Shakespeare in Translation

I decided a number of years ago that I wouldn’t pass judgment on poems or collections other than to say that they didn’t work for me for whatever reason. I try to articulate those reasons when I review books or talk about poems, but sometimes the answer is as simple as “I am not the intended audience for this work.” Sometimes what I mean is that the poems aren’t making me work enough. That’s not to say I need poems to be deliberately obscure or hermetic or syntactically disjointed (tho I don’t often mind a bit of that), but I want to engage with the poem, and that means it can’t all be spelled out for me.

So I got this book in the mail a couple of days ago, and man, am I not the audience for it. That’s not unusual–I get a lot of books because I’ve been editing at The Rumpus for almost 10 years now, and I’m basically on every mailing list there is at this point. It’s titled¬†Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Retold, and it’s a first book by a British writer named James Anthony who, based on the bio in the book, doesn’t have much in the way of formal training in poetry or writing. And I want to give him credit here–he did a lot of work on this project. He “translated” all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets into contemporary English, and kept the iambic pentameter and the three quatrains + closing couplet structure intact. But my problems with this work can be summed up by the description of the book on its back cover.

That third paragraph starts “This collection of masterful reinterpretations brilliantly demystifies and breathes new life into Shakespeare’s most personal work.” And that’s a completely fair description of what this book does. For example, see if you can guess which sonnet this is from the translation:

Don’t let me say two people cannot wed
By false constraint: love really isn’t real
If, when life changes, love becomes misled,
Or when apart, one doesn’t love with zeal.

Those are the opening lines of Sonnet 116. And yep, it demystifies the hell out of that poem. And this is what I mean about not being the audience for this poem. I’m sure there are people out there who have to read Shakespeare’s sonnets and are intimidated by it because of the language or because they think they don’t know how to read poems and this could be an entryway into Shakespeare’s sonnets for them. And fortunately, this book has the Shakespeare on the facing page for comparison, so said reader could possibly compare the two and perhaps recognize where the original has more subtlety and room for interpretation. At least that’s how I hope this book will be read, if someone is going to read it at all. I’d really rather people read Shakespeare and dig the mystery.

Published by Brian

I'm Poetry Editor of The Rumpus, as well as a published poet. My first book, A Witness in Exile will be published later this year by Louisia

One thought on “Shakespeare in Translation

  1. Brian, I agree with you, but would go further and state that, with all the commentaries and prose translations of Shakespeare’s works now available to anyone with access to the internet (see, e.g.,, books like Anthony’s do a disservice to readers by persisting in the ruse that poetic expression can be synthesized to make it more apprehendable to the general reader. Admittedly, I have read limited excerpts of Anthony’s bastardization of the SONNETS (and have no intention of reading more), translations of this sort are old hat. Anthony’s work contains very little that is original or remarkable. I’ve seen similar attempts with Milton’s PARADISE LOST. To the extent that this program is endorsed, whether by Mr. Fry and others, it relinquishes the cause of poetry, and here Shakespeare in particular, to substandard poetic expression in the guise of a bona fide translation of the original, which it is not. And no, I don’t think having a parallel text of Shakespeare’s original sonnets makes the case for Anthony’s work any stronger.

    In fact, in the interest of making the content of the poetry more accessible to the public, if that goal were attainable, Anthony’s work diminishes the beauty and complexity of the poet’s original work. Shakespeare’s language, as you know, is Modern English (not, as some think, Old English / Anglo Saxon or Chaucer’s Middle English). The words are understandable and the syntax arranged to enrich the meaning. Still, one must become familiar with the form of expression and the subject matter, which is often handled by good footnotes and short commentaries. Not much time is involved in that effort; truthfully, people will spend more time learning a new video game or discussing the plot twists of the new Netflix series. The Anthony translation strips the poems of the very thing that makes them great: the language that constitutes their logopoeia (or “the dance of the intellect among words”). If we are going to dumb things down for our high school and college students or the general reading public, there is not much hope that they will appreciate the greatness of Wordsworth, Whitman, or Eliot, much less Dickinson, Stevens or Ashbery, whose language is also very dense and layered. I can’t think of a good rap song that wouldn’t be grievously harmed by the Anthony treatment of it, much less any sonnet that surely will feel strained and drained by Anthony. Wittgenstein said: “Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.” Thus, a poem’s utilitarian objective, if any, to communicate cognizable ideas, is only a part of the purpose for the poem’s existence. If we believe it is laudable to teach poetry as a foreign language, i.e., merely to associate cognizable meaning, we are surrendering the art and putting something wholly unworthy in its place.

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