To translate, or not to translate? That is the question.
Contending with the fretful elements.
Bids the windw blow the earth into the sea
Or swell the curlèd water ‘bove the main,
That things might change or cease
King Lear 3.1.4
Upon reading that quote from King Lear, an average 21st century reader’s reaction would usually be, “What? What does that even mean?” while scrunching their faces and probably scratching their heads. It’s an exaggeration but it is not really surprising that Shakespeare’s language is not readily understandable. Language has evolved through time and while it is true that Shakespeare has contributed a myriad of words in the English language, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the manner in which these words are strung together are still the same. That is today, it’s best foot forward and not the better foot before. So how does one deal with the 21st century problem of not understanding Shakespeare’s language in his works? Introducing:
At first glance, the book looks like a glossy modern book on Shakespeare complete with abstract image. But looking closer, the heading mentions that it is “Shakespeare side-by-side Plain English.” It is a very curious statement since first of all, isn’t Shakespeare already using English? And what does it mean to have it “side-by-side Plain English?” – also, what is Plain English? Apparently, this:
This is an excerpted page from the online version of No Fear Shakespeare. The play is Midsummer Night’s Dream. On the left side is the original text, as it was written by Shakespeare, and on the right is its translation to modern English. Doesn’t reading the translation make things easier? Admit it, it does.
Simplifying Shakespeare’s language into the manner of speaking of today does help many readers today understand the dramatic situation in Shakespeare’s works, be it his plays or his sonnets. But backtracking a bit, isn’t it odd that today, there exists a need to “translate” Shakespeare when none before were needed? And for whom is this translation for, anyway? Well, if you are familiar with Spark Notes, Cliff Notes, and all the other [insert noun here] Notes, then probably you are using them/ have used them one time or another during…
Yes, high school, where Shakespeare is more or less formally introduced to young teenagers as a paragon of literature. The problem is though that only a number of high school kids would find Shakespeare interesting, moreso readable. Ergo the translation solution. The thing is, before the boom of commercialism, Shakespeare was considered a paragon of literature. He was read and studied and anyone who read and studied Shakespeare was put in high regard because it was a mark of an intellectual, a learned person, especially of high culture (though ironically, Shakespeare’s popularity began with mass culture). However, as with the passing of time, so too is the high regard for Shakespeare.
With the advent of new technology, film, music, and the like, a more liberal cultural movement is undertaken and this basically turns against everything considered “traditional.” Historically speaking, this was the liberal movement brewing during the 50’s where kids were learning how to rebel, and so on. When the new tide came in, a new way of thinking was born, given the influence of liberalism and in order to keep this movement alive, people needed something new. Given that everything (economy, technology, and maybe even time) moved at a faster pace, things had to be simplified for easier digestion. This also included a simplification of Shakespeare for faster and better understanding…which isn’t a bad thing per se. Until you get an oversimplified Shakespeare that Shakespeare loses his value as art and turns into a kind of cliche.
Going back to the No Fear Shakespeare collection, I cannot help but wonder if in translating Shakespeare into “plain English,” the translators are ripping off its Shakespeare-ness just to cater to not only the youth, but to everyone who wants an easy and digestible manner of swallowing Shakespeare. And in doing so, losing the point of maintaining Shakespeare as a paragon of literature, debased as he is in translation.