Shakespeare in Translation

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 6

What happens when Shakespeare’s work is translated into foreign languages? Is it still Shakespeare? Or does something fundamental to the original evaporate in the process?

Scholars and theater artists, with Rebecca Sheir, host of our Shakespeare Unlimited series, look at what constitutes the essence of Shakespeare.

A translator can retain the story, characters, and ideas of a play, but the intricate wordplay proves much more difficult. For one thing, it’s impossible to translate Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter into a language like Korean, in which poetry is based on syllable counts, not stresses. And what is to be done with those well-crafted puns?

However, translation also opens up possibilities for new depths of meaning, as the familiar recedes and a different perspective takes over.

Among those featured in this podcast episode:

  • Joe Calarco is the adaptor and original director of Shakespeare’s R&J.
  • Rupert Chan is a writer and playwright who has translated multiple Shakespeare plays into Cantonese.
  • Joe Dowling is the artistic director for the Guthrie Theater in Minnesota.
  • Alexa Huang is a professor of English, theater and dance, East Asian languages and literatures, and international affairs at George Washington University.
  • Ah-Jeong Kim is a professor of theater history at California State University–Northridge.
  • Hyonu Lee is a professor at Soon Chun Hyang University in South Korea.

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © July 16, 2014. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, "Bless Thee! Thou Art Translated," was written and produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Edited by Garland Scott, Gail Kern Paster, and Esther Ferington. We had help gathering material for this podcast series from Amy Arden.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

This podcast is called “Bless Thee! Thou Art Translated” and looks at what happens to Shakespeare's work when it's translated into foreign languages. Our narrator is Rebecca Sheir.


REBECCA SHEIR: Some creations are so recognizable, they’re stamped so thoroughly with their creator’s personality or genius or voice, that there's never any questions where they came from. You know instantly, for example, that this is Springsteen:

[CLIP of instrumental music]

[CLIP of a line from Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye:]

Out there in the night of a thousand crimes people were dying

SHEIR: That this is Raymond Chandler:

[CLIP of Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye:]

People were hungry, sick, bored, desperate with loneliness

SHEIR: And, of course, this is Shakespeare:

[CLIP from Henry V:]

He that outlives this day and comes safe home
Will stand o' tiptoe when this day is named

SHEIR: But why? Why is this Shakespeare? Or, as Alexander Huang, a professor at George Washington University, asks…

HUANG: What is Shakespearean, and what is the essence of Shakespeare?

SHEIR: What are the elements you can point to? Is it a compelling story?

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet:]

For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

SHEIR: Is it compelling characters?

[CLIP from Julius Caesar:]

Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest,
(For Brutus is an honorable man;

SHEIR: Is it the beautiful, poetic language?

[CLIP from Othello:]

                                    I had rather be a toad,
And live upon the vapor of a dungeon
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others' uses

SHEIR: And how many of these things does a play have to have before you can say, “this is Shakespeare"?

[CLIP of The Taming of the Shrew:]

They call me Katherine that do talk of me.

You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate

SHEIR: As opposed to, “this is a Shakespeare adaptation?”

[CLIP from 10 Things I Hate About You:]

ANDREW KEEGAN as JOEY DONNER: You see that girl?
JOEY DONNER: That's Kat Stratford. I want you to go out with her.

SHEIR: Ah-Jeong Kim is a professor of theater history at Cal State Northridge.

KIM: I don't think anyone has stepped outside to say, "You have to have this many elements of Shakespeare to be deemed as a Shakespeare adaptation."

SHEIR: But what happens when we take Shakespeare outside the countries where he's most familiar, outside the English-speaking world, and begin translating his work into foreign languages? Of course, we all say things like "Shakespeare belongs to the world."

JOE DOWLING: Of course, Shakespeare is American. He's also British, he's also French, he's also Italian, he's also Spanish. He’s Japanese.

SHEIR: That’s Joe Dowling, artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minnesota.

DOWLING: Whatever country he’s presented in can see a mirror of their own society within his work.

SHEIR: But in reality, taking Shakespeare and translating it into a language other than English, can alter it in ways that call into question the things we look at to say, "that is Shakespeare."

[CLIP from Omkara (Hindi)]

SHEIR: This is a film called Omkara, a 2006 adaptation of Othello in Hindi:

[CLIP from Omkara (Hindi)]

SHEIR: And this:

[CLIP from A Midsummer Night's Dream (Chinese)]

SHEIR: Is the scene with the rude mechanicals from a stage performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Chinese.

[CLIP from A Midsummer Night's Dream (Chinese)]

SHEIR: Or is it? Is it Shakespeare? Is it A Midsummer Night's Dream? It's not in English, after all, and as George Washington University’s Alex Huang says,

HUANG: When we translate, it’s a huge problem. You're not going to pretend that you're going to stay true to Shakespeare. There's no such thing.

[CLIP from A Midsummer Night's Dream (Chinese)]

SHEIR: What happens, for example, to Shakespeare's poetry, the rhyme and the meter, when you translate from English into, say, Arabic or Korean? Here's Cal State’s Ah-Jeong Kim.

KIM: Anybody who is expecting to experience Shakespeare's language and poetry will be doomed to [LAUGH] disappointment.

[CLIP from A Midsummer Night's Dream (Chinese)]

SHEIR: The basic question to ask: Is it important that a Shakespeare play contains Shakespeare's language? If your answer is yes, then you see the problem, and it's particularly acute, Dr. Kim says, when you translate Shakespeare into a language that has no common roots with English.

KIM: When Shakespeare is adapted in Asian languages, it's often the case that the English language of the poetry, the literary allusions, all of these elements are gone.

[CLIP from Titus Andronicus (Chinese)]

KIM: The risks of violating the original is far greater with Asians’ adaptation effort, compared to the contemporary Western adaptations of Shakespeare. It's not just between Shakespeare's English and contemporary Asian languages. Translation always sacrifices something essential, something essential evaporates in the process.

SHEIR: Here's an example:

[CLIP of Professor Hyonu Lee reading from his translation of Hamlet (Korean)]

SHEIR: That's Professor Hyonu Lee of Soon Chun Hyang University, reading his translation, the first ever, of Hamlet, Quarto 1, into Korean.

[CLIP of Lee reading from Hamlet (Korean)]

SHEIR: This is a sequence where Hamlet watches a performance of an old play, and in this section, Professor Lee was unequivocal about making sure the words rhymed in Korean in the same places where they rhyme in English, but listen to what happens when you do that. Shakespeare's original goes like this:

Full forty years are past, their date is gone,
Since happy time joined both our hearts as one

In Korean, it becomes

Forty years have passed. It's now twilight.
Living blissful days, we are united as one heart and one soul.

[CLIP of Lee reading from Hamlet (Korean)]

SHEIR: Or, later on:

Thoughts black, hands apt, drugs fit and time agreeing,
Confederate season, else no creature seeing

In Korean it becomes:

Dark thoughts, deft hands, right poison, perfect time,
Plot is ripe, no one else is seeing

KIM: We have to accept the fact that translation sacrifices something essential about the original, and unfortunately, Shakespeare's essential is the poetry. It gets sacrificed. But the ideas, his profound understanding of humanity, his ability to bring the human experiences of all the characters, and that he crystallizes the human emotions in those characters in the stories, I think can be preserved, and can be actually reconstructed in a good translation, and with the hands of a masterful director, it can be recreated.

SHEIR: So the story and, to a great extent, the characters, remain. The rest becomes really, really hard. Here’s Rupert Chan. He's translated four Shakespeare plays into Cantonese.

CHAN: The greatest difficulties? Classical allusions, puns, and double entendre.

SHEIR: These problems can have severe consequences.

[CLIP from Shakespeare's R&J (Japanese)]

SHEIR: This is Shakespeare’s R&J, written and directed by Joe Calarco, which has been performed all over the US and in London. They took it to Tokyo in 2004. In the play, four boys in a repressive Catholic school find a copy of Romeo and Juliet and act it out. As Calarco explains, they start with a fight scene that's loaded with double meanings.

JOE CALARCO: The point is, is that they're taking out what they consider the dirty parts, which are his double entendres: sword, weapon. And that was a huge revelation, which I didn't get till we were way into the process, when people were seeing runs and nobody laughed. And I finally said, “What is this sounding like,” or “What are the words,” and then I was told, “Well, there's no such thing as double entendre in Japanese.”

[CLIP from Shakespeare's R&J (Japanese)]

SHEIR: Along the same lines, what do you do with Shakespeare's puns? If you decide to keep them, it can require some ingenious solutions. In Hamlet, there's a line where Hamlet talks about Brutus, and he says, “It was a brute part of him." Brute is a pun on Brutus. Here’s how Hyonu Lee handled that.

LEE: Whenever we translate a pun, we have to consider two aspects. The first one is the sound effect, another is meaning. So, I translate like this: [Korean line from Lee's Hamlet translation]. Now, when I say "Brutus," this is the name of Brutus, but when I say, [Korean line], in Korean, [Korean term that sounds like Brutus] means "swollen."

SHEIR: Swollen. See, there's an expression in Korean when someone’s too rash or too tough. You say, "his liver is swollen."

LEE: So I translate that line like this: [Korean line]. "Brutus’s liver is too much swollen."

SHEIR: So maybe, as a translator, you've solved the problem with puns and double entendre, or just decided to forget about them entirely. There's also a problem with rhythm. As tough as those other two are, rhythm is even tougher.

LEE: Most of Korean Shakespeare just uses prose translation, because many translators have believed it was almost impossible for Korean translators to translate Shakespearean poetry and language into Korean and put to rhythm, but I found it was possible.

SHEIR: Of course, Shakespeare wrote verse in iambic pentameter, but iambic pentameter is not something that's possible to do in Korean. Ah-Jeong Kim explains.

KIM: English is a stress language. The communication relies heavily on the positioning of the stresses. Say “important.” There are three stresses. Im-por-tant. “Por” has the primary stress. “Im” has the secondary stress.

SHEIR: They don't have that concept in most Asian languages. In Korean, she says, poetry is based on syllable counts.

KIM: Three syllables followed by four syllables, or four followed by four syllables. That creates the musical rhythm that is necessary to call writing poetry.

SHEIR: So for his Hamlet translation, Hyonu Lee says:

LEE: I chose the traditional rhythm of three-four, three-four because the time to read iambic pentameter is very similar to that of three-four, three-four rhythm.

SHEIR: Just like iambic pentameter, he says, this form of poetry mimics the way a person breathes. Here's an example:

LEE: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” But when we translate that into Korean, you know, [Korean translation of the line]. The timing’s very similar.

SHEIR: When Rupert Chan translated A Midsummer Night’s Dream into Chinese, he faced the same problem. [The following example is from Twelfth Night.]

CHAN: All of the first lines were in iambic pentameter, so I tried to preserve that, and Chinese is monosyllabic, so it came out, each line is 10 characters, the tone is down up down up down up, so I tried to imitate the original pentameter.

A murd'rous guilt shows not itself more soon
Than love that would seem hid. Love’s night is noon.—  
Cesario, by the roses of the spring,
By maidhood, honor, truth, and everything,
I love thee so, that, maugre all thy pride,
Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.

So that's eight lines, all rhymed, two by two. And I make it into a classical time poem with eight lines, but it's one rhyme and it goes something like this:

[Chinese translation of passage]

SHEIR: It seems expected at this point to pull out the old phrase: “Lost in translation,” but according to Alex Huang of George Washington University, that's not the only way to look at the result of all this.

HUANG: You might say that a lot is lost in translation, but a lot more is gained.

SHEIR: We’ve been talking up to now about the problem with the rhythm. He invites you to look at it this way:

HUANG: You will create new rhythms that may echo Shakespeare's, but that rhythm is essentially, uniquely German, Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, and so on.

SHEIR: Beyond that, he says, some foreign languages, in some circumstances, can give a Shakespeare play even more depth than Shakespeare gave it.

HUANG: It’s fascinating to encounter Twelfth Night in Japanese.

[CLIP from Twelfth Night:]

            If ever thou shalt love,
In the sweet pangs of it remember me

HUANG: Japanese is a language that’s more complex than English, because it has more than 20 first and second person pronouns, and so, to maintain the ambiguity and subtlety of gender identities of an evolving cross-dressing in a play like Twelfth Night is a problem if you want to do it in Japanese, but that problem is also a blessing in disguise, because it opens up the play in interesting ways. Think about Viola, the cross-dressed Viola, versus Orsino. Orsino’s comments about love from a male perspective and Viola’s apology for a woman’s love when in disguise as Cesario.

[CLIP from Twelfth Night:]

For such as I am, all true lovers are,
Unstaid and skittish in all motions else
Save in the constant image of the creature
That is beloved. How dost thou like this tune?

It gives a very echo to the seat
Where love is throned.

                                    Thou dost speak masterly.

HUANG: In Japanese, you are going to have to pick the right personal pronoun that indicates gender, as well as the relationship between the speaker and the receiver, whether the receiver is your superior or elder, and how much respect you are showing, so the language, I think, adds an extra layer of disguise and element of masquerading to the play that already has so many layers.

[CLIP from Twelfth Night:]

My father had a daughter loved a man
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your Lordship.

                                    And what's her history?

A blank, my lord. She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i' th' bud,
Feed on her damask cheek.

SHEIR: Of course, all of these problems and all of these opportunities are academic, when you're talking about written Shakespeare. After all, there are always footnotes when you're reading Shakespeare, but when an English speaker goes overseas to direct Shakespeare in a foreign language, Alex Huang says, that can lead to surprises.

HUANG: It is possible to direct Shakespeare or any theater pieces in a language that you don't know. Sometimes it’s eye-opening for both sides.

SHEIR: That certainly happened for Joe Calarco in Tokyo. You heard about one complication, no double entendre in Japanese. Here's another.

CALARCO: The translator said to me, “I'm using a more contemporary version of Japanese,” to which I said, “but I don't understand that.”

SHEIR: A more contemporary form of Japanese. That's common all over Asia. Of course, in the English-speaking world, we’re used to hearing Shakespeare and thinking, “That sounds old, we don't speak like that anymore.” So you’d imagine that when someone translates Shakespeare into Korean or Hindi, they’d write in, say, 17th-century Korean, or 17th-century Hindi, right? Well, no, they don't. Instead, the characters speak like people do today.

CHAN: I think it’s more amenable to the modern audience, who cannot grasp their classical Chinese.

LEE: If I used the 17th-century Korean language, most of a Korean audience can’t understand.

SHEIR: But what do you do if the archaic nature of the language was the point? That’s what happened to Joe Calarco.

CALARCO: The point of the adaptation was to make it really exciting and sexy, and show the lust of it and the violence of it and the hate of it and the love of it, but in this language that we think of as being stuffy. So for them to make that contemporary language seems at odds with that.

[CLIP from Shakespeare's R&J (Japanese)]

SHEIR: So, in a Shakespeare translation, the language is almost always contemporary, the rhythm and the rhyme of the poetry are gone, the meaning of many of the words has changed. All that may leave you asking  "What’s left? And in the end, is this still Shakespeare?" As you can imagine, that opens up a whole discussion.

HUANG: If you change the words, if you change the allusions, true, it’s less Shakespearean. However, I think that the core message does not change. Shakespeare is much bigger than just poetry.

KIM: What makes Shakespeare, Shakespeare, is his poetry, his language, and the ideas that he expresses through that poetry and that language.

HUANG: What is it there in Shakespeare that makes him timeless, that makes him so appealing in so many different global contexts? Obviously, it's not just poetry.

LEE: The most important thing of Shakespearean text is story, and then character.

CALARCO: I wouldn’t say, "Oh my God, plot, or story. I would say language." And so it’s interesting that they say that’s the least important thing.

SHEIR: After all, if all you have is Shakespeare's story, and Shakespeare's characters, without Shakespeare's language, don't you just have an adaptation? Can’t a director or theater just invoke Shakespeare to make money? Alex Huang of George Washington University says yes, that's true, and he says there are plenty of people who do that, and not just overseas.

HUANG: Why do we say that the movie 10 Things I Hate About You is our Taming of the Shrew, The Taming of the Shrew for our times? It's because the studio consciously packaged it this way. More often than not, they wanted to highlight their affiliation with Shakespeare just to sell the product, and Shakespeare sells.

SHEIR: Although, Ah-Jeong Kim says, what’s wrong with something that just sticks close to Shakespeare?

KIM: When you think about it, the entire history of the human literary or artistic output has been a long narrative of adaptations.

SHEIR: In fact, translator Rupert Chan points out, Shakespeare’s stories themselves are often adaptations.

CHAN: Shakespeare was not, strictly speaking, an original writer. He wrote Twelfth Night, which was from some Italian story, and the setting was somewhere in Italy, but he wrote it in English. So what's wrong with doing it in China? I'm not doing anything to sabotage the original. I'm only trying to preserve the classic elegance of the poetry.

SHEIR: And as for this idea that without Shakespeare's language, it's not a real Shakespeare play? Ah-Jeong Kim says that's kind of an Anglocentric way of looking at things.

KIM: I teach a theater history survey course, and I teach Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex, which is obviously written in the Greek language. But most of the times, I can only find in the drama anthology books a contemporary English translation, using modern English language. So I can ask you the same question, "Why is it not important for you, English-speaking thinkers and writers, to preserve the ancient Greek language by using at least medieval English? But you don't do that. Why?" It's not going to work!

SHEIR: In the end, Alex Huang says, it all comes down to the nature of theater, and the question of what a play is.

HUANG: Speaking of the authentic Shakespeare, we might first ask ourself, “Where is Mona Lisa?”

SHEIR: The Mona Lisa, of course, is in a museum in Paris, and he says if you see a poster of it, or a postcard, you know it's just a copy.

HUANG: Now, if we ask ourself, “Where is Hamlet?” that's a different question. Because Hamlet doesn't really exist per se in the First Quarto or Second Quarto or the Folio, or in the film of Laurence Olivier. It’s in the world, so Hamlet, in the world, versus Mona Lisa, a painting in the museum. On stage, when it's brought to life, it is alive, it is there. You find Hamlet in London’s Globe, in Folger Theatre. We can’t really point our finger to any of those and say, “That’s the real Hamlet!”

Do the film adaptations look Shakespearean? If you think back to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and the setting, a fictional Verona Beach, but actually shot in Mexico. Yes, the Shakespearean language is there, but do you honestly think that DiCaprio, you know, looks authentic? I don’t even know what "authentic" means here. Think about Kenneth Branagh’s famous Hamlet, four hours long, and what is that film doing? It’s 19th century, it’s in Blenheim Palace, outside of London.

It’s not about trying to find the Shakespearean core or essence in foreign Shakespeare. If you insist on that, you might do better, in fact, to sit down at the Folger and read the First Quarto or the 1623 Folio.

[MUSIC from Romeo and Juliet (Korean)]

SHEIR: The bottom line, he says, Is that Shakespeare's work can stand up to the challenge, and Ah-Jeong Kim says, in our globalized existence today, Shakespeare needs to. In a time when we all draw influences from one another, she says there's not only plenty the world can learn from Shakespeare, but plenty that the West can learn when Shakespeare is translated and brought back for us to see.

KIM: When the translation is done and adaptation is made, and the performance travels back to the Western world, I believe that their new interpretation also provides another, defamiliarizing Shakespeare to the Western readers who think they understand Shakespeare. So it provides another opportunity for them to see Shakespeare from a different, sometimes strange, perspective.

[CLIP of Romeo and Juliet (Korean)]


WITMORE: “Bless Thee! Thou Art Translated” was written and produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help gathering material for the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series from Amy Arden. The narrator was Rebecca Sheir.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world's largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger in our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger Director Michael Witmore.