Dispatches | November 03, 2006

A package appeared in my mailbox yesterday.  Inside were five skinny paperback volumes and a sheet of publicity copy introducing me to “The Shakespeare Novels.”  Each book has a black-grounded cover with a neon banner across the front, on which is printed the title of one or another of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet and Othello.  The names of the publisher and the author of the “novels” are not all that relevant here (and so I won’t name them).  What concerns me is the project, which is a simultaneous translation of much of Shakespeare’s language into contemporary English, and a transposition of drama to novel. These are the plays in their entirety, but with “descriptive settings, characters vividly brought to life, and plots presented in imaginative detail.”  (You have to wonder which of Shakespeare’s major characters isn’t brought vividly to life in the original plays, and where his plots lack in imaginative detail).

To forestall any doubt one might feel about the value of the novelizations, the publicity copy provides reassurance that in them, Shakespeare’s language and art have been “preserved word-for-word in literary prose that is ‘translated’ and occasionally modernized (never simplified).” 

For what?  For why? Not that translation is a bad thing, when it allows us to read literature that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to read. There’s no point in listing here; we can all cite scores of world-literature classics that form part of a basic thinking-person’s enrichment and education.  And we’re all aware that no translation ever does justice to a masterpiece, either in terms of semantic precision or, more urgently, in terms of conveying its artistry.

The “Shakespeare Novels,” the publicity suggests, are for use in conjunction with the original plays, apparently as a sort of guilt-free substitute for study aids such as Cliffs Notes.  Okay, fine.  But given that the “novels” provide no critical notes or discussion, I’ve been having trouble figuring out what their unique purpose might be.  Is it so students and inexperienced readers can understand Shakespeare’s sixteenth-century English?  I pulled out my old Riverside Shakespeare, confirmed that my memory was correct regarding its liberal notes and glosses, and concluded that there’s plenty of high-caliber help already available for the Shakespeare-reading novice.  Help that doesn’t include passages like this exchange between Iago and Roderigo: “‘. . . the fact is,’ Iago says with a wily sneer, “‘I have a way to make working for him [Othello] work for me.’ Intrigued, Roderigo listens up.”

Literature, both great and ordinary, has always been plagued by parasites, whether in the form of bad literary criticism, superfluous biographies, abridgements or condensed versions and the now-emerging phenomenon of fan fiction. Unnecessary translations or cross-genre transpositions, well-intentioned though they may be, are just another sort of parasite that obscures (to mix a metaphor here) the gem they’re leeching off of.

I tested the Shakespeare novels with a couple of famous scenes to see how well they made the real thing shine.  For me, they didn’t.  Remember Hamlet’s poignant dying request to Horatio?  (“If thou didst ever hold me in they heart,/Absent thee from felicity a while,/And in this harsh world draw they breath in pain/To tell my story.”) 

In Shakespearenovel-speak it translates like this:  “If ever you had the least affection for me-put aside your own happiness for awhile and in these cruel times, painful though it may be, see that my story gets told.”  Well, it’s kinda the same . . . isn’t it?

God grant us the integrity to respect the things that don’t need translating, the ability to translate the ones that do-and the wisdom to know the difference!