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How to Translate Shakespeare'sHumor? (Reflections of a Polish Translator) StanislawBaranczak THE QUESTION OF how to translate Shakespeare's humor sounds like one of those which the "rude mechanicals" in A Midsummer Night's Dream declaim with such magnificent gravity, apparently undisturbed by the fact that each of their questions is entirely rhetorical. "Eyes, do you see?," Pyramus/Bottom addresses his own eyes, as if he did not know himself that they do. "How to translate Shakespeare's humor?," asks a Shakespeare translator, as if he did not know the only answer there is: "So that the audience will laugh." This much seems obvious. After all, we can rather safely assume that Shakespeare wrote his jokes and comical scenes with one purpose in mind, "which was," in the words of Prospero, "to please." There is no reason why his foreign translator should do otherwise. "To please," to elicit his native audience's laughter, should be the translator's top priority too. Yet, whoever has had the chance to attend a performance of a Shakespeare play in translation-say, Hamletplayed in a Warsaw theatre in one of the eighteen or so Polish translations that came to being between the end of the eighteenth century and the early 1980s-realizes that it is precisely the audience's laughter that the words of the dialogue, more often than not, fail to elicit in the most miserable manner. Any of Hamlet's soliloquies, even in an average translation, has-if performed by a good actor-the power to leave the audience stunned. By contrast, any of the comical scenes in Hamlet is likely to leave the audience in a state of 70 embarrassed incomprehension. The spectator feels as if he has just had the misfortune to witness someone's failure to crack a joke: everybody present knows it was supposed to be funny but, for some mysterious reason, it was not. If we laughed at all while watching performances of Shakespeare's plays in translation (I am talking about Polish translations here, but I suspect the issue is not very much different in other languages and countries), we owe it mostly to the presence of situational rather than verbal humor in them. Within the area of verbal humor, almost everything that Shakespeare once produced "to please" us, goes down the drain; just as poetry, according to Robert Frost, so verbal humor turns out to be "what gets lost in translation." Saying that, I am perfectly aware that much of Shakespeare's original verbal humor is lost on today's English-speaking audiences as well. It is true that some of his puns, jokes, and comical exchanges have gone stale or become incomprehensible due to the language's natural evolution; some others have lost their edge because they referred, in their own time, to events, customs, beliefs, etc., which no longer contribute to the common stock of popular knowledge; still others, even though comprehensible in the linguistic sense, have ceased to be funny because they offend our modern sensibilities (some of the jokes in The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew are, for different reasons, well-known cases in point). Still, all those necessary losses leave the English-speaking reader or theater-goer with a lot to laugh at. The audiences that have to rely on a translation are, in this respect, at the mercy of the translator. Notwithstanding the question of whether he or she possesses such necessary qualifications as a sense of humor, if the translator happens to be a follower of the school of literary translation that prevails today, the audience cannot expect any genuine amusement caused by verbal humor at a Shakespeare performance. By the prevailing school of literary translation I mean the minimalist approach which presupposes that the translated version must be, by definition, a poor substitute of the original. In translating poetry, the most common manifestation of this minimalist approach is giving up any attempt at finding an equivalent for the original's rigorous verse structure ; trumpeting the familiar self-justification "This is merely a translation, isn't it?," translators of this sort produce jauntily their free-verse and unrhymed versions of, say, poems of Anna...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1537-9477
Print ISSN
1520-281X
Pages
pp. 70-89
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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