…this is a question?
Appropriately enough, on Shakespeare’s birth/death-day (yes, they were the same, how sucky is that?), a new controversy has come to my attention. Not content with questioning whether the man himself actually wrote the plays, now some are questioning if we should keep putting on the plays the way he wrote them.
I’m not talking about abridged versions; these plays are long, and I will be the first to admit that I would have a hard time sitting through an entire one in many cases. No, I’m talking about changing the language–and when I say changing the language, I mean just that: They want to update Shakespeare. You know, because it’s “too hard” to read him or understand him these days.
Well, guess what. It’s Shakespeare! I’ve seen some of the proposed “translations,” and they are, to be charitable, not Shakespeare. The entire reason entire college courses–required college courses–are devoted to the man’s works are because they are overwhelmingly considered the greatest words ever set down in English. So heck, let’s just change them.
The argument is made that Shakespeare is translated into other languages, and does just fine. This may be true, but isn’t the dream of every reader of a translated great work to be able to read it in the original language? If you love Don Quixote, don’t you want to read it in Spanish?
And this isn’t a question of whether you can read the original language, it’s a question of whether you will bother to try. The plays are written in English, albeit old-fashioned. It takes extra work, but you can understand it if you try. Remember the movement to change the language in Huck Finn because Twain used the n-word? (I wrote about it here.) You can’t change the text simply because society changes. Literature is a window into the past. Taking out the stained glass won’t let you see any more clearly.
And if we’re going to change the plays, well, we’d better change the sonnets, too. Good luck with that.
If you change Shakespeare, who’s next? Milton? Pope? Cervantes? Dorothy Parker? Me? I sure don’t belong in that group, but I pick and choose my words carefully. If you don’t like them, you don’t have to read them, but you sure as heck don’t have the right to translate them into English.