What Multilingual Shakespeare Can Teach Us

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


What Multilingual Shakespeare Can Teach Us?

By Alexa Alice Joubin, George Washington University

The World Shakespeare Festival in 2012 is arguably one of the most important and ambitious festivals since David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee. Reading Shakespeare in multilingual and multimedia contexts is important. Consider for example these lines from Macbeth

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

The repetition of ‘incarnadine’ and ‘red’ is serendipitous, but the deliberate alternation between the Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) and the Latinate words suggests two pathways to and two perspectives on the world. Act 1 Scene 3 of Othello offers another interesting instance (which is the focus of Tom Cheeseman’s www.delightedbeauty.org, a multilingual crowd-sourcing project):

If virtue no delighted beauty lack,
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.

Translations of these lines into different languages deal with the meanings of “fair” and “black” rather differently. Mikhail Lozinskij’s Russian translation says “Since honor is a source of light of virtue, / Then your son-in-law is light, and by no means black.” Christopher Martin Wieland and Ángel Luis Pujante used white in German and Spanish (respectively) to translate “fair,” while Victor Hugo chose “shining.” It’s eye opening to see how translation opens up the text in new ways.

Another fun item to consider: I was recently interviewed by BBC Radio and was asked to put together a collage of recitations of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech in different languages, drawn from actual performances. The vague, versatile, and “Swiss-knife” verb “to be” is as ambiguous in English as it is in many other languages. Sometimes it is translated as “to have” (but to have or not to have what!?), to do, to die, and so on.

Go to this page to listen to the speeches: http://globalshakespeares.org/bbc-radio-audio/

There you will find —

English [Gielgud Hamlet]
Arabic [Sobhi Hamlet]
Assamese (Indian dialect) [Hazarika Hamlet]
Brazilian Portuguese [Correa Hamlet]
Japanese [Kurita Hamlet]
Korean [Yohangza Hamlet]
Mandarin [Hamlet Unplugged]
Swedish [Lyth Hamlet]


To read more about the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

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Author:Alexa Alice Joubin

Alexa Alice Joubin teaches at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she is co-directing the Digital Humanities Institute. She chaired the MLA committee on the New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare and currently serves as the general performance editor of the Internet Shakespeare Editions and General Editor of the Shakespearean International Yearbook. Her co-edited book Shakespeare and the Ethics of Appropriation (Palgrave) explores the ethical questions of cultural imperialism, globalization, and cultural translation in literary, stage and screen appropriation of Shakespeare.

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