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Shakespeare in isiXhosa

Buhle Ngaba describes her struggle to identify with Shakespeare and her growing determination to give her students access to his work in their own language.

Buhle Ngaba

This post first appeared on Shakespeare Grounded. Republished here with kind permission from the author.

Five years ago, my grandmother handed me a copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare – her own copy from her school days. Her name was scribbled on the first page along with what it cost, R1,00. Three years after she handed me the book, she passed on.

Post-funeral, I sat in her garage in grief and began archiving what I could of a giant’s life. During the process, I discovered Dintshontsho Tsa Bo-Julius Kesara (Julius Caesar) by William Shakespeare, translated into Setswana by Sol Plaatje, published by Wits Press in 1937 (Pre Bantu education). The discovery fundamentally shifted my perceptions of Shakespeare’s words and its potential for two simple reasons: I could attempt to read the story in my mother’s tongue, and Sol Plaatje, a person of colour, had taken care to translate what I, at the time, perceived to be a ‘white story’ into Setswana, thereby giving us direct access to it, even before Bantu education was implemented in South Africa. Two years ago, I got the opportunity (as a recipient of the prestigious Brett Goldin Bursary) to do an acting residency at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Point being, I never thought I would ever “understand” Shakespeare let alone perform or teach it.  Yet it kept finding and (re)finding me. Growing up, my associations and ideas around what Shakespeare was, was that it was a fancy way of speaking that only rich white people could access. I felt it was something reserved for the elite.

I understood the Bard to be a man who wrote archaic stories of a removed time, place, and context that couldn’t possibly resemble my own in any way.  My impression of Shakespeare improved slightly in high school, solely because my English teacher was also my drama teacher so, at the very least; I was given the opportunity to hear the plays spoken aloud. Yet, despite achieving a fairly high score for English in my final exams, I still wasn’t sure I understood how the stories might have anything to do with me. What was all the more worrying was my growing awareness that, as an 18-year-old aspiring actress of colour, not only did I not “get” Shakespeare and sounded ridiculous to myself reading it out loud, the idea of me performing in a Shakespeare play felt far-fetched, to say the least.

Shakespeare grounded
Shakespeare grounded

The above was still bearable, but, what I couldn’t face was my growing suspicion that there would be some moment of reckoning in my acting career when Shakespeare would show me up as incompetent. I began to fear a time when I would be confronted with iambic pentameter and forced to twirl and twist my tongue and being into shapes that just didn’t embrace me. So, when I won the bursary to the Royal Shakespeare Company, I made a pledge that I would teach whatever I had learnt in my time there to actors/storytellers at home that might be loaded with similar anxieties. I had an incredible time at the RSC and learnt a huge amount, but I think the most valuable thing I took away was that I had no reason to fear Shakespeare. If anything, I had all of the reason in the world to feel exhilarated by the challenges his work present to me as an actor. I learnt that ultimately, Shakespeare’s works are stories about the human condition. They are stories about love, passion, murder, betrayal. They are stories that I have heard in different variants within all sorts of contexts. Romeo and Juliet in Verona could very well be Jabu and Khanyisile in Huhudi Township, Vryburg South Africa, whose parents are involved in taxi wars. I discovered that these stories are mine as much as they belong to any other person, because I too have lived these stories. I too have seen reflections of them throughout my own life.

At the start of the year, I was given the opportunity to implement what I had learnt on stage. I was cast as Bianca in an all woman The Taming of the Shrew shown at the largest Shakespeare Festival in South Africa, Maynardville. The chance to practise all I had learnt at the RSC on a stage in SA solidified my yearning to teach what I had learnt. I quickly learnt that the majority of the paying audience attending the show each evening was white, had been exposed to Shakespeare before, and seemed to understand Shakespeare in a very particular way. This “way” seemed very immovable. I also wasn’t entirely sure that this 'way’ of interpreting Shakespeare was ready to be inclusive, ready to see only femme bodies on a stage, and most importantly, ready to see women of colour in the telling of this story.

You see, despite having gone to the (literal) birthplace of Shakespeare, being taught by Cicely Berry, and getting a chance to perform on the Swan Stage at the RSC, I still couldn’t escape the politics of being a black body on a stage across from white bodies. So, I chose not to attempt to escape what couldn’t be ignored. Instead, I embraced it and decided to use Bianca as an opportunity to create a young, pink Fulani braided, millennial black Shakespearian character. With this in mind, I refocused my attention on the busloads of school children (future storytellers) who attended 2/6 of our shows each week. I discovered that this was where my preparation for teaching began. I got on the stage each evening to offer an alternative narrative/face to all their assumptions on Shakespeare, assumptions and fears that I too had fostered at school. I chose to be a face they recognised as similar to their own. My purpose on that stage went beyond entertaining a very specific audience. It was about all of the threads that had led to being present.

Julius Caesar in Setswana
Sol Plaatje's translation of Julius Caesar into Setswana (OSP 50.15 Setswana/1935) (Accession number: 83426282)

Then a few months ago, I was given the opportunity to be at a guest lecturer of “Shakespeare Dialogue” at the University of Cape Town to their second-year students. The task was very simple; to coach the students in Shakespearian dialogue in preparation for their performance exams for two months, where scenes from Macbeth would be performed. I accepted the job on the condition that I would be given the opportunity to try out “Shakespeare Grounded”.

“Shakespeare Grounded” is a programme created through a non profit organisation I co-founded, KaMatla Productions. The programme consolidates all I learnt in my time at the RSC and in performance of Shakespeare alongside the skill and knowledge of theatre doyen Susan Danford, with the aim of teaching these skills to young people in SA. The programme is based on a practical approach to accessing Shakespeare’s stories and their meaning. The programme can be adjusted to suit any number of pupils and is inclusive of all students.

I became the mother hen to seven incredible students whom I call my “chickens”. The first weeks of my lectures was a “getting to know you” phase between my students and me, which, I believe, built a trust that allowed us to achieve all we had by the end. Firstly, much to their horror, I opened my first lecture by telling them that they wouldn’t be receiving their exam texts until I felt they were ready for them (a death sentence for a young drama student), that I was not interested in seeing regurgitated interpretations of Shakespearian characters they had seen in movies, and that I was only interested in them finding their truth. Essentially, I felt I couldn’t possibly partner them up and pick a scene from Macbeth for them without knowing them. We played games, waded through our varying opinions of Shakespeare, picked apart our favourite characters and questioned various Shakespearian storylines that had echoes of Macbeth in them. Simultaneously, I was teaching them iambic pentameter using my favourite sonnets and making them say them out loud immediately.

I observed that the biggest fear for them was what it is for all of us: to speak the words out loud. But by pushing them to speak the words out loud immediately, they began to learn about the full commitment to language and their own voices. The meaning of the words is discovered in speaking them, which directly relates to acting because, as Cicely Berry says, “we do not fully understand the meaning until we speak the words”.

I then began to (re)contemplate Sol Plaatje’s translation of Julius Caesar into Setswana, and, as a result, what commitment to language meant. I began to consider the intricacies involved in translating Shakespeare, with its very specific structure, into African languages and what that process might look or sound like.

The questions around translation became more urgent, when, two weeks into lectures, I began to notice that some of my students who were not first language English speakers were beginning to retreat in class. Not because they weren’t eager to participate, but because, despite their having grasped iambic pentameter and prose in practice on very specific texts, there was very clearly a language barrier that made them feel limited in skill. I was convinced that I needed to find a way to translate the text into their mother tongue, isiXhosa.

I gathered the support I needed within the UCT drama department (I had an incredible and supportive supervisor) and was fortunate enough to be directed to Fundile Majola who ended up being the translator I worked with. I had a meeting with him, outlined what I wanted to do and we agreed that we wanted this translation to be true to the integrity of Shakespeare’s intended meaning as well as to the context. This led to multiple conversations and questions around dialect, intent in language, and language in performance. By the following week, we had our first draft of Macbeth Act 2 Scene 2 translated into isiXhosa.

I excitedly handed my chickens the isiXhosa translation and I was completely humbled by their response. Their sheer horror at discovering how the isiXhosa translation of the text was equally as difficult as the English gave me great delight. I had felt similar feelings when I had discovered the Sol Plaaitje Julius Kesara. It wasn’t that it was Shakespeare that made it special; it was the sophistication in language.  I discovered that I didn’t have to necessarily reach for a word in English, because it already existed in Setswana for a long time without me knowing it. The simple impact of realising of how far African languages have evolved and will continue to do transform the way we could receive, understand, and access the texts, the stories. We worked through three other versions of the text, and found that in order to achieve integrity in the translation; we had to anchor ourselves in Shakespeare’s very clear images through language, while rooting it in a Xhosa context.

While working on the translation, it occurred to me that there was no reason as to why the students shouldn't be marked in isiXhosa for their Shakespeare dialogue exam. My feeling was that our translation was clearly of a calibre that challenged the students, so why shouldn't they show that work through their exam. I enquired about the possibilities of making this happen and I'm incredibly proud and excited about the fact that the UCT department allowed students to be examined on Shakespeare in their mother tongue for the first time as a result of the “Shakespeare Grounded” programme and the results of our work with the students.

But, it didn’t stop there! We kept questioning and excavating aspects of the text that we found to be true for ourselves. Once we found these nuggets of “truth” we began looking at how they could fit into the themes of Macbeth and the complex relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. After that, we honed in on the meaning beyond each story to shed light on which “truths” of each character every individual student was drawn to. We let that dictate how we wanted to tell this narrative and who would play each character. We questioned Macbeth's vulnerability and desperation to claim “manhood” in violence, Lady Macbeth's ambition and power as well as the way she unravels, yet manages to dominate her husband and chastise him about the ideas informing masculinity, by embodying it herself and threatening to strip him of it. These observations helped navigate decisions around performance that might lead to breaking binaries/stereotypes and language barriers in our interpretation of the text.

It resulted in an electric and dynamic performance from each student. They had done the work to learn the tools to break down the text, analysed the story continuously, acquainted themselves with the world and had taken it a step further, they transformed it into their own world.

I strongly believe that, as artists, we should be constructing the kind of world we believe in while deconstructing elements of a world that no longer serves us. In a time when universities all over South Africa are grappling with how to go about the necessary processes of decolonising education, it is more important than ever for us to be doing the work on the ground, to be proactive in our attempts to change the curriculum from within lecture halls and classrooms as opposed to waiting for legislation to shift. In this context, it meant that I needed to distance myself from a curriculum and (elitist) notions of what Shakespeare was, and instead, keep exploring its radical potential through my work with the students.

​We turned it into a world/text we could all exist in. One in which we could have a non-binary student play a fierce Lady Macbeth, accompanied by a black female Macbeth who carried her own. Where two strong female actors could play and reveal the couple’s power dynamic as something beyond gender. Where another student was willing to let go of his ideas of what masculinity and doubt should look like on stage and embraced a vulnerability that shattered the fourth wall. A space where we could witness an incredible black actress play both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth with equal mastery. And lastly, where a scene in isiXhosa managed to transcend any language barriers because of the way it had become internalised and deeply understood and connected with.

​Ultimately, storytelling is about creating human connection. Through his translation of Julius Kesara, Sol Plaatje did exactly this for me. He created an entry point into Shakespeare’s stories by nullifying the language barrier. I hope to do the same through our work with “Shakespeare Grounded”, to keep creating the windows, through which narrative can be accessed more efficiently and in doing so, reveal the ways in which we are all connected.

Julius Caesar in Setswana
Notes on Sol Plaatje and his translation of Julius Caesar into Setswana (OSP 50.15 Setswana/1935) (Accession number: 83426282)

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