The Aesthetics and Politics of Shakespeare (Re)Translation

Convenors: Tom Cheesman (Swansea University, Wales) and Matthias Zach (University of Nantes, France)

'Translations are always embedded in cultural and political systems, and in history. For too long translation was seen as purely an aesthetic act, and ideological problems were disregarded.' (Susan Bassnett and Harish Trivedi, 'Introduction: of colonies, cannibals and vernaculars', Post-colonial translation: theory and practice, London: Routledge, 1999: 6). Political and ideological issues have in fact been a central concern of much work in translation studies in the past decade. The various relationships between translation as an "aesthetic act" on the one hand and its political and ideological implications and contexts on the other remain an important issue for research and reflection.

The aesthetic force and intricacy of his work and its importance as cultural heritage make Shakespeare an ideal candidate for analyses situated at the interface of the aesthetic, political and ideological dimensions of translation and retranslation processes. Previous ESRA conferences explicitly addressed the potential for conflict and the political relevance of Shakespeare’s work and its reception; several contributions specifically concerned translation. Building on this work, we propose a seminar on the relationships between aesthetics and politics in Shakespeare (re)translations.

We wish to reflect especially (but not exclusively) on retranslations, and among them on what Pym calls ‘active’ retranslations: those which not only reveal ‘historical changes in the target culture’, but also ‘yield insights into the nature and workings of translation itself, into its own special range of disturbances.’ (Anthony Pym, Method in Translation History, Manchester: St. Jerome, 1998: 82-84) Possible questions include (but are not limited to):

  • How are political circumstances and/or political convictions reflected in the text of individual translations and/or successive, competing retranslations?
  • What is the relationship (in national, international or transnational frameworks) between political histories and histories of Shakespeare retranslation?
  • Which ideological/political conflicts have been waged through Shakespeare (re)translations?
  • How are intercultural and intra-cultural politics reflected in (re)translations?
  • What is the relationship between political and aesthetic strategies in (re)translations?
  • How do the aesthetics and politics of intertextuality operate in retranslations?
  • What can comparative approaches add to the study of Shakespeare retranslation?
  • What methods are appropriate to the study of large retranslation corpora?

We hope that the seminar will bring together scholars working in fields including postcolonial studies, literary history, translation theory and, of course, the international reception of Shakespeare’s work (including rewritings in English(es) as well as other languages). We invite contributions presenting historical and contemporary material, as well as theoretical reflections on the possibilities and limits of thinking about Shakespeare (re)translation, politics and ideology. 


“Trauma und Translation. Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers als historisch-literarischer Imperativ in Heiner Müllers Hamletmaschine
Reinhard Babel

Heiner Müllers 1977 entstandenes Theaterstück Hamletmaschine basiert auf der Arbeit an einer Neuübersetzung von Shakespeares The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, die Müller in Zusammenarbeit mit Matthias Langhoff vorgenommen hat. Die Verschränkung von Lesen, Übersetzen und (Um)Schreiben Shakespeares ist bei Müller kein Zufall sondern Programm, wie die beiden Sammelbände Shakespeare Factory eindrucksvoll belegen. Deswegen soll an dieser Stelle nicht die eigentliche Übersetzung Müllers bewertet, sondern das daraus entstandene eigene Werk als eine Übersetzung analysiert werden.

Die Hamletmaschine jedoch als eine Übersetzung zu lesen, ist nur möglich, wenn man Müllers poetologisches Konzept und seine damit verbundene Geschichtsauffassung berücksichtigt. Beides basiert auf einer historischen Traumatisierung, die Walter Benjamins „Engel der Geschichte“ am besten veranschaulicht, da für Müller dort die beiden scheinbar widersprechenden Konzepte einer linearen, teleologischen Geschichtsauffassung (Marxismus) und einer zirkulären, sich wiederholenden Geschichte (Nietzsche) zusammenfallen. Um die Traumata zu bewältigen entwickelt Müller eine Poetologie des Traumtextes, die das Vergangene, Vergessene und Unterdrückte immer wieder in die Jetzt-Zeit holt. Insofern entspricht sein literarisches Schaffen vollkommen dem, was Benjamin als Aufgabe des Übersetzers beschrieben hat: am Überleben und Weiterleben des Originals zu arbeiten und so eines Tages eine messianisch und historisch gedachte Erlösung zu ermöglichen.

Es ist nicht verwunderlich, dass Müller gerade die Figur des Hamlet reizte, denn sie dient als  ideale Chiffre für die politisch-historische Situation in der späten DDR und Müllers Geschichtsauffassung allgemein: Hamlet wird von den Gespenstern der Vergangenheit verfolgt, die ihm ein Handeln unmöglich machen. Solange die Traumata der Geschichte nicht bewältigt sind, wird es keine Erlösung geben. Der Zerfall der DDR ist daher unvermeidlich und in Hamletmaschine schon düster vorweggenommen. Sie zeigt: Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers ist von der des Historikers nicht zu trennen.


“Pollax on the Ice: On Translating Hamlet in Post-war Poland and the Birth of Kottian Criticism”
Anna Cetera

The paper focuses on the first Polish post-war translation of Hamlet (1950) by Roman Brandstaetter (1906-1987). This new rewriting inspired the production of the play (1956) which in turn became the starting point for the criticism of Jan Kott and his influential formula of ‘Shakespeare our contemporary’.

The production was often interpreted as a double response to the past horrors of the war and the present trauma of communism. “It was a Hamlet ‘corroded by fear’ and ‘poisoned with politics’, where the words ‘watch’ and ‘inquire’ were most commonly heard from the stage”, argued Jan Kott. Significantly enough, the politically evocative mood of the production should be seen as a theatrical augmentation of the reading endorsed by the translator and encoded in the aesthetics of the text.

A poet and essayist, Brandstaetter first argued that the center of gravity of Hamlet had been shifted, and now instead of a revenge tragedy, it was the tragedy of a man besieged with the skeptical pessimism of his epoch. Consequently, Hamlet’s apparent passivity and indecision stemmed from his obsessive and sore contemplation of misterium iniquitatis of both his and the contemporary world. These intuitions became subtly integrated into the translation when the piercing, analytical language of the Prince contrasted with the cynical discourse of his adversaries whose concerns echoed contemporary European totalitarianism. The text also became endowed with the unique quality of Brandstaetter‘s own poetry permeated by a strong sense of Christian metaphysics and memories of the Holocaust.

Aided by a case study, the article seeks to reflect on the power of translation to both reflect and shape our attempts at making Shakespeare our contemporary.


“Visualizing Variation in a Shakespeare Re-Translation Corpus”
(with David Berry, Alison Ehrmann, Zhao Geng, Robert S. Laramee, and Andrew Rothwell)
Tom Cheesman

This paper reports on a Digital Humanities pilot project at Swansea University. The team is digitizing a growing corpus of Shakespeare translations, and developing visual interfaces which will enable users to explore when, where, and in what different ways Shakespeare's work has been - and is being - rendered into foreign languages.

The pilot project focuses on one play, Othello, and one language, German. With Matthias Zach and others we have also been collecting sample material in other languages (see, and we invite anyone interested to participate in this 'crowd-sourcing'.

The eventual aim of the Swansea project is to develop methods which can be applied to any source text corpus - all Shakespeare's work, and other much-retranslated texts - and any languages. The analytic techniques we are using at this stage do not involve semantic analysis at all, but forms of text linguistic processing (concordances etc.). The aim is not to produce interpretations of the different translations but to identify resemblances and contrasts among them: patterns in the historical distributions of their computable features, which lend themselves to graphic presentation. The purpose is not to answer but to raise questions. Questions about Shakespeare retranslation are not much asked, least of all in the Anglophone world. So our bigger purpose is really to seduce users - teachers and students, theatre professionals, fans, etc. We want to make them curious about 'foreign' Shakespeares, by offering them ordered, easily navigable glimpses into the complexity of variation, with the option to explore further.

TC's preliminary 'manual' work on retranslations of one ideologically controversial couplet from Othello established that the variations tell a surprisingly detailed story of ideological change (1760s-2000s). It also established that in German, there is a gulf between prestigious translators (famous authors) and others ('hacks'), but no such gulf exists in French. The challenge for the collaborative project is to bridge the gap between these kinds of semantic (or in the broadest sense ideological) cultural analyses, and those which operate at non-semantic levels.


“Translating Tyranny in Mussolini’s Italy: Ten Takes on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
Jane Dunnett

Julius Caesar was the first play by Shakespeare to be translated into Italian (1756) yet it does not appear to have been performed in Italy until the twentieth century. Nevertheless, it was recognised as a great play, and periodically retranslated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When it came to be translated again in 1920 for a series devoted to the works of Shakespeare, there existed therefore only a handful of earlier versions, all of which were now very dated. The translator set out to provide an accessible prose translation of Shakespeare’s major plays that would speak to contemporary readers.

Against this background, it is striking to find that the interwar years, in particular the 1920s, witnessed an outpouring of new versions of Julius Caesar. The proliferation of editions of the play brought out by different publishers suggests a sudden interest in this subject which is perhaps not altogether astonishing if one considers the official discourse of the era which represented Fascist Italy as perpetuating the glory of Ancient Rome. Moreover, there was a deliberate attempt to popularise the figure of Julius Caesar, and to draw favourable comparisons between Mussolini and the Roman military leader.

The aim of this paper is to investigate the various competing translations produced in the Fascist period, which number ten if one includes Malipiero’s libretto for his 1935 opera Giulio Cesare, based on his own translation of Shakespeare’s play. Are there significant aesthetic and ideological divergences between these translations? If so, are these sufficient to allow us to consider each of the target texts as more than a variant on the 1920 translation, for example? What do the convergences between individual target texts tell us about the margins within which translators operated, and the censorial constraints they faced at the time? Finally, in what sense might the act of retranslating change the nature of the translation process?


“The Struggle over ‘Symbolic Time’: Shakespeare Retranslation in Arabic”
Sameh F. Hanna

Discussions of ‘retranslation’ tend to conceive this phenomenon in terms of “a history-as-progress model” (Susam-Sarajeva 2003: 2). In other words, retranslation is often seen as an act of ‘betterment’ of an initial translation that is thought to be ‘blind’ and ‘hesitant’, as Berman puts it (1990: 5). Retranslation as an act of ‘betterment’ is seen either as making up for earlier textual deviations from the source text or as producing a text that is more accessible to consumers of translation at a certain point in time. In either case, retranslation is seen as a movement towards a textual telos, towards a better and more ‘accomplished’ translation. This teleological view of retranslation is grounded in an ‘evolutionary’ and linear understanding of history. Based on this teleological perspective, ‘retranslation’ is often legitimated by a perceived ‘textual ageing’ of existing translations.

Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology of cultural production, this paper challenges the mainstream understanding of retranslation as a response to 'textual ageing' of existing translations. In looking at a number of cases of Shakespeare retranslation in Egypt, this paper reconceptualises the tension between early translations and retranslations. This tension, which informs the history of translation in any given tradition, is not over which translation is more faithful to the source text, or more accommodating of the readers’ needs. It is, rather, over which translation or translator should be classified as ‘ahead of time’, i.e. avant-garde, and which should be branded ‘mainstream’, or even ‘outmoded’.  In view of Bourdieu's sociology, this struggle between early translations and retranslations is not over 'accuracy' or 'adequacy', but over what I would call 'symbolic time'. The ‘real time’ of any translation is when it is first produced and made available for the public. ‘Symbolic time’ is the value attached to the translation when it moves away from its ‘real time’ and become history. The ageing of translations is something quite different from a mechanical sliding into the past. It is engendered in the fight between those who have already left their mark and are trying to endure, and those who cannot make their own marks in their turn without consigning to the past those who have an interest in stopping time, in eternalizing the present state; between the dominant translators whose strategy is tied to continuity and reproduction of translation norms, and the new comers to the field of translation, whose interest is in discontinuity, rupture, difference and revolution. This tension between early translators and retranslators is over which translation is to be “thrown outside history” and which should ‘pass into history’, “into the eternal present of consecrated culture” (Bourdieu, 1996: 156).

Berman, Antoine (1990). ‘La retraduction comme espace de la traduction’, Palimpsestes (4): 1-7.
Bourdieu, Pierre (1996). The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, trans. Susan Emanuel, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Susam-Sarajeva, Sebnem (2003). ‘Multiple-entry visa to travelling theory’, Target 15(1): 1-36.


“Retranslating Hamlet for 21st century Romanian audiences”
Madalina Nicolaescu

The paper set out to look at the ideological and political conditioning of the project of re-translating Hamlet and contrasts the norms governing the re-translation of the play in the socialist period with those in force in the recent 21st century versions.  The major question the paper would like to address is whether there can be a post-national, globalizing trend in more recent Shakespeare translations, given the nation-building and even nationalist investment  that the 20th century translations (socialist but not only) attached to Shakespeare and to Hamlet in particular. Do translations of Shakespeare mediate between local and global discourses on issues related to political and cultural identity?  How do recent translations of Hamlet compare with those of other plays, as for example The Tempest, which has not had a similar tradition of political appropriation?

The paper will include a short analysis of three recent translations of The Tempest as these translations have been subjected to radical modernizing changes so as to make it possible for the Shakespearean text to resonate with present day young generations who are, allegedly, used to decoding only simple text messages on mobile phones. Has the same requirement been applied to the translation of a more canonical text such as Hamlet?

The Romanian re-translations of Hamlet will be further compared with recent German and French translations in order to trace the possible presence of 'global' political discourses as well as to identify similar strategies of making the text resonate with young audiences accustomed to using the new media.


“Brecht’s (re)translation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: aesthetic strategies and political implications”
Maria Elisa Montironi

In the early 1950s, Brecht devoted himself to Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. He (re)translated the text, using the Schlegel-Tieck translation, because he wanted to restore the play’s original freshness and political impact. Even though he worked in the GDR, he did not write a reductive version of the play shaped according to a plain political reading of it. More provokingly, Brecht detected the socio-political questions to which Shakespeare’s Coriolanus responded and linked these issues to the political circumstances of his audience through an up-to-date (re)translation of the text, to which he gave the key features of his theatre. The German dramatist rewrote the Schlegel-Tieck’s text in the German language of his own times, in order to make it as clear and direct as the original Renaissance English sounded to the Shakespearean audience. The occasional occurrence of anachronistic words in Brecht’s translation, mainly belonging to the political field, have the dual outcome of actualizing the play and of providing the distancing effect pursued by Brecht in his epic theatre. Furthermore, Brecht used detailed terms and expressions which refer to the idiolect of his theatre, tracing meaningful intertextual relations with his own works, and he reformulated some sentences through his gestural method, that is to say syntactically and metaphorically displaying the implied character’s emotional state and attitude.

To examine the aesthetic strategies and the political implications of Brecht’s (re)translation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the two plays will be juxtaposed and compared, considering the interposition of the classical Schlegel Tieck translation. The analysis of Brecht’s operation will demonstrate what Maik Hamburger states: “Translating Shakespeare is an unending process. His original text always emerges anew, however successful the current translation may be, and it always carries with it a new challenge.”*

*Maik Hamburger, “From Goethe to Gestus: Shakespeare into German”, in Lawrence Guntner, M. McLean Andrew (eds.), Redefining Shakespeare: literary theory and theatre practice in the German Democratic Republic, Cranbury: Associeated University Presses, 1998: 83.


“Vindicating Pablo Avecilla’s Spanish ‘imitation’ of Hamlet (1856)”
Jesús Tronch

This paper discusses the ideological and political implications of a Spanish ‘imitation’ of Hamlet, written by Pablo Avecilla (1810-1861) and printed in 1856. This text, based on Moratín’s respectful translation into Spanish (1798), has received little critical attention and only to be condemned and despised as a debased and tasteless adaptation of Shakespeare's play. The aim of this paper is to vindicate this Hamlet by appraising it in its own terms, specially focusing on its political resonances in the troubled years of mid-nineteenth century Spain. The analysis of Avecilla’s version is preceded by an account of four previous Spanish adaptations of Hamlet (from 1772 to 1825), based on Jean-François Ducis’s neo-classical reworkings of Shakespeare’s tragedy (from 1768). Translational choices in specific vocabulary has led Angel-Luis Pujante and Keith Gregor (2005, 2008, 2010) to suggest political interpretations of these early Spanish Hamlets ranging from conservative positions nostalgic of the ancient regime to legitimization of monarchic power, supported by the liberal idea of the sovereignty of the people, against rebellion. Ducis and these early Spanish Hamlets turned the Shakespearean sacrificial prince into a righteous monarch that had victoriously overthrown a dishonourable and corrupt power, a radical transformation shared by Avecilla, who sought to purge Shakespeare’s play of its defects so that plot and characters were moulded according to a “rational taste”. In the light of Avecilla’s political stance, his imitation can be interpreted as in tune with contemporary Progressive enthusiasm and concerns. The fact that his Hamlet was apparently never staged (Par, 1936, p. 199) and generally ignored may be related to the political failure of the so-called Progressive Biennium in which Avecilla actively participated and which was put to an end through a military coup in July 1856.


“‘A Poetic Act of Resistance’? –  Remarks on Celan’s Shakespeare Translations”
Matthias Zach

This paper aims to explore the interplay between the politics and aesthetics of Shakespeare (re)translation by concentrating on one particular poet-translator.

Biographical accounts have repeatedly pointed out that Paul Celan ascribed a political dimension to his Shakespeare translations. John Felstiner reports that, ‘[w]hen the Germans invaded in 1941, [Celan] recited his Shakespeare translations in the Czernowitz Ghetto […] and during his months at forced labor carried a notebook containing his version of sonnet 57’. And Celan’s friend (and publishing editor) Klaus Reichert asserts that Celan called the translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets a poetic act of resistance (although the exact context and import of this comment remains rather unclear).

In addition, the strong ethical dimension of Celan’s Shakespeare translations has been recognized as a central element of these texts ever since Peter Szondi’s foundational analysis of sonnet 105, in which, Szondi argues, Celan transfers the theme of ‘constancy’ into the form of his translation itself.

The present paper, however, argues that, while there is in fact a close link between the ethics and the politics of Celan’s translations as well as of his own poetry, the political dimension of his Shakespeare translations in particular lies neither in a direct reaction to Celan’s biographical situation nor in features which could be understood by close reading alone. Rather, in order to grasp the specificity of the political dimension of Celan’s Shakespeare translations, it is necessary to highlight the character of Celan’s Shakespeare as a self-conscious re-translation, which positions itself not only with respect to existing versions (by Stefan George in particular) but also with respect to the German Shakespeare tradition as a whole.