My own first big experience with reading and understanding Shakespeare in the original came when I was a very mature, completely adult person aged 16.
My teacher recommended Sonnet 66, and I tackled it with all the enthusiasm and fearlessness of youth. Line 1 proved to be relatively easy, but line 2 fell apart into several incomprehensible fragments.
Undaunted, I read the whole Sonnet, realized I needed to work with practically every word separately, then try to put them together again to get the sentence meaning, and proceeded accordingly. Naturally this was all done as an extra-curricular activity, during the school winter break. It was -40C outside, quite conducive to staying home with the Bard.
- I took a special exercise book, grandly labeled it, “SHAKESPEARE”, and wrote out every word of the Sonnet, but for the conjunction AND which begins ten of the fourteen lines. I had enough sense to allot several pages to each of the eighty words.
- Using the hugest Webster’s dictionary I could find, and the biggest English-Russian dictionary, I wrote down the meanings, translations and pronunciations of the words.
- Deciding which meaning would fit which phrase was not easy. My mother was incredibly patient, listening to my versions, and encouraging me to continue my work. She did not know English, so I took special care with the explanations and reasons for this or that choice.
- After about two weeks, I had two rough drafts, a retelling into modern English and a prose translation into my own language.
- We had a good edition of Shakespeare at home, so I could compare my results with the canonical translation. Oh my God! It was a completely different poem. First of all, the rhythm was all wrong. Secondly, it was quite bowdlerized (though I did not know the term at the time, I realized what the approach meant). Thirdly, “my love” was turned into “my dear friend”, thus changing the whole message of the poem.
- I managed to hunt down five more translations, all of them done earlier. It was immediately clear to my young self why they were all gone into oblivion. Actually, there are some very good translations of a few sonnets in existence, as I know now, but the whole body of work is being reprinted in the one complete version available.
- What I learned from this amazing experience: it is impossible to translate poetry! Yet people do it, and will continue trying to catch the ephemeral, to relay the magic, to render Beauty into their own tongue. I have been translating prose for many years; while it is relatively easier than poetry, it is still very hard. Any novel or story presents a number of untranslatables, and the translator is the person who has to decide what to do about them!
- To motivate my students and colleagues, to help them read more, research, explore and enjoy, I tell them this story. Adults are interested in the mere fact of my being able to read the Bard’s oeuvre in the original, and to explain the difficult passages. I also tell them how to formulate some topics for senior students’ reports, presentations and projects. It is often a revelation that the Sonnets they know by their translations only are not exactly the same poems when read in the original.
With the students, the situation is more entertaining.
- They are universally impressed by my age at the time. Sixteen is how old they are, and this not only creates a bond, a familiarity, but also a competitive spirit. If one teenager could do it, surely others can do it too. Maybe they can do it one better
- I can recite Sonnet 66 even in my sleep, and the fact itself, the sounds, and the cadence always produce a great impression on any audience.
- With the quirky sense of humour which is characteristic for adolescence, they love it that the original is not only much better, but also widely different from any translation.
- They are unfailingly astonished by the fact that it is quite possible to take a poem written almost half a millennium ago, read and understand it. NB: it is better to say “half a millennium” than “five hundred years”, it sounds more impressive and awe-inspiring.
- The mere mention that there are 154 Sonnets, which means that every student may take a different sonnet for analysis, is a stimulus in itself. Teen psychology is such that they wish to do the same things their peers do, yet they also wish to be different from each other.
- And here comes the clincher, the coup d’etat: no, it does not occur to young digital natives that my whole work had been done in the pre-internet era. I have to tell them about it. Each time, there is a great hush, a pause while they cope with the idea of doing research without access to the whole wide world of data. BUT HOW?!
All my students, even the weakest ones, have read at least one sonnet in the original. A few went on to make presentations and reports at various student conferences. When there happened to be even one teenager who bravely tackled the original text and produced a translation, I always encouraged them to do more, not only with Shakespeare’s poems, but with any other author. Once or twice, a sparkling line or a tiny mellifluous fragment in those half-childish efforts helped me realize that I might be dealing with a future specialist, a possible colleague, a talent.
As the Bard put it, “O! this learning, what a thing it is”.