Sunday, September 7, 2008

Shakespeare Lost in Translation

About 20 years ago I read a fascinating account by Laura Bohannan of her attempt to tell the story of Hamlet to a group of West Africans. She was convinced that Shakespeare's plot would be universally understood, but such proved not to be the case. What follows speaks of the challenge of translation of meaning across cultures.

I protested that I was not a story teller. Story telling is a skilled art among them; their standards are high, the audiences critical and vocal in their criticism. I protested in vain. This morning they wanted to hear a story while they drank. They threatened to tell me no more stories until I told them one of mine. Finally, the old man promised that no one would criticize my style, 'for we know you are struggling with our language.' 'but,' put in one of the elders, 'you must explain what we do not understand, as we do, when we tell you our stories.' Suddenly realizing that here was my chance to prove Hamlet universally intelligible, I agreed.

The old man handed me some more beer to hlep me on with my story telling. Men filled their long pipes and knocked coals from the fire to place in the pipe bowl; then, puffing contentedly, they sat back to listen. I began in the proper style, 'Not yesterday, not yesterday, but long ago, a thing occurred. One night three men were keeping watch outside the homestead of the great chief, when suddenly they saw the former chief approach them.'

'Why was he no longer their chief?'

'He was dead,' I explained. 'That is why they were troubled and afraid when they saw him.'

'Impossible,' began one of the elders, handing his pipe on to his neighbor, who interrupted. 'Of course it wasn't the dead chief; it was an omen sent by a witch. Go on.'

Slightly shaken, I continued. 'One of these three was a man who knew things' - the closest translation for scholar, but unfortunately it also meant witch. The second elder looked triumphantly at the first. 'So he spoke to the dead chief saying, 'Tell us what we must do so you may rest in your grave,' but the dead chief did not answer. He vanished, and they could see him no more. Then the man who knew things - his name was Horatio - said this event was the affair of the dead chief's son, Hamlet.'

There was a general shaking of heads round the circle. 'Had the dead chief no living brothers? Or was this son the chief?'

'No,' I replied. 'That is, he had one living brother who became the chief when the elder brother died.'

The old men muttered: such omens were matters for chiefs and elders, not for youngsters; no good could come of going behind a chief's back; obviously this Horatio was not a man who knew things.

"Yes, he was,' I insisted, shooing a chicken away from my beer. 'In our country the son is the next to the father. The dead chief's younger brother had become the great chief. He had also married his elder brother's widow only about a month after the funeral.'

'He did well,' the old man beamed and announced to the others, 'I told you that if we knew more about Europeans, we would find they really were very like us. In our country also,' he added to me, 'the younger brother marries the elder brother's widow and becomes the father of his children. Now, if your uncle, who married your widowed mother, is your father's full brother, then he will be a real father to you. Did Hamlet's father and uncle have one mother?'

His question scarcely penetrated my mind; I was too upset and thrown off balance by having one of the most important elements of Hamlet knocked straight out of the picture. Rather uncertainly I said that I thought they had the same mother, but I wasn't sure; the story didn't say. The old man told me severely that these genealogical details made all the difference...

While I paused, perplexed at how to render Hamlet's disgusted soliloquy to an audience convinced that Claudius and Gertrude had behaved in the best possible manner, one of the young men asked me who had married the other wives of the chief.

'He had no other wives,' I told him.

'But a chief must have many wives! ...'

Excerpt from Bohannan, Laura 1976. ʹMiching Mallecho, That Means Witchcraftʹ in Middleton, J. (ed.) Magic, Witchcraft, and Curing. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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