Year of Shakespeare: In Praise of Translation

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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.


In Praise of Translation: On Watching Shakespeare in a Foreign Language

By Margherita Laera, Queen Mary University of London

You might not agree with me but, in recent years, I believe that some of the best Shakespeare productions seen in the UK have been those visiting from abroad.[1] I am thinking specifically of Ivo Van Hove’s Roman Tragedies (2007) in Dutch, Thomas Osthermeier’s Hamlet (2011) in German, Cheek by Jowl’s The Tempest (2011) in Russian and Romeo Castellucci’s Giulio Cesare (1997) in Italian. At the Globe to Globe Festival, the delightful Two Gentlemen of Verona (2012), performed in Shona by the multicultural company Two Gents Productions, confirmed this trend, although of course it had been staged in English before. Of those productions that never made it to Britain, I remember Eimuntas Nekrosius’ Otelas (2001) and Macbetas (2000) at Milan’s Piccolo Teatro, performed in Lithuanian with Italian supertitles, as one of the most engrossing theatre experiences in my life. In Macbetas, the Witches’ bodies, gestures and movements were addictive and I constantly longed for them to return when they were not onstage. In Otellas, the silences that Nekrosius had carved for himself within the dramaturgy – such as when, having just strangled Desdemona, a distressed Othello walked about onstage rearranging pot plants in the space, without uttering a single word for interminable minutes – rank among my most cherished theatrical memories.

As Globe to Globe audiences will have found out by now, there is something about the possibilities offered by translation, that any ‘original’ – not only Shakespeare – almost fails convey. As Walter Benjamin argued in his essay The Task of the Translator, translation is the measure of a work’s afterlife.[2] Every literary work is incomplete until it is translated, and it is only through translation that it can truly come to life. But, to my mind, the uncanny efficacy of watching Shakespeare in a language one does not understand speaks of the favourable impact of distance upon spectators. Watching theatre in a foreign language heightens the otherworldliness of the stage, pushing it further away from everyday reality. This enables a more immediate perception of the performance as other. But given Globe audiences’ presumed familiarity with Shakespeare, what is at stake at the Globe to Globe Festival is the recognition of the other as alien and familiar at the same time.

However, my taste for foreign language Shakespeare did not immunise me from frustration, at times, at not being able to understand the language spoken onstage. Like many English speakers, I have felt excluded by the laughter of fellow spectators who ‘got’ the jokes and were able to access the production on its own terms. I have felt embarrassed when, as a standing Yard spectator, I was addressed by an actor (Denton Chikura) in Shona, and could not respond appropriately. This unexpected sidelining of the dominant language of the global middle classes is productive, not least because it temporarily empowers so-called ‘minority’ language speakers and communities. Of course, there are the side-titles, which offer brief but reassuring insights into the plot. But the Globe’s choice to provide scene summaries, rather than full side-titles, has been puzzling me since the beginning of the Festival with the Maori Troilus and Cressida. Is this really the best way to support audiences in their interpretive labour?

At first, I thought scene summaries were a fabulous idea, in that they channelled my attention onto the performance itself, the bodies, gestures and movements, alongside intonation, pitch and emphasis of the spoken word. They did not require that I switch my attention from screen to stage (Artistic Director Tom Bird has called this the ‘Wimbledon effect’ during a recent talk), allowing a more focused type of contemplation. On the other hand, the summaries provided by each company have proved decidedly insufficient for those who are not so familiar with the plays, and have prompted many spectators to bring along their own original English-language scripts. So much are audiences craving for more guidance, that some decided to split their attention between the book and the stage, which is arguably even more arduous.

During the pre-production period, three options must have been considered by the Festival organisers: 1) no subtitles, 2) subtitles, and 3) scene summaries. Moreover, within option 2, a further two options are available: a) to use Shakespeare’s own words, or b) to back-translate the foreign scripts into English. I realise that scene descriptions are much more affordable and manageable than commissioning back-translations, and that they equally make more sense than using the original text to subtitle the translation. But I must confess that, although I have enjoyed the challenge of scene summaries, my preference would have been option 2b.

Indeed, let us think for a moment about what might have happened, had we been offered Shakespeare plays in back-translation on the side-screens of Globe to Globe productions. A world of wonderful paradoxes and contradictions might have emerged, one that might have unsettled Shakespeare connoisseurs and English-speaking spectators alike. Might ‘unfaithful’ and ‘foreignising’ versions of Shakespeare have diminished, even ridiculed the Bard – a sort of lèse majesté? On the contrary, I think I would have taken a great pleasure had I been given the opportunity to experience such contradictions, the inevitable mismatches created by translation and the opportunities for new meaning offered by de- and re-contextualisation.

Imagine, for instance, a subtitle going: “Being or not being, that is here the problem”; or “Oh Romeo, Romeo, why are you Romeo?”. This would have made me more immediately aware of how Shakespeare ‘makes sense’ in other languages, for instance, through mechanisms of lexical and syntactical adjustment. This strategy would have revealed that translation is never transparent, that it can never efface itself, and that the target text never says exactly the same thing. Re-marking the act of translation might have further reminded us that it is not only about losses, but primarily about gains.

[1] And here is someone who agrees with me: Bridget Escolme, ‘Does Shakespeare Work Better outside Britain?’, Guardian Theatre Blog, 19 May 2012, <> [accessed 24 May 2012].

[2] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator’, in Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1969), pp. 69-82.

What do you think about Shakespeare in translation? Please add your thoughts to the discussion thread below!


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



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Author:Margherita Laera

Margherita Laera is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Drama Department at Queen Mary, University of London. She is the author of Reaching Athens: Community, Democracy and Other Mythologies in Adaptations of Greek Tragedy (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012) and the Convenor of the Leverhulme Olympic Talks on Theatre and Adaptation at Queen Mary ( and Twitter: @margheritalaera
  • Erin Sullivan

    Thanks for initiating this discussion, Margherita, and thanks for adding to it, rt. The question of surtitles/subtitles/sidetitles is one that I’ve been thinking about since the Globe to Globe Festival started. Until this experience I’ve never watched something in a foreign language without some sort of line by line translation, and I’ve been trying to decide what system I think is best. It’s difficult because there are benefits and drawbacks to each scenario, as you both suggest. A few years ago I saw Luk Perceval’s Othello in German at the RSC and found the production, and specifically the translation, really fascinating. The English sidetitles were ‘back translated’ and allowed the non-German speaking audience the change to experience how radical (and provocative) the translation/adaptation was. There were many technical problems with the sidetitles – they often didn’t come at quite the right time, and at least once they effectively had to be rewound in order to get them back in sync with the scene. Even so, they formed an important part of my experience that night, allowing me a little window into the linguistic world of the play.

    On the other hand, I’ve really appreciated how the lack of sidetitles in the Globe productions has forced me to pay more attention to aspects of performance that I might sometimes ignore if I were busy reading the line by line sidetitles – or even, indeed, if I understood the language on my own. At the Globe I’ve found myself focusing much more on the movement and engagement coming from the actor, as well as the way in which the audience is responding (a special feature of the Globe, where there are so many people standing and also where the natural light – and, at night, the way they use artificial light – draws your attention to the people watching as well as to the people playing). I think omitting sidetitles would work less well for me in a more traditionally lit theatre (in which the audience is more or less obscured in darkness), and I’ve also found the lack of them in the Globe recordings for The Space more problematic than I did at the live performance. In these recordings the audience is largely omitted (for understandable reasons!) and the focus is very strongly on the actors – sometimes in tight close up. When I was watching the Russian Measure I really appreciated the ability to see roughly which lines were cut – for instance the very earnest and childlike Isabella in this production *not* saying, according to the subtitles, ‘The impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies’, in her dialogue with Angelo – a line that some critics have interpreted as sexually provocative. Here the subtitles were in Shakespeare’s English so this of course raises further questions about the way in which language – spoken, written, and summarized – is mediating different audience members’ experiences of the production.

    In the end, I suppose that the argument for or against surtitles/subtitles/sidetitles is different for each production, depending on the mode of viewing, the stage dynamics used, the nature of the translation, and the style of the acting and performance. In an ideal world we would perhaps be able to watch them with and without translations on different sittings (and to some extent The Space helps facilitate this wish) – but then of course there’s the issue of time. How many people want to/can watch a production multiple times, other than those who make it their work (academics, critics, translators, etc.)? I guess I haven’t really come to a decision myself about my preferred solution but I have appreciated the way the Festival has made me think more about the question.

  • rt

    Here’s a
    non-academic response. I hope it makes some sense.


    You don’t mention
    the importance of tone in foreign languages in Globe to Globe. Tone conveys a
    lot of meaning in itself. The Japanese Coriolanus was the most extreme
    production I’ve seen so far, the one that demanded most from its London
    audience to accept it on its own terms; the one where the content of the
    surtitles, superficially at least, differed most from the action as presented
    on the stage. Presumably the surtitles (your side-titles is more accurate) are
    provided in conjunction with each performing group. While the surtitles in
    Coriolanus told us about battles, we watched playing with baguettes and a lot
    strange if very structured movement. They meant the silliness, childishness,
    strangeness in the production to be taken seriously.


    There were a lot
    of extremes of tones in Coriolanus. Caius Martius’s first speech to the people
    was a very long monotone oration, delivered completely without feeling and at
    very rapid speed into empty space. He did it with a basket on his head,
    presumably tatami. Japanese is a good language to do this in. It’s flat; words
    don’t have stress. It was deliberately almost opaque. For me, it brought out
    the empty platitudes of a lot of political oration. Caius didn’t care for the
    people. Aware of the artificiality of the situation, he made no attempt to hide
    his contempt for them and just got through the words as quickly as possible. He
    showed it through tone. Clever – it wasn’t ridiculous. Alan Clark once did a
    similar sort of thing in Parliament. He delivered a bill or set of regulations
    (I can’t remember exactly) in a silly, mocking voice deliberately undermining
    the ostensible seriousness of the occasion. He knew the situation was
    artificial, ultimately unnecessary (he was just reading out a document) and
    made no attempt to hide his contempt for it. It caused a big fuss. There’s
    political drama in self-conscious silliness. Power has its ridiculous side. I
    wasn’t fussed about not being able to understand the language. I got enough out
    of the tones, simplicity, stillness and movement in the production to make it
    very worthwhile.


    Globe to Globe is
    playing to two sets of audiences simultaneously: those who understand the words
    and those who don’t. Expatriate communities in London are going to their own
    productions and not to any others. The Globe calls it primarily a festival of
    language. For me, it isn’t. It’s a festival about a vast range of approaches to
    story-telling, using Shakespeare as a base, from different parts of the world.
    The visual is more important. For me the plays that succeed are the visually
    imaginative productions. As You Like It (dazzling), Titus Andronicus, Henry VI
    Part 1, Two Gents, 12th Night, Dream, King John, Coriolanus… I don’t mind if
    they don’t delve deeply into the meanings of words – I wouldn’t understand it
    anyway. I don’t need them to conform to pre-conceived notions of a play. I
    prefer it when companies get a shift on and put a coherent visual stamp on a
    play and enhance this through tone, music, movement, costume and dance – eg the
    vastly simplified but gorgeous-to-watch-and-listen-to folk tale in the Bangla
    Tempest. In another world, the Serbian Henry VI-1 coherently and brilliantly
    put the constant failures of the United Nations centre-stage. Now, that was
    powerful. It showed enormous visual imagination, and I didn’t need language to
    get it. It lasted under 2 hours.


    The ones that
    don’t work for me are mainly those that show too much reverence for
    Shakespeare’s spoken word at the expense of the visual, the theatrical.
    A&C, Henry VI Part 2, the Shrew were just too lifeless, too unimaginative, too
    traditional for me. The Shrew brought around 8 musicians from Pakistan. They
    barely played a note. Each time a dance started, it finished. I don’t want to
    see men standing in a semi-circle delivering lines.


    Companies have to
    condense Shakespeare (there’s a theoretical 2 hour playing-time limit, ignored
    in the 3-hour Shrew and Cymbeline), so bringing along the original text can
    only lead to frustration and ignoring the performance on stage. And using
    Shakespeare’s own words in side-titles would be impractical, too complex and
    probably inappropriate. You answer your own question on the use of
    scene-summaries: the Wimbledon effect. The Globe doesn’t want you to go to the
    Globe to read. It wants you to watch as much as possible. In practice,
    side-titles are regularly jumbled up anyway and packed with typos but that’s
    not the point here. Back-translation in Coriolanus would have resulted in the
    screens quickly blowing up (see above). The contradiction, the point is maybe
    that’s it’s a festival about language and it isn’t a festival about language?


    I don’t really
    feel excluded from the foreign-language jokes. I don’t expect to understand
    them anyway and don’t go for that. Many of them are probably not worth
    listening to anyway, and if they’re not visually-supported they should have
    been! Have a response ready in case you are directly addressed. Je pige que
    dalle, mon vieux. In the Two Gents, they won’t have said anything important to
    you. When they needed a response, they made sure they addressed the right person
    eg when they needed someone to take his shoe off. He did as he was told and,
    like you, was embarrassed and said nothing either. It’s not just a question of
    comprehension. I find more fun in how mothers in the audience react vocally and
    positively to the moral bits in their language. You wouldn’t get that at the
    National. (Sorry for stereotyping.) The Koreans proved masters at ingratiating
    themselves with their audience, even pandering. Their occasional use of English
    was just the icing on top of their enormously skilful performing cake. The
    audience reacts so exaggeratedly to the occasional English words partly because
    of the sheer joy of understanding a bit of language. I can see your point about
    translating Sein oder nicht sein das ist hier die Frage back into English and
    coming up with something a bit different from Shakespeare, but, again, is there
    time to read? And did you come to read? And what about the really complicated
    Shakespearean language, the words no one understands, the untranslatable puns?
    Imagine the expense. Would any potential gain be worth it? I’m not convinced.
    You can’t have everything. There’s no time to savour written language here. I’d
    have preferred the Globe to have provided more advance information on the
    productions in the festival. Almost all the production images in the brochure
    are misleading, the text is too generic and simplistic and sometimes
    misleading, and you are left with almost no idea what you’re going to see. Now
    that’s where they could have used language more usefully.


    You talk about
    distance and otherworldliness. It can be much simpler that you suggest. I like
    to see those plays from countries I’ve visited (Korea, Japan, India…). The
    Korean Dream wasn’t otherworldly to me. I recognised it. It was Korea. And this
    is the last point: distance can quickly become proximity. It’s just variety.
    And what variety we have had. It has been like a wander around the world, and
    like all travel, very, very tiring. You can’t expect to understand everything but,
    with a bit of guidance, you can generally understand enough.

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