Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Shakespeare in translation?

I learned a Shakespearean word twenty years ago or so, one that’s stuck with me. I was watching The MacNeill/Lehrer News Hour and Jim Lehrer introduced a gray-haired academic who had gingerly produced a slightly modernized version of Shakespeare. He had switched out some words that we just don’t use anymore with words that one might find familiar. Naturally this sacrilege called up storms of protest. In general I’m not a one for the bowdlerized or condensed or abridged version. Give me what the author wrote. I trust the author. So I was suspicious of the academic. On the other hand, I was no fan of Shakespeare at the time and the fardel of forcing myself down the Shake’s page was not one I looked forward to bearing. Which is maybe the reason that’s the word I remember: fardel. It means burden or trouble. The academic had switched out fardels for troubles, and that, it seemed to me, was not a bad deal. Still, once in awhile, just to be cheeky, when it comes time to say troubles, I use fardels instead.

I found a translation on the web of the famous bit in MacBeth where the old boy imagines a bloody dagger. Here is the original, authentic, uncorrupted, pure Shake:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o' the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There's no such thing:
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes. Now o'er the one halfworld
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain'd sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate's offerings, and wither'd murder,
Alarum'd by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace.
With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives:
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.

Got that? Now here is Kent Richmond’s version:

Is this a dagger that I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Here, let me clutch you.
I do not have you, yet I see you still.
Are you not, fatal vision, evident
To touch as well as sight? Or are you but
A dagger in my mind, a false illusion,
Emerging from an overheated brain?
And yet this form looks just as tangible
this one I now draw. [draws his dagger]
You guide me down the path that I was going
And are the instrument I was to use.
My eyes are either fools or worth more than
My other senses. I can see you still,
And on the blade and hilt are clots of blood,
Which were not there before.—There’s no such thing.
It is this bloody business which has done
This to my eyes. Across the world’s dark half,
Nature seems dead, encased in sleep, deceived
By wicked dreams. The sorcerer’s goddess Hecate
Receives the witches’ offering, and gaunt Murder,
Alerted by his sentinel, the wolf,
Its howl his timepiece, at a stealthy pace,
Moves ghostlike, with a rapist’s wary stride,
In on his prey. O, firm and stable earth,
Don’t hear my steps, or how they walk, for fear
These stones of yours will leak my whereabouts
And break the ghastly silence of this hour,
Which suits this deed. While I make threats, he lives.
Cold wind to cool hot deeds is all talk gives.

I don’t know about you but that middle bit in the superShake original where he goes on about “halfworld” and “Pale Hecate” and “wither’d murder” and “whose howl’s his watch” was a pretty puzzle that I’d as soon leave asparkle on someone else’s wrist. Richmond’s version gets some suspense going, moves the story forward. And, much as I like me a difficult poem, I don’t have to like it.

Frankly, whenever I hear how it is that Modern Poetry has forsaken its audience to toddle off into obscurity, how accessibility is so important if we’re going to bring the masses back to the poem (or, you know, sell a book or two), I’m put in mind of the difficulty of Shakespeare. Shakespeare the Divine. I can grok Modern Poetry but not turn of 17th Century English? Maybe so. (‘Course, I’m baffled, too, by the utterly conventional, stick-in-the-muds who proudly list Emily Dickinson among their favorites – Dickinson, one of the most mystifying of American poets.)

I read a lot of poetry in translation and I like the opportunity to read more than one translator’s take on the same poem. (One can read Sappho’s oeuvre via three or four different translators in just an evening.) It wouldn’t hurt to have three or four Shakespeares in contemporary translation. But maybe there are already. It’s not like I’ve been paying attention.

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