for which the author was so justly famous.

Shakespeare in writing seemed so neatly packaged, held there on the page, ready for the mind to possess, if only the reader could work through the wordy text. Gradually, I learnt how to ask myself the right questions: What was happening in a given scene ? Who was present ? What was at stake? Which quotation would give me a memory tag to refer back to all this ? So many operations to perform, so little time, and even less patience. All too often, I got lost in details I tried to understand. I lost the thread. And the action of the play came to a grinding halt.

An intralingual translation or tool to help reformulate the original in Modern English would have helped, but if you wanted to play in the field of academia – and we few, we happy few, we band of brothers and sisters, were expected to do just that – you had to follow the rules of the game.

But in that theatre in Toulouse on that Sunday in November, with Richard III on stage, I hadn’t experienced any of those difficulties.

Time is the nurse and breeder of all good, as a gentleman of Verona once said. If we travel back in time to the days of the original Globe Theatre, only actors got see the plays in writing. And even then, they would only see the pages which concerned their character. How did people in the audience, who never saw the written version at all, manage to understand the Bard back then?

Shakespeare’s contemporary understanders

Reconstitution of Elizabethan theatre audience – Shakespeare in Love

In Shakespeare’s day, his plays were all performed live onstage. This was an audio-visual sensorial experience. And if you wanted to see his latest play, you had to get to the Globe or miss out, unless you could find somebody to tell you about it. The plays were stories, acted out. The stage sets were extremely basic compared to modern productions, and the elaborateness of the language was there to help imagination fill in the gaps. But along with all the words, words, words, the presence of the more-than-verbal situation of the theatre – actors on stage interacting verbally and non-verbally – meant that, even if everyone didn’t understand everything, everyone understood enough to keep going.

As the opening sequence of the video extract from the partly, and wickedly, fictional Shakespeare in Love illustrates, if theatre as entertainment had horizontal appeal for Elizabethans, accommodation within the theatre building was organized vertically based on ticket prices : the more you paid, the more likely you were to have a seat with a higher view of the stage; the less you paid, the more likely you were to be standing among the groundlings looking up at the action.

With such a broad cross-section of society in the audience, not only did plays need to have something for everyone, they also had to take into account the fact that spectators’ attention spans and their ability to understand would vary.

At the beginning of his British Academy lecture from 2018, Raphael Lyne points out that “Shakespeare makes us think about how we think. He makes our minds work in interesting and unexpected ways, and he opens that work up to scrutiny.3 As a result, he says, “There are inevitably moments when audience members do not maintain full attention on the action and language of a play.”

Understanding and the wandering mind

Raphael Lyne reminds us that nobody pays attention to every word when watching a play performed. Successful live theatre, like live art or dance, allows people to tune in and tune out from content while still being able to follow the performance thread. Audiences need to make sense of what they see, to process the events being acted out before them and, in order to do this, their minds wander. And, as Lyne puts it, “human minds do a lot of important work while wandering.

A reader’s mind may wander, but this takes the reader not only outside the text but outside the reading of the text, so it is up to the reader alone to pick up the thread again from where they began their wandering. If they can. If you are one of those pupils whose teachers say they” are convinced they won’t understand Shakespeare’s plays before they’ve read even a single verse,” this could be an insurmountable task.

A theatre-goer’s mind may wander, but the show must go on and does, because the thread of the action is carried forward by the actors regardless. For example, as we watch the action unfold, our mind not only processes what’s happening but may also focus on something not immediately part of the play – ourselves, our hopes and fears, our experience of the world, our struggle to come to terms with characters in situations we have never encountered, and perhaps never will.

The art of the playwright is to create space to understand by letting the audience wander off and wander back without getting lost when they return.

Richard III’s crown remade in 2015 – Royal Visit Centre Leicester Cathedral

Translators are the explainers of difficult works

Now let’s wander back to the encounter with Clément Camar-Mercier because in the battle to understand, translators have an essential role as the mediators for difficult and otherwise inaccessible works of literature in foreign languages.

A translator not only has to read the full text of the play and all the notes explaining the details ; a translator also has to decide how all this content can be combined in order to transpose the original clearly into another language. If the translation is tougher than the original, nobody will want it, says Camar Mercier, so the translator needs to remove old difficluties without creating new ones.

When asked if his translations were words on a page for a silent reader or words meant to be spoken on a stage, Camar Mercier gladly admitted that his translations were all adaptations conceived with a view to their stage performance. The translated text is still theatre and has to work orally. His collaboration with director Guillaume Séverac-Schmitz and his actors to create the new version of Richard III needed to be faithful to Shakespeare and take into account what the academics put into the footnotes, but it also needed to work in performance. A translation for the theatre needs to be sayable. In order to identify the elements requiring modification, he told us that all his translations were developed in close collaboration with the directors working with specific groups of actors. In other words, his job was to create bespoke translations for specific production projects.

He went into details. For Richard III , he reduced the original list of around 40 characters so it could be performed by 9 actors, some playing multiple roles. This meant cutting characters and scenes and occasionally adding new text, because, for him, translating a play wasn’t just a question of changing the language from English to French, but also rewriting the original : editing out superfluous text, introducing explanations of ellipses or confusions in the plot which can mislead a modern audience, and removing or combining supernumerary characters.

In the production I saw in Toulouse, Richard takes time out from his monologues to interact with the audience, checking they know who he has just been speaking to and anticipating what is to come next. These short spot quizes may seem surprising, but they work. They are completely in character for Richard, who continually confides in the audience in Shakespeare’s original text, commenting on his own wicked deeds ; but this interactive technique in the French adaptation keeps the audience on track and helps those whose minds have wandered off to wander back.

So is Shakespeare made better in translation?

Certainly, interlingual translation removes many of the obstacles created by the archaisms and lexical richness of Shakespeare’s original which continue to make English students doubt their ability to read his works and understand them.

While the growing number of intralingual translation tools online can also help continue to make Shakespeare accessible,4 live performances of the plays in English or in translation seem to be the key to open up the corpus.

If theatre is not available, of course, cinema is an excellent alternative with on line streaming services opening up the range of plays available on demand often with a choice of language and of sub-titles. People can choose what they want to see and when. And with adaptations like Joel Coen’s 2021 The Tragedy of Macbeth waiting to be seen, quality is definitely out there.

But the epiphany I wish to share here took place in a theatre. Going to see this year’s new French production of Richard III we had to take language and adaptation on trust. I think we benefited not only from the translator’s mediation on difficulties but also from the director’s considerable input to the performance which was staged in a way that was constantly surprising and engaging for the audience.

Did that make the play better? Yes, because it all seemed more accessible. The change of language gave a directness to the spoken text which was reinforced by the stagecraft of the actors. I lived through the play as something which was both strangely familiar and somehow fresh. Richard was still a murdering tyrant who died at the end but, as we stood applauding the actors, I found my mind wandering in thoughts about the historical Richard III. In 2012, his human remains were finally traced to their subtle, false and treacherous hiding place beneath a car park in Leicester, England. These have been reinstated to a prestigious location in Leicester Cathedral. Does this transfer or – dare I say it? – this translation finally make him true and just?

That’s the trouble with Shakespeare, whichever language he speaks, he always leaves you with something else to think about.

Final word

One of the surprises in starting a blog is that you think you know how it is going to work. Then you start writing and the surprises start. It was only once I started the piece called Saying It In Your Own Words, published in October, that I recognized the connection between the re-phrasing of a text and its translation, a connection which seems obvious to me now. I didn’t think I would be coming back to the theme of translation so quickly. But then along came a theatrical epiphany. And here we are – lost in translation again!

  1. A poem by the Cretan Epimenides, 6th or 7th century BC, is the source of this self-reference paradox. ↩︎
  2. The trio Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus took some getting through as I remember. ↩︎
  3. PDF of article : Shakespeare and the wandering mind ↩︎
  4. The NoSweatShakespeare site announces boldly “Our mission is to help everyone understand Shakespeare’s language.” ↩︎

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