On my last visit to Shakespeare Birthplace in January 2018, I incurred many debts. I am really grateful to Mareike Dolechal, the Collections Librarian at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon and the editor of blog series Translating Shakespeare. Mareike recommended that I write about my experience of translating Shakespeare’s sonnets into Arabic poetry. To address this big question, I need to embark on the strategy any competent translator should arm himself with before attempting to render a global author like Shakespeare who mastered the art of poetic language more than anyone in literary memory. Such accomplished translator, I believe, should declare his love to Old Will:
Shakespeare the author
A gifted translator, before any endeavour, should trust that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, son of Mary Arden, and husband of Anne Hathaway, is the author of Shakespeare’s plays, sonnets and other poems. None competes with words of his own friend, Ben Johnson:
I loved the man, and do honour his memory as much as any. He was (indeed) honest, and of an open and free nature. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.
Love of the Bard
A competent translator must love The Bard and appreciate his works. This genuine love will guide his steps and enlighten his vision during the process of conveying the Shakespearean text into another medium.
He must be quite knowledgeable of the Elizabethan language and culture. The English language, like any other living language, went through socio-linguistic changes. Some words die, some acquire new meanings, and some are born or coined. The word nice in Shakespeare’s works means dull, fussy, or trivial (see: Shakespeare’s Words, by David Crystal and Ben Crystal). After 400 years it acquired new meaning.
Similarly, lover, love, in Elizabethan parlance, means dear friend; not sweetheart or boyfriend as some critics misunderstood the reference to the Earl of Southampton. In sonnet 13, to give an example, Shakespeare addresses his friend and patron
O that you were your self but, love,
O none but unthrifts: dear my love, you know
Foreignness and localities
A recognized translation should be faithful to the origin with all its aspects and colours.
In sonnet 18, the poet compares his love to a summer day:
Shall I compare thee to a
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
This is British
country summer of the 16th century, when June was not a summer
An Arab translator rendered “summer” into “spring”, thinking that summer in the Middle East is very hot and that the reader might question the appropriateness of the simile. This is ignorance and violation of the origin. Shakespeare, the country boy of Stratford, wrote about an English summer. This aspect of foreignness has to be maintained as completely as possible in the transfer from the original language into the translated language. As August Wilhelm Schlegel writes: "I have tried to render the nature of the original according to the impression it made on me. To try to smooth it over or to embellish it would be to destroy it”, over clarification or over simplification, in the process of translation, could only lead to dismantling the Shakespearean magnificent text-structure into a faceless concrete. One has to remember the tripartite rule of translation: accuracy, clarity, naturalness.
Country life and parlance
The ideal and educated reader expects from any translation of value an adherence to the local colouring and the contextual meaning as used by particular groups of people. Thus any accomplished translator should familiarize himself with climate, culture, vocabulary and shades of meaning used in the text to be conveyed into another tongue.
Shakespeare was a country boy born in Stratford the heart of Warwickshire, and accordingly his poetry is full of his delight of the English countryside, and many of his plays are set in or near a wood, like the Forest of Arden, thought by some to be named after his mother Mary Arden. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon plots his revenge on Titania. He used words that only a country boy could have written:
I know a
bank whereon the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violent grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-rose, and with eglantine
Again, Marlowe with his Cambridge upbringing, Bacon, or the other candidates of the Baconian theory, would not be able to delve into this kind of rural Stratfordian parlance and choose this expressive portrayal. With Shakespeare, literature and culture meet centre stage.
One of the main challenges facing translators of poetry, let alone Shakespeare’s poetic diction and his love for playing on words, is the double meaning and figurative language of poetry. There are theories about the translatability of poetry. Schopenhauer says: ”Poems cannot be translated; they can only be rewritten, which is always quite an ambiguous undertaking.” John Dryden before him suggested “parody” as a way of translating poems assuming that any language is a reality of its own, and that in the process of translation, much of the musicality, cadence, and imagery will be sacrificed. Similarly, literal translation doesn’t work meaningfully with poetry in its high diction, subtleties of meaning, and figurative and metaphoric style.
I believe that ONLY poetry can
accommodate and act out the poet’s shades of meanings and the feeling and
thought embodied in the original poetic text. Transcreation, as I used with
Shakespeare and Eliot, serves better the fidelity to the first voice. Fidelity
cannot be found in literalness, but rather in adequate equivalencies from one
language to another. The translator in this case, is a poet himself with sound knowledge
of the art of poetry, with all its particularities. Here the translator strives
to recreate the origin and reproduce it in the best faithful and accurate
medium that retains most of the possible qualities of the origin.
Prose Poem can be an appropriate medium to convey a poetic text and its cadencies and terse expressions. Of course only in the hand of those translators, immersed, and deeply rooted in the art of poetry writing.
Variety is the spice of poetry
There is no sonnet form in Arabic and trying to force the translated text into a form alien to the target language will halt the flow of words and their meanings and may veer away from the author’s intended meaning. In Arabic there is the strophic poetry form. In rendering the sonnets into Arabic poetry, I used a variety of meters without fixed rhyming system. Even Shakespeare didn’t stick to the iambic; sometimes he starts on the beat and some sonnets are written in couplets. The hunt for the meaning in the original text dictates the kind of meter and form. Accordingly the line numbers may differ from sonnet to sonnet. The golden rule I adopted is that Shakespeare’s sonnet should emerge immaculate, complete, and close to the poetic origin to the best of my ability. If the Arabic language poetic form allows me to abide by the origin’s meter and rhyme, that’s much better than doing many unnecessary changes. In some other sonnets I maneuvered to find the right form and meter, and my ultimate objective is to reproduce the origin into meaningful medium guided by fidelity and that ‘poetry is the best words in the best order’ as Shelley defined it.
The problem of equivalents
Shakespeare is fond of words and word play. Double meaning is widely used to create ambiguity and some effects to enhance linguistic connotations and to generate new meaning and new words. He has a great love for word coinage.
In Hamlet Act V, Scene 1;
Hamlet: Upon what ground?
First Clown: Why, here in Denmark: I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years.
Ground here means cause, but in the next line, the gravedigger takes the word in the sense of ‘land, country’. The translator should be alert to the confusion that might come up in choosing the wrong equivalent. He needs to explain the complexity in a footnote and convey the meaning embedded in the word ground.
As the German poet, translator, and critic August Schlegel (1767-1845) desired to establish a union of translator and literary scholar, of recreative artist and universally educated savant, the British Victorian poet and critic Mathew Arnold (1822-1888), affirms this relationship but he thinks that the process of translation must recreate the manner and movement of a poet or text rather than looking for exact equivalencies for each word. From my experience, a gifted translator conceives the text as a whole rather than just the individual details. However, I am not concerned about the rival approaches to translation, but I am focused on recreating a literary text that is identical with the origin.
With a global author like Shakespeare, one should be armed with all the tools and disciplines that enable him to reproduce a coloured painting into another coloured painting, not into black and white. How far this can be achieved, I don’t know, but I know that the ultimate objective of transplanting a text from one language into another, needs the consideration of methods and systems that categorise the translation process. With Old Will of Stratford, one needs to be fully aware of all kinds of considerations, due to Shakespeare’s universality, great imagination, and unique mastery of language and poetry.