Beaucoup de bruit pour rien

June 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

What would it be like to see a Shakespeare play performed in another language?

I’ve always wondered, and have now had a chance to find out, thanks to the Globe to Globe Festival at Shakespeare’s Globe – all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays performed in a different language by theatre companies from as many different countries. I could have watched The Tempest in Bangla or Troilus and Cressida in Maori (and now rather regret that I didn’t) but I ended up going for Much Ado About Nothing – a play I used to know almost line-for-line thanks to having performed in a production in high school – in French, the best of my foreign languages. (I briefly thought about going to the German performance to give myself an almighty headache see how well I’d get on, but it was Timon of Athens and that’s never been one of my favourites.) In one sense that was a bit of a cheat, but on the other hand, it was probably the easiest and most transparent way for me to see what happens when you translate Shakespeare.

No two ways about it, translating is a tricky business. Not for nothing do the French say that traduire, c’est trahir (to translate is to betray). I think Walter Benjamin had it exactly right when he said that in a good translation,

‘The transfer can never be total, but what reaches this region goes beyond the transmittal of subject matter.  This nucleus is best defined as the element that does not lend itself to translation. […] Unlike the words of the original, it is not translatable, because the relationship between content and language is quite different in the original and the translation.  While the content and language form a certain unity in the original, like a fruit and its skin, the language of the translation envelops its content like a royal robe with ample folds.’*

Suffice it to say, I didn’t really have any idea what to expect when I showed up at the Globe on Saturday. The company performing Much Ado was the Paris-based Compagnie Hypermobile – aptly named if their performance style in this play is typical. I knew there would be surtitles, as at an opera performance, but my initial assumption that they would be line-for-line turned out to be wrong – instead, the surtitles were limited to brief summaries of the action. The translation itself, however, turned out to be more or less verbatim, which, I was relieved to discover, mostly worked. With one notable exception (and here I think the blame falls as much on director and actors as it does on the translator) – every time Dogberry and Verges entered, the whole thing fell flat. What makes Dogberry both so funny and so difficult to get right is that he always says, with utter conviction, exactly the opposite of what he intends to – something that could very easily get lost in translation, and in this case, it did. It didn’t help that this Dogberry seemed very much modelled on Michael Keaton’s turn in the 1993 film, a performance whose awfulness is only outstripped by that of Keanu Reeves’s Don John. (The only silver lining is that at the curtain call, I realised that the same actor had been playing Dogberry and Antonio and I hadn’t even noticed – which says something for the actor’s abilities, if nothing else.)

Dogberry aside, there were many things to like about Beaucoup de bruit pour rien – especially Alix Poisson’s pipe-smoking tomboy of a Beatrice and Bruno Blairet’s foppish Benedick. And, strange as it may sound, one of the most memorable characters in this production was Don John’s henchman Borachio (François de Brauer). In most productions he’s a throwaway character; here, it became obvious that while Don John might be good at villainous posturing, Borachio is the one who actually has the ideas and does most of the dirty work.

One reason Much Ado might translate relatively seamlessly into another language is that it’s mostly in prose – I’m not sure how a play written primarily in verse would fare. What stayed with me after the actors had taken their final bows, though, was not how strange Shakespeare sounds in French, but how the meaning and the emotional truth of the text came through regardless. In that sense, I’d say it was a successful translation.

*Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator’ (Illuminations)

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