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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

McWhorter: Translate Shakespeare into Intelligible English

Posted by Bill Benzon on 05/21/09 at 11:03 AM

John McWhorter argues that Shakespeare’s English makes his work all but inaccessible to most contemporary speakers of the language:

The foremost writer in the English language is little more than a symbol in the actual thinking lives of most of us for the simple reason that we cannot understand what the man is saying. Listen to even ordinary Russians quoting Pushkin to get a sense of how far from our Bard we really are.

I submit--in full understanding of the actual fury I have evoked in some to whom I have ventured this suggestion--that Shakespeare be performed in translations into modern English. I do not mean the utilitarian running translations in textbooks, but richly considered ones, executed by artists equipped to channel Shakespeare to the modern listener with passion, respect and care. Kent Richmond gets this and has actually been realizing the dream; take a look and reassess whether my modest proposal is completely insane.

He goes on to observe:

Original Shakespeare should occupy the place original Chaucer does today: engaged by scholars and hard-core aficionados. However, to require intensive and largely unfeasible decoding in full three-hour live performances is to condemn us to ignorance of something that makes life worth living.

And rather shrewdly:

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!

A commenter, one hasman basman, observes:

I think this is a confused post. It confuses the poetry of Shakespeare, which is difficult poetry and has to be attended to carefully and studiously like all difficult poetry, with the drama of Shakespeare. Experiencing a Shakespeare play and missing a lot of nuance in the language will not detract from experiencing the shattering tragedy of Lear, the brooding difficulty of Hamlet, the overwhelming tragic evil of Macbeth, the paean to the intensity of young love and its foredoomed end in Romeo and Juliet, the complexity of mature love in Anthony and Cleopatra, the magnificence of the character of Falstaff in the Henry plays with their sober rejection of him in pinched rule’s need to stay sober and so on and on and on and on and on.


I think, like the commentator hasman above, that a distinction needs to be drawn between the differing rhetorics of the poetry and of the drama.

The dramatic language is actually almost totally comprehensible to modern audience—provided they’ve got any brains at all—and the fact that this isn’t clear is because of the terrible ‘Shakespearean’ acting style of sing-song ranting, which stresses the Shakespearean ‘music’ at the enormous expense of the sense.

An actor who actually inhabited the thought of Shakespeare’s sentences and used modern conversational tones—as a rare instance of this, Nicol Williamson’s filmed version of Hamlet is worthwhile—would perform the function that McWhorter wants a ‘modern translator’ for and would render the plays 99 percent transparent.

By on 05/21/09 at 03:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I really think the speech choices of the modern American actor play a large role in this; no stupid accents, please, and remember not to treat each line as an individual clause.  Beyond that, I don’t think the distance between Shakespeare’s dramatic language and our modern comprehension is really much further away than the distance our ears had to journey to understand Deadwood, which during the time it aired was the most popular non-Sopranos drama on HBO.

And frankly when people say that Shakespeare is hard to understand there’s a little snot in me that rears it’s ugly head.  I was a very precocious child who read a lot of stuff I wasn’t emotionally prepared to understand, but I read the bulk of Shakespeare in a giant leather-bound edition before the onset of adolescence and while I wasn’t mature enough as a person to appreciate it on an artistic/emotional level, I was mature enough as a brain to follow (and in some cases thoroughly enjoy!) the plots and some of the more obvious witticisms.  I probably understood as much of the wordplay in Shakespeare as I did when watching The Simpsons at the same age, which was no impediment to my enjoyment of either.  I honestly think people who claim to struggle to understand the literal words, unless they’re watching an inept actor, simply aren’t making the minimal effort necessary to go out to the art and meet it.  If you’re not paying attention, Joss Whedon’s dialogue can be confusing, too.

(Some people just don’t want to make the effort to go meet art, and I don’t have a problem with that, but there’s nothing deficient with the art.)

By on 05/21/09 at 05:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What Mark and Medrawt said. It’s the King James vs. NIV debate again, except I’m not convinced the layperson’s curiosity about Shakespeare is exclusively directed to the dramatics rather than the poetics, as is often the case with the Bible (where there’s really no replacing the KJV as far as poetics go, in this language anyhow). The “difficulty” of Shakespeare is more a matter of contextual fluency and personal maturity, and one of the great surprises of rediscovering him for the first time after high school - say, after a few years of college - is how easy the words are to follow.

Looking at Kent Richmond’s Macbeth sample and McWhorter’s article, I think there is a real risk that people walk away from a modern-English Shakespeare with no greater an appreciation of what the big deal is, anyway. The poetics are half the fun. But I suspect the common consumer’s appreciation of art is still very deeply rooted in the perception that “form” is a dispensable accessory to “content”, whatever that is. That’s more extreme than what McWhorter and Richmond are doing here, but it’s the attitude of their implied audience.

Simple question: would you buy your kids the large-print abridgment of Pride and Prejudice so they get some cultural literacy out of knowing the plot? Without some awareness of the context, would they be any more likely to care? No, and no? Then you’re not the target audience. Maybe some people are - who knows.

Now, that said, I would appreciate it if the constant stream of theatre-festival productions that outfit Shakespeare with modern settings, modern costumes, and so on would have the idiom to match. Then they could actually make a point about the relevance of the plays instead of being a postmodern Baz Luhrmann mash-up, where the frills of the production make the language sound out of place.

By Nicholas Tam on 05/21/09 at 08:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A few observations:

1.  My sophomores—15 and 16 year old girls—enjoyed the film of *Much Ado About Nothing*.

2.  My sophomores—see above—are currently reading the play and, while they clearly struggle with it, they get it fairly well when we read it together in class. 

3.  My juniors—16 and 17 year old girls—dug Shakespeare, and they pressed me not to remove *Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead* from next year’s syllabus.

By on 05/22/09 at 12:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The foremost writer in the English language is little more than a symbol in the actual thinking lives of most of us for the simple reason that we cannot understand what the man is saying...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!

I can only conclude that McWhorter is rather stupid, and has a lot of rather stupid friends. Yes, most people miss some of Shakespeare’s references and nuances. This is true of every form of art. If I read a novel set in Berlin, I’ll miss a lot of the details because I’ve never been to Berlin, so I don’t immediately know the significance of one character growing up near Gatow, say. If the author’s any good, of course, he’ll make it clear what the significance is by the way the character acts, and the way other people react to him. If I watch a film set in Australia, there are going to be bits of slang that I don’t know, but I’ll still be able to work out what’s going on.

Millions of people every year watch Shakespeare and understand what the man is saying. Just because you don’t understand every reference Polonius makes doesn’t mean you don’t understand what the character’s like, just as hasman says. It is ridiculous to say that people are sitting there thinking “‘And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry’? What? Laertes is going to be a farmer? Or a husband? It’s all so confusing! It has warped my fragile little mind! I thought he was going to be a student? ... Whoa! Swordfight!”

In conclusion, I see that the New Republic is maintaining the editorial standards we have all grown to know and love since 2001.

By on 05/22/09 at 05:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps McWhorter needs to see Shakespeare at the San Diego Old Globe instead of BAM; my parents and I head there every year to take in a play, and the audiences have always been extremely absorbed and responsive.

By Miriam on 05/22/09 at 10:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps we would do better to translate the various texts of our Founding Fathers into English? We certainly seem to be missing some of the original nuance, there.

Also, Pynchon. Could someone translate Pynchon into clear, modern English?

By Kip Manley on 05/22/09 at 11:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On Wednesday, my sophomores and I spent 45 minutes largely unpacking the following repartee from *Much Ado About Nothing*, 2.1:

Don Pedro: Come, lady, come; you have lost the heart of Signior Benedick.

Beatrice: Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for a single one: marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your Grace may well say I have lost it.

I’d love to see how this would be translated into modern English.  “No Fear Shakespeare,” which a few of my students use, garbles the passage in its plain language paraphrase.

The phrase “gave him use” is archaic, but it’s also delightfully ambiguous.  Literally, Beatrice is playing on her comparison between love and usury: Benedick gave her his heart, and Beatrice gave him “double heart” in return.  But it also suggests that she found a use for his heart, either by using him or by loving him.  The “double heart” could mean that Benedick gets both Beatrice’s heart and his own heart back for the lend of his heart, meaning that once Beatrice loved him back, he took his own heart back.  Or it could mean that she gave him twice as much love as interest on the loan of his love.  And then she shifts to gambling metaphors, in just the sort of shifting frames Stephen Booth describes in his work on the Sonnets.  Beatrice here suggests that “once before” he won “it” from her with false dice.  What is “it”?  His heart on loan?  Her heart?  So he deceived her and took his heart back; or he deceived her and took her heart with him? 

In the end, Shakespeare editors all, for the most part, modernize the spelling, much to the chagrin of other editors and critics.  With that in mind, I don’t see some sort of delicately translated Shakespeare as a problem.  Change “ere” to “before,” “discover” to “uncover” or “reveal,” etc.  But at any point, if the change reduces the possible range of interpretations, it must be stopped.

By on 05/23/09 at 05:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The difference between modern English and Shakespeare’s English is big enough that it’s just on the verge of being like reading a foreign language, and it does make a certain amount of sense to teach it that way. (And teach it the way you’ld do with Beowulf, or even Chaucer).

At high school level, it’s pretty common to set the students an exercize where they have to translate a particular passage from Shakespeare into modern English. (I don’t teach high school kids, but on a few occasions I’ve provided the worked example of this assignment for a friend who does).

By on 05/23/09 at 12:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, here’s a question I have, as somebody’s who’s decidedly not a scholar of Shakespeare or his contemporaries or the history and development of the English language; how removed is Shakespeare from our best guess of the conversational/everyday language of his day?  The “difficulty” of Shakespeare’s language, to me, has much more to do with the sort of things that make a complex current writer difficult - the density, wordplay, structure - than the difference between 1600 and 2000.  Maybe I’m wrong; one of the things (as a non-scholar) that’s always astonished me is that IIRC, contemporary accounts indicate that the plays were performed at a much quicker pace than they are today, and I struggle to imagine the audiences in the Globe actually comprehending in real time the same things that people find difficult about Shakespeare going by at 200 wpm.

By on 05/23/09 at 06:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, one aspect of the quicker pace is that they didn’t have to stop the action for scene changes because the Elizabethan theater didn’t make use of elaborate sets. They had gorgeous costumes and a prop or two, a table, two chairs, whatever, but no scenery. So, eliminate scene changes, and you cut a half-hour to an hour from the time without anyone having to speak faster.

Note also that the division of the plays into 5 acts and the specification of settings was done by 17th century editors. It wasn’t there in the oldest published texts.

By Bill Benzon on 05/23/09 at 07:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve got no principled objection to translations of Shakespeare into modern English. In fact, I once made a contemporary version of the first couple of acts of Macbeth myself, supposedly for the benefit of a nephew, but mostly out of my own curiosity. That said, I think that reading Shakespeare in its more or less original form has a special value these days, not in spite of but because of the extra effort it takes to understand a voice from the past. The 20 something students I meet in coffee bars read almost nothing that was not published in the last few years. It isn’t just they find Chaucer or Shakespeare alien: Hemingway might as well be Edmund Spenser. They are not only trapped on one story of the building: the story they inhabit has a very low ceiling. They do encounter some famous old names and faces during their occasional nights in the museum, but these images are flat and insubstantial, in part because they are denied their own voices. Well, maybe Shakespeare is too much. I guess I should be happy if high school kids still have to read Mark Twain in the original.

By Jim Harrison on 05/24/09 at 02:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"commenter, one hasman, observes....”

His name is Basman, not Hasman, Bill Henzon.


By on 05/27/09 at 06:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I posted a lojng reply to McWhorter’s replies to his first post, here:


By on 05/27/09 at 09:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll repost it here too. My aim is to keep the important discussion going.

“No one would expect modern English speakers to rise to the “challenge” of Beowulf (Old English) or Chaucer (Earlyish Middle). On the other hand, we figure that if the language of a Congreve play of 1700 is somewhat formal and dense at times for modern tastes, it is hardly unreasonable to expect people to just listen closely. Shakespeare is an intermediate case.”

I believe that McWhorter is confusing two separate issues.

The first issue is the one of language change. Some of the words Shakespeare used have undergone changes in meaning.

However, you can’t compare such changes to the language of Beowulf since here we are talking about two different languages.

Chaucer’s English while closer to modern English than to Old English is still almost a foreign language. To read him once has to learn the pronunciation system of the Middle English where the vowels are still pronounced in the continental way.

The A in April is closer to the A in Applethan to the A in Able.

With Chaucer than the difficulty is that the language sounds as if it were a foreign tongue.  Not so with Shakespeare.

However, there is a difficulty with Shakespeare which McWhorter didn’t address that is as important as is the question of syntax and word meaning. This is my second point.

Shakespeare is difficult because of the playful way he uses rhetoric and figures of speech.  Any translation of Shakespeare into a foreign language that is accurate like that of Pushkin or Pasternak in Russian will try to keep the same dialectical interplay of sound and meaning and reproduce the puns as well as the figures of speech.

No translation of Shakespeare into modern English will be able to avoid a similar challenge. All the parallel texts I have seen tend to flatten the language. They don’t make Shakespeare easier they falsify his meaning.

Moreover, the analogy with translations of Shakespeare into a foreign language can only go so far since those foreign speakers read him translation know that they are nor reading the original.

A Spanish translator of Shakespeare will want to make him sound like a 17th c Spanish poet. Make him sound like Gongora. Gongora is one of the most difficult poets in any language. (Gongorismo has come come to mean both baroque and very difficult verse.)


Ask any educated Spaniard what he or she thinks of “updating Gongora.”

Finally, I would compare Shakespeare’s conceptual difficulty to that of Proust. Proust can be difficult not because his language is difficulty but because of the figures of speech as well as the rhetorical stunts he uses in his prose.

It’s not the length of the Proustian sentence alone that’s the problem but the rhetoric he used, his negations and qualifications that you have to keep in mind while reading these long sentences.

There was recently an attempt to retranslate Proust into “easy English” by breaking up the sentences. To do so however one falsifies the original. The same would be true for Shakespeare.

Translate him into modern English and what you have is not Shakespeare but a poor imitation of the bard. It’s the difference between seeing animals in their natural habitat and seeing them being fed in a zoo.

Who needs to be forced fed tame Shakespeare?  What is the point?

And I haven’t even mentioned James Joyce. Do we want to dumb him down too?

By on 05/27/09 at 09:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Since my name has been mentioned in several posts, I feel it necessary to state clearly my involvement in the translation of Shakespeare’s plays and to correct some misunderstandings.

Inspired by an article I read by John McWhorter about 10 years ago, I have since translated five Shakespeare plays (King Lear, Macbeth, Much Ado, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night) into more contemporary English. You can see excerpts from each of these plays at http://www.fullmeasurepress.com.

My goal is to keep intact the verse structure and maintain the complexity of Shakespeare’s language. There is no dumbing down or “taming” as one writer put it. The translations are not intended to be easy reading and will certainly challenge most readers. Shakespeare was trying to be difficult (or at least his characters were), but he was not trying to be incomprehensible. I want the difficulty to remain but comprehension and enjoyment to increase.

Please don’t confuse my efforts with the side-by-side translations that are widely available. They are almost entirely prose paraphrases and tend to be a bit tone-deaf, with characters sounding too much alike. My translations hope to recreate the most remarkable language features of Shakespeare’s plays—the skilled use of blank verse, the catchy songs, the word play, the rhyming couplets that often close scenes, the complex syntax of Shakespeare’s rather “Faulknerian” prose.

As you read the excerpts, don’t be fooled into thinking comprehensibility means simplicity. And remember that some of the complexity of Shakespeare is an illusion created by centuries of language change. After four centuries, more than a little “linguistic grime” builds up. Keep in mind how surprised we are when Renaissance paintings are restored to their original state and those muted, sepia tones turn into celebrations of color. My translations want you to see the same colors that patrons saw when they crowded into theaters 400 years ago.

By Kent Richmond on 05/29/09 at 03:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is wrong on so many levels. What’s next? Shakespeare Ogden’s Basic English?

By Xavier Zambrano on 12/13/10 at 08:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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