Why read Shakespeare in multilingual contexts?

A guest post by Alexander Huang

The World Shakespeare Festival in 2012 is arguably one of the most important and ambitious festivals since David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee. Reading Shakespeare in multilingual and multimedia contexts is important. Consider for example these lines from Macbeth

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

The repetition is serendipitous, but the deliberate alternation between Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) and Latinate words suggests two pathways to and two perspectives on the world. Act 1 Scene 3 of Othello offers another interesting instance (which is the focus of Tom Cheeseman’s web-based project):

If virtue no delighted beauty lack,
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.

Translations of these lines into different languages deal with the meanings of “fair” and “black” rather differently. Mikhail Lozinskij’s Russian translation says “Since honor is a source of light of virtue, / Then your son-in-law is light, and by no means black.” Christopher Martin Wieland and Ángel Luis Pujante used white in German and Spanish (respectively) to translate “fair,” while Victor Hugo chose “shining.” It’s eye opening to see how translation opens up the text in new ways. These are but two of many examples of how multilingualism enriches our understanding of Shakespeare.

Alexander Huang is Associate Professor of English at The George Washington University and Research Affiliate in Literature at MIT, USA. He is an editor of The Shakespearean International Yearbook.

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