Monday, September 10, 2007

Shakespeare, anybody?

Given my previous lack of affinity for the Bard, some readers of this blog will find great satisfaction in the fact that I'm taking a class on Shakepeare's tragedies right now. I must admit, after a careful reading of King Richard III to start the class, I'm getting closer to converting. We'll see... He might have been Catholic, after all. Check out the Catholic Encyclopedia article here.

In any case, I've finished my first paper for the class -- basically an explanation on why reading Shakespeare in the original is important. Apparently this is a pretty standard way to begin one's study of the Bard. My paper, pasted below, is due Wednesday, so let me know if you find any mistakes!

Franz Klein
Professor Jane Carducci
English 517
12 September 2007
Translating Shakespeare into Modern English: Romeo and Juliet

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend. (Romeo and Juliet, Prologue, 1-14)
Modern prose “translation”

We begin our play in fair Verona, where fighting is arising anew from an old disagreement between two families of the same social class, and where the resulting bloodshed is legally implicating those involved. Coming from the progeny of these two families, a pair of lovers – joined by fate – commits suicide; but, by dying, their heartbreaking action brings their parents’ fighting to an end. Now, over the course of the next two hours, the tale of their fated love and their parents’ fighting, which only their children’s death could bring to an end, will be told here on this stage. If you listen attentively and patiently, our acting should give you what this prologue left out.
Commentary on the “translation”

In an essay defending the value of lyric poetry from what he termed a “prose culture,” Charles Altieri sought “how we might describe the basic values lyrics make available or reinforce for cultural life” (259). Extending the philosophy of Spinoza to his fellow pedagogues as an excellent paradigm, he said teachers must show their students how poems bind “…the forms of syntax to the possibilities of feeling” (277). According to Altieri, the lyrics themselves have value, a certain inherent dynamism, meaning the reader must adapt him or herself “…to particular affective configurations and com[e] to the self-reflexive appreciation of those powers” (Ibid.).
The inherent dynamism that Altieri attributes to lyric poetry is as clear in the prologue to Romeo and Juliet as anywhere else in the Shakespearean canon. While a prose translation like the one given above might render clearer the meanings of the words and phrases Shakespeare utilized, the resulting passage is undeniably lethargic, robbed of its power to captivate the attention of an audience – the very purpose for which the prologue was scripted and performed. And though the reasons behind this loss of power and its resulting lethargy are manifold, they begin with the most basic elements of lyric poetry.
As is the Shakespearean norm, the prologue is a sonnet, composed in iambic pentameter, which in this case is virtually flawless, allowing the play’s narrator to establish a powerful cadence when delivering its opening lines. Even the division of certain words between iambic feet seems to deepen the intonation: The division of the syllables in “Households” (1) and “Verona” (2) between two iambs, for instance, leaves listeners no opportunity to miss where the story takes place. Additionally split is the word “civil” (4) – caught between feet not once but twice, such that the phrase “Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean” (Ibid.) takes on an emphasis that would otherwise be absent. Similarly, the alliteration of “Doth” and “death” (8) builds as the accent falls on “death” after missing “Doth” at the beginning of the line. The “d” alliteration continues, as the word “death” is repeated and accented a second time in the following line. In the second line of the concluding couplet, with the narrator having reached his or her fever pitch, “miss” and “mend” (14) are both accented.
Another structural element sacrificed in the prose translation is the prologue’s rhyme scheme. As is almost always the case with Shakespearean sonnets, the prologue consists of three quatrains and a concluding couplet, which follow an abab cdcd efef gg rhyme scheme. As with the iambic structure, the rhyme scheme helps the narrator to structure his or her delivery. Even the one flaw that seems to present itself serves a purpose, since the dissonance of “love” (9) being followed two lines later by “remove” (11) prepares the listener for the coming couplet, and then, finally, for the prologue’s conclusion.
When these metrical structures and rhyme schemes are sacrificed, the prologue loses the basic structure which aids the narrator in bringing it to life. As opposed to poetry, a sensible prose translation begins not dramatically and ominously with “Two households, both alike in dignity” (1), but with the locale of the action: Verona. No longer does the listener move fluidly with the narrator’s cadence; no longer does his or her blood pound at the mention of “household” or “Verona,” or stop to wonder at the repetition of “civil”; being absent, even the alliterations of the letter “d” fail to add their dynamic. Likewise, the missing sonnet rhyme scheme leaves the listener to make his or her own divisions of the text, which in turn makes the prologue more difficult to comprehend and therefore open to erroneous interpretation. As Altieri succinctly put it, the “possibilities of meaning” are no longer bound to “the forms of syntax.” And thus, Altieri would add, the prologue loses much of its dynamism.
Troublingly, there is something more fundamental missing whenever an author’s own words are replaced by those of an interpreter, as is the case with the prose “translation” of the prologue. In his essay on the translation of philosophy, Jonathan Ree wrote that “…complete faithfulness in translation is an obvious impossibility. As everyone knows, any text can be interpreted in innumerable ways” (224). And while Ree addressed specifically the translation of academic philosophy, the fact that lyric poetry, like philosophy, contains ideas inhering to the structure of the text and the author’s own word choice makes his comments applicable here as well. In fact, Ree’s comments are especially apropos, since several phonaesthetically or philosophically important phrases, as well as the ideas they engender, are sacrificed when the prologue is converted to prose.
Among Shakespeare’s word choices in the prologue, for example, are several metonymical phrases that add meaning no translation quite captures. Are “star-cross’d lovers” (6) the same as lovers “joined by fate”? Technically one’s fate might be read in the stars; but something seems lost when fate, described metonymically by the crossing of stars, is reduced to mere fate: The absence here of what philosophers describe as a “word picture” means the listener has no visual image in his or her mind to which fate can be related. Similarly metonymical are phrases like the cacophonic “forth the fatal loins” (5) describing Romeo and Juliet as born from their parents’ unions only destined to die, and “civil blood” and “civil hands” (4) recounting respectively a killing legally punishable as a homicide and those implicated by the law as murderers. Without the aura of mystery surrounding these metonymical phrases and their inherent euphony or cacophony, little is left to the imagination to work on, meaning any attempt at suspense promptly fails.
No image can replace “star-cross’d” without something of the sense of being star-crossed being lost. No other descriptor but “death-mark’d” (9) can explain what Shakespeare means to convey about how Romeo and Juliet’s love would end. In terms of expressing complex ideas, the translation of lyric poetry rises to the difficulty of translating philosophical writing. Each change, be it to structure, word choice or phrase, affects the meaning intended by the author, since each change represents a translator’s interpretative choice. Translating lyric poetry might even surpass the difficulty of translating philosophy, since the ideas expressed by the author – known or unknown to the translator – inhere to the very structure of the poem. Suffice it to say, much is missing in any prose “translation” of the prologue to Romeo and Juliet. Just as Juliet asks of Romeo, the reader of a prose prologue could ask: “Meaning, meaning: Wherefore art thou meaning?”
Works Cited
Altieri, Charles. “Taking Lyrics Literally: Teaching Poetry in a Prose Culture.” New Literary History 32.2 (2001): 259-281.

Ree, Jonathan. “The Translation of Philosophy.” New Literary History 32.2 (2001): 223-257.

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