Much Ado about Translation: Translating Shakespeare

In 2012, the Globe Theater performed Shakespeare in 37 different languages. Shakespeare is one of the most universally recognized playwrights and poets in the world, and, after religious texts, his works are among the most translated texts in history. Since 1960, there have been Shakespearian publications and productions in over 75 languages, including Klingon and Esperanto. Yet while Shakespeare’s characters, plots, and themes may speak to a universal audience, his language certainly doesn’t.

Even modern English speakers struggle with the Bard’s language, one that is equal parts creative and archaic. Modern English translations of the classics abound, taking the form of everything from books aimed at students to graphic novels to children/teen movie adaptations (The Lion King, 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s the Man). It’s no wonder that, when translating to foreign languages, the very same ingenious turns of phrase that keep audiences coming back are the phrases that can turn a translator’s hair grey.

As just one example, the universally recognized “To be or not to be” is just as well known in the form of “Ser o no ser,” “Être ou ne pas être,” “Sein oder nicht sein,” “Być albo nie być,” or “Быть иль не быть.” Yet this line loses its subtlety in the many languages that don’t have a verb for “to be.” As a result, the Mandarin translation offers an approximation: “Survive or be destroyed: This is the question worth considering.”

Victor Hugo, whose son authored the most well-known French translation of Shakespeare’s complete works, is said to have considered Shakespeare the author “who best resists translation.” It may be because of the enormous difficulty of translating Shakespeare’s exact words that foreign language versions lend themselves to more open interpretations.

When Hamlet was first translated into Arabic in the 19th century, Cairo audiences were unaccustomed to serious spoken dramas. To accommodate the public’s expectations, the first version of Hamlet ever performed included song and dance numbers and ended with Hamlet and Ophelia’s marriage. While subsequent Arabic translations more closely follow the original, political and artistic climates have significantly influenced translations of the Bard. In the Soviet Union and 1960’s China, straightforward, prose-centered translations underlined themes of economic and political injustice. Bollywood versions of Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet include musical numbers. The Japanese filmographic adaptations of King Lear and Macbeth by Akira Kurosawa set the dramas in feudal samurai Japan. The diversity likely stems in some ways from the challenge of making a faithful translation of Shakespeare. Because transferring Shakespeare’s exact words to another language is impossible, translators rely on their ability to recreate equivalent displays of wit and poetry, giving them more room for personal interpretation.

In any language, Shakespeare’s work is so beloved that it is recognized regardless of language. Classic translated lines have entered the English vernacular from numerous foreign classics: Tolstoy’s happy and unhappy families of Anna Karenina, the pseudonym “Nobody” of Homer’s Odyssey, or the title of the “man from La Mancha” from Cervantes’ Don Quixote. In the same way, Shakespeare’s translators have the opportunity to bring his lines a new life in a different language.

What do you think of Shakespeare in translation? Can it ever be the same, or are translators taking on a thankless task? Let us know in the comments!



Nisar, the dynamic force behind Translation Excellence, stands tall as its founder and CEO. This isn’t just any company—it’s a global heavyweight in boutique language services. Hailing from the vibrant city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Nisar brought his passion and expertise to the U.S. shores in 2001. In the realm of languages, he’s a titan. With 19 years under his belt, he’s worn hats from a linguist and instructor to a cultural bridge-builder and curriculum craftsman.

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