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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on November 29, 2004
Maybe the time has come for twenty-first century readers to admit that Shakespeare's English, like Chaucer's, is a foreign language. So believes Kent Richmond, Professor of English at California State University Long Beach, who toils thanklessly with a Sisyphean undertaking: translating into modern professional prose and poetry the plays of Shakespeare. Having completed three so far, Twelfth Night, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet, published in attractive paper by Full Measure Press, he currently negotiates the rapids of four hundred years' worth of conflicting opinions on the language of Much Ado About Nothing.

Richmond's efforts do beg the question: to what degree is Shakespeare's English incomprehensible to the average university non-English major (let alone high school student)? As a simple example, consider the paramount and ubiquitous word, "mistress." Modern readers denote "mistress" to mean "a female lover," "on the side," and yet modern readers never find "mistress" annotated in Shakespeare's plays. In the Master's day, however, a "mistress" sometimes referred to a "female lover" "on or not on the side," or more often to a "woman" the poet or speaker "desired as a lover, whether she herself was virgin or not," or most often to a "woman of higher class standing" than the speaker.

Add words together into lines, and the difficulties extend. In Herschel Baker's Signet Shakespeare Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene 1, for example, Duke Orsino speaks, "O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,/ That, notwithstanding thy capacity,/ Receiveth as the sea. Nought enters there,/ Of what validity and pitch soe'er,/ But falls into abatement and low price/ Even in a minute. So full of shapes is fancy/ That it alone is high fantastical." To manage these initial seven lines, students first need a thorough understanding of the conventions of punctuation, coordination, subordination, and predication, which they won't attain until they complete two years' worth of university writing instruction, or until they turn twenty or so. All the while, they will wonder why they must bother, when experts themselves debate the punctuation, syntax, and usages in the original.

Students next will need to devote considerable time to leverage the meanings of the operative words: "fresh," Nought," "validity" (and to what does the "validity" refer?), "abatement," and the three most complex in meaning, "pitch," "fancy," and "fantastical." Students, not yet 15 lines into the play, find their heads well below water, with no air remaining for assessing Duke Orsino's character. But wait! Here comes Richmond with his translation. "O spirit of love! So keen and ravenous,/ That, even though your vast capacity/ Lets in as much as Seas, what enters there,/ Despite its value and the height it gains,/ Will sink into low price and worthlessness./ In but a minute! So rich in forms is love/ That it alone incites such fantasy." Students immediately recognize that "this Duke is some kind of thinker and idealist, confused by the nature of love. He's probably confused about falling in love, too." Thematically, their response is dead on, as the Duke's feelings about Olivia will attest.

Richmond's versions are not prose paraphrases; no lines have been deleted or "simplified." The translations capture the originals' tone, meters, complexity, and poetry, perhaps because Richmond has studied and compared the quartos and folios, the experts' commentaries, and the conflicting interpretations; and has negotiated these on our behalf. Though Richmond is not the only professional attempting this work at this time, he is best positioned for the status of "professional Shakespearean translator" much as any modern respected French translator is qualified to "translate" Rabelais into modern French.

Of note, if recent professorial buzz is any measure, Richmond's activities have spooked experts and alienated Shakespearean elitists. Purists feel scandalized and believe that Richmond's efforts in effect debase Shakespeare. Perhaps they also feel, "I had to learn to read him in the original; so should others."

Two years ago I received an advance unpublished copy of Richmond's modern verse translation of Twelfth Night, which I duplicated for and assigned to an upper-division, non-major's university course in Comic Literature. As a result, three illuminations became apparent. First, students did not need to translate anymore and saved much time. Second, they admitted enjoying "Shakespeare's" characterizations, his dialogues' structures, his seeming contradictions and artful paradoxes, his conceits, his rendering of plot, and his synthesis of thematic elements. Third, they discussed his comic vision, without the aid of scene summaries, agonized footnotes and endnotes, word-definitions, and actors' exaggerated gestures. All the while, they knew it was a modern translation, and that knowledge informed their appreciation and comments. They enjoyed Shakespeare, written in an English they understood without the aid of two professionals, a host of tutors, reams of conflicting expert testimony, and multiple differing video and recorded versions.

Some testimonials from university non-majors included, "Duke Orsino and Viola are gifted and smart. And Malvolio, what an ass." "I want to see the original performed now, and hear how it sounds." "For the first time I see what Shakespeare is doing." They reacted freely and directly, because their minds were unclouded by interfering resentment over the sheer work of trying to understand on a first reading.

I

leave it to you to decide if this pedagogical experiment was worthwhile or if I failed as a Shakespeare enthusiast. Clearly, the distance between our English and Shakespeare's has become too great, and only faculty and critics who have not reflected on the nature of abuse would insist that non-majors read the originals. Richmond has Shakespearean bestsellers here, once students find out they exist, whether we like it or not. Students will benefit much more by reading these than by secretly buying and following those well-known study guides. Richmond has performed a service for English-speaking students everywhere.

So. instead of enshrining forever the debated lines of a great white writer, and decreeing them untouchable, let's imagine asking him, "W.S., 400 years have passed, and modern English speakers are having trouble understanding you. What do you recommend?" I choose to believe that as a populist he'd say, "Open the pits and let `em all in. I myself constantly rewrote. Translations will never find perfection, but if a new music be the food of love of my lines, play on." For my own part, while I prefer the originals, I find Richmond's translations intellectually stimulating to read. I do so with gratitude, as well, for he has provided a means whereby I can forsake any unconscious sadism.
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