Translation and Performance

Alessandro Serpieri


A few years ago I was invited by Stanley Wells to Stratford to organize and run a seminar on "Shakespeare in translation" based on three main issues:
1. aspects of the history of Shakespearean translation into various languages;
2. theories of dramatic translation;
3. the actual experience of translating Shakespeare into French, Italian, Spanish and other languages
.(footnote 1)

Apart from different opinions concerning the problem of rendering Shakespeare's iambic pentameter into other languages, the overall discussion revealed an interesting convergence of both theoretical and practical approaches, which witnessed a radical change in contemporary sensibility, connected with the recent developments of dramatology as a specific method for tackling texts which are not to be considered only as literary texts in the way novels or poems are. Most of the participants, if not all, agreed on the following crucial points:


a) dramatic translation must take into account the non linguistic codes embedded in dramatic language; dramatology can offer important keys to the locating of the theatrical route within the dramatic text: since drama is both voice and action in space, any dramatic translation should first of all be faithful to the performative aspect of speech;

b) whenever possible, a certain amount of literalness in Shakespeare translation proves to be - strangely enough at first sight - not only more faithful to the literariness of the text, but also more functional to its theatrical implications than any kind of explanation or expansion of meaning;

c) the original semantics and rhetoric should be saved even when this may mean a little forcing, overstretching, the semantic import of the target language;

d) rhythm (which is part of the prosodic pattern, but is also strictly related to syntax and rhetoric) is no less important than semantics; nonetheless the subject of a free choice as regards a codified or an uncodified metre in the TL text was left open.

I will here try to go briefly into the issues just sketched. Let us start from dramatology which investigates the specific features of a language in which other non linguistic (theatrical) codes are embedded. Following the Aristotelian distinction between narration (diegesis) and drama (mimesis), we may all agree that diegesis is self-sufficient in its textuality; it privileges the utterance (enoncé) over the utterance act (énonciation); it does not need a pragmatic context to which to refer; it is shaped according to a temporal axis mostly based on the past; it is able to move easily from one temporal and spatial level to another. Dramatic mimesis, instead, is institutionally tied to the speaking process (énonciation); it requires a pragmatic context, which is virtual on the page and actualized on the stage; its temporal axis is always based on the present; its space is that of deixis.

As Pirandello put it, theatre is essentially "spoken action". Drama in fact expounds a story through a dynamic progression of intersecting speech-acts and corresponding actions. Speech-acts articulate along deictic and performative segments, since dramatic language always refers to a pragmatic context, and at the same time implements the joints of the story. In a word, it is language in situation which inscribes in itself the non-verbal or, more precisely, the implicitely lexicalized messages of its referential and pragmatic context. Meaning in drama seems to depend primarily upon deixis, the referential axis which regulates speech-acts: even rhetoric, just as grammar and syntax, is related to deixis, which subsumes and sorts out the meanings vehicled by the images, by the linguistic modes (prose, poetry), by rhythm, by the different styles of the characters, by proxemic relations, by the kinesics of movement etc.
(footnote 2)
Moreover, the situated message, the speech-act, while necessarily being referential, must at the same time perform something on the stage. A dramatic speech act is never a simply locutionary act: it is rather illocutionary (having the task of informing, ordering, warning, undertaking) and/or perlocutionary (bringing about or achieving something by saying words) [according to Austin's definitions]
(footnote 3). And that is not all. As has been noted (for instance, by Ducrot), even the imperative and the interrogative forms have a performative quality in drama, since they express command or uncertainty, and therefore turn out to be acts of commanding or interrogating. We can go even further and consider as intrinsically performative: a) syntax, b) style, c) rhythm, and d) metre, as stylistic features of characters in action/situation.

Let me sum it up: dramatic performativity unfolds itself within deixis and constitutes the core of a genre which represents an action (the original Greek sense of drama) through the speech acts of characters talking and moving on dectic tracks within ostensive and spatial relations. On both the performative and the deictic levels the dramatic language conveys most, if not all, of the stage signs (belonging to codes and conventions) which contribute to the overall, multimedia theatrical performance: intonation, mimic, gestures, proxemics, kinetics etc. (what Brecht altogether defined as Gestus).
(footnote 4)

Accordingly, the semiological unit of dramatic language seems to be a complex sign, or, better, a band of sign relationships to be identified within the speaker's dectic-performative action, which amounts to an oriented enunciation which cannot be considered, interpreted as a bit of information, an image or a narrative microsequence, but rather as an indexical and pragmatic utterance on the stage (but already inscribed within drama). Characters speak in many ways: they ask, answer, imply, simulate, declare, allude, narrate, anticipate further acts, presume, pretend, command etc., and in doing this they address each other, or refer to objects, or parts of the stage, or to the audience. Therefore, we can divide the seemingly incessant flow of their speeches into several units according to the characters' deictic-performative orientations, which correspond to the shifting of their spatial and locutionary attitudes.

Translation should try to follow as closely as possible this complex - both linguistic and semiotic - track. I will soon go back to the specific features of dramatic language. But first I would like to dwell briefly on the literary richness and complexity of Shakespeare's texts, a literariness which should never be overlooked by regarding his plays like mere scripts for the stage, pre-texts for acting. The extraordinary linguistic and thematic richness of his plays offers a textual evidence of a highly imaginative mind caught within the dramatic contradictions of a turbulent age. In translating Shakespeare one must be aware that what needs to be rendered is not only the play of characters and the play of actions, but also the play of cultural codes and modes of perception of an epoch which was questioning its own historical heritage, and opening the way to new unstable cognitive, axiological and ideological parameters. Reality was becoming manifold, uncertain, and relative: it was, metaphorically speaking, a stage endowed with numerous wings, showing a prismatic play of multiple points of view. Every aspect of the world was liable to be newly recoded, and it is in such a vertigo-like scenario that we must locate the enormous energy of Shakespeare's language, which dramatically hybridizes world pictures, styles, ideologies, perceptions. Language itself underwent a sort of radical shake-up, which Shakespeare's inventiveness took to its extreme, producing hybrid registers and styles, a flurry of new words, -- especially compounds --, and stretching the syntactical potentialities beyond the limits of what was conventional or generally accepted. As many critics have noticed, Shakespeare had an extraordinary ability to activate the various different senses of almost every word, and unexpectedly to either put them together or set them one against the other;. There followed a dramatic concert of meanings sometimes difficult to follow, especially when a number of contrasting semantic perspectives are opened up.

As a result, the translators has not only to face linguistic, but also epistemological problems, because he must bring about a similar cognitive and imaginative turbulence. But, after all, in spite of the sometimes insuperable difficulties, Shakespeare's plays are still very much alive just because they continue to transmit a rich idea of how an elusive world can be refracted through a complex and "myriad-minded" perspective.

The translator must therefore deal with the multi-levelled energy of his texts in order to keep them vital and communicative also to a modern, non-English reader. More specifically, he has to render in the target language the energy of dramatic speech, which is virtual on the page, while showing on stage all its pragmatic significance when combined with the extralinguistic codes. The multifaceted energy of a Shakespearean drama can be briefly sketched as follows:

1. It springs from the complex representation of a rapidly changing world.
2. It is linked to the theatrical space: any enunciation is related to the speaker, to other characters, to objects (real or imaginary), to the audience; it is related to a multicoded performance involving mimic, gestures, movements etc.
3. It has to do with the dramatic time, the "here and now" in which the speech-acts absorb both past and future, pushing forward the "continuous present" of drama.

Any dramatic translation will consequently be both interlinguistic and intersemiotic since it must take into account the stage devices embedded in the original text. I will start with a few simple examples of deixis. In Hamlet II.2, Polonius expounds to the king and queen his theory on the cause of the prince's madness, and, when asked if he is quite sure of it, he peremptorily puts his life at stake: "Take this from this if this be otherwise" ("Spiccate questa da questo se questo sta in altro modo"). His play on three this (the first two referential, the third anaphorical) belongs to his rhetorical attitude, while being at the same time a stage figure which should not be paraphrased in translation, for instance with something like "Cut off this head from this trunk if this which I have been telling you comes out not to be true". Similarly, Macbeth's phrase on entering the stage for the first time as a king (III.1) "To be thus is nothing / But to be safely thus" ("Essere così è nulla se non si è con sicurezza così"), is an extraordinarily elliptic meditation on the precariousness of his new rank: Macbeth is here marked by the signs of royalty (a crown on his head, maybe a sceptre in his hand), and the double deictic thus is distributed in the figure of parallelism reinforced by strong accents, thereby showing the rank of Macbeth and immediately pointing to its vanity. In this case too the translated text should not paraphrase, unravel, the theatrical ellipsis.

The stage track inscribed in drama is not always so evident. Let us take for example Hamlet III.4.220, where Hamlet leaves his mother and addresses the dead Polonius with grim irony: "Come, sir to draw toward an end with you". The primary linguistic meaning is "to finish with you", but the phrase at the same time activates, on the theatrical level, a secondary meaning which has to do with the interpretation of the verb to draw as to pull, to haul. While saying these words, Hamlet is in fact tugging away the corpse. The dramatic language shelters an intersemiotic play, as is confirmed by the following scene (IV.1), when Gertrude answers the question of the king about the movements of Hamlet. Where is he gone? "To draw apart the body he hath kill'd". I have rendered the two meanings: "Venite, signore, per tirare fin in fondo il discorso con voi".

We have said that the performativity of drama articulates along deictic orientations related to the various ways in which characters move and address each other. The asides make this point particularly evident because the characters suddenly change their referential axis from an interlocutor to another or to the audience. However deictic orientations embedded in dramatic speeches are always dynamically at work, even in soliloquies. I will briefly refer to one of Macbeth's many monologues (in II.1). Let us see some of its segments:


Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? | Come, let me clutch thee. |
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. |
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain? |
I see thee yet, in form as palpable |
As this which now I draw. |
Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going,
And such an instrument I was to use. |
Mine eyes are made the fools o'th' other senses,
Or else worth all the rest. | I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. | There's no such thing.
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes.

First, we have the vision of an imaginary dagger. Then, the character addresses directly the object with an accompanying gesture, and his frustration is soon clearly inscribed in the language. Questions about it then arise, but the character then changes his meditative attitude and asserts the reality of his vision by comparing it with the solid evidence of his own dagger which he draws with a gesture. This is sufficient to show why all translation must be faithful to deictics and performatives. What I wanted to show is the energy of a language which should be rendered in translation with a great fidelity to its deictic articulation.

If dramatic language always moves, and performs, as a consequence syntax must be one of the main vehicles of performativity. Drama is in its own nature pluridiscursive and pluristylistic, such a plurality being entrusted first of all to the linguistic modes of different characters who speak, and therefore act, according to their peculiar roles and functions. Consequently, the translator must avoid homologating them at this level which appears to be first of all syntactical, because it is here - as well as through grammar, lexicon, style, rhetorics, and even rhythm and metre - that the characters deploy their attitudes and tactics together with their axiological and ideological assumptions. The tactics through which they argument seem to me first of all syntactical, thus organizing their speeches in a way that at the same time characterizes them, makes them act in and through language, and lends rhythm to their stage movements. Speech-acts mean, beyond and above their semantics, according to their syntagmatic expression.
Let us see, for instance, in Hamlet, I.2, the first long speech of the king, which at the same time characterizes him as a subtle and suspicious character, and deploys his indirect and machiavellian tactics:


Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe,
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him
Together with remembrance of ourselves.
Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
Th'imperial jointress of this warlike state,
Have we as 'twere, with a defeated joy,
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,
Taken to wife. Nor have we herein barr'd
Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone
With this affair along. For all, our thanks…

This speech shapes itself - through its convolutions, parallelisms, oxymora, suspension -- as the utterance of an illegitimate king who is looking for the legitimization of his newly grasped power. He starts with a seven lines sentence, in which his first concern is that of both remembering and arguing the necessity of forgetting the past legitimate king. His second sentence develops through seven more lines: note the oxymora, the parentheses, the suspension of the verbal function. His syntax is a subtle net of semantic balances aiming at obtaining consensus. An intent that comes to the fore in the following three lines, where he addresses the notables of the kingdom for the support they have given him for his coronation and marriage, and flatteringly gives them credit of better wisdoms. Up to this point he has made a speech of domestic policy. Now he can pass to foreign policy and informs the court of what they already know ("Now follows that you know young Fortinbras…"), and he spins a sentence of nine lines, which is followed by another of thirteen! His strategic procedures are much more important than what he actually says. The translator therefore should not disentangle the passage by using shorter sentences and giving them a less convoluted manner.

Think, on the other hand, of the rhetorical and pedagogical syntax of Polonius. Just one example from his speech to Laertes in I.3:


… Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear't that th'opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgement.
(footnote 5)

Quite different, of course, is the syntax of Hamlet, extremely varied according to his interlocutors (or to himself as interlocutor in the soliloquies) - a syntax at times fragmentary, at other times high-sounding, or mimetic, or parodistic, or destructive: in a word, without a centre, as Hamlet is, always exploring language without being able to discover neither the foundations of being nor the strategy of existing.

To sum it up, syntax is essential to performance on the stage. But of course syntax is just one component of dramatic language, conterminous with style, rhetorics, rhythm and metre. Think for example of the decisive importance of the syntactical and the rhetorical components in relation to the stage action of characters such as Iago and Othello. Iago's language develops through disjunctive, suspensive, and negative clauses; Othello's mainly through expanded and assertive constructs. Accordingly, the rhetorics of Iago exploits the rhetorical figures of irony and litotes, whereas that of Othello often moves around hyperbole.

Of no less performative relevance are figures such as antanaclasis (for instance in Richard III); and, generally speaking, all the figures of speech (or schemata in Greek) contribute to both the meaning and the rhythm of dramatical exchanges: I mean the figures of repetition (anaphora, epiphora etc.) and the figures related to order (anastrophe, hyperbaton, isocolon etc.). Brian Vickers has put it very clearly:


"Modern criticism has rediscovered the tropes extremely well […] but the figures have yet to be generally accepted […] The figures sometimes involve changes of meaning, but they are primarily concerned with the shape or physical structure of language, the placing of words in certain syntactical positions, their repetition in varying patterns (to make an analogy with music, tropes exist in a vertical plane, like pitch or harmony; the figures exist in a horizontal plane, like rhythm or other stress-devices)…" [my italics]
(footnote 6)

Dramatic exchanges may turn around such figures throughout a whole scene, as we can see in the verbal duel of Richard and Lady Anne (Richard III, I.2). A brief selection (Example 6) may be sufficient to show how speeches rebound from one character to another:




RICHARD. Lady, you know no rules of charity,
Which renders good for bad, blessings for curses.
ANNE. Villain, thou know'st no law of God nor man.
No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.
RICHARD. But I know none, and therefore am no beast.
ANNE. O wonderful, when devils tell the truth!
RICHARD. More wonderful, when angels are so angry.
Vouchsafe, divine perfection of a woman,
Of these supposèd crimes to give me leave
By circumstance but to acquit myself.
ANNE. Vouchsafe, diffused infection of a man,
Of these known evils but to give me leave
By circumstance t' accuse thy cursèd self.
RICHARD. Fairer than tongue can name thee, let me have
Some patient leisure to excuse myself.
ANNE. Fouler than heart can think thee, thou canst make
No excuse current but to hang thyself.
RICHARD. By such despair I should accuse myself.
ANNE. And by despairing shalt thou stand excused…

The duel goes on through the figures of anaphora (with change of value: positive-negative, negative-positive: ll. 68-70, 74-75, 75-78, 81-83), epiphora, parison and isocolon (a bit everywhere), chiasmus distributed in two different speeches (ll. 71-2) etc. Translation should devote particular attention to such rhetorical texture which marks the rhythm of exchanges.
Rhythm is a highly performative vehicle in drama. It has been defined as a measured flow (the original Greek meaning of the word) of accents or strokes according to particular patterns which may or may not establish a regular metre. Grammar, syntax, and style run side by side through rhythm. In drama, and particularly in poetic drama such as Shakespeare's for the most part is, rhythm and metre do make voices act. The question is: how can translation render the original sound? In search for impossible equivalences, it has to deal with the different body and skin of the words of another language, starting from the morphological and phonological levels, and then it has to arrange these new bodies and skins, all of them endowed with different sounds and lengths, within rhythmical and possibly metrical measures. An impossible, and at the same time inevitable, task. Which raises a preliminary and unavoidable question: should the original metre be rendered in a regular metre of the target language? In another words, should rhythm be formally reorganized in a regular recurrence of durations and stresses? The question of course is open, but my opinion is that translating blank verse into a regular metre (which in Italian would be the hendecasyllable) may after all betray the sound and music and distribution of meaning of the Shakespearean line. My preliminary choice has therefore been to stick to rhythm rather than to metre, since fidelity to rhythm may better render the syntactical and rhetorical levels which especially contribute to the performativity of speeches. If we go back to the king's first speech in Hamlet, we may easily see how, though regular, the blank verse overflows its measure with frequent enjambements and therefore does not seem here to perform what is rather entrusted to the overall rhythm and syntax.

Different is the case of songs, such as Feste's or Ariel's or Autolycus' etc., which exhibit a distinctive music (together, sometimes, with a music proper which was supposed to accompany words) and do have an intrinsic performative quality. These I have always tried to render through a more or less regular metre and through rhymes. Different is also the case of rhyming couplets when they have more than the historically conventional function of closing a scene, or a semi-scene, and may therefore sound rather clumsy in the framework of quite different contemporary conventions. See for instance the abundant use of couplets in the first and third scene of Richard II, where they appear as the very form through which the ceremony of a challenge, that between Bolingbroke and Mowbray which secretly involves the king himself, deploys its false incidents and rituals. The king pretends to act as a neutral judge of the dispute, but he is in fact the real accused. His defense relies on a false ceremony in which he asserts impartiality and at the same stresses his royal role that minimizes his parentage with Bolingbroke. The exchanges in this false ceremony often articulate in couplets, where rhymes sometimes rebound from one character to another and always regulate both their attitudes and their movements:


II. 164-73:

RICHARD. Norfolk, throw down! We bid; there is no boot.

MOWBRAY [Kneeling] Myself I throw, dread sovereign, at thy foot.
My life thou shalt command, but not my shame.
The one my duty owes, but my fair name […]
The which no balm can cure but his heart blood
Which breathed this poison.
RICHARD Rage must be withstood.
Give me his gage. Lions make leopards tame.
MOWBRAY [Standing] Yea, but not change his spots. Take but my shame…

Metre therefore shows here a distinctive performative function which should not be lost in translation. An analogous importance metre has in many other possible examples (just think for instance of the exchanges between Romeo and Juliet at their first encounter). But otherwise plain blank verse may, in my opinion, be sacrificed to the advantage of rhythm, syntax, and rhetoric.

Translation has to cope with the large overall questions of syntax, rhetoric, style, rhythm and metre. But at the same time it must face the micro structures of single overdetermined words, of cultural units, of linguistic knots, of local or intratextual isotopies or pluriisotopies, of semantic fields and synonimic clusters, and of textual cruces.

Here I can give only a sketchy survey of some of these problems. I will start from denotation and connotation conveyed by a single lexeme. Let's take an example from Hamlet, II.2.174, when Polonius asks the distracted prince: "Do you know me, my lord?", and receives this disconcerting answer: "Excellent well, you are a fishmonger". The denotative sense of the word being of course a seller of fish, the connotative is "pander", an oblique charge to Polonius (in Q1 it is clearly a charge for having used Ophelia as a bait for confession, since this exchange comes after the Nunnery scene in which Hamlet, at a certain point, has clearly become aware of the trap laid against him; in Q2/F this charge appears less perspicuous) The Italian translations usually miss the connotation, while I have tried to render it relying on intonation and suspension in order to transmit the idea of Polonius' selling not just fish but his daughter: "Eccellentemente: siete un venditore, di pesce".

Lexemes may also be cultural units, which translation must consider and decide whether to transmit according to their historical value or not. Let's take an example from Titus Andronicus, III.2.12, where the desperate Titus thus addresses the poor Lavinia disfigured and defaced: "Thou map of woe, that thus dost talk in signs..." How should one render the word map? Commentators usually actualize the meaning: see Maxwell (Arden edition) who glosses it as "image, embodiment". Italian translators too usually follow this reading adopting words ranging from image (immagine) to figure (figura). I have decided to stick to the original: "Tu mappa di dolore, che così parli per segni". The word map was at that time particularly rich with meanings, being as it was at the center of various cultural codes: technical-cartographic, mercantile and commercial, adventurous and fantastic. In literary texts it revealed a great imaginative suggestion: see John Donne for example. And see Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, III,2,79-81, where Maria, referring to the beguiled Malvolio who is reading the forged letter, says: "He does smile his face into more lines than are in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies". In Titus's speech, map is particularly pregnant, since it agrees with the metaphorical exchange between microcosm and macrocosm so recurrent in the whole play, and it perfectly adheres to the verbal function talk in signs: the defaced Lavinia can only talk in signs in order to reveal her story in the same way as contemporary maps talked in signs about known and unknown lands.

Isotopies - i.e. in a very rough definition, lines of meaning mainly entrusted to grammar and semantics - may be explicit or implicit. Often metaphorical, they always should be pinpointed and rendered in translation. To give just one example, see Macbeth, V.3.12-25, where Caithness and Angus discuss the situation of the desperate Macbeth under siege and point to his state of mind:


CAITHNESS. Great Dunsinane he strongly fortifies.
Some say he's mad […] But for certain
He cannot buckle his distempered cause
Within the belt of rule.
ANGUS. […] Now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.
MENTETH. Who then shall blame
His pestered senses to recoil and start,
When all that is within him does condemn
Itself for being there?

The clothing metaphor bocomes immediately evident when, from buckle / belt (he cannot any longer dominate/constrain his distempered cause - an overdetermined clause: his uncontrollable passion, his mental sickness; his now indocile followers - to obey him, we pass to hang loose and robe. The clothing paradigm had established itself in I.3.107-8: "Why do you dress me / In borrowed robes?", he had asked Angus who greeted him with the title of Thane of Cawdor, and afterwards in the same scene Banquo had thus commented the event "New honours come upon him, / Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mould / But with the aid of use." (ll. 142-44). Much more secret is the metaphorical isotopy at l. 23, "His pestered senses to recoil and start", where a bellum intestinum is hinted at: Macbeth is now unable to dominate his senses, and his very personality splits down, the metaphor being that of his vital functions as fettered horses which recoil and start refusing to stay calm in a stable. His starting like a frightened horse had already been noted, in the ghost of Banquo scene, by Lady Macbeth who reproved him for "these flaws and starts" (III.4.62) - and she used the same verb in her later sleepwalking scene "you mar all with this starting" (V.1). A translation should keep track of all these occurrences and employ, though at a distance, the same words
. (footnote 7)

But when different metaphorical isotopies knit together in a single passage the task of translation gets much more difficult, and sometimes impossible. Let's take just one example, from Hamlet, I.3.126-31, where Polonius dissuades Ophelia from continuing her relationship with the prince:


Do not believe his vows; for they are brokers
Not of that dye which their inve-stments show,
But mere implorators of unholy suits,
Breathing like sancti-fied and pious bawds
The better to beguile

In his typical syntax and semantics, he here conveys several lines of meaning, which certainly could not be fully grasped by his audience. The pluriisotopy springs from the initial brokers, which, as has been noted by Nigel Alexander (in his Macmillan edition), "maybe of three kinds and Polonius unites all three functions in this complex series of images: a) dealers in finance who are not of the true colour or appearance (dye) which their authorising documents (investments) indicate but simply solicitors for improper requests who talk as if their proposals were holy and religious in order to deceive their clients, b) go-betweens in matters of love who are not of the kind of men claimed by the garments they have borrowed (from the church) but simply makers of lewd and immoral suggestions who talk the language of marriage vows in order to deceive their victims, c) dealers in old clothes - though this meaning is less fully worked out." And he concludes: "Hamlet is thus a shady financier, a pander who promises marriage, and an old clothes man." The three isotopies, developing from the three different agents, continually overlap, so that all key words sound ambiguous, open to more than one meaning (thus transmitting the ambiguity and falseness of Hamlet's courtship as Polonius wants her daughter to understand: investments (financial documents, garments of go-betweens, second-hand clothes), implorators [apax, neologism] (solicitors, entreaters), unholy suits (prophane procedures, improper mediations), bonds (contractual obligations, marriage vows, warranties). Here we are really past the limit of translatableness.
(footnote 8) Theatre directors know it very well and usually cut passages like this!

I will now come to paradigms, synonims, matrix-words. However different in their language and style may be the characters of a play, the semantics of a text offers paradigms which are typical not only of a character, but also of the entire work. See for example in Hamlet the paradigms or semantic fields of sickness, flesh, ear, weapon, prison, madness. These semantic fields produce synonimic constellations which throughout the action exhibit an open or secret internal hierarchy.

Let's take the paradigm of madness in Hamlet. It may be strictly madness (of the 71 occurrences in the canon 22 appear in this play); but it is also "transformation", "distemper", "lunacy", "affliction of his love", "wildness", "melancholy" (per Claudio), "lunacy", "ecstasy of love" (per Polonio), "ecstasy" (per Ofelia) ecc. The translator has to find the right synonims for a semantic field which operates through attenuation and through the questioning of the real state of Hamlet, who, in his turn, had defined and declare it as an "antic disposition".

Rendering matrix-words (as has been shown by Barbara Folkart, Les invariants de traduction), is of crucial importance since they act in the textual economy not so much as lexical units but as keys of a semantic system. And this is a very difficult task for the translator who must approximate at the same time the synonimic cluster and its internal hierarchy. Just one example from Titus Andronicus, II.3, the scene in the forest where, following the plan of Aaron, Martius and Quintus plunge into a horrible pit or hole. It is one of the most symbolically strong and overdetermined of the horrific paradigm of this tragedy. The pit or hole is a tomb (l. 228 monument, l. 240 grave) and an infernal cave (l. 236 Cocytus), and it is defined by synonimic net (pit, hole, hollow, den) oscillating at the connotative level from the mortuary to the sexual meaning. It is, implicitly or explicitly, a mouth which sucks or breathes (l. 224 blood-drinking pit, l. 236 Cocytus misty mouth) or eats (l. 235 devouring, l. 239 swallowing). And it is also the womb of an enormous beast (l. 229 ragged entrails), and finally, at the culmination of all this alarming symbolism, it is a uterus or a vagina which swallows and buries instead of procreating (l. 239 swallowing womb). Mouth, tomb, womb (womb-tomb), the horrid pit or hole (l. 193 the loathsome pit, so it is initially defined by Aaron), it is therefore the place of a double terror, terror of morte and of sex as death. In the synonimic field, the lexeme pit appears to be hierarchically privileged, since it is the first to occur with the most perturbing qualifications. It is a highly frequent lexeme in this drama (10 occurrences, and all of them in this scene, on a total of 20 in the entire canon). Looking at the canon, one discovers that pit finds in King Lear (IV.6.128-29) a very strong overdetermination as the final monstruous image of female sex ("There's hell, there's darkness, there is the sulphurous pit - burning, scalding, stench, consumption!"). The hierarchy of this synonim field seems to be established both textually and macrotextually with the dominance of pit. Accordingly, in my translation I have opted for buco as the matrix-word, and then for buca, fossa, tana, cava, for the other lexemes, and so I trust that I have rendered somehow the relational and differential play of synonyms in the scene. The choice of the matrix-word may have a performative value in the interpretation of directors and actors.

Finally, but at the very beginning or at the very core of the translational work, we have textual criticism. In fact, a translator has to deal as a philologist with quite a wide field of textual problems, the solution of which affects not only the language but also, on many occasions, the performance. I can here present a very scanty typology of cruces.

Let us start from a simple one, that of the different attribution of a speech which may change radically the meaning of a scene. Take Titus Andronicus, V.1.47-53, where Aaron has been taken prisoner together with the child he has had by Tamora, and Lucius, who wants them both hanged immediately, orders: "A halter, soldiers, hang him on this treee, / And by his side his fruit of bastardy". Aaron asks him not to touch his son: "Touch not the boy, he is of royal hand". Lucius does not bend: "Too like the sire for ever being good. / First hang the child, that he may see it sprawl - / A sight to vex the father's soul withal". At this point, in the ancient editions, Aaron intervenes in a desperate attempt to save his son "Get me a ladder. Lucius, save the child". But both Pope and Capell attributed "Get me a ladder" to Lucius, leaving to Aaron "Lucius, save the child"; and Capell added a stage direction which supported the emendation: "A ladder brought, which Aaron is made to ascend". The emendation radically changes the action: in the ancient editions, Aaron takes the lead; in almost all the modern editions that accept the emendation, Aaron seems to be passively obliged to climb the ladder to the gallows. It seems to me that the ancient reading makes more sense: in order to save his child Aaron asks for a ladder and climbs it spontaneously to the gallows where he will recite his gospel of horrors. Here we can see how the translator's choice may affect the action itself. My translation followed the ancient reading.

Shakespeare's texts still keep many secrets. Translation may help to discover some of them. For instance it can disentangle confused original passages, and even recent conflations which bring to ridiculous results. Take for instance, in Hamlet, IV.2, the passage (Example 13) where he treats Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as sponges:


ROSENCRANTZ. Take you me for a sponge, my lord?
HAMLET Ay, sir, that soaks up the king's countenance, his rewards, his authorities. But such officers do the King best service in the end. He keeps them, like an apple in the corner of his jaw, [Q2 reading] - he keeps them like an ape in the corner of his jaw [F reading] - he doth keep you as an Ape doth nuttes [Q1 reading], first mouth'd to be last swallowed. When he needs what you have glean'd, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you shall be dry again.

In this case only the usually reviled Q1 offers a satisfactory reading. The other two lack either the subject (Q2) or the object (F). Q1 offers the full meaning and a logical one, since it defines as nuts the food preserved by the ape in its mouth, something tasty and small enough to be taken in the corner of a jaw in order to grant the last savour. The compositors of Q2 certainly misunderstood the manuscript and comically ruined the sense, making the comparison disappear and incongruously putting a big object like an apple in the corner of the King's jaw. Not less comical was the interpretation of the compositors of F: they saved the Ape but took out the food and so ruined the comparison, awkwardly obliging the King to open his mouth even more in order to lodge his officers, Gargantua-like, in one corner of it. Stubbornly sticking to their uncompromising contempt for Q1 as a degenerate offspring of the pure text, our recent editors refuse any help from it: John F. Andrewes follows Q2, Harold Jenkins and Philip Edward follow F, while G.R. Hibbard makes a bizarre conflation of Q2 and F ("He keeps them, like an ape an apple in the corner of his jaw") and the same does Stephen Greenblatt, and also, though putting an ape between square brackets, Susanne L. Wofford. None of them want to acknowledge the fact that in this case it is Q1 that gives sense to the authoritative text, and not the reverse.
(footnote 9)
Much more difficult, and open to debate, is the interpretation of a passage where the meaning still appears to be obscure. Take Macbeth, V.5.9-15:


I have almost forgot the taste of fears.
The time has been my senses would have cooled
To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in't. I have supped full with horrors:
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me.

In the previous scene, Macbeth had furiously insulted the servant who entered to announce to him that ten thousand soldiers were approaching the castle of Elsinore. Even before he could pronounce a word, Macbeth had damned him for his white face, for those "linen cheeks of thine" which "are counsellors to fear". On that face, in fact, he had seen the mirror of his own fear. In this scene he is preparing himself for the imminent battle, when a cry of women from within stops him short and Seyton goes to see what has happened. Then he has this penultimate soliloquy, which has not received the attention it deserves, differently from his last soliloquy on the waste of time ("Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow..."). In this case too I perceive a neglected overdetermination of sense in an expression ("I have supped full with horrors") which does not seem to me to have been satisfactorily analysed. I will start by noting that he qualifies his forgetting fear with a significant almost, and uses a gustative metaphor, the taste, to transmit this disturbing feeling. Fear receives therefore an oral connotation that goes back to a remote time of childhood which emerges in the lines immediately following. Soon afterwards we find the expression cited above and centred on another gustative metaphor. First of all we must ascertain the "age", so to speak, of the past he is going back to: relatively recent, indeterminate, or remote? The expression "The time has been" (l. 10) is normally used by Shakespeare - in the same way as the expression "the time was that", or "when" - to indicate a very distant time, either individual or historical. In III.4 Macbeth had employed the same expression to evoke the ancient barbarous age which preceded "the gentle weal", the bond of civilisation: "The time has been / That, when the brains were out, the man would die..." (ll. 77-78). We are thus authorized to infer that the time of his life Macbeth is here referring to is very remote: in fact, it appears as a time of imaginary fears, a time in which his "fell of hair / Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir". The treatise is a story or, better here, a fairytale. In this connection we should remember the rebuke he receives from Lady Macbeth in III.4.62-65: "O, these flaws and starts, / Impostors to true fear, would well become / A woman's story at a winter's fire / Authorized by her grandam." Soon after this voyage into the past in order to find the roots of his fears and dismiss them, Macbeth adds: "I have supp'd full with horrors". Critics usually overlook the semantic density of the gustative metaphor, and link it either to the "our poisoned chalice" of I.7.11 or to the banquet of III.4, when the ghost of Banquo had appeared to Macbeth. In my reading, and in the resulting translation choice I have adopted, the metaphor is rather related to the imaginary of early childhood. I was intrigued by the verb supp'd and consulted the Oxford English Dictionary very carefully. There I discovered that the verb "to sup", besides the more usual sense, derived from the Old French super, of "to eat one's supper" or "to dine", offers an alternative, and now obsolete, sense, derived from the Old English supan, i.e. "To take (liquid) into the mouth in small quantities", "To take a sip or sips" (and see for example Ben Jonson: "Might I of Iove's nectar sup"). The deepest meaning here would then be that of a horror linked to the orality of childhood (an orality to which Lady Macbeth was referring to when she defined, in I.5, the nature of her husband as "too full of the milk of human kindness", and no matter whether that milk mingled with fear). A superb hero in the battle, Macbeth presents himself from the very beginning as a man impregnated with fear. According to this reading, having introjected fear, Macbeth tries to exorcise it by means of projection, by acting it out and bringing terror everywhere. In his flight from the horrible through the practice of the horrible, by creating "strange images of death" (as in the mediated perception Duncan had of him), Macbeth has finally become the fear, and still is doomed to be haunted by it till the very end.
(footnote 10)

Finally, I will give an example of debatable emendation in one of the most difficult passages in the canon: The Winter's Tale, I.2.136-144:


Folio reading:

... Can thy Dam, may't be
Affection? Thy Intention stabs the Center,
Thou do'st make possible things not so held,
Communicat'st with dreams (how can this be?)
With what's unreall: thou coactive art,
And fellow'st nothing. Then 'tis very credent,
Thou may'st co-joine with something, and thou do'st,
(And that beyond Commission) and I find it,
(And that to the infection of my Braines,
And hardning of my Browes.)

Rowe's emendation:

…Can thy Dam? may't be -
Imagination! thou dost stab to th' Center.
Thou dost make possible things not be so held,
Communicat'st with Dreams &emdash; how can this be?
With what's unreal, thou coactive art,
And follow'st nothing. Then 'tis very credent,
Thou may'st co-join with something, and thou dost,
And that beyond commission, and I find it,
And that to the Infection of my Brains,
And hardning of my Brows.

The first editors, starting from Rowe, could make no sense out of the Folio reading and thought it better to emend the passage heavily. Pope and Johnson followed Rowe in breaking down the enjambement between the first and the second lines and in substituting Affection with Imagination, and the question mark with the exclamation mark. Also, in the fifth line Rowe substituted the colon of the Folio with a comma, thus linking With what's unreal to thou coactive art, and he was followed in this emendation by Johnson, Warburton, Theobald, and then Malone, Collier and Clark, these last three removing even the comma in the line in order to make the link absolutely clear. Warburton and Theobald still kept Imagination in the place of Affection, but the later editors, starting from Steevens, returned to Affection, while keeping the exclamation mark and breaking down the enjambement from the previous line, with the only notable exception of Collier.

The reading of this difficult passage was thus established: in modern editions, apart from Imagination, Rowe's version, with all its extremely relevant changes in punctuation, and consequently in meaning, is still, with a few exceptions, the accepted one.
(footnote 11)

How is this passage consequently interpreted? A critical line which goes from Capell to Kermode reads Affection as the passion of jealousy which is beginning to shake Leontes. Another line (Steevens, Malone, etc.) reads Affection as meaning "imagination", even though it rejects Rowe's emendation. Still another line, more faithful to the punctuation of the Folio, refers Affection to Hermione (thy dam) and interprets it as "lust", according to the meaning specified in OED 3. Stephen Orgel (The Oxford Shakespeare) points out that "the referent of 'thy intention' is unclear, and upon this depends the meaning of the remainder of the speech."; but Jean Howard (The Norton Shakespeare) opts for Leontes' jealousy: "Passion (probably the passion of jealousy), your intensity (intention) pierces my heart or to the core of my being".

To sum it up, is Leontes referring here to Hermione's passion (love and lust) or to his passion (jealousy)? The Folio's reading is not that ambiguous: it is Hermione's passion. But are we sure that this passion is lust as it is conveyed by the word Affection at the very beginning of the passage? In Greene's Pandosto, the source of the play, we find first affected and then affection twice at the beginning of the story, and while the narrator points out that it was a lawful, innocent feeling, he also ambiguously brings the reader to suspect that there is more than affection in this relationship.
(footnote 12) A bit earlier in this same scene, when Leontes begins to feel suspicious, we read:


Too hot, too hot!
To mingle friendship farre is mingling bloods.
I have tremor cordis on me. My heart dances,
But not for joy, not joy. This entertainment
May a free face put on, derive a liberty
From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,
And well become the agent. 'T may, I grant.
But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers,
As now they are, and making practised smiles
As in a looking-glass; and then to sigh, as 'twere
The mort o' th' deer - O, that is entertainment
My bosom likes not, nor my brows. (ll. 108-119)

He is clearly questioning the nature of Hermione's entertainment of Palixenes: is it lawful or not? Is it just affection or something more? In the later passage, he seems, at the beginning, to meditate on the same point: may it be only affection? But immediately afterwards he decides that it is too intense, too strong, to be only affection: it is lust, begotten by a preceding imaginary desire or fancy. I suppose that Shakespeare expanded the last statement quoted in Greene's narration, the hero abandoning the idea of a "honest affection" between his wife and his friend, and musing on the "disordinate fancy" of the former.

The whole passage shows the complex shifting significance of a meditation in progress, and therefore a dramatic energy, which depends on ambiguous or rare words. Let us consider them.

Affection has 83 occurrences in the canon, and its meaning goes from emotion to feeling, to inclination, and passion.
(footnote 13) Its ambiguous significance is best displayed in The Merchant of Venice, IV.1.50-52, where Shylock says:


You'll ask me why I rather choose to have
A weight of carrion flesh than to receive
Three thousand ducats. I'll not answer that,
But say it is my humour. Is it answered?…
Some men there are love not a gaping pig,
Some that are mad if they behold a cat,
And others when the bagpipe sings i' th' nose
Cannot contain their urine; for affection,
Mistress of passion, sways it to the mood
Of what it likes or loathes.

Here affection appears to be hierarchically superior to passion, and chronologically preceding it: it points to the condition of being affected by something very profound and impenetrable, almost a secret malady of the mind. If we follow the Folio's reading, we should then imagine that Leontes, soon after mentioning Affection in the sense of friendly feeling, shifts to the other acceptation of passion or lust. This shifting should be seen in his immediate addressing himself to its dubious significance: "Thy intention…". And intention is another complex word, meaning both aiming at something, like in the Latin intendere (to tend to, to aim at), and intensity. It is therefore both the subject Hermione is addressing her affection to, and the apparent intensity of its manifestation, which is frightening Leontes. This dangerous meaning of Affection stabs the centre: another rare word, which in Shakespeare means the centre of the universe or of the earth or of man, and in this case his heart. But why is he using centre and not heart? In all probability because the flow of his thinking is here dismissing the idea of a more superficial affection than that of friendship and concentrating on the extremity of passion, which is at the same time Hermione's lust and the effect it has on his very centre of being (the two passions - lust and jealousy - being at this point closely interwoven).

Hermione's passion is now seen as limitless because it springs from the deepest layers of her mind: it was there even before finding the subject, Polixenes, on whom it now discharges itself. It lay hidden in her dreams, in what is unreal (another rare word in Shakespeare, since it occurs only twice, here and in Macbeth, 3.4.106, "unreal mock'ry, hence!"). According to the Folio's punctuation, the semicolon intervening here, thou coactive art is not linked with the previous phrase: coactive is an hapax and should mean here "coercitive", "compulsory", as registered from 1605, and not necessarily "acting in concert", as stated by OED with reference to this passage.
( footnote 14)

If Hermione's passion has always been there, hidden in her most secret fantasies, it can very well co-joine (another hapax) with something real - with Polixenes at the moment - and being that coactive, once it has found its target, it knows no limits: it goes beyond Commission, another strange word in the context, which seems to mean beyond any lawful authorization of her conscience.
In a few lines of great dramatic intensity, Affection has undergone a radical change, losing any shade of friendship and turning into passion (and lust), and not only that: it has shown to Leontes its secret source in Hermione's unconscious, where it lay in the shape of imaginary desire and lust even before investing itself in a real lover. Woman is intrinsically a whore - as we can see in other passages in the canon: just think, for instance, of Posthumus' tirade on female innate lasciviousness - and her affection amounts to the infection of his brain, now working in its turn in the imaginary space within nothing and something, which is damnation.
Read in this key, the Folio's reading needs no emendation. It is the task of the actor to make clear the elliptical shifting from the interrogation of Affection to the answer it receives.
To conclude, the translator has to force his way into the original text with a greater indiscretion than that of the critic who may not lose the advantage of a distance in relation to his object. The translator is bound to enter the object, to investigate it, to palpate it in all of its connections and fissures, and, in a process which is at the same time interlinguistic and intratextual, he may sometimes discover hidden meanings that the native reader or critic is no longer capable to perceive since certain phrases have been accepted in his language in slightly different ways or because he is conditioned by a somewhat automatic comprehension of sense. The translator's discoveries then may come to rivitalize, to regenerate the text, renewing its secret energy. From this point of view, translation can liberate forces which had remained hidden to native speakers and even to critics. The interlinguistic exchange may therefore provide surprising additions to textual hermeneutics.

Another aspect of translation concerns the amount of estrangement which it conveys into the target text. Estrangement being essential for any artistic invention, as has been shown for example by the theory of information, any disautomatization of the target language in the process of translation amounts to new expressive potentialities.



1) Jean-Michel Déprats, Giorgio Melchiori, Manuel Conejero, Niels Hansen, Mladen Engelsfeld, Henryk Zbierski, Suheyla Artemel, Kristian Smidt, Daniel Yang.
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2) Shifters for Jakobson, embrayeurs for Benveniste, deictics are those elements of language which situate the message (Weinrich).
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3) For just a couple of examples of absolute performatives look at 7) in the handout (first and second passages).
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4) As Styan put it quite a few years ago, "The language of the good dramatic poet especially carries the submerged imagery of gesture and movement".
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5) "Guardati dall'attaccar briga, ma se ci sei dentro / comportati in modo che l'avversario debba guardarsi da te. / Concedi a tutti il tuo orecchio, ma a pochi la tua voce; / accetta l'opinione di ognuno, ma ri-servati il tuo giudizio ..."
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6) Shakespeare's Use of Rhetoric, in a New Companion to Shakespeare Studies, edited by K. Muir and S. Schoenbaum, Cambridge, 1971, 86-7.
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7) "Chi può allora biasimare / i suoi sensi inceppati se recalcitrano e scartano, / quando tutto ciò che ha dentro si condanna / per il fatto di trovarcisi?"
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8) "In breve, Ofelia, / non credere ai suoi voti, che sono mezzani, / non del colore che mostrano i loro vestimenti, / ma meri procacciatori di cause profane / che suonano come impegni pii e santi / per meglio ingannare."
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ROSEN. Mi prendete per una spugna, mio signore?
AMLETO Sissignore, che assorbe il favore del re, le sue ri-compense, le sue influenze. Ma tali funzionari servono al re la miglior portata, alla fine. Egli se li tiene come fa la scimmia con le noccioline, in un angolo della mascel-la, i primi a essere messi in bocca e gli ultimi ad essere ingoiati.
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10) My translation: "Ho quasi dimenticato il sapore delle paure. / C'è stato un tempo in cui i miei sensi si sarebbero gelati / a udire un grido nella notte, e l'intero scalpo / ad un racconto pauroso mi si rizzava e fremeva / come se avesse vita. Ho poppato ogni orrore / fino ad ingozzarmi, e il terrore, familiare / ai miei pensieri omicidi, non può più / farmi trasalire."
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11) Orgel's edition, The Oxford Shakespeare, maintains the Folio: "… Can thy Dam, may't be / Affection? Thy etc.").
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12) "Bellaria, who in her time was the flower of courtesy, willing to shew how unfeignedly she loved her husband by his friend's entertainment, used him likewise so familiarly that her countenance bewrayed how her mind was affected towards him, oftentimes coming herself in his bed chamber to see that nothing should be amiss to mislike him.This honest familiarity increased daily more and more betwixt them […] there grew such a secret uniting of their affections, that the one could not well be without the company of the other [...] He [Leontes] then began to measure all their actions, and [to] misconstrue of their private familiarity, judging that it was not for honest affection, but for disordinate fancy, so as he began to watch them more narrowly…".

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13) OED: II Of the mind. 2.a. An affecting or moving of the mind in any way; a mental state brought about by any influence; an emotion or feeling. 3. Feeling as opposed to reason; passion, lust. Obsoleto. Dal 1300. 4. State of mind generally, mental tendency; disposition. Obsolete. 5. State of mind towards a thing; disposition towards, bent, inclination, penchant. Archaic. 6.a. Good disposition towards, goodwill, kind feeling, love, fondness, loving attachment. 10. An abnormal state of the body; malady, disease.
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14) OED: 1. Of the nature of force or compulsion; coercive, compulsory. Rare. 1605 T. Bell: The Pope hath no power coactive over any king. B. In passive sense. 1596: coactive fasting. 2. [co+active] Acting in concert. 1611: WT
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15) See what Maurice Blanchot has written to this purpose: "If it is true that a language seems to us so much more expressive and true as we less know it, if words are in need of a certain ignorance in order to preserve their power of revelation, such a paradox is not at all surprising since translators always meet up with it, which is one of the principal obstacle and at the same time the principal resource of any translation."


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