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Problems with Translating Shakespeare

I've found several articles regarding this on the net. I'm new to the Shakespeare world, therefore I didn't know much about the translation issue.

In the net, there are "study guides" for Shakespeare, such as No Fear Shakespeare which provides students with modern English translation of William Shakespeare. I bet students will find it highly useful, especially those who are not well-acquainted with plays or old classical literatures or writings in verse. Apart from that, I am also aware that there are modern English editions of Shakespeare available in book stores. (I know that accidentally, because I found some quotes on Goodreads which convey Shakespeare's ideas but not in his exact words.)

On the other hand, there are people like David Crystal, which I highly respect (truly I love everything he says about Shakespeare's words and also original pronunciation), who insists that no translation is needed in understanding Shakespeare. There is even a debate between him and John McWhorter on this matter. Ben Crystal, his son, agrees with the father that Shakespeare is not for translation. The reasons: (1) You need to think from which version you want to translate Shakespeare, whether the Quarto, Folio, which one? (2) some ideas in Shakespeare are too complicated to be translated without losing much of its meaning.

For me, personally, I don't think it's an easy issue to deal with. I am not against translation, in fact, I'm working on a translation myself (not to modern English, though much crazier). But it also doesn't mean that I agree to replace Shakespeare with translation. Below are some thoughts on the matter:

  1. The kind of translation that you want to make. There are many types of translations. When translating Shakespeare, you can think of the text as a verse, therefore translate it as people translate poems, or you can think of it as a story, therefore focuses on the plot, as a linguist, therefore paying more attention to the language and word-use, or like a text in general. Why, depend on your motive and focus, the translation might be so much different.  
  2. Dealing with puns and layered meanings. Translations, when it comes to someone like Shakespeare, and perhaps Shakespeare more than other people, is basically personal interpretation. So, when it comes to Shakespeare's jokes (sometimes bawdy jokes) or word-plays in general, or philosophical matters, translating becomes very difficult, especially if you want to convey the ambiguity of the matter. Don't think so? Try translating Hamlet. Or, if you want to experience the pain of translation a comedy, Speed and Launce would serve as example. In that cases, literal translation is almost impossible without losing the sense of the matter, and vice versa, you cannot convey the emotion of the play without losing the real meaning of the original words. Thus we go to the next problem.
  3. The sacrifice. When translating Shakespeare, you must be ready to make sacrifices. You can sacrifice the beauty of the word choice, or the tune of the verse, or the deep emotion of the character, but you can't choose to sacrifice nothing (except if you want to stuff your translation with a bunch of footnotes). When translating Shakespeare (I choose to focus on the sense of the play rather than the word, because I'm not capable of doing the latter), sometimes I fall to the 'too literal' type of translation, and sometimes to the 'too liberal' translation when I want to have a balanced translation. It's frustrating. Therefore, even when you choose to translate Shakespeare..
  4. Give it back to Shakespeare. Please tell everyone to read the original. Face it. No translation can't beat the original Shakespeare. Let people feel his genius. Give the credits to Shakespeare for making such interesting characters, such amazing lines with strong expression scattered in every page, the rhymes, the puns, the witty word-battle. No matter what I translate, I always feel that it's not even 'twentieth part the tithe' of the real Shakespeare. 
Although I am not against translation, but I don't think that translation should replace the real Shakespeare. I love the way he uses words to his purposes, I love the terms and phrases - most of them are very difficult to translate - in his plays. 

Overall, I don't mind a good translation. I don't mind a literal or non-literal or highly interpretative translation. But please, read the original. Nothing, not even the best translation, can match the beauty in Shakespeare's lines. 

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  1. I was inspired by John McWhorter in the late 1990s to try my hand at translating Shakespeare. I have so far completed seven plays. My approach maintains the iambic pentameter, rather painstakingly, and hopes to retain the richness and complexity of the language.

    Of course, there are sacrifices, but remember that the reader or theatergoer is also translating and having to do it on the fly. The translator, armed with the fruits of hundreds of years of Shakespeare scholarship, is likely to settle on a more accurate translation than an overwhelmed theatergoer processing 150 words a minute. David Crystal has yet to provide empirical evidence that the typical (and otherwise literate) person can grasp more than the gist. I suspect his books add to our interest in Shakespeare and his language but little to our comprehension when that language comes at us at the normal rate of human speech.

    Robbed of meaning due to language change, the audience has to settle on enjoying the sound, the "word music" as it has been called. But Shakespeare is much more than sound. Just read some of his prose passages to see how precise he can be. My translations hope to capture the sound but reveal the meaning. Here is how I handled Hamlet's famous soliloquy from Act 3, Scene 1.


    To be or not to be—that is the question:
    Whether it's nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
    And by resisting end them. To sleep—
    That's all it is—and if by sleep we end
    The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
    That flesh is heir to—it's a termination
    Devoutly to be wished for. To die, to sleep—
    To sleep, perhaps to dream. Yes, that's the snag,
    For in that sleep of death, the dreams that come,
    When we have slipped free from this mortal net,
    Should give us pause. There's that to reckon with,
    Which makes us swallow turmoil for so long.
    For who would bear the whips and needles of
    Our times, the tyrant's wrong, the proud man's scorn,
    The pangs of love denied,1 the law's delay,
    The brusque official, and rejection that
    The patient and deserving take from lessers
    When he himself could settle all accounts
    With one thin dagger? Who would bear these loads,
    To grunt and sweat beneath a weary life,
    Unless the dread of something after death—
    An undiscovered country, from whose frontier
    No traveler returns—confounds this urge,
    And makes us rather bear the ills we have
    Than fly toward others we know nothing of?
    Our conscience, thus, makes cowards of us all,
    And thus the natural color of resolve
    Turns sickly in the pallid shade of thinking,
    And enterprises of great scope and moment,
    Because of this, their currents go awry
    And drift into inaction.

    You can see samples of my work at or

    Kent Richmond


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