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Sounding words: on translating Shakespeare

An extract from Dionysis Kapsalis's lecture on translating Shakespeare - to mark the joint celebrations of annunciation and independence day in Greece.

Dionysis Kapsalis

The 25th March is a Greek national holiday. After four hundred years of occupation by the Ottoman Empire, Greeks rose against their oppressors which resulted in the Greek war of independence. The day is also of religious significance. According to the Ottoman calendar, the archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary delivering the message that she was pregnant with the divine child.

To mark this important day in the Greek calendar, we have the pleasure of posting an extract from Greek poet Dionysis Kapsalis’s lecture on translating Shakespeare. In addition to being a poet as well as a translator, Dionysis Kapsalis is the director of the National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation. He has published books on poetry and translated Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear and the sonnets into Greek. He has very kindly donated copies of his translations to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Library.

"For me, to translate Shakespeare is, for all practical purposes, to know what to do with blank verse. It is there, in dealing with blank verse, that what seems a mere formal question turns out to be of the very essence, not just for the poetry itself but for the entire literary and dramatic culture of which the poetry is an integral part. If you have formed a working concept of what to do with blank verse, you are already on the road to a performance. Not that the prose is unimportant or that it requires less literary skill; Shakespeare was a master of English prose as surely as he was a master of English verse. But the verse takes some kind of precedence in translation, if only by dint of the fact that it is intimately linked up with a style of delivery or performance, with the necessity of knowing how to speak dramatically in verse. And here the Greek translator throws up his hands in a gesture of utter hopelessness. He must take as granted a theatrical culture of speaking in blank verse developed at the furthest remove from the bad habit of declaiming or reciting – a culture not glaringly in evidence here in Greece. 

So, supposing what in all earnestness one cannot suppose, what do you do with blank verse? You need to find a metrical scheme or a rhythmic pattern capable of sustaining in Greek verse all the effects of blank verse. So free verse is definitely out. Despite Eliot’s verdict (but we all know what he meant, don’t we?) that there is really no such thing as free verse, there seems to be a lot of this no-such-thing around. So this not-so-free variety of free verse has to be turned down as a possible candidate, for the reasons I have only hinted at, but  also for another, not so technical, reason, encapsulated beautifully in two lines by W. H. Auden:

Blessed be all metrical rules that forbid automatic responses,
and force us to have second thoughts free from the fetters of Self

To put it as simply and as forcefully as I can: if Shakespeare had to work within a formal pattern, so must his humble translator.

There was a time, not so long ago, when my answer to this problem was an innovation first employed in Greek verse by Polylas in 1883 in his translation of Hamlet. It is the thirteen-syllable iambic line, a kind of compromise between the Italianate eleven-syllable line and the Greek demotic fifteen-syllable line, also ruled out, almost on principle, because of its deeply grafted intimacy with folk poetry and its habitual verbosity. The advantages of this thirteen-syllable line (or iambic hexameter) seemed at the time too obvious to refuse. The extra length of two syllables (one metric foot) makes it more spacious; one need not cramp words into it the way one would presumably do in the eleven-syllable (or iambic pentameter) line. It can do away with a caesura altogether (a feat almost impossible to achieve in the fifteen-syllable line), which makes it more pliable and also more receptive of enjambment. It can accommodate end-stopped lines as naturally as it can accommodate straddled lines.

I have spoken of the thirteen-syllable line and iambic hexameter as if they were the same thing. In fact they aren’t, not exactly. Whereas the traditional 13-syllable line ends invariably on an unstressed (feminine) syllable, the last stress falling on the 12th syllable, I used a variation whereby 13-syllable feminine lines would alternate freely with masculine 12-syllable lines (that is, with the ultimate syllable stressed) or with 12-syllable lines which carried the last stress on the 10th, the prepenultimate syllable of the line. This is the meter I opted for in translating some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Romeo and Juliet and King Lear.

But as I grew older I became more foolish. Hendecasyllabic verse was always there, a glaring challenge, advertising its supremacy, commending itself for its incontestable intimacy with Shakespeare’s blank verse, and it was not long before I stopped ignoring its call. Even though it imposes a much harsher discipline, it makes up for it by offering obvious advantages in verbal economy, density, terseness, and even performability. More properly termed iambic pentameter, it can be modified in similar fashion to the 13-syllable line previously preferred: hendecasyllabic, feminine lines alternating freely with decasyllabic (masculine) lines and decasyllabic lines with a prepenultimate end-stress. It is liable to increase line-count by about 20-25%, which in fact corresponds to the average word increase in all English to Greek translations, but surprisingly without qualifying the overall impression of greater brevity and clarity. This enriched form of iambic pentameter I have used, to what degree of success or failure I do not know, in translating Pericles, Othello, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet and Macbeth.

As you most probably have realised by now, I think of and practise translation at a far remove from those stringent ideological demands, with their intolerant moralism, that seem to have taken over, in recent decades, the academic space formerly occupied by the study of literature. Literature itself and  literary translation show hopeful signs of having survived the onslaught. Translation for me is not a political programme, nor is it a theoretical problem of any variety; it is a craft, and such I hope it may remain in the years to come. It is only in this way that one may momentarily harbour delusions of grandeur and consider oneself not Shakespeare’s peer but his grateful if awed colleague. My contention is that once you know what to do with blank verse – and I believe I have given you ample indication, albeit by a negative illustration, that a lot more is involved in this knowledge than mere form – all complexities of sense and meaning will somehow begin to sort themselves out and fall into place. All, that is, except those that go by the name of talent. But talent being the one thing one cannot presume simply to have, we just toil on in the hope that somewhere along the way some talent may crop up to gratify and baffle and amaze. It may never do so. The trying and the toiling, not devoid of their own peculiar pleasures, is all we know."

Reproduced by permission of the author.