Shakespeare On The Double! The Bard in plain English

Shakespeare On The Double! Twelfth Night translated by Mary Ellen Snodgrass

The greatest English playwright in plain English at long last! Now I can understand every word written by the Bard as long as I have a copy of Shakespeare On The Double! in my hand.

Shakespeare On The Double! The unusual format of this paperback edition of Shakespeare’s plays makes him as easy to read as any current bestseller. Facing every page of the original text is another page which “translates” the text into modern English.

So on one page you have the original text:

If music be the food of love, play on…

On the facing page is the “translation”:

If love feeds on music, play more music.

I am quoting the opening words of Twelfth Night (play, synopsis) spoken by Duke Orsino and “translated by” Mary Ellen Snodgrass.

It may not sound like Shakespeare. But the translation is useful when you run into more complex passages less easy to understand.

There are passages whose meanings might have been perfectly clear to Shakespeare’s contemporaries but which have to be explained to us.

Take these words of Viola in Twelfth Night, for instance. She confesses her love for Duke Orsino to Olivia’s jester, Feste. But here is the rub. She is disguised as a young man – and neither the duke nor the jester suspects she is a woman. And yet her confession draws no response from the jester. He merely asks her to wait while he informs his mistress that she has brought a message from the duke.

It is a dramatic moment – a “young man” confessing his love for another man. But we may not catch the meaning in the original text:

CLOWN: Now, Jove, in his next commodity of hair
send thee a beard!

VIOLA: By my troth, I’ll tell thee, I’m almost sick
for one — (aside) though I would not have it grow on
my chin. Is thy lady within?

Snodgrass’ translation makes the meaning clear.

CLOWN: When God passes out hair, I hope he gives you a beard.

VIOLA: I confide to you that I am lovesick for a man. (VIOLA in private) But I don’t want hair on my chin. Is the Countess at home?

I have read Arden and other annotated editions which are useful for classroom studies, explaining words and phrases and allusions, putting Shakespeare in perspective.

But for simple enjoyment of his plays, Shakespeare On The Double! is hard to beat. The simple English translation is fun to read and makes one appreciate Shakespeare all the more. This could be a good companion to annotated editions for classroom studies as well.

Lost in translation

A rock’n’roll fan, I don’t care for Tagore’s songs or dance dramas, but I have come across no poet who has written more consistently well than the grand old man of Bengali literature. Wordsworth can bore, Keats has his juvenalia, Yeats and Dylan Thomas can be incomprehensible, Tennyson trite, Browning dense, Shakespeare — well, how many really read The Rape of Lucrece? I haven’t and don’t intend to. But Tagore’s virtuosity shines through every poem. He is as mellifluous as Tennyson but he can be stark and austere too in his later poems. However, it is impossible to appreciate his poetry without a knowledge of Bengali for it is so dependent on the music of words. It is entirely lost in translation, at least in the translations I have seen.

Our knowledge of world literature is so dependent on middlemen. We don’t really get to read the authors at all but their translators.

Some are lucky to get good translators, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who even said Gregory Rabassa’s English translation of his One Hundred Years of Solitude was superior to his Spanish original. I loved Constance Garnett’s translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The impression Gilbert Murray’s verse translation of Aeschylus made on me was unmatched by later Penguin prose translations. It only goes to show how different the same work can be translated by two different people.

In a play or a novel, it is possible at least to appreciate the story or the characters, but what is a poem without words? That is one reason why I seldom read translations. I would rather a second-rate English writer or a Bengali novel than a European classic. For it is words that make literature and words are lost in translation. Mostly lost, that is.

Still, one must be grateful to translators for at least introducing us to writers we would have never known. They deserve recognition. J Peder Zane writes about a translator’s complaint that a major American magazine quoted his translation of a famous foreign author without even mentioning his name. When the translator complained to the magazine, he was told the editors feared his name would “clutter” the piece.

“Few people would endorse the magazine’s oversight,” writes Zane. Yet we seldom mention the translator when we talk about a foreign author, he adds. That’s so true. I can’t even remember who translated Camus, who really impressed me in my younger days. But it was the translator I read, not Albert Camus. I just discovered the novel I always knew as The Outsider is also called The Stranger. There is a subtle difference between the two words. Camus’ novel was called L’Etranger, just reminded me. So why was it translated as The Outsider? The translator does make a difference. It’s time we gave him his due.