Shakespeare 400: Sonnets in translation

Shakespeare died 4 centuries ago this year, and the English celebrations have begun in style. Translations of some of his best loved work show how he has captured the global imagination – and been localised along the way.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is performing Hamlet all round the world from the 450th anniversary of his birth to the 400th anniversary of this death. You can follow the last few months of their extraordinary two-year journey here.

If you can’t catch them near you, what about his sonnets? Excellent translations and startling local performances show how differently Shakespeare is received and reinterpreted.

The best Polish translation is by the late great Stanisław Barańczak. A recent bilingual edition (Wydawnictwo A5, 2013) includes a CD of actor Marek Kondrat reading them. So you can compare the gentle but powerful lyricism of the Polish version of Sonnet 22:

with a very English classic declamation of the same sonnet by Shakespearean actor Sir John Gielgud.

Sonety-Barańczak-Shakespeare-WydawnictwoA5My glass shall not persuade me I am old,
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee time’s furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate. 
For all that beauty that doth cover thee,
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:
How can I then be elder than thou art?
O! therefore, love, be of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will;
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.
Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain,
Thou gav’st me thine not to give back again

For an even more stark contrast test the strength and vitality of Christa Schuencke’s German translation, also available in a bilingual edition, from dtv.

Here’s Gielgud again, reading sonnet 66, which has been translated into German over 150 times:


die_sonette-SchuenkeShakespeare-dtvTired with all these, for restful death I cry,
As to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabled
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,
And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.

And here is the same sonnet in a dramatised performance of Schuenke’s translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets in a Change Performing Arts production with music from Rufus Wainwright and the Berliner Ensemble.

Two performances, one very private, one very public: they couldn’t be more different. I wonder which the man himself would have preferred?

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Posted in literature, poetry, theatre, translation

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