In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Peter Quince sees Bottom turned into an ass-headed figure, he cries in horror: “Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee. Thou art translated!”
Other characters in the play use the verb in similar ways to refer to a broad range of altered states. Helena hopes to be “translated” into Hermia, her childhood friend and rival, while a love potion transforms characters that come in contact with it.
Appropriately enough, translation has come to define Shakespeare’s legacy. Since the 16th century, his plays and sonnets have been translated and performed all over the world in an ever-growing number of languages, dialects and styles. One of the most translated secular authors in the world, more than four billion copies of his works have been sold.
Why did Shakespeare – and not his contemporaries like Christopher Marlowe or Thomas Kyd – “go viral?”
A closer look reveals that his narratives contain qualities that are easily adaptable to different cultures and eras, and have given his works broad appeal outside his native England. It helps explain why, even before mass communication, Shakespeare was a hit with readers ranging from Soviet communists, to German Romanticists like Goethe.
Plays depict a brave new world
Shakespeare’s global popularity is paralleled by the diverse settings of his plays.
As English audiences were becoming more attuned to the world beyond their own, Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies and romances were often set in locales outside of England, Scotland and Wales – places like Athens, Elsinore (Denmark), Illyria, Troy, Cyprus, Cairo, Tunis, Bohemia, Verona and Venice. And many of his characters hail from various parts of the world, whether it’s The Merchant of Venice’s Prince of Morocco or the Indian pageboy from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
While Shakespeare’s plays were initially performed in England and Europe, by the end of the playwright’s life they’d been transported to corners of the globe that would have seemed remote from the perspective of a 17th-century Englishman. In 1619, for example, Hamlet was performed in colonial Indonesia.
Translations of Shakespeare’s Complete Works began emerging in the 18th century. With time, to have a Shakespearean play translated into a country’s native language became an honor. When his translation of Hamlet was published in 1877, Portugal’s King Luis I was widely praised for “giving to the Portuguese Nation their first translation of Shakespeare.”
Today, several editions of Shakespeare exist in hundreds of languages. And a number of the translators are prominent figures in the world of letters in and beyond their own cultures: August Wilhelm von Schlegel and Paul Celan (Germany), Voltaire (France), Tsubouchi Shōyō (Japan), Rabindranath Tagore (India) and Wole Soyinka (Nigeria).
Literary translation can modernize the original text, making it culturally relevant to a specific time and place.
For this reason, Shakespeare in translation can appear as a contemporary of the German Romantics, a spokesperson for the proletarian heroes of the Soviet Union or required reading for communists.
Flix Translation, translation service, translation agency.