Britain’s most famous plays have been translated into Maori, sign language, even Klingon. But can Shakespeare’s bawdy jokes and tragic plotlines really transcend language?

At a matinee performance of Richard III at London’s Globe Theatre, the title character’s lamentation “My kingdom for a horse” gets an unexpected laugh. The reason? Two-and-a-half hours into the production, they are the first and only words uttered in English.

The Mandarin production, which is by the National Theatre of China, is among a wave of Asian translations that are refashioning the legacy of Shakespeare. From 17 August at the Globe, ‘The Scottish Play’ will, for a brief run, be ‘The Cantonese Play’ when Hong Kong’s Tang Shu-Wing Theatre Studio performs Macbeth.

It isn’t the first time Shakespeare has been translated, of course. So far, the 21st Century alone has seen Shakespeare performances in Maori, sign language and even, for the benefit of Star Trek fans, Klingon. “People tend to say he is a universal writer. It is more complex than that,” says Andrew Dickson, author of Journeys around Shakespeare’s Globe. “What makes Shakespeare so mobile around the world is that they are hugely flexible texts. There is something in them that you can play around with. You can pull it apart and put it back together again and it still works.”

But is it really possible to simultaneously communicate all of the aspects that make the Bard’s plays great, from rhyme to humour, in a foreign-language version?

Translator, traitor

“There's an Italian saying: ‘traduttore, traditore’ or ‘translator, traitor’,” says Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Gregory Doran. He is working on Chinese versions of Henry IV and Henry V, which the RSC will take to Beijing and Shanghai next year. “I did a production of the Merchant of Venice in Japan and they said: ‘do you want a translation for poetry, pace or meaning?’ I thought, I want all three,” he says. “The sound is important, too – how he quickens the pace, how the vowels and the consonants slow down and speed up.”

Do you want a translation for poetry, pace or meaning?

Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is virtually impossible to transfer into other languages, says Shakespeare Institute director Michael Dobson. Then there is the logistical issue of literal translation: since few other languages have as many mono-syllabic words as English, translating Shakespeare word for word in any other language means it takes nearly twice as long to perform. The Bulgarian version of Twelfth Night turns Sir Toby Belch into ‘Sir Toby Hiccupp’, Dobson says, because the word ‘belch’ takes too long in Bulgarian, while the word for ‘hiccough’ is one syllable.

Sometimes, even the plots must be changed to suit local cultures and social conditions. A British audience may consider the ending of Romeo and Juliet to be tragic. That’s not necessarily so in Japan, where the dual suicide might be seen as socially acceptable, even honourable.

Humour is difficult as well – at least when delivered with a punchline. Slapstick is easier than verbal wit. The murderers in the Mandarin Richard III deliver comic physical performances that are funny across language barriers, Doran says, whereas the Chinese versions rarely translate bawdy lines.

It also does not translate in English. We don’t speak the language of Shakespeare

Theatre historian Dennis Kennedy directed a Chinese version of As You Like It in Beijing, where he will return in 2016 for the Merchant of Venice. “There are two elements to Shakespeare’s humour,” he says. “One is verbal, and of course sometimes that does not translate. But it also does not translate in English – because it is fair to be reminded that we don’t speak the language of Shakespeare.”

For that reason, whatever linguistic losses that might accompany translation, there can be surprising gains: translation provides the opportunity to make the plays more colloquial. August Schlegel’s 18th Century translations into German, Kennedy says, owe some success to being closer to contemporary Berlin’s speakers than Shakespeare’s English is for today’s Londoners.

And there is another benefit to translation, too. It means foreign audiences get to hear it for the first time.

In English, Hamlet is a series of well-known quotations. In Chinese, it is a new play

“With each translation, it becomes fresh – and in a way foreign audiences are hearing it like Shakespeare’s audiences did, as a new text and not a series of quotations,” says Dickson. “In a funny way, we never have that proximity to the language that an audience in Germany or India would have.”

Or, as Kennedy puts it: “In English, Hamlet is a series of well-known quotations. In Chinese, it is a new play.”

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