Friday, July 20, 2012

Globe to Globe


It's a clever name, Globe to Globe, this year's World Shakespeare Festival. The website explains:

In an event of unprecedented ambition, all of Shakespeare’s plays will be performed, each in a different language, each by a different international company.

Every day for six weeks, national theatres, renowned artists and new young companies will celebrate performing Shakespeare in their own language, within the architecture Shakespeare wrote for.


London is trying very hard to make its Olympics into some kind of cultural event. If anyone wondered, aside from Turks, what Antony and Cleopatra is like in Turkish, they need go no further than the wondrously reconstructed Globe Theater in London, the cherished dream of American actor Sam Wanamaker. We English-speakers get only Henry V in Shakespeare's English, which is a crying shame, and not simply because it isn't one of the bard's best.

One of the most memorable American stage productions of Shakespeare was produced in 1936 by 20-year-old Orson Welles for the Federal Theater Project. It was memorable for infusing the play with African elements, staging an all-black cast, and, by changing the setting from Scotland to the Caribbean, became known as the "Voodoo Macbeth". But at least Welles kept Shakespeare's words intact.

I have heard Shakespeare performed in German, French, Italian, Russian, and even Japanese. Since I know the plays and am familiar with their plots, I could follow what was happening in every scene, and, like a religious service in a foreign tongue, I knew roughly what was being said. One of the privileges that being a native English speaker has given me is the ability to read Shakespeare and to see his plays performed in the very words that he, or his actors, transcribed.

Translation is based on the assumption that any piece of writing, even a great one, can be told as well in other words. But whose words? When some great writers, like Nabokov, translate their own writing from one language to another, the results can be as interesting - if not more so - as the original. But even Nabokov must have known that it was a kind of betrayal, or his former, younger self.

With poetry, translation is esecially difficult, if not impossible. The verbal precision of poetry, not to mention all of its non-verbal qualities, euphonic and mnemonic, make the sense of a poem inseparable from its words. Even when they can be separated, the results can show what a bad idea it was in the first place. If you separate Shakespeare's Macbeth from Shakespeare's words, and return to the place where Shakespeare found the story, in Holinshed's Chronicles, you are left with a atrange and obscure episode. One of the greatest Japanese filmmakers, Akira Kurosawa, did just that when he adapted Macbeth to medieval Japan in his film Throne of Blood (1958). Although the film is visually striking in many scenes, particularly in the climactic scenes in which a forest, as foretold by the witch, appear to march on the hero's castle, it is lost without Shakespeare's words, even when Kurosawa attempts to faithfully translate them into Japanese. Harold Bloom called it "the most successful film version of Macbeth." Which is meaningless since every other filmed Macbeth is terrible.

The translator's job is comparable to that of the stage director - he imposes his own interpretation on the work he is translating. In an early Autobiography Igor Stravinsky wrote of his admiration for the conductor Pierre Monteux who "was able to achieve a very clear and finished execution of my score [le Sacre du Printemps]. I ask no more of a conductor, for any other attitude on his part immediately turns into interpretation, a thing I have a horror of. The interpreter of necessity can think of nothing but interpretation, and thus takes on the garb of a translator, traduttore - traditore ["traitor"]; This is an absurdity in music, and for the interpreter it is a source of vanity inevitably leading to the most ridiculous megalomania." (Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography,  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1936)

Non-English-speaking audiences who attended this year's International Shakespeare Festival didn't have a chance to discover Shakespeare in person, since they had to contend with the 37 plays in 37 different languages in 37 different interpretations. Timon of Athens in German might be interesting. As would Julius Caesar in Italian. But The Merchant of Venice in Hebrew? Or how about Othello in "HipHop". Pericles in Greek would still be Greek to me.

I watched a BBC profile of an Afghan woman who was tasked with directing an all-new translation (in Dari) of The Comedy of Errors. No mention was made of her lack of familiarity with Shakespeare's language and of the four hundred years theatrical history of the play. But audiences in London heard Shakespeare spoken in Dari for the first time. I doubt that, with all the alterations of time and setting, even if it's the same old Globe he knew (if at a different address), Shakespeare himself, his ghost hovering in the galleries, would recognize his own plays. Has anyone else mentioned what a dumb idea this is? 

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