Shakespeare proves difficult for English audiences, popular with foreigners

Renaissance playwright William Shakespeare created worlds in an archaic language. While English speakers struggle with his original work, modern translations have proven extremely popular.

Portrait of William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout (1622). (Martin Droeshout/Wikimedia Commons)

William Shakespeare, “the bard”, as he is often called, is considered the greatest playwright of all time. But his works have often eluded English speakers, who struggle with the archaic language the poet used in his poetry and plays.

On the other hand, thanks to frequently updated translations that dispense with archaic Renaissance language, foreign audiences often find The Bard easier to follow.

Take “King Lear,” a new version of which premiered at the Comédie Française in Paris last week.

In the original opening scene, the Earl of Kent reacts to his exile by saying, “Sith thus thou shalt appear, freedom lives hence and banishment is here.”

The new French version translates to “Since this is how you want to appear, freedom is elsewhere and exile is here” –– a much simpler phrase for modern ears.

Olivier Cadiot, who wrote the new translation, said his work was “like removing the varnish from a portrait to create something a little fresher – not something vulgar and modern, but stripping it down a bit. to make it more alive.

He mostly aims for “fluidity and precision”, he told AFP, but he couldn’t resist occasional moments of playfulness, such as the translation of the famous phrase “every inch is king ” in the very current “royal total”.

“The danger is real”

In English, many would regard such play with the bard as sacrilege.

There were howls of protest when the Oregon Shakespeare Company set out to translate its works into contemporary English in 2015 (“The danger to Shakespeare is real,” one petition thundered).

But that leaves many average theatergoers unable to comprehend the world’s most performed playwright.

“English audiences are at a disadvantage because the language has evolved and is increasingly distant. They need footnotes, props and staging to understand,” said Alexa Alice Joubin, Shakespeare Fellow at George Washington University.

Indeed, a study by the British Council and YouGov in 2016 found that Shakespeare was seen as more relevant in many non-English speaking countries than we are.

Overall, 36% of UK respondents said they did not understand Shakespeare, compared to 25% elsewhere.

“Dying on the Vine”

This matters because the difficult language can obscure important and relevant debates in his work on issues such as race, social hierarchies and the legitimacy of leaders, said Ruben Espinosa, a bard expert at Arizona State University.

“There’s a lot of cultural relevance,” he said. “But the language is so complicated that a lot of people’s time is wasted.

“If we want to treat it as sacrosanct and leave it untouched, it will be a body of work dying on the vine.”

Other countries do not have this problem.

In Germany and France, famous versions by Goethe and Victor Hugo’s son François-Victor are still in use, but modernized translations appear regularly.

The same is true in Japan, where early versions (such as a 19th century version on “The Merchant of Venice” called “Life is as fragile as a cherry blossom in a world of money”) used Japanese archaic to reflect Shakespeare’s style, but have since been replaced several times.
“Feverish Spirit”

Some say too much is lost in modernization.

Emotion is rooted in the musicality of words, argued researcher James Shapiro in the New York Times. Macbeth’s speeches, he said, were “intentionally difficult; Shakespeare captured a feverish spirit at work”.

But others argue that Shakespeare’s worldwide popularity shows the plays are just as powerful without the original lyrics.

“There’s something innate about characterization and the way stories are told that is iconic and unique,” Joubin said.

“Romeo and Juliet” is so popular, she says, not just for the language, but also for its fast pace – rare for a tragedy.

Joubin thinks that Shakespeare himself would have approved the updated versions.

“Someone that creative – I highly doubt he’s saying you can’t modernize my rooms,” she said. “He himself modernized the English language for the Renaissance era.”

Source: TRTWorld and agencies