Post from 03/09/12 - Shakespeare: Ubiquitous, Omnipotent.

Shakespeare: Ubiquitous, Omnipotent.

Monday, September 03, 2012
8:11 AM

In 2008, Shakespeare was classified as 5th most translated author, and by 2011, he reached 3rd  place, before the Bible and the Quran.  He has been translated into more than 2000 languages, his key sentences are known to all, and many quote him off their heads, in their mother tongue, some without having read anything he wrote others not even knowing they are quoting him.  
What makes Shakespeare’s appeal so universal? Can he, or should he be translated so widely?

While I certainly do not speak anything close to the more than 2000 languages Shakespeare has been translated into, the few experiences I have thus far had with his plays and sonnets in any other language but, English, could be summed up as somewhat unconvincing.
The last in date was the Hebrew version of “The Merchant of Venice”, the very play that has caused so much uproar both in the UK and in Israel for its participation at the World Shakespeare Festival organized by the Globe.  In the UK, “to be or not to be?” has become “to boycott or not to boycott?”; while in Israel, Ilan Ronen, the director of the Habima theatre, has been confronted with the question of why he should want to “take an anti-semitic play to London”.  
Prior to seeing Shakespeare in Hebrew, the last time I saw a translated version of Shakespeare was on “cultural school trip” to see a Flemish (Dutch) version of "Romeo & JuliA" – with an “a”.  I was so irked by the sound of Romeo speaking Dutch, that I ran away at the interval, (which ended up tragically, costing me a few Wednesdays’ detentions). 
I did not like it then, and I am not sure I would like it today, just as I do not appreciate Shakespeare in French (or Molière in English for that matter). 
When it came to the Hebrew version, I felt doubly cheated for not only were the actors speaking in Hebrew, but even the subtitles were a translation of the author’s colourful language into a simplified and more modern form of English. 
It is a known fact of course that any translated literary piece is highly likely to loose its value and that the reader will hardly ever get the full monty when reading the translated version of any literary work.  In Shakespeare’s case this might even be truer.  As my high school English teacher, a great admirer of Shakespeare herself, puts it, “The original English will always be beyond equal because of the richness and invention of the language in which the plays were written”.  Shakespeare is the father of many words still use in today’s English; he invented over 1700 of them, amongst which on finds “bedroom”, “marketable” and “obscene”.
Yet, and surprisingly so, I tremendously enjoyed the play, the stage and the performance.  It was modern in many ways and different from any I had seen before.  In regard to the language, even though the translation was far from equalling the original’s greatness, this simpler translation actually seems like the optimal option for it would have been impossible to keep the richness of the language and the subtleties of the culture if translated and transposed onto another land and continent. Trying to do the latter would have been preposterous, and even though the translated version lacked the beauty and melodiousness of the original, it did get through to the audience far better than it would have had it been played in “Shakespearean” English.
During the interval, I overheard a conversation between two German ladies who shared my enthusiasm.  They were praising the performance and seemed to be overjoyed by the fact that it was so different and so far from the rigid forms they had learned in school and become used to.
However, while those translated plays, can be very nice, entertaining and in some cases, even pleasant to the ear, they are not Shakespeare.   For, it is the original language that has made Shakespeare who he was and who he is until today.  Had he written his texts the way they are being translated, played and staged, Shakespeare would have never existed.     
Some might deem my approach as conservative.  However,   to me Shakespeare's genius lies precisely in the fact that ,because of the impeccable and unique way he wrote his plays and mastered so magnificently his language, everyone can identify with his plays and adapt them to their own needs and culture, not the other way round.
When I say identify and adapt, one needs look no further than the artists and troops who took part at the World Shakespeare Festival.  There were 32 countries present, playing in 37 languages. 
To Amir Nizar Zuabi, a Palestinian director and actor, directing The Comedy of Errors for the RSC as part of the Festival, there is no doubt that “ Shakespeare is a Palestinian”.  He explains that “For Arabs, the poetic form of the Quran is one of our cultural foundations, and Shakespeare's blend of verse and prose seems as natural as the way we think; it is the way we breathe. When I think, too, of what Shakespeare writes about, I become totally convinced by his Palestinian-ness, This mad reality blends everything – injustice with humour, anger with grace, compassion with clairvoyance, comedy with tragedy. For me this is the essence of Shakespeare's writing; and the essence, too, of being Palestinian. “
Ilan Ronen compares  his Shylock to a Shahid:  "Shylock creates a lot of empathy. There's no aggression coming from him. You feel that he's victim rather than a villain. He's a result of the circumstances he's been living in. Politically, when you push someone to the edge, he can be very violent. This is what happens to minorities.  […] Almost like a shahid".

"And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that."

From Afghanistan,  actor Basir Haider, who plays a servant in “Comedy of Errors, feels that  playing Shakespeare, with women on stage is “a starter, the beginning of what could be a revolution to change Afghanistan through art,".  His co-actress Parwin Mushtahel seems a little more weary and cautious:  "I am afraid life might be difficult for the women afterwards.  Our people simply cannot accept women on the stage, not to mention women who are kissing men".  When I read her words I cannot help but think of the irony that all Shakespeare’s plays, at the time he wrote and staged them, were performed by men only.  It was Elizabethan England when the Regent Queen Elizabeth made a virtue and open statements of her virginity: in 1559, she told the Commons, "And, in the end, this shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin".

Gregory Doran, the RSC’s artistic-director-in-waiting, has decided to transpose “Julius Cesar” to an unidentified African state with a cast of Black actors alone.  His inspiration came from “seeing an edition of Shakespeare’s complete works from Robben Island, in which Nelson Mandela had written his name beside a passage from Julius Caesar, asserting that it spoke in a particular way to his continent.”  He adds  “Then you look at African history over the past 50 years, and there have been many candidates for casting Julius Caesar: Idi Amin, Bokassa, Mobutu, indeed Mugabe. The sequence frequently is of leaders coming to power on a wave of popularity, pulling power to themselves in a one-party state, feeling that they have to seize control. Then, that being followed by a military coup which is followed itself by a much worse dictator and then, possibly, civil war. That’s Julius Caesar you’re describing.”
It appears that the play was first translated into Swahili by Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first President, and is the play that is the most often performed in Africa.

 “How many ages hence shall this, our lofty scene, be acted in states unknown and accents yet unborn.”

Shakespeare who never travelled further than Lancashire while alive has managed to make his writings travel to all the 4 corners of the globe and has enlightened and inspired the lives of the inhabitants of all 5 continents. Therefore and therein lays Shakespeare’s true genius and his universal appeal, whether his plays are historical, political, tragic, tragi-comedies, or romantic, they all display such a deep understanding and profound care for human nature and the spirits that move a soul as to make him praised and played until today, still sparking a few controversies on the way.


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