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Translating Shakespeare into Frisian

Bouke Oldenhof, dramaturg, theatre producer, playwright and translator of Shakespeare, sheds light on the Frisian language and transferring Shakespeare’s words into his native tongue.

Bouke Oldenhof
King Lear in Frisian.JPG
King Lear in Frisian. Image ©Erik and Petra Hemsberg

Linguists consider the Frisian language to be the nearest relative of the English language. It is a minority language, spoken in the coastal region in the north of the Netherlands by some 300,000 native speakers. There are some remarkable similarities. Where German and Dutch kept the k in words as Kirche/kerk and Käse/kaas, in English and Frisian the k has altered into a ch-sound: church/tsjerke and cheese/tsiis. Where German and Dutch have ge- in verbs as Ich habe getan/Ik heb gedaan, English and Frisian don’t: I have done/Ik ha dien. An exception in the English plural rule is one sheep/two sheep, the Frisian has the same exception: ien skiep/twa skiep.

Around 1850, an emancipation movement of the Frisian language started. Translating the Bible and folk tales were a part of it. Around 1918, a young English teacher, Douwe Kalma, wanted Friesland to open its eyes to the world. He started a major project: translating the complete works of William Shakespeare. He was writing some Shakespearian drama himself about old Frisian kings of the 7th and the 8th centuries. It was only after WWII that the translations were published in an iconic series of seven books. It was Kalma’s contribution to the ongoing emancipation of the Frisian language.

Kalma emphasized the similarity of the two languages. For example, he translated horse into the almost unknown Frisian word hoars, instead of the usual hynder. Kalma wanted to show the richness of the Frisian vocabulary. It makes his translations unplayable, even for his contemporaries and unreadable for modern readers. Yet, they are unbelievably accurate. In the famous to be or not to be monologue, Hamlet has a verse: must give us pause -; there’s the respect. Although the complete play is in blank verse, here Shakespeare has only four iambs, making thus a pause in the music of the verse. All Dutch translations missed it and translated into five iambs. Kalma had four, just like Shakespeare.

King Lear in Frisian.JPG
King Lear in Frisian. Image ©Erik and Petra Hemsberg

The shortness of the language helped Kalma, which is important because English is a short language. Frisian is spoken shorter than Dutch or German. I gave the example of the missing ge- already. I’ve done the deed has four syllables, Ik heb de daad gedaan in Dutch has six, Ich habe die Tat getan even has seven. The Frisian Ik ha de die dien has five. Thus, a Frisian translator has less of a problem when translating blank verses than his Dutch and German colleagues. In the Frisian language, it is possible to adjust the length; for example, the word you can be translated as jimme and as jim. You can even skip ‘you’ when translating ‘Did you do that?’Hast dat dien?’ Here, Frisian is even shorter than his big brother.

When I translated Hamlet and King Lear for the Frisian theatre group Tryater, I benefitted from this. So did my colleagues Sybe Krol and Nynke Laverman when they translated Richard III and Macbeth. They produced a translation in blank verse to create a traditional version of the play. My translation was done for a director who saw Hamlet as a kind of Kurt Curbain. Energy and unconventional behaviour were more important than a literal translation. So we choose to create an iambic translation with verses of different length. I produced five translations of ‘To be or not be’, and the director chose to do them all in his version of Hamlet, just as wild as Nirwana’s music.

The same director staged a King Lear with black Frisian horses. He transformed the storm by including ten wild young horses, galloping towards Lear and the audience. The piece was performed for 30.000 visitors, most of them not used to going to the theatre. Again we chose an iambic translation. It helped us with creating an accessible translation and keeping the elevated speech of Shakespeare.

Yet translating Shakespeare begins with the music of his blank verses. You have a beat in your mind of the five iambs, which you have to fill with equivalents to Shakespeare’s words. The Arden Shakespeare is of great help for a good understanding of the text. And of course, as a translator, you are always a conduit between Shakespeare and the audience.

For me, the beauty of a translation can only be fully enjoyed when the text is performed. The music of the language always goes straight to the heart. It’s a great joy to hear such a text and to think it was your achievement. I hope Shakespeare would be pleased.

King Lear Frisian production.JPG
King Lear in Frisian. Image ©Erik and Petra Hemsberg

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