“Elizabethan English presents a certain barrier to comprehension…” Author Hugh Macdonald explains why he decided to “translate” three Shakespeare plays into modern English

“My purpose in rendering Shakespeare into modern English is to enhance the enjoyment and understanding of audiences in the theatre. The translation is not designed for children or for dummies, but for educated grown-ups for whom Elizabethan English presents a certain barrier to comprehension.

Shakespeare in Modern English
“When reading Shakespeare, most of us need annotations to explain allusions, mystifying word order, obsolete vocabulary, and deceptive usages of one kind or another which impede understanding, or at least prevent us reading the text at a pace at which we might read Wilde or Shaw plays.

“In the theatre, on the other hand, we have no notes to help us, so many of those baffling utterances pass us by. We still get the drift of the words, we sense the dramatic interplay, especially in a good performance, and we enjoy the poetry, but it is an incomplete enjoyment since much of what is said is not understood.

“As an example, no one who arrives at the theatre unprepared can be expected to make sense of Prospero when in Act V, Scene 1 of The Tempest he says the following lines, however well he speaks them:

‘As great to me as late, and supportable
To make the dear loss have I means much weaker
Than you may call to comfort you…’

“The meaning is there in the text, and none of these words is obsolete, but it takes a second or two to disentangle it, by which time (in the theatre) the play has moved on.

prospero
“The experience of seeing Shakespeare is for most English speakers (and I naturally exclude Shakespeare scholars since they are fluent in his language – or should be) is not unlike seeing a play acted in a foreign language with which we are very familiar though not completely fluent. Much is thus missed.

“When Shakespeare is translated into other languages, the preferred solution is, in most countries that I am aware of, a translation from the nineteenth century, now hallowed by a certain tradition, and not presenting the listener with the sort of difficulties that English speakers face when hearing Shakespeare in the original.

“As far as I know, Germans do not perform Shakespeare in 16th-century German nor the French in Renaissance French. They prefer Schlegel’s or Guizot’s or Laroche’s version for the very good reason that these versions bring the text fully to life for a modern audience. They could be said to get more today out of seeing these plays in the theatre than Shakespeare’s compatriots do.

“Even scholars will admit that Shakespeare is sometimes very hard to understand. Countless passages show editors disagreeing about interpretation, and many of the jokes are notoriously baffling. In performance directors will normally cut lines or passages of which no one can make sense, or at least of which the audience is unlikely to grasp the meaning.

Rosalind
“A modern translation has to opt for an interpretation that has at least some likelihood of being correct, although sometimes the words are clear but the meaning is not. It will be objected, no doubt, that the language is too fine to be meddled with and the poetry sacrosanct. Many people have committed to memory familiar lines whose  replacement will always jar, even when the lines have been stored in the memory without being understood.

“A modern version may provoke an astonished ‘So that’s what it means!’ as readily as ‘Don’t trample on my Shakespeare!’ The world is not yet ready for ‘To live or not to live, that is the question’, but it can have no strong objection to ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely actors’.

“As for the poetry, I believe that blank verse is still a superb vehicle for the modern language; so long as verse is rendered as verse and prose as prose, the gains will outweigh the losses. My translations respect rhyme in blank verse as well as the meter.

“Songs I have left untranslated. I have replaced the second person singular (thou and thee) with the plural form, since that is universally adopted in modern speech. Again, there is some loss, since there are social and personal implications in the alternate use of thee and you. But since those implications cannot be instinctively grasped by a modern audience, the gain is greater than the loss. I have adopted modern word order wherever possible, although occasionally when an archaic word order offers no confusion, I have left it unchanged.

Coriolanus
“What exactly is modern English? I believe the best solution for translating Shakespeare is the language the Edwardians would have recognized as stylish and good. I avoid slang as far as possible, even when Shakespeare throws in words that were slang to him, and I avoid recent neologisms that sound sharply anachronistic.

“I believe it is possible to reflect Shakespeare’s most elevated language in the modern equivalent, and also to adopt a more colloquial tone when he does something similar. As an experienced translator of opera for singing, I find my motives and aims are the same when translating Shakespeare: to make the work better understood in the theatre.

“Since the current fashion is to sing opera in the original language to audiences who do not understand that language, the problem of intelligibility is acute, only crudely addressed by supertitles and the like. Opera audiences have the music to assist understanding, or sometimes to distract them from understanding, so that the loss of a few lines is not so critical as in the spoken theatre.

“I expect the same irrational responses to my attempts to translate Shakespeare as those levelled at opera in English, but although I have no desire to banish Shakespeare in the original from the stage, I persist in thinking that the alternative of performing his plays in a modern translation will bring enlightenment and pleasure to many.”

Shakespeare in Modern English
Three Plays (As You Like It / Coriolanus / The Tempest)
Translated by Hugh Macdonald
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(Classic images courtesy of the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive)