Su Fang Ng

Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Oklahoma. She is an early modernist with interests in comparative literature and postcolonialism.

Growing up in Asia, I first memorized lines from Shakespeare as a teenager when I read them in an epigraph to an Agatha Christie mystery. Thirty years later the mystery is forgotten but I still remember the evocative lines on the “tide in the affairs of men.” Somehow they translated—from the Latin translatio, a carrying across. Crossing continents and oceans, languages and cultures, they passed through 400 years from an Elizabethan poet to a young schoolgirl in postcolonial Malaysia.

Shakespeare’s translatability is achieved by only a few. English was a minor language when Shakespeare wrote, but he was almost immediately performed on the continent by traveling actors and translated into German and Dutch. Titus Andronicus was made Dutch (now lost) even before the First Folio was published. The Germans think of Shakespeare as ganz unser, wholly ours; an annual festival of Shakespeare in Indian languages in Chennai is called “Hamara Shakespeare,” our Shakespeare.

A long history of adaptations and appropriations into multiple tongues has made Shakespeare truly global. Translation is a strangely transformative process. It does not necessarily preserve the whole. One early Dutch tragedy from 1650 by Matthus Gramsbergen takes for its plot the "Pyramus and Thisbe" episode from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Of the myriad ways of Shakespeare’s translation, an important one is piecemeal transmission, the translation of the episode or the striking image, of a part instead of the whole, in allusion and in epigraph. From Agatha Christie to T. S. Eliot, fragments of Shakespeare’s poetic DNA entered other works as chimaera more or less visible. But Shakespeare’s works themselves already contained translated chimaeras, borrowing from others before him, such as Pyramus and Thisbe from Ovid. What we take from Shakespeare may have been taken from others. Translation is iterative. And Shakespeare’s powerful verse, no doubt, will continue to emerge in unexpected places.
 


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