Share this page

Shakespeare in Esperanto

Today is Zamenhof Day, also known as Esperanto Day. On this day Esperantists celebrate Zamenhof's birthday by buying an additional Esperanto book to mark the occasion. The SBT Library has significant holdings of Esperanto translations, which Anna Kerr tells us about in her blog below.

Anna Kerr

10 out of the 21 Esperanto translations in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s library collection were ‘Presented by the British Esperanto Association on 14th January 1956’, according to the inscriptions written inside. These volumes were printed from 1906 to 1948, and chronicle not only the history of British Esperantists, but also show the role Shakespeare has played in the development of the Esperanto language throughout the twentieth century.

Inscription inside a translation in Esperanto
Inscription inside a translation in Esperanto

For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘Esperanto’ is a constructed language developed by L.L. Zamenhof, a Polish-Jewish doctor, throughout the 1870s and 1880s. Zamenhof published his first book detailing the language in 1887 under the pseudonym ‘Doktoro Esperanto’; thus the name. (The meaning of ‘Esperanto’, in Zamenhof’s language, is ‘One who hopes’).

Zamenhof’s hope, in the creation of Esperanto, was to create a universal second language which would, as he stated, ‘overcome the natural indifference of mankind’. Zamenhof grew up in the Polish town of Bialystock, then under control of the Russian empire, where a myriad of different peoples lived side by side; Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews, and Lithuanians. Zamenhof identified this early experience as one of his greatest inspirations for constructing the language, as he saw language barriers as being one of the chief causes of division among mankind.

Early literary translations played an important role in the development and promotion of the Esperanto language, as it helped to test its limitations and proved its validity. Shakespeare, in particular, has always presented a fitting challenge for Esperanto translations, both because of his dominating presence in European literary traditions and the complexity of his prose. Zamenhof himself published a translation of Hamlet into Esperanto in 1894, the 1909 edition of which the British Esperanto Association donated to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust library.

Group photo Esperanto translations
A selection of Shakespeare translations in Esperanto

This translation, Hamleto, was a defining moment in early Esperanto history. Firstly, it confirmed Zamenhof’s belief that Esperanto should be promoted through the translation of literary works, rather than the output of textbooks and advertising. If Esperanto was to prove to be a hope to mankind, as Zamenhof wished, it should, as he stated, ‘serve as a language for the free expression of all the brilliant works of human literature’.

Secondly, this translation of Hamlet served, in some ways, as a political act. During this time Hamlet was viewed in Europe as a subversive figure at “war with falsehood”. Furthermore, translations of Shakespeare’s works have often been used in Europe and across the world in order to promote national identity, such as the translation of Macbeth into Czech in 1786. By translating Hamlet into Esperanto, and conquering this greatest of Shakespeare’s plays, Zamenhof established a precedent, helping to forge a new identity for Esperantists and giving them a sense of pride in their language’s versatility. In short, it gave them hope.

British Esperantists, and the British Esperanto Association in particular, were very dedicated to the cause of Esperanto. The British Esperanto Association was first founded in 1905, born out of the earlier London Esperanto Club. Prominent early members of the BEA include the English painter Felix Moscheles, who was the Association’s first president, and W.T. Stead, who was the Association’s first treasurer. (W.T. Stead, for those unfamiliar with the name, was a controversial investigative journalist, famous for demonstrating the power and influence the press could have over government policy. He later passed away aboard the Titanic in 1912.)

Not long after its founding, the BEA began the periodical The British Esperantist, which published examples of Esperanto translations and poetry, following from the example of Zamenhof and other early adherents to the language. The British Esperanto Association also took part in many of the early activities of the international movement, such as attending the first World Esperanto Congress held in Boulogne in 1905, where they were reported as being ‘fanatical’ to the cause and ‘idealistic’.

Of the 10 Esperanto translations donated to the SBT by the BEA, some of the most interesting include a 1905 edition of La Ventego, or The Tempest, originally published in the periodical The Esperantist by the London Esperanto Club. The translator was one Achille Motteau, a French-born Esperantist who was appointed by Zamenhof member of the first Language committee and sometimes used the pseudonym ‘Esperantist 6266’.

The 1920 edition of Midsummer’s Night Dream was translated by an English schoolteacher, Louise Briggs, who was a member of the BEA; her inclusion in the society demonstrates the democratising nature of the language. This translation was later performed as part of the British Esperanto Congress in Bristol in 1945.

Score in Esperanto translation of The tempest
Music score in an Esperanto translation of The tempest published 1903

The 1924 edition of King Lear is of particular interest, both because of the translators, Arthur Llewelyn Curry and Archibald John Ashley, and the publication location given, ‘Dresden’. Curry and Ashley were both Anglican Priests; Ashley in particular is known for founding the Church of Esperanto in 1913, the goal of which was to “join the work of various churches and to create a working community among them.” He also gathered together anti-Nazi Protestants during the war period; as such, the publication location suggests perhaps a wish on his part for international, as well as spiritual unity.

Membership of the BEA began to decrease, however, after the end of World War II in 1945, though the organisation still continues on to this day in the form of the Esperanto Association of Britain. Among its many activities, the EAB run an online bookshop, publish a number of different newsletters and literary magazines, and manage the Montagu Butler library in Staffordshire, one of the world’s major collections on Esperanto. 

In conclusion, while it is not possible to know the motivations the BEA had in donating these 10 texts to the SBT, the careful inscriptions written inside nevertheless suggest these translations represented a hope for British Esperantists; a hope that Esperanto would endure into the future and fulfil Zamenhof’s wish for a united world.

And indeed, Esperanto has endured; it now lives on as an internet phenomenon, used by enthusiasts around the world on forums in order to debate, communicate, and learn. And while Zamenhof may have never succeeded with his ambitions, his language, and Shakespeare’s works, nevertheless have both succeeded in bringing people together from many disparate places, and represent a hope all mankind shares; a wish for unity and understanding. 

Title page of The tempest in Esperanto
La Ventego (The tempest, 1903)

Recommended blogs

See all blogs