The Good and Bad of Translating Shakespeare

The Winter's TaleAccording to PM Carpenter, The Literary Apocalypse Has Arrived. One of the great pleasures of reading him is experiencing his references — both to literature and history. But he’s also something of a curmudgeon. In this case, he is upset at the news that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) has announced that “it will commission 36 playwrights to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.” Oh, the horror!

Let’s be clear what’s happening here. Even among the vast majority of people who like Shakespeare, appreciation is pretty thin. In fact, at this point in time, it is impossible for someone to just see one of his plays performed and appreciate much more than the basic story line. True: good productions can hammer home the meaning. But appreciation of the words — the puns and meaning — is missing. People don’t get it.

What’s more: the words that Shakespeare wrote didn’t sound at all the way they did in the early 17th century. If Shakespeare were performed today the way he was performed then, modern audiences wouldn’t even be able to make out words. It would be like listening to someone tell a story in Gaelic. Yet there is no outrage about this. Why? Because it has slipped away, inch by inch — the “translation” has occurred so as to be invisible. But does that make it any less important? I certainly don’t think so.

Thus, I don’t see the big deal of translating the plays. I also don’t think it is worth doing except for a handful of plays. The very idea that everything Shakespeare wrote has literary merit is repugnant to me. And I’m not just talking about lesser known monstrosities like Cymbeline. I’m none too fond of Hamlet. It’s a fascinating play, but one that is fatally flawed. The reason it continues to be performed says far more about the needs of actors and directors than the wishes of audiences.

The good thing about these translations is that they will lay bare the uncomfortable truth that many of The Bard’s plays are really not that good. It really isn’t because the language is so difficult that people don’t much care for The Winter’s Tale. At the same time, it will highlight things that work really well like Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream — interestingly, two plays that work surprisingly well with the old words.

The bad thing about these translations is that they are wasting resources that could be better spent elsewhere. Does anyone who might happen to be at the OSF really need a new way to enjoy Romeo and Juliet? That’s especially true when there are really interesting plays in other languages that have never been translated. Lope de Vega wrote literally hundreds of plays. Yet to my knowledge, only one of them has been translated into English, Fuente Ovejuna. Is Lope as good a playwright as Shakespeare? I can only tell you this: not one in a thousand people at the OSF is in a position to say. Similarly, I only know of one of Cervantes’ Ocho Comedias y Ocho Entremeses to have been translated, The Cave of Salamanca. Oh, how American theater could use some time away from the British Isles!

I also question just how successful these translations will be. If the translators approach the plays as the imperfect works they are, it might be fine. But if they approach them as ancient relics that must be studiously honored, it’s going to be a catastrophe. As it is, what’s going to be done? So much of Shakespeare involves saying the same thing over and over again. In the opening of Richard III, Shakespeare uses 18 lines to say, “We were at war and now we are at leisure.” He uses another 14 lines to say, “But I’m angry about this because I’m deformed and no one loves me.” Don’t get me wrong: I like it. But it’s not just the worlds that out of date: it’s the whole approach to drama.

The idea is not a bad one. It doesn’t mean that after the translations are complete, the original versions will be burned. And it doesn’t mean that people will stop performing the old plays. It’s just another way for people to enjoy the plays. That ought to be welcome to Shakespeare lovers. As for me, I think we have far too much Shakespeare in our lives. His plays push many repellent ideas — not least of which the idea of nobility being a question of breeding. But if you are one to say that all the world can be found in the plays of The Bard, then the more the merrier, right?


Image taken from: “Antigonus chased by a bear” by Thomas Bragg (printmaker) – Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons.

Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day!

Jake FlanaginCities across the United States and Canada are finally starting to wake up to the damage wrought by Columbus’ expedition, acknowledging why it’s wrong to blindly worship a man for essentially jump-starting the systemic extermination of two continents worth of indigenous societies. Several of these cities have begun to institute Indigenous Peoples’ Day in its place. And that’s a step in the right direction.

But we can’t just change the name of the holiday if we aren’t also addressing Columbus Day’s de facto erasure of Native American history.

Beyond cursory examinations of the Inca, the Maya, and the Aztecs, students in North America are generally taught hemispheric history from 1492 onward. Rarely do we see social studies curricula spend much time on the fascinating exploits of the Olmec, the mound-building practices of Poverty Point culture, or intricate trade routes of the Caribbean Arawak. Students are not taught about the complex, nonverbal “wampum” constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy, or the singular architectural stylings of the Anasazi…

Essentially, this educational strategy frames the entire Native American experience as one of tragedy — which, over the last three hundred years or so, it certainly has been — but totally neglects the fact that pre-Columbian America was just as diverse, socially and politically complicated, and frankly exciting as Europe or the Middle East. There was warfare, diplomatic intrigue, rich mythology; innovation in the arts, sciences, and mathematics, and so much more going on than modern history books would have you believe.

The Americas didn’t simply spring out of the ocean just so our Genoese “hero” could plant a Spanish flag in her. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue… and that’s about it. Native Americans absolutely should have their own holiday. But thousands of years of history and culture deserve so much more recognition than one Monday a year.

—Jake Flanagin
Columbus Day Is a Reminder That Nothing Exists Until a White Guy “Discovers” It

Polls and Media Narratives Mean Nothing

Hillary ClintonLast week, Jonathan Chait made a good observation, Hillary Clinton Is Reliving Al Gore’s Nightmare. But I think he is missing the true story here. He thinks that Hillary Clinton and Gore are suffering from residual guilt due to Bill Clinton. He dates Gore’s problems to the 1997 “fundraising for the White House” scandal as the beginning of Al Gore’s problems. But is that true? Was the knock against Gore that he wasn’t trustworthy? Not as I remember it. I remember the supposed problem being that he was “wooden” and had a tendency to exaggerate — not that his tenure in the White House would be scandal plagued.

After the 2000 election, there was lots of Washington journalist navel gazing. Had they given Bush a pass? Had they made stories out of literally nothing to tarnish Al Gore? Had they treated the campaign like it were an election for prom queen rather than president? The answer to all of these questions was yes. Remember Margaret Carlson’s statement, “Gore elicited in us the childish urge to poke a stick in the eye of the smarty-pants”? A lot of people made fun of her about that because they saw that this was exactly the mentality of reporters who were shaping what Americans thought of the two men competing to be president.

But certainly it doesn’t help to have all these fraternity and sorority rejects live out their fantasies of what it’s like to be part of the “in crowd” or the “mean girls.”

So I fully accept Chait’s contention that Hillary Clinton is in Al Gore’s position — just not that it has anything to do with Bill Clinton or anything else. The press has just decided on a narrative for Clinton and it just so happens to be the same narrative they decided for Gore: she’s not authentic. It’s a wonderful narrative for them because it is meaningless. In the context of a politician, what does it mean? I’m a big supporter of Bernie Sanders, but I haven’t missed the fact that his hair is always combed now. This is politics: it is about shaping perceptions of reality.

But let us not forget this: Gore won the election. Electoral College or no, he won. In a democracy, Al Gore would have been president. In fact, relative to my election model, he actually did slightly better than he should have. So I don’t especially worry that the Washington reporters are childish when they aren’t being totally useless. The American people are smarter than that. But certainly it doesn’t help to have all these fraternity and sorority rejects live out their fantasies of what it’s like to be part of the “in crowd” or the “mean girls.”

Clinton and every other Democrat is currently losing to the top Republican candidates in poll match-ups. Even Ben Carson is beating Clinton. But that’s because people know who Clinton is and they don’t know who Carson is. Thus, like young people in love, they assume anything they don’t know must just be perfect. Over time, when the actual election is under way, people will learn about the Republican candidate (who will absolutely, positively not be Ben Carson). And they will make the same decision they always make: the one based upon the economy.

So, does this mean that the political reporting about the presidential campaign is useless? Yes. There’s no need to beat around the bush. I so wish there were a law against political polling this early in the campaign. It provides literally no information. At this time in the 2000 campaign, Bush was beating Gore by 15 percentage points: 54% to 39%. Currently, Clinton is neck and neck with Jeb Bush. And that too means absolutely nothing — just like all the mainstream “reporting.”


See also: The “Clinton Malfeasance” Conspiracy Theory.

Morning Music: Platonic Ideal of Classical Music

MozartMany classical music fans think of it as being summed up with the Three Bs: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms — cleverly skipping my two favorite periods of classical music. But there are three towering figures of the Classical period: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (although as you will see later, he’s more of a transitional composer). Yesterday, we listened to some early Haydn. We could now very easily listen to some late Haydn. But there is no way I am getting through the Classical period without Mozart.

One of my big complaints with the way many people treat Mozart is to assume he was some kind of composing machine. Clearly, this has much to do with Amadeus. It would make an interesting week of music to show Mozart’s progression throughout his life. He was always hugely talented, of course. But his juvenilia is very clearly that. If you want to get an idea of this, check out his very first symphony, which he wrote at the age of 8. It’s a fine piece of music — and shockingly great for someone that young. But compare it to his Symphony No 40 — written three years before his death.

The really tragic thing about him is that the last six years of his life were stunning with regard to his production. Just in terms of opera: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute. But today, I want to highlight an instrumental work that he wrote at the beginning of this incredibly productive period, the Piano Concerto No 23. What’s interesting here is the way that the modulation from one key to another is seamless. It’s particularly exciting in the third act. It is the Platonic ideal the Classical period music:

Anniversary Post: Death of Magellan

MagellanOn this day in 1994, the Magellan spacecraft stopped transmitting after four years. It had two primary goals: map the surface and gravitational field of the toxic cloud covered planet. Venus is in many ways like Earth. It is almost exactly the same size and density. They both seem to have a similar internal structures. They are both losing heat at the same rate. Yet, as Carl Sagan put it: earth is like heaven and Venus is like hell.

Venus’ surface pressure is almost a hundred times the surface pressure here on earth. Standing on the surface of Venus would be like being a half mile under the ocean. You know: deadly. But it’s worse than that, because it is also incredibly hot. It is 860°F, which is, you know, hotter than any regular kitchen oven. In fact, it is even hotter than the hottest pizza ovens. Venus is very, very hot. In fact, it is hotter than Mercury at noon, even though Venus only gets 25% as much energy from the sun.

The reason for this is because almost 97% of Venus’ atmosphere is composed of carbon-dioxide. This creates the mother of all greenhouse effects. This fact combines with two other aspects of Venus to create a very constant temperature: almost no axial tilt (just 3° compared to 23.5° for Earth) and almost a circular orbit around the sun (eccentricity of 0.007 compared to 0.017 for the Earth). So day, night, pole, or equator, Venus is just too hot even for cooking pizzas. But the temperature does decrease with altitude. So on top of Maxwell Montes — the highest point on Venus at 7 miles — it is only about 700°F. And you know what that means: great pizza oven temperature! (Fun fact: there may be lead sulfide “snow” on top of Maxwell Montes!)

The Magellan mission made a number of discoveries about Venus. For example, it found that the surface was young. It is covered with volcanic material. It appears to have river-like lava flows. It is also geologically active, but doesn’t seem to have plate tectonics. And there is little evidence of wind erosion. Now this is actually something I know a little bit about. First, Venus rotates very slowly (and in the wrong direction), so not much in the way of Coriolis effect. And there are no temperature gradients, so not much mixing due to that. So the atmosphere is very static.

But in September 1994, NASA announced that it was ending Magellan because its solar arrays were decaying and all the mission objectives had been met. So they put it into a gradually decaying orbit. On 11 October, it was down to roughly 85 miles above the surface of Venus. The atmosphere was thick enough at that height to cause the solar arrays to to heat up to 260°F. Two days later, Magellan went around the far side of Venus, and we never heard back. Most of it burned up, but it is assumed that parts of it crashed landed on the surface. Farewell, Magellan!


Much of this article is taken from, Anniversary Post: Magellan.