When I told my friends I was working on a translation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in January 2019, they were genuinely flabbergasted — either because they thought the task is too demanding or because the play has already had great Hungarian translations. But it was only after a few seconds of dramatic pause that I added: yes, but I’m translating it back to English.
If you decide to stage Hamlet in Hungary today, it is almost inevitable to use Ádám Nádasdy’s contemporary translation (1999). The “classical” translation of the great 19th century Hungarian poet János Arany is still the channel through which students encounter the tragedy in the classroom. But, if a nation is unlucky enough not to have Shakespeare as her own, it can at least retranslate the Bard whenever it is convenient, to meet the standards of the contemporary language. Thus, among many other theatre companies in Hungary, the Örkény István Theatre of Budapest had also been playing its Hamlet for more than five years in Nádasdy’s translation, directed by László Bagossy, when they approached me to do the English surtitles for foreign spectators of their production.
I had earlier directed and played Hamlet using the Nádasdy translation in a university production. At the same time, I started teaching Shakespeare in a high school in Budapest. This led to a split state of mind because the curriculum requires the use of the 19th century translation but you know the whole play by heart in the 21st century version. Yet, it also led to a special exploration of the play as I recited some monologues in the modern translation while my students simultaneously read it in the other. This dichotomy is a special one — in one version you feel the classical Shakespeare (the Hungarian classical translation is still 260 years younger than the English original!), like a distant aesthetic object in a museum cabinet that you observe from a respectful distance. While in the other you meet the contemporary Shakespeare — the characters whose problems are much more relatable because they use a language closer to ours. Canon and passion are at play.
There were many challenges involved in creating English surtitles for Hamlet. First of all, surtitles for a theatre production is a paradoxical genre. It is an extra layer which distances the audience from the continuous present tense of the performance, like a Brechtian device because one has to be drawn out of looking at and identifying with the action on stage to read the text above. Therefore, I had to shorten the text as much as possible, though it is always a painful dilemma to decide which metaphors or lines to cut. And indeed, after I first saw the performance with my own surtitles I realised I had to abridge it even more severely. Furthermore, the primary audience for the surtitles are non-native speakers of English so the language should not only be present day English but a simplified one, which at the same time preserves its poetic nature and is recognizably Shakespearean. This also means that some famous quotes must be preserved and canon should take precedence over simplification. As Prof. Nádasdy suggested over a cup of coffee while we were discussing the task: one has to give the audience the extinct possessive personal pronoun in “Frailty thy name is woman”, otherwise they do not get their desired dose of Shakespeare. In addition, there are two source texts involved in the translation process: I was not only rewriting the English original but translating the Nádasdy text. If the latter used different syntax, I rather had to follow the Hungarian text to be in sync with the onstage action. I felt Hamlet was constantly whispering to me: “Suit […] the word to the action.”
Hamlet is not only Danish but English, and Hungarian or a citizen of every other nation. In the Örkény Theatre, the Prince makes an emphatic pause before marginally mentioning the country in the lines (and I use my modified text here) “one may smile and be a villain; // If not elsewhere, then here… In Denmark.” He sets the rules: ‘if you, dear members of the audience, can hear any country names, please take it only as a formality, and remember that we are not in some distant realm – we are here’. The personal dilemmas and the political troubles are, of course, universal but Hungarian audiences watch with a local eye and for them, the play resonates with their own situation. The whole production takes place in a huge stadium which is a strong political image at first but then it leaves that role behind and becomes dramaturgically legitimized throughout. The Danish army is transformed into football hooligans cursing the Norwegians with offensive rhythms — perhaps the most demanding part of creating the surtitles was finding and rewriting rhyming English football chants. The Hungarian viewer can see the local tensions or impulses and envisions the missing green, the third colour in the Hungarian tricolour, as an addition to the red-and-white paint on the Danish faces. The disruptive behaviour of Polonius when he is rustling with candy sachets or answering a non-muted cell phone during the First Player’s speech is familiar to any of us who has been to the theatre before. The modern Hungarian translation has an important part in facilitating this identification and Shakespeare does not only become our contemporary on the stage but also our countryman.
In the production of the Örkény Theatre the text of Nádasdy is paired with a creative vision and excellent acting. It says a lot about the effect of the production that a high school class which I took to the performance told me afterwards that they enjoyed the play immensely but started becoming suspicious after a while, wondering when their enjoyment would suddenly evaporate and be replaced by the “real Shakespeare”. They took a while to realize that Shakespeare is not synonymous with distant, boring and slumberous philosophy but the “real Shakespeare” is actually wit, puzzles and action. The use of a contemporary language has an undeniable role in creating this effect, which made the surtitle job, balancing between preservation and innovation, even more adventurous.