In Venice last week, I read of the plans to run a festival in 2012 at the Globe Theatre in London of Shakespeare’s complete works performed in thirty seven different languages. It’s a marvellous idea for a festival, but I confess my initial reaction was thoroughly parochial – won’t it just show what you lose when you don’t have Shakespeare’s own language? Won’t it be, I thought, a linguistic example of Hamlet without the Prince?
I used to admire Robert Frost’s definition of poetry as ‘what gets lost in translation’. I’ve learned better. It would be truer to say that literature is what survives in translation. As I stood in the Campo San Giacometto, near the statue of Old Gobbo the crouching hunchback, and thought of The Merchant of Venice and of Othello, I realized how inadequate Frost’s definition is. I remembered once finding myself in Berlin, watching a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters performed in German, a language in which I can just about order a currywurst without making an idiot of myself. Luckily it was a play I knew well, and the production was breathtakingly good, so I could concentrate on the acting and on the direction – in fact, on the play itself.
But how come I was able to know the play at all? Through translation, obviously, since I can speak and read barely a word of Russian. I’d first read the play, as I read all Chekhov, in the sixth form. Even before that I’d seen The Seagull at the Queen’s Theatre in London, with Vanessa Redgrave, Peggy Ashcroft and Peter McEnery, when I was fourteen – my first experience of a West End play. Three years later I’d seen Olivier’s production of Three Sisters at the National Theatre. These were defining theatrical experiences for me, but without translation I would not have had them.
Shakespeare himself, of course, depended utterly on translation. Translation allowed him access to the Venetian stories that gave him Desdemona and Iago, Shylock and Launcelot Gobbo – to the plots of most of his plays, in fact. Writers are always crossing boundaries, borrowing from each other, translating each other’s ideas. It’s what they do. And actually it’s what we do as readers, too. You could push the idea even further and suggest that all communication involves an act of translating: decoding what someone else has said or written and trying to understand it in our own terms.
I like the brisk approach the Director of the Globe Theatre, Dominic Dromgoole, is taking to his new festival. As The Times reported,
Each company will get at least two performances of a maximum length of 2 hours and 15 minutes. There will be no surtitles because Dromgoole believes that they undermine the chance to “slip free” of the text and consider the play in a fresh light.
To keep a Shakespeare play to 2 hours, you have to cut the text. It cannot be treated too reverentially. It can of course be cut even further, right to the bone: Tom Stoppard did this memorably with Dogg’s Hamlet, where the play is reduced to 10 minutes and given a hilarious reprise in an encore lasting 90 seconds. Shakespeare himself refers to the ‘two hours’ traffic of our stage’ in the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet (to be performed at the Globe in Brazilian Portuguese) but it would take you more than two hours just to read every word of that play.
Only one play of the whole Shakespeare canon is to be performed in English: Henry V. At first I thought this a too-obvious choice: could it really have been chosen because it is all about England and Britishness, a patriotic pageant to be used whenever national crisis requires a dramatic commentary on current events – Olivier’s 1944 film, for instance, or Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 version? I’m sure the answer is more interesting that this.
Almost uniquely, Henry V is a play in which Shakespeare explores and dramatizes issues of translation. These issues are political: at the start of the play, the Archbishop of Canterbury explains to Henry that he has a just claim to the throne of France because the French ‘unjustly glose’ [i.e. gloss] the Latin statement In terram Salicam mulieres ne succedant to mean that no woman can inherit the throne of France. At the end of the play Henry forces the King of France to write in Latin and in French a statement declaring that Henry is his ‘dear son-in-law and heir to the throne of France’: Notre très-cher fils Henri Roi d’Angleterre Héritier de France.
This power politics is offset, of course, by two comic scenes. In the first, Katherine, daughter of the King of France, is being instructed by her lady-in-waiting, Alice, in some basic English vocabulary:
Katherine: Comment appellez-vous le pied et la robe?
Alice: Le foot, Madame; et le coun.
Katherine: Le foot et le coun; O Seigneur Dieu! Ils sont mots de son mauvais, corruptible, gros, et impudique, et non pour les dames d’honneur d’user.
It sounds almost like a snatch of dialogue from Blackadder. Then, secondly, after the Battle of Agincourt, when Katherine knows that she is the spoils of war and Henry has come to claim her, it is the language barrier that has to be overcome if political expedience is to be married to emotional reticence. I have seen this scene played entirely for laughs, and I have seen it played with a good deal of seriousness; but I know of no other play in which Shakespeare uses questions of translation as a powerful but ambiguous dramatic and thematic device. The play begins and ends with the unanswered question, ‘Do kings mean what they say?’ and Henry himself admits he and Kate speak each other’s language ‘most truly falsely’.
I should love to see some of the plays in the Globe Festival, and with luck Henry V will be one of them. And I think that in selecting this play, of all plays by Shakespeare, to be performed in English the Festival organizers have after all made a shrewd choice.
[illustration: The Campo San Giacometto near the Rialto, Venice, as painted by Canaletto. The statue of the crouching hunchback, Gobbo, is in the middle of the arcade on the far side of the square. At present it is under wraps and under restoration.