Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Translating Shakespeare

In the Guardian books blog, Nicholas Lezard rants and rages against a "translation" of Shakespeare into yoofspeak. Most people have responded by saying, basically, "Get a life, mate." And I have to agree.

But strangely, I often find that literary translators take a similarly elitist view. I've mentioned the very talented Shakespeare translator Frank Günther before. He's another one who is seemingly only willing to accept the relevancy of translations between one national/ethnic/whatever language and another, but not between sociolects or the like. I recall his very memorable and entertaining inaugural speech as FU Guest Professor for the Poetics of Translation. He put on a great show, staging a dialogue between himself and Schlegel and reading some of his excellent solutions to Shakespeare's trickiest tongue-twisters and puns. But he played other types of Shakespeare translations for laughs, including Feridun Zaimoglu's gangsta versions (without naming the translator!) and modern "Shakespeare for Dummies" versions in English.

In fact, if you ask me, all the different types of translations are relevant - perhaps not for everyone, but at least for a couple of "niche markets". So while the Germans have the "classic" Schlegel-Tieck translations of Shakespeare for ringing all the right bells in readers' collective memory, they also have Günther's more modern and less gappy versions for getting the rhyme and the rhythm across, plus others that stick to what's on the page a little more closely. And they have Zaimoglu's Romeo and Juliet and Othello for those times you just want to hear lots of swearing.

Sadly, I think it's in the nature of translators' work that we tend to be less daring than writers, let's say. A rather long list of gender components in German bachelor's and master's degrees puts it like this:

Male and female translators and interpreters act at the interface of various linguistic and cultural systems. They are therefore particularly important as agents, who both influence language use and enjoy a certain freedom within it. At the same time, their professional role within the discourse system encourages them particularly strongly to behave in a conventional manner.

We often ask ourselves not "how would I say this in my language?" but "how do we say this in our language?" - meaning that we choose phrases and words that are firmly established. So many - but of course not all - German translators tend to be quite conservative about using sometimes unwieldy gender-neutral terms. And the VdÜ seems to do a roaring trade in Bastian Sick's humorous prescriptive grammar books at its annual get-togethers (think Eats, Shoots and Leaves in German).

Of course, our "professional role within the discourse system" means we are expected to uphold the linguistic status quo rather than create neologisms and break in new grammars. And part of our work is the business of imitation, by the very definition of translation. But still. Sometimes I'd like to just go the whole hog and write "dese spirits I done cited, man, I jus can't get dem to fuck off again."

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