What it Means: To Be
Notes from Translating Shakespeare
In a recent conversation, Alluvium editor Susie Gordon and I referenced a session I led at A Great Feast of Languages, an event hosted by the British Council, Globe Education, Writers’ Centre Norwich (WCN) and the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT) in cooperation with The Select Centre in Singapore in September 2016. Susie ended our conversation with, “One of my favourite language-related conversations I’ve ever had with you involved a very lengthy discussion about the various possible ways of translating ‘To be or not to be.’ Shakespeare in translation has always fascinated me. Perhaps this is something we can talk about here next time.” I thought it might be a good idea to post some background notes at this site before Susie and I continue that conversation later this month.
The Singapore session of A Great Feast of Languages in 2016 included two translation groups, one translating into Chinese and another translating into Malay. Both groups translated two passages, one from Hamlet), and the other from Romeo and Juliet. These are the excerpts we focused on:
To be, or not to be, that is the question,
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.--Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember'd.
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this,
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this:
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in pray’r.
O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do,
They pray—grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purg’d.
Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urg’d!
Give me my sin again.
Kissing her again.
You kiss by th’ book.
There were really only three things we had to do to translate these excerpts: read them, carry them into a new culture, and rewrite them into a new language. Easy, right?
Actually, none of the three things was easy. Each part of the process took a great deal of thought and consideration.
I led the Chinese group in their work translating the soliloquy from Hamlet. To begin, we spent a fair bit of time reading the text. We considered existing translations, especially since there are already some well-loved Chinese versions of Shakespeare’s work. I offered several versions of the first line, “To be, or not to be, that is the question,” which included these:
As we studied and compared these examples, we noted that there are several possible ways to interpret the phrase “to be.” Those two words make up the most commonly used verb in English, in its various forms, so it was interesting to note how difficult it is to pin down exactly what that verb means, particularly since the verb 是 in Chinese, which is the most literal translation of the verb “to be,” does not even come close to capturing “the question” in the original text.
We decided, then, to see if we could put this question aside and gain some insight from the context, trying to determine how the phrase should be understood from the elaboration of it that follows. What we quickly discovered was that each reader’s understanding of the original question raised in the first line of the excerpt determined how the rest of the soliloquy was read. For those who felt that “to be” was pointing to existence – whether it was better to have never been born at all – the rest of the soliloquy was read in that light. For those who felt it was more focused on the question of life vs. death and/or the (possibility of an) afterlife, the unraveling of that question that followed was interpreted quite differently. Interestingly, in English, both ideas are held simultaneously, but in Chinese, a choice has to be made almost immediately that will determine how the rest of the excerpt will play out.
Another interesting twist to the entire endeavour came about when we began rehearsing our translation with professional stage actors. No one in the group of translators into Mandarin had any real stage experience, so while our translation read fairly well to the eye, we found it lacking once the actors came to speak with us. At the same time, we found that their reading of the work we had produced brought new life to parts we had not considered before. The difference between the lived word and the silently-read word was mind-boggling. We spent more time editing after our meeting with the actors, and we finally came up with a version that I think everyone found quite pleasing. Two video clips are available at the British Council website. (Seeing and hearing the script read by two different actors was another interesting part of the exercise. But perhaps that is a topic for another time!) The Malay version provides another intriguing contrast. While I do not speak enough Malay to offer any real critique of it, it is interesting to me that the Malay very obviously has a certain rolling, rhythmic feel, eliciting a level of emotion even in one who has only the most basic Malay language skills.
I did not lead the group through the translation of the Romeo and Juliet passage, so I will not offer too much comment on that process. Most of what I would say was already raised in the conversation with Susie. There are videos of both the Mandarin and Malay versions of that excerpt available as well. In those, it is interesting to note that while the difficulties associated with the religious imagery in the excerpt were very different when translating into Malay from those faced when translating into Mandarin, there is at the same time a common feel to the more conservative/reserved representation of the scene than what one might see in a contemporary English language production of the play. It is very interesting to note the similarity in mood between the two, a shared cultural identity, perhaps, even across two of the different language/culture identities that make up Singapore’s demographic.
All in all, the experience of translating these passages was one of the most intense and exhilarating experiences I’ve had in any translation training programme. There is much to be explored in the various materials from the project available online today. I’m looking forward to a continued discussion later this month, and I hope you’ll continue to explore the material linked in this post. There is much there to be unpacked and considered for any literary translator, whether a beginner or someone more experienced.