In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare offers us a particularly comic instance of translation. In the first scene of the third act, the mischievous fairy Puck has set into motion all manner of havoc, including the substitution of a donkey’s head for the ordinary head of poor Nick Bottom, a weaver who had been innocently engaged in rehearsing a play that he and other “rustics” intended to perform for visiting royalty. Bottom is, understandably, a little cranky and confused about this buffoonish substitution—he had offered to play the far nobler part of a lion (Shakespeare 2004, Act 1, scene 2, 68–70)—and he does not react happily to the responses that it generates among other members of his company. The first to see him is the tinker Tom Snout, who declares, “O Bottom, thou art changed! what do I see on thee?” (Act 3, scene 1, 114). And Snout is followed by Peter Quince, a carpenter and the author of the ill-fated play that had been in rehearsals, who will give us our relevant line, as he exclaims in surprise, “Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art translated” (Act 3, scene 1, 118).
Indeed he is. Bottom, when he declares the events a dream, proposes that Quince shall write a ballad of this transformation (Act 4, scene 1, 224–26).1 This ballad might be seen as a further translation, of the sort Umberto Eco calls “intersemiotic”—a translation across forms, rather like that of interpretive dance, which is sort of famous for translating badly. What is not quite clear, though, is how layered this translation may already be just in Nick Bottom’s appearance. The use of “ass” for buttocks—that is, for the bottom—is first attested only in 1860,2 more than two and a half centuries after A Midsummer [End Page 36] Night’s Dream was written (sometime in the 1590s). But there is some speculation that the pun may already have been current, even if cutting-edge, when Shakespeare translated Bottom to ass, and certainly such a pun would not have been out of character for the author—after all, we also find a snout among the would-be actors, and Shakespearean brilliance is hardly incompatible with crude punning. The translation of the flesh is in this instance also a translation of the word, not just in parallel but somehow of one another, and the visible head of the indignant ass betrays the indignity of the rustic weaver sporting the name of Bottom.
We don’t so often think of bodies being translated, but before turning to more abstract considerations here, let me offer one further instance, one a little closer to the main current of my own research. The translation of relics (that is, of pieces or close possessions of saints) is their movement from one location—specifically, from one church congregation—to another. This sounds markedly unexciting, I grant, but that’s only if you don’t know that throughout the Middle Ages the relics were sometimes said to have translated themselves, moved of their own volition. This was held to demonstrate the desire of the relevant saints for the newly privileged location—which means their desire to patronize and to bless the new church or congregation. This happened especially often when those of us with less devotion would more likely say that the relics had been stolen by members of their new communities.
In the translation of relics, an original—a whole, unified original in the form of an intact body—is the very source of meaning. The relic matters because it belonged to the body of a saint, and each fragment is held to contain, somehow, the wholeness of saintly power and sancitity (for more detail on this very complex subject, see MacKendrick 2008, 102–31). But as a rule, that original is impossible to find; the meaningful pieces are only ever fragments. (In fact, studies of older relics often show that they are not even fragments of humans.) Now the relic means what it is translated to mean: the saint’s blessing upon...