I wasn’t always the Shakespeare-reading fiend I am now; my introduction to his plays was slow, and I didn’t really enjoy it until I took a class where we read a new play every two weeks. His language is old and complicated, and it felt like it required so much hard work to get something out of it that it didn’t feel worth it to read Shakespeare. So much of Shakespeare comes from wordplay and old idioms that are incomprehensible to the modern reader. Trying to read it in modern English can feel a bit like translation for a number of reasons. So how does one go about approximating Shakespeare in translation between languages? French, my studied language of choice, has not changed nearly as much as English has in the last 450 years, and the language structure is different enough to significantly change meter and rhyme schemes.
I looked at a copy of Hamlet translated into French in Special Collections, specifically at the scene (III.ii) in which Hamlet lays his head in Ophelia’s lap just before the play and makes a LOT of lewd puns. How well do puns and double meanings carry over? How would a translator even begin to do that job? Here is one part of that scene (just after he asks if he can put his head in her lap), in the original English and French:
HAMLET: Do you think I meant country matters?
OPHELIA: I think nothing, my lord.
HAMLET: That’s a fair thought to lie between maid’s legs.
OPHELIA: What is, my lord?
Hamlet is referring to oral sex, being highly inappropriate but not talking about sex on the primary level of meaning. Everyone present would likely have known exactly what he was getting at, but he never explicitly says it. It adds to the discomfort of the scene, and shows even more how much Hamlet has slipped out of his mother’s control.
Now in French (although please, remember: my French is imperfect!):
HAMLET: Pensez-vous donc que je voulusse, Do you thus think that I want,
comme les paysans grossiers, indécemment Like coarse peasants, to sit
m’asseoir sur vos genoux? indecently in your lap?
OPHÉLIA: Je ne pense rien, monseigneur. I don’t think anything, my lord.
HAMLET: C’est une riante image… (1) That is a laughable image…
OPHÉLIA: Quelle image, monseigneur? What image, my lord?
HAMLET: Rien. Nothing.
The crudeness of “That’s a fair thought to lie between maid’s legs” is impossible to express without being too obvious. The French text simply provides the English for that line. Each line seems wordier, making this scene a bit clunkier than it was before. I am always impressed by translators, and I think it’s important that people from all countries be able to enjoy any work of literature they want, but is it still the same Shakespeare in another language?
The thing is, as unfortunate as it is that French can’t really approximate some of these great lines nor the Elizabethan language style, there’ a good chance that these great lines aren’t quite right in English either. There is no such thing as a Shakespeare manuscript; the earliest copies of the plays, Quartos and Folios, often differ so much from each other that they are almost different plays. We are guessing at what the original Shakespeare is. So while the French is missing something central, chances are that I am also missing something big in the original language.