On attempting to “translate” Shakespeare

MacbethAndBanquo-WitchesBrett Gamboa at The New Criterion:

Translation, then, or too much cutting of the plays, can still preserve plenty of similar examples—it is impossible, really, to rid the plays of them—but it will inevitably make the whole less coherent. The extreme paradox of Shakespeare’s canon is that the plays achieve their coherence by dizzying patterns of phonic and ideational coherence, but also by their insistent attempts to disorient and destabilize audiences. Space won’t permit many examples, but consider a brief example from just one other play—King Lear. Lear begins with Gloucester in conversation with the Earl of Kent, Gloucester peppering the dialogue with jokes made in poor taste about the fun he had engendering his bastard son, Edmund, while Edmund looks on and patiently endures the humiliation. When Lear and his daughters arrive, two are effusive in their love for Lear and one is priggish and aloof. Of course, the caddish Gloucester and the priggish daughter, Cordelia, turn out to be two of the most wronged and sympathetic figures in Western literature, and the admirably restrained Edmund—any other play’s Hamlet or Posthumus—is revealed to be a pure villain. Still, an audience can never wholly divorce itself from its initial impressions, which attach and morph as the characters change. This is a mainspring of Shakespeare’s art. It’s why his characters are both so endearing and so frustrating, often simultaneously. It’s why Portia is handsome, clever, rich, and anti-Semitic, and why Shylock is both a demon and a far better examplar of love and loyalty than can be found in The Merchant of Venice’s portrait of Christendom.

The inconsistencies and contradictions that help grant the characters their attractions are mirrored by similar inconsistencies and contradictions in the language, and their removal would deprive audiences of something essential to the plays. The osf plan for translation calls upon the playwrights they commissioned first, “to do no harm,” and second, to “put the same kind of pressure on the language as Shakespeare put on his.” But translators (and directors) may do considerable harm when doing what seems the most reasonable thing—introducing clarity where Shakespeare left things uncertain.

more here.