Sunday, 26 August 2012

Watching Shakespeare in Translation

On the occasion of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary and perhaps under the auspices of the cultural events leading up to the London Olympics, the Globe Theatre in London had organised the Globe to Globe theatre festival as a part of the World Shakespeare Festival. The premise was that 37 plays of Shakespeare will be performed in 37 different languages consecutively; with each play being performed two or three times. The programme and other official literature highlighted this multilingual aspect of the festival which aimed to cater to ‘audiences from every corner of our polyglot community’.  The festival organisers perhaps did this to make a distinction between ‘nation’ and ‘language’ – an argument used to justify their controversial inclusion of a Hebrew The Merchant of Venice by the Habima National Theatre from Tel Aviv. For me, as an Indian, this distinction between ‘nation’ and ‘language’ is something I take for granted as India is a nation of many languages.
The festival did have two plays from India, or rather from Mumbai – Twelfth Night in Hindi by Company Theatre and All’s Well That Ends Well in Gujarati by Arpana. Also being performed were The Tempest in Bangla by the Dhaka Theatre Company and The Taming of the Shrew in Urdu by Theatre Wallay from Lahore which would have been understood or would appeal to some Indians.  I managed to see Twelfth Night and Taming of the Shrew, as well as Cymbeline in Juba Arabic (From South Sudan), Richard II in Classical Arabic (from Palestine). As a theatre-loving student of literary translation my interest at the start of the festival was to see and enjoy theatre in translation, and I did manage to do this. However, reading the festival brochures, talking to some of the organisers and seeing the particular plays that I eventually did, led me to think about the ways in which nationalisms and national identities are performed.
Interestingly, the only one which did not have a national element, probably due to the reasons mentioned above, was the Hindi Twelfth Night. This production made effective use of the globe stage, with the live music and the performers interacting with the standing crowd. The weather (since it is an open-air theatre) – dreaded British rain – contributed quite nicely especially in the final song which was about the rain.  It was also a production which acknowledged and was quite self-conscious about the fact that it was a translation, a fact I found quite heartening as a student of translation. It used a fair amount of English, contravening the rules set out by the Globe which, according to an insider at the festival, expressly told the various groups not to use English. However unlike some other performances (like the Cymbeline) English was not used merely to reach out to non-Hindi speakers, rather a lot of humour depended on it and on an audience that was multilingual – fluent in both Hindi and English. The way this was achieved was clever and commendable and greatly increased my appreciation of the play. I watched the play with an Indian friend of mine and we both agreed that it was the most fun we’d had in a long time, but we did wonder whether non-Hindi speakers would have enjoyed it. A couple of days later, when I went to see another play, I spoke to a woman who had taken it upon herself to see all the plays in the festival. She said that this production and the Bangladeshi Tempest were her favourites because they ‘stuck most closely to Shakespeare’ and so she could enjoy it without knowing the language.
This play was the first one I saw at the festival, and I have since seen a couple more as mentioned above. However, if someone were to ask me which play I enjoyed the most I would still say Twelfth Night in Hindi, followed very closely by Richard II. In thinking about my responses to the various plays, and degrees of enjoyment (which itself is a dubious and not necessarily fruitful comparison, because of my varying degree of familiarity with the plays, the problems of comparing comedies to tragedies and histories etc.), I have been thinking about the role my national identity plays in the creation of this response. Is the fact that I’m an Indian, and in that I’m more culturally aware of things ‘Indian’ than things ‘South Sudanese’ for instance the reason why I enjoyed Twelfth Night the most? I’d like to think that this wasn’t the case. But, perhaps it had to with the fact that even though I enjoyed the other plays there was a barrier between me and the performers and some members of the audience that I wasn’t able to cross because I wasn’t part of a national community – real or ‘imagined’. The play from South Sudan was, even in the way it was promoted, with people holding south Sudanese flags the primary image, a declaration of a new-nationhood on an international platform, the Urdu play began with an instrumental rendition of the Pakistani national anthem, and the play from Palestine while resonating heavily of the Arab Spring, meant something different and perhaps more powerful and specific to the Arabs in the audience around me, despite the fact that I was in Morocco when the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia began and witnessed first-hand the protests in Rabat.
In the end it made me see that perhaps the distinction made by the organisers of distinguishing between nationhood and language was more about being cautious and politically correct rather than anything else. One of the aims of the festival is to reach out to the various diaspora communities in London. Given this, the choice of Gujarati seems justifiable, but why not Punjabi or Tamil or Malyalam (which has a history of performing Shakespeare in translation), why Hindi? This is not to take anything away from the troupe themselves, who were brilliant, but perhaps this choice was made in order to appeal to ‘Indians’ in general, ‘Indians’ like me, who don’t know Gujarati. If you add to this the fact that the festival ended with a play like Henry V, with its nationalistic undercurrent, in English being performed just after the Queen’s Jubilee, one begins to really wonder what it means for Shakespeare to go globe to globe, to be translated and most of all, for these translations to be watched in London. 
 Anandi Rao translates from Hindi and Arabic to English. She is doing her MA in Literary Translation and is interested in theatre and women’s writing. She can be reached at

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