Worldwide Hamlet Conference: Performance and Translation

If I’m honest, two days of papers on Hamlet in Performance and Translation, although undoubtedly useful for my research, was promising to be a bit of a hard slog.  How much more could be said on Hamlet before we all lost the will to live? Still, as the speakers came from all over Eastern Europe (and a few from the Far East, too) I was hoping that there would be something that would inspire me.  I was already looking for possible comparisons between Hamlet in the former Eastern Bloc and post-1949 China: something about 1989 and the fall (or not) of Communism. As it turned out, the conference was brilliant and, augmented by the various Shakespeare Festival performances which we could all attend for free, it was incredibly apt for my PhD project.  And to think that, if Bill hadn’t been teaching somebody else’s Shakespeare on film class, and one of those students hadn’t mentioned a round-robin email they had received, and he hadn’t passed it on to me, then I’d still be sitting here having no idea what I had missed out on.  Nor would I have any idea about which direction my study could take me.  Now, I have too many directions.

I’m not going to give a detailed summary of all the talks but will pick out a few points that stood out to me because of their relevance to my ideas .  And, like a crab, I will go backwards, starting with the last group of papers…

Hamlet in Translation

Darya Lazarenko, Classic Private University, Zaporizhia, Ukraine: ‘Hamlet in Ukrainian Translations: A Mirror Up to a Nation’

Darya’s paper summed up in her opening sentence what had been expressed in nearly all the previous papers – and Dennis Kennedy’s Foreign Shakespeares – that an early modern jobbing playwright from the Midlands lies at the heart of much of Europe’s ‘nation forming’.  She explored how in the second half of the nineteenth century, Ukrainians, caught between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, used Shakespeare to defend their national identity.  The public use of Ukrainian had been banned by the Russians – it had been deemed merely a dialect of Russian, only suitable for domestic use.  Thus, the first Ukrainian translation of Shakespeare, ostensibly made to ‘popularise the great dramatist and psychologist’ and to ‘refine the Ukrainian language’, in actual fact was deeply nationalist.  It used many Ukrainian colloquialisms, and translated ‘to be or not to be’ as ‘to live or not to live’.  Furthermore, it introduced Ukrainian into the European continuum: if Shakespeare could be translated into Ukrainian, how could anyone try to say that Ukrainian wasn’t a language?  Shakespeare is still being used to comment on the here and now in Ukraine.  According to Darya, the latest translator of Hamlet has been accused of ‘anti-intellectualism’ because of his use of updated language, reflecting, like Lin and so many others, that Hamlet is just ‘a normal  individual in a nihilist society.’

George Volceanov, Spiru Haret University, Bucharest, Romania: ‘First-hand Impressions of translating Hamlet’.

George introduced his new, three-version Romanian translation of Hamlet, which was being launched the next day. ‘A mock-Arden,’ he joked.  He worked with a co-translator, a dramaturg from the national theatre, the softly spoken Violeta Popa.  He read out the publisher’s claim (‘fully translated, non-bowdlerised, non-conflated’) with a twinkle in his eye.  After all, purists may not be too happy with some of his updating: ‘loser’, ‘tsunami’, ‘brokers’.  However, this was part of a coherent strategy to modernise the translation, reflecting the modernisation of his country, he said. And its globalisation?  ‘After Christmas 2004 the whole world knows what this word tsunami means.  What other word do we have now that can conjure up the same sense of being obverwhelmed, or of total destruction?’  What also interested me were his comments on previous translators and how, because of the political realities of their day, they were forced into a position of self-censorship in order to be allowed to publish.  ‘Oh what a peasant rogue and slave am I’ inevitably had the word peasant crossed out: ‘We could not have Hamlet showing contempt for the lower classes!’ Any mention of groundlings was avoided, or paraphrased as ‘spectators from the ground floor’.  Before 1966, God was to be written with a small letter, he said.

Mădălina Nicoleascu, University of Bucharest, Romania: ‘Framing Hamlet in pre- and post-89 Translations in Romania’

Translation de-contextualises to re-contextualise, began Mădălina, referring to Walter Benjamin (and I made a mental note to myself to actually read his essay ‘The Task of the Translator’, still on my to-do list).  She talked about hauntology(!): how new performances are ‘haunted by old traditions […] and old translations’.  What specifically interested me, however, was her reference to a 1985 Romanian actors’ version of Hamlet.  She referred to Romanian actor and communist era dissident Ion Camitru and (I think) his anger at the ‘communist trick over words’ but also the use of the ‘subversive word’.  The actors’ version was a ‘Patchword’, she said, using five different versions of the Hamlet text.  This meant that the authorities couldn’t easily trace all the different versions being used in different sections, so that the company could then insert their own words. They could ‘smuggle in lizards’ and the audience would be waiting for them.  Yet she noted how a 2009 version of Hamlet was ‘radically depoliticised’. [The Metropolis Theatre?] purged Hamlet of all the topical allusions so common in Eastern European productions – no references were there to surveillance or corruption.  Instead it returned to 19C translations of the play. Mădălina was talking of a nostalgia for a less complicated past, I think, although the ending of this anti-political play confused me.  Apparently, it had a new ending, without Fortinbras, or anyone else for that matter, remaining on the stage, because they were all dead and no-one was left to tell the story. That seems quite political to me…

Here is a link to an article by Ion Camitru, ‘I remember my Hamlet’: Ion_camitru

To be continued

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One thought on “Worldwide Hamlet Conference: Performance and Translation

  1. Pingback: Ophelia does a Hamlet: Polski Theatre (Poland) | Shakespeare Travels © Saffron Vickers Walkling

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