And for thy name which is no part of thee/ Take all my selfe

John H. McWhorter has a characteristically readable article in the Wall Street Journal arguing for Shakespeare in translation:

Most educated people are uncomfortable admitting that Shakespeare's language often feels more medicinal than enlightening. We have been told since childhood that Shakespeare's words are "elevated" and that our job is to reach up to them, or that his language is "poetic," or that it takes British actors to get his meaning across.

But none of these rationalizations holds up. Much of Shakespeare goes over our heads because, even though we recognize the words, their meaning often has changed significantly over the past four centuries.

This isn't just a bolt of contrarianism out of the blue, incidentally; according to McWhorter, "[t]he Oregon Shakespeare Festival will announce next week that it has commissioned translations of all 39 of the Bard's plays into modern English, with the idea of having them ready to perform in three years."

McWhorter gives one example of what the result might look like, although it doesn't seem to be from the actual OSF project, and even its creator, "a teacher named Conrad Spoke," admits that it's really more of a light edit — a "10% translation," targeting the one-tenth of Shakespeare's verbiage that is liable to be misinterpreted by today's audiences (as quantified by Ben Crystal, apparently). So "hath" and "trumpet-tongued" stay in, but "faculties" gets updated to "authority".

This strikes me as a good idea overall. I agree with McWhorter that it's counterproductive to minimize the difficulties of Shakespeare for a contemporary reader, particularly when trying to introduce his work to schoolchildren. It's too easy for people to conclude that their inability to enjoy or even properly follow the text as-is is a personal failing, rather than an inevitable consequence of language change, and that they just aren't smart enough for Shakespeare. A world where even just 50% of high school graduates really got an updated version of Macbeth or Julius Caesar sounds a lot better to me than one where maybe 5% achieved the same level of understanding of the original, untouched text. I ain't going to authenticity-shame someone who would rather see a Shakespearean comedy with a lightly updated script that allows them to get the jokes.

Personally, I would not be interested in such texts or performances. I am as interested in what Shakespeare wrote as what he meant, you might say, although to be even more precise, I'm interested in what got printed at the time; I dislike even spelling and punctuation modernizations. But if Shakespeare appreciation bifurcated into "Shakespeare as literature" and "Shakespeare as exemplar of Early Modern English," like what has happened to the Greek and Latin classics, people like me would probably be much better served, because it would no longer be felt necessary for every edition of Shakespeare to please everybody from researchers to middle schoolers.

It's interesting to compare this with the situation in Japan. In terms of popular understanding, pretty much anything written before the Meiji Restoration (1868) or so as kobun, literally "old writing(s)." (Some people prefer to exclude the Edo period.) The bad side of this is that it can give people the impression that everything from the Man'yoshu through Noh plays to Bashō's travelogues were written in the "same language," which is not true. But the good side is that it clearly distinguishes contemporary Japanese from earlier forms. Everyone understands that you have to study the language that Bashō's work is written in to understand it; it's qualitatively different from the language of today, not just an "elevated form" of it, and a translation into contemporary Japanese is a completely unremarkable idea. None of this seems to have done any harm to the survival of the original.

Popularity factor: 18

Tim May:

"I agree with McWhorter that it's counterproductive to minimize the difficulties of Shakespeare for a contemporary reader": Does this say what you meant it to say? (& if so, am I misreading it somehow?)

For myself, when it comes to student texts I'm not sure there's a lot of difference between a lightly-translated version and one in the original text with good annotations-I'd prefer the latter, myself. What to do for a performance is a harder question.


Ah, I see the ambiguity! By "minimize" I meant "pretend that the differences are smaller than they actually are" rather than "actually make smaller". I think that it's a bad idea to imply to a 15-year-old that Shakespeare is basically in the same "olden-days English" class as Dickens or Faulkner and should be just as easily within their grasp as English speakers. I think in a lot of cases it's done with good intentions, emphasizing that Shakespeare wrote for a popular audience too, used lots of dirty jokes, etc. in order to make him seem approachable, but I think you should at least be clear that <em>no-one</em> today comes to Shakespeare having learned that troublesome 10% of his vocabulary as part of their native language, so there's no shame in needing help to learn it.


I suspect just footnoting a lot of the vocabulary would help. I get the impression that English popular editions of old books underfootnote, compared to say Russian, where every French phrase, for example (ubiquitous in 19th-century novels, and often obvious from context) will be translated in a footnote.


Hello! On the subject of quazi-Kobun, I'm working on a book that is all like "why use punctuation to end sentences when you can just use one at the end of the page" school of writing. Anyway here and there in the text there is a mark that looks like a 「 except the top bit is facing the other way. It looks like half of 「」 but there is only ever just one. I can't even figure out how to look up this "character" and was wondering if you could help me out?


F: I prefer footnotes myself too. Generally speaking I think you are right that editions of old texts tend not to footnote as heavily as they could, but in the specific case of Shakespeare most of the major individual-plau editions do a pretty good job. Single-volume Collected Works might be less thorough although I've only looked through a couple.

Eric: Are you sure it isn't just the vertical version of the opening quotation mark 「? In older texts it did tend to be used without a closing quote afterwards. Modern editions sometimes blur the boundaries by helpfully completing the set.


I understand both sides of this argument very well. It's good to know how words have changed over the centuries, and it improves your understanding of your own language usage. But it also limits the accessibility of the work.

I've had many conversations with Japanese intellectuals since coming to Tokyo and I'm inevitably disappointed to learn that they don't know the Tale of Genji very well at all. The reason, of course, is that there's a widespread understanding that it's a highly aesthetic work like Shakespeare, yet it's so difficult to read in the original. The barrier is very high.


Yeah i had considered that as a possibility but was curious if it could also be used for emphasis as i found a lone 「 at almost the end of a sentence.


Can you show me an example, Eric?

Avery: Yeah, it's ironic that the Genji Monogatari is in practice much more accessible to English speakers -- there's no shame for us in reading a translation, while there is as you say a sense that Japanese people who REALLY care about their native literature should read it in the original, which tends to get put off as a project for another day. (Although, exception that proves the rule, I've found that many women in their 20s and 30s are quite knowledgable about the story and its themes because they read the manga _Asaki Yume Mishi_)


" I get the impression that English popular editions of old books underfootnote, compared to say Russian, where every French phrase, for example (ubiquitous in 19th-century novels, and often obvious from context) will be translated in a footnote."

Yes, but it's *only* a matter of translating the foreign phrases; they very often don't bother telling you where they came from, or explaining references in general. I have often had occasion to be frustrated with the inadequacies of Russian footnotes; it's like they are following a very restricted mandate with manic thoroughness but not thinking about what the reader might actually want to know.


As for the Shakespeare issue: in my stern youth I would have insisted on the vital necessity of reading his actual words and cast scorn on the whole idea of "translating" him. Since then I have mellowed; for myself I want the original, but whatever gets more people reading him is a good thing, and presumably some of them will go on to read the original.

(Fun fact: I am currently one of the copyeditors on a new edition of Shakespeare!)


Nice! I hope you're planning to post about it once all the pre-publication embargoes and enchantments have worn off.


I wonder if it might not be a quotation mark, Eric, merely something that looks like it. I'm not sure what you&apost;re looking at, but critical editions of some of the kambun texts I look at sometimes use what looks like a lonely (but oversized) 」 in a line. This is to mark page boundaries (okay, sheet boundaries - noted in the "eyebrow" notes above) within a line. Is it a critical edition? If so, have you checked a 凡例? (If it was a critical edition and given to you without a 凡例 rude of them, quite.)

(If it&apost;s an Edo-period edition, I have no idea what they were thinking about a lot of that stuff. Sometimes that just leads to 生涯之遺恨也. On my part at least.

I realize with that 也 I didn't need a period afterwards (likewise if I had used another verb in the 終止形), but whatever.)


I emailed the offending page to Matt (how quaint, i man email and not LINE). Mr. 無名酒 for me such things lead more to 酒池肉林 with the meat forest being a Yakitori shop. And due to the fact that i pour over stuff with 也 all over the place i actually use it in daily speech. How can you say べからず without saying 也 afterwords...

By the way Mr. Avery I saw a beautiful reproduction/facsimile edition box set (3 feet long) of the Genji Monogatari at book off for 5000¥. not many takers it seems.


I dunno. On the one hand I grew up reading abridged, basically translated versions of authors as recent as Dickens and Melville--I think in a series called "Children's Illustrated Classics"?--and it was awesome. Critical, even. And of course it didn't bother me at all that they weren't "the real thing."

On the other hand, this doesn't seem quite on the same level. What he's supporting sounds more like what medieval copyists in Japan actually did, only more systematically and on a far vaster scale. A prose translation or even a modern verse translation I wouldn't bat an eye at, not even for use in high school, as long as the translators were credited up front. It's precisely the preservation of the "haths" alongside invisible modern edits that strikes me as ill-conceived, for so many reasons. Go the full mile if you go an inch, I say.


"Junior Classics Illustrated" comic books also accounted for a fair portion of my childhood familiarity with such storytellers as Dickens, Dumas, and Melville. A bit like reading Cliff Notes with lots of pictures. I don't recall that Shakespeare plays ever appeared in that format, but don't know why they shouldn't.


Amazon has a long list of Classics Illustrated comics, many now in Kindle editions (with "panel-zoom") and a few in audio format. I didn't find any by Melville or Dickens, but did find several by Hawthorne and Stevenson.


Eric, when I think "beautiful reproduction" of the Genji, I have to imagine 和書... but I don't think those are sold at Book-Off. Regardless, I would like to see any nice reproduction. I'll have to keep my eyes on the classics shelves.


For the "faculties"-words, perhaps something more immediate and quicker to use than footnotes. We could take a note from certain popular editions of Japanese classics and use glosses. It's not like glosses are foreign to Europe (e.g. the Glosas Emilianenses). You could just print "authority" in different type above "faculties" (perhaps in italics, and a different color if we're begin lavish).

Aime la vérité, mais pardonne à l'erreur

LU d'R
Mail d'E

All fields optional. E-mail address will never be displayed, resold, etc. -- it's just a quick way to give me your e-mail address along with your comment, if you should feel the need. URL will be published, though, so don't enter it if it's a secret. You can use <a href>, but most other tags will be filtered out. (I'll fix it in post-production for you if it seems necessary.)