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Shakespeare in Romanian

Malina Palamariu compares two Romanian translations of Hamlet's 'to be or not to be' speech held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Library.

Malina Palamariu
Romanian translations group photo
Romanian translations held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Library

To mark Roumania's independence day, today's blog comes from high school student Malina Palamariu. Her parents moved from Roumania to Italy when she was very young and Malina was lucky to grow up bilingually. Malina wrote this blog while volunteering for Nash's house during her summer holidays. 

400 years after his death, William Shakespeare keeps influencing our language and imagination. And by ‘our’ I do not just mean English culture. Despite being the most significant and fascinating poet and playwright of England, Shakespeare can be easily considered a universal poet. Many of his expressions are part of today’s vocabulary.

Translating Shakespeare, however, can be quite an arduous task, as some ideas in Shakespeare are too complicated to be translated without losing much of its meaning. Besides, if you think about Shakespeare’s text as a verse, your translation would be much different than if you think about the Bard’s text as a story; also, literal translation is almost impossible if you want to convey the emotion of the play.

I have analysed two translations of Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy ‘To be or not to be’ (Hamlet, act III, scene I) into Romanian, made twenty years apart (1964-1986) by the same translator – Leon D. Levitchi – and I could easily notice his struggle of trying to stay as true as possible to the original text, without losing much of the original meaning. Here are some examples:

The first line of the monologue in the 1964 translation is a literal one from the original text: ‘To be or not to be? That is the question’, ‘A fi sau a nu fi? Iata intrebarea’.

However, in the 1986 version, the translator changed it into something more similar to the English ‘the being or the non entity? What to choose?’. Note how in Romanian ‘the being’(‘fiinta’) is a synonym for ‘life’ and ‘the non entity ’(‘nefiinta’) means also ‘death’.

Although he changed the original text, in the 1986 version the translator maintained more Shakespeare’s original message: is it worth living or is it better to die?

‘Puzzles the will’ becomes in both versions something more similar to the English ‘the will becomes entangled’.

The word ‘sicklied’, which means ‘weak’ in English, becomes ‘galbejeste’ in Romanian. This word means ‘becomes yellow’, as when you are sick, you have a yellowish complexion and you feel weak.

Translating Shakespeare is a complex task because of the literal ambiguity, structural differences and idioms that you may find in another language. Although it is better to read the original text, this isn’t always possible. This is why translations are useful for familiarising non-native English speakers with Shakespeare’s masterpieces.  

Hamlet in Romanian dustjacket
Hamlet in Romanian (1965)

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