Entry from October 1, 2015

He’s at it again. The Wall Street Journal at the weekend ran another piece by Professor John McWhorter of Columbia heralding the increasingly common theatrical practice of translating the plays of Shakespeare into simpler, more contemporary language in order to facilitate comprehension. Or at least what audiences wishing to be spared the trouble of understanding what Shakespeare actually wrote believe is comprehension. It is Dr McWhorter’s purpose to flatter that belief and to reassure those who want Shakespeare without difficulty, Shakespeare pre-digested for easy swallowing, that they are quite right to do so.

But Shakespeare is difficult, and if he is not difficult he is not Shakespeare anymore. Any translation is not the genuine article but something adapted to the audience’s own presumptively limited capacity to understand him. In the name of "accessibility" it is not to be allowed to make up its own mind about his meaning but rather to be left undisturbed in the naive assumption that he thought and spoke and wrote very much as we do about the world. Those who have taught Shakespeare to young people know the result. They do not actually learn anything about him or the times in which he wrote or the people he wrote about or for, but instead are merely confirmed in their own prejudices and encouraged to congratulate themselves for being so by their association with the Shakespearean "brand."

"Shakespeare’s English is so far removed from the English of 2015 that it often interferes with our own comprehension," writes Professor McWhorter. But isn’t this a bit like saying that the differential calculus is so far removed from simple arithmetic that it interferes with our comprehension? Well, yes. But it is our comprehension of it, not of arithmetic, which is in question. You do not facilitate the comprehension of something by translating it into something else, you only confuse it further, for in the new struggle to comprehend whatever the something else is, you have simply abandoned your attempt to comprehend the thing that has been translated.

Here is a professor, which once implied a person with something to profess, a body of knowledge which it was his job to impart to others, telling us that Shakespeare qua Shakespeare must simply be given up. "We cannot reach up to a meaning that is no longer available to us," he claims in the Wall Street Journal. No longer available to us? He himself has just explained the meaning to us — in this case by noting that "generous" in Shakespeare often meant "noble." It’s certainly available to him then. What kind of patronizing nonsense is it for a professor to tell us that we cannot hope to match his own scholarly attainments and had better turn instead to Shakespeare for dummies?

But Mr McWhorter professes not Shakespeare nor even English but something called "linguistics," a relatively new academic discipline founded on the assumption that linguistic reality lies not in the words and larger linguistic structures of any actually existing language but at the level of certain hypothetical "deep structures" of the human brain which transcend linguistic particularity and thus constitute a kind of already existing, in-born universal language of which the language that we actually speak — or our ancestors spoke — can only ever be a translation itself.

Since, therefore, Shakespeare himself is only a translation of something else, we may be supposed to do him and his meanings no violence by translating them into the words which we must suppose he would write today, if he were writing in today’s English. Doubtless it is his pride in his own knowledge of linguistics which makes Professor McWhorter, or any of Professor McWhorter’s students, so confident of reproducing exactly what Shakespeare meant to write. Those of us with more experience of traditional literary translation or criticism will remain much less confident that what Shakespeare meant is so easily recoverable, or recoverable at all.

The professor’s most recent book is called The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. It is intended to disprove what he regards as the naive perception of past scholars — known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — that language colors thought and so to demonstrate, in the words of his publisher’s summary, "that all humans process life the same way, regardless of their language." I find the proposition, besides betraying the book’s (and linguistics’) utopian-universalist assumptions, self-refuting, since the words "process life" are not translatable into any other existing language but the academic idiolect — and certainly not into Shakespearean English.

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