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McWhorter on Zora Neale Hurston and Shakespeare

John McWhorter writes on Zora Neale Hurston. McWhorter is always worth reading, even when one disagrees with him, as I do on this piece where he argues that Shakespeare needs to be translated into modern English. Also note this penultimate paragraph on translations of Shakespeare into foreign languages:

"The irony is that people in foreign countries often possess Shakespeare to a greater extent than we do, since they get to enjoy Shakespeare in the language that they speak. Shakespeare is translated into rich, poetic varieties of these languages, to be sure, but since it is the rich, poetic modern varieties of the languages, the typical spectator in Paris or Moscow can attend a production of Hamlet and enjoy a play rather than an exercise. A friend of mine has told me that first time he truly understood more than the gist of what was going on in a Shakespeare play was when he saw one in French!"

There is some sense to this. Yet, it must be noted that the best native poets (say of Hungary) learned enough English just to translate the Bard and the Hungarian Shakespeare is not modern, but, rather, as my father might have said, better than the original!

Discussions - 6 Comments

If McWhorter would do the "translation," that would be one thing, but what we would get would typically be unacceptable: Just look at what is done with the staging--sometimes clever, often abominable.

Yes, some of the modern interpretations of the plays are ghastly and incomprehensible. Many years ago, we persuaded fellow church members to go downtown and see Othello with us at The Cleveland Playhouse. We gathered a large group, about fifteen young couples, most of whom had never seen a Shakespeare play before, being small-town folk.

Unfortunately, the director's interpretation of the play was that Iago and Othello were former, though long-time, lovers. Iago was jealous of both Desdemona and Cassio for sexual reasons, apparently thinking Othello was sleeping with both of them, not just his bride. Othello was trusting of Iago because of their previous "relationship" and there were some uncomfortably tender moments between them on the stage.

Some of these implications were conveyed by pelvic thrusting and other rather obscene gestures, probably since there was not enough evidence in the play itself. All I am saying is that it was not the best introduction to Shakespeare for the members of our little non-denominational church. "I didn't know he that." said one sweet young mother.

Kate, better to cherish the old Shakespeare joke about the son who took his mother to see Shakespeare on stage for the first time, Hamlet. Afterward she remarked that she enjoyed it, but didn't know he used so many cliches.

I know people who want to modernize the Constitution, too. "Let's have another Constitutional convention and fix the too amended, sadly out of date document." I ask, "Who do you trust to send to this convention and do the rewrite?" Usually, there is an awkward silence. Sometimes I am offered great statesmen like Ted Kennedy and all I can do is roll my eyes.

Please, we love Shakespeare's language. We love him for what he says and how he says it and that's why we make some of his words our cliches. If people have to reach a little to apprehend the archaisms, isn't such stretching good for them? One of my lectures is on the history of our language and I use Hamlet's soliloquy, which most of my students are at least aware of, (if only because of the cliches) and we discuss the old words. My favorite is "fardels", as in Who would fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of? and we talk about the word and the passage and the words in the passage and the idea of a fardel as a burden like to their backpacks, under which they all trudge about, bent and weighed. Then we talk about using words to create depth in writing and how to look into words and think about them. Better that they expand their vocabularies than limit ideas.

I wouldn't want a digested author, which is what is proposed and maybe what Hungarians and Russians and the French get when they read in translation. What if the translator had some bizarre interpretation, like the director of the production of Othello we brought our friends to see? Better to use the Lambs' story-telling technique, which are good to read to children.

John McWhorter mentioned my Shakespeare translations in his New Republic Online article. About 10 years ago, influenced by another McWhorter article, I began line-by-line verse translations of Shakespeare's plays. I modernize much of the language yet work to maintain the literary quality and complexity of the original. I have completed five Shakespeare translations so far (King Lear, Macbeth, Much Ado, Romeo and Juliet, and Twelfth Night). Those interested can see samples of my work at

Kent Richmond

Kent Richmond, you make me feel a Shakespeare snob, which I probably am. Since I do enjoy Shakespeare, as is, your Enjoy Shakespeare does not do much for me. However, I will believe you are taking care in what you do and wish you well. Is this a profitable venture?

Men we know mostly by their words are giving or have given themselves to us mostly in their words. Even if we know or think that we do not read the man well, his words are his words and are what we have to read him by. Any written piece stands on its own and has its own beauty. Maybe we have no right to think we read the man in his words, but we do think that. From one language to another translation is necessary -- I will not ever read that man, Aristotle, say, in any other way but in translation, but I understand that distance and accept it. I take my translator's word for what that man said and hope he is telling me truth about Aristotle in translation. Shakespeare is modern English, although I agree, becoming distant, given the mutability of our language.

Yet, while he has characters like chavs in some of his plays they are not our chavs. If you dress Mercutio as a chav and translate Shakespeare's words for him as if he were a modern boy of the type, it would be interesting, but it would not be Shakespeare.

Anyway, I love Shakespeare for the beauty of what he wrote, but also for the man I read in his words. We aren't interested in understanding, or in trying to read, every man whose words we read. As an example, oof the men we read on this blog or elsewhwere -- there might be one or two who interest us enough that we try to read the man through what he writes. That's a rare thing, and maybe a blog is an odd example, but the point is that some of us read Shakespeare through what he wrote. It is that person's humanity and wit and the wonder of the man as a man that comes through the words and the work and is interesting and might well be lost in translation.

Yet I accept other people might not have the same motivations in reading Shakespeare and perhaps for others your translation will be better than the original.

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