Shakespeare across Time, Languages, and Disciplines
February 21, 2020
Space, time, history, heritage, memory, ruin, immortality, translation, and migration: these are just some of the themes that students and professors will recognize as classic tropes in William Shakespeare’s dramas. And what better place to discuss such motifs than Rome, Italy, that capital of the world where these same topics seem written into the layered geography of the city, where people from multiple nationalities mingle and edifices from both past and present stand side by side?
Last summer, Associate Professor of English Michael Saenger and Associate Professor of Theatre Sergio Costola got to do just that: discuss the layers of time, language, and culture that emerge in Shakespearean translations and theatrical productions during an academic symposium hosted in the Italian capital. The two Southwestern professors organized and led the “Polychronic Translation of Shakespeare” seminar at the Shakespeare and European Geographies: Centralities and Elsewheres conference, hosted by the European Shakespeare Research Association (ESRA). The event took place at Roma Tre University, and SU English major Kayla Ingram ’20 attended the conference, providing logistical support for and participating in discussion during Saenger and Costola’s seminar.
Ingram, a computer science and religion double minor who hopes to attend a Ph.D. program in literary studies, appreciated the opportunity to not just go abroad for the first time on her own but also to attend and actively engage in her first academic conference. “Going to the conference really cemented that this is what I want to do,” she shares. “It was exciting and really fulfilling and interesting.”
Shakespeare in translation
The relationship between Shakespeare and the concept of translation is richly complicated. For example, the Bard’s plays often feature acts of translation, such as the comical scene in Henry V in which the French princess Katherine is trying to learn English words from her not-exactly-fluent lady-in-waiting, Alice. The dramas represent (arguably) Shakespeare’s own interpretations or adaptations of classical mythology, historical events, contemporary politics, and even contemporary literature. His works are published, translated, and performed in more languages across the globe than any other literary author, and many audiences access the Bard’s poetry and plays in translation. Beyond rendering his English texts in another language in print, his works have been translated from the page to the stage (that is, from written manuscript to theatrical production), but they’ve also been adapted for various other genres and media, including ballets, operas, songs, films, comics, graphic novels, board games, and video games. Inasmuch as Shakespeare’s 16th- and 17th-century poetry is already “foreign” in many ways to modern eyes and ears, it requires a special kind of listening and concentration to comprehend, especially for younger or less experienced readers but even for the most educated audiences. Scholarly approaches to Shakespeare (e.g., psychoanalytic, feminist, or postcolonial analysis) add a further layer to the notion of translation, as do editing and annotating his works for publication. And ultimately, all of these reinterpretations and reimaginings translate—etymologically, ‘to carry across’—Shakespeare across history, across national borders, and across cultures.
Given this multilayered relationship between the Bard and translation, Costola and Saenger were inspired to explore “Shakespeare’s position as an interpreter of and a subject for various understandings of art and time,” according to their call for papers for the conference seminar. Scholars submitted proposals for essays about the theme, which Costola and Saenger than selected from and compiled into a shared online folder that all the participants had access to. Undertaking an independent study with Saenger the spring semester before the conference, Ingram contributed by reading scholarship relevant to the topic, organizing the seminar submissions, and helping to identify common patterns that were emerging from the essays. The coordinators and authors had two months to peruse and comment on the papers, and Costola and Saenger then chose three main topics that connected the submissions, which they discussed when introducing the seminar at the conference in Rome. The panelists then addressed these themes before the floor was open to wider Q&A and discussion, during which participants—who came from 10 countries across North America, South America, and Europe—could refer to a handout that Ingram had prepared for the event.
According to Saenger, the papers ranged widely: the issues of cultural representation that arise when translating Shakespeare in 19th-century Romania, the nuances and challenges of translating the sonnets into the register of Spanish that will best convey the Bard’s subtle wordplay and emotions, the use of Othello in lessons to teach Italian speakers English as a second language, arguments about whether any form of translation diminishes the original texts, and debates about what other approaches to Shakespeare might qualify as translation. “I felt really happy with how things went,” he reflects. “There was a healthy dialogue that happened, and we were able to field questions and have a productive conversation. It was a really positive, constructive atmosphere.”
Ingram agrees. “Reading the seminar papers was really exciting because it was my first real look into that side of things,” she says. “To be familiar with someone’s work and then hear them talk about it and answer questions is not something that everyone gets to do. It was a super cool experience.” She adds that she loved having the opportunity to engage in the independent study leading up to the seminar because of the one-on-one dialogue with Saenger. “As opposed to a whole-classroom conversation, it’s always fun to get to talk to someone who’s really knowledgeable about a thing you’re excited about,” she shares.
Translating Shakespeare across disciplines
For Costola, who hails from Italy and enjoyed getting to visit his home country during the conference, one of the most exciting products of the conference is a book project. “What I really liked about the seminar was how quickly it morphed into a book proposal and how fluid that transition was,” Costola says. “Michael and I have fun collaborating, and now the ideas we exchanged and what we learned from each other can come to fruition.” The scholars who participated in their panel will be contributing chapters focusing on the practice and theory of translating Shakespeare, but as an extension of the discussions from the conference, the book will include adaptation for theatrical production as one form of translation.
Both the seminar and the manuscript derive, in part, from a teaching and research collaboration between Costola and Saenger that began several years ago. It’s a partnership that perfectly reflects the approach of Southwestern’s interdisciplinary Paideia program, for which Costola serves as the director. “Sergio is a theater historian while I’m a literary scholar, so we have different ways of seeing things, but we work together successfully in complementary ways,” says Saenger.
“Sergio is a theater historian while I’m a literary scholar, so we have different ways of seeing things, but we work together successfully in complementary ways.” - Michael Saenger
Costola recalls that their collaboration began with emails in which he would send Saenger articles questioning whether Shakespeare existed and whether the English Bard was actually Italian. The pair began inviting each other to visit their respective classes, with Costola providing his perspectives on translating the Italian of Dante and Petrarch into English and Saenger offering his literary insights on performing Shakespeare. They would share ideas over dinner and coffee and provide feedback on their respective publications, but their partnership in teaching and research has also resulted in coauthored publications, such as their book chapter “Shylock’s Venice and the Grammar of the Modern City,” as well as co-led conference panels prior to the ESRA seminar. And earlier this year, Costola and Saenger teamed up with Associate Professor of History Jess Hower and Associate Professor of Art History Patrick Hajovsky to create a new minor in early modern studies for Southwestern students. “Sometimes with the humanities, we tend to be isolated, but it’s fun to collaborate on classes and articles and books,” Costola says excitedly. “You feel so alive instead of just working on research by yourself, and it’s so fun to involve students.”
Saenger concurs about the benefits of “collaborative thinking, generosity, [and] humility” in academia: “I’m a fan of it because of how it encourages building authentic connections between people and between disciplines,” he shares. “Paideia is about building sustained bridges across departments that emerge over time [through] building networks of communication… . I started working with Sergio by writing comments when he was going through the publication process, and I liked getting out of my own head. And once you break that closed-shop mode [of researching and publishing in isolation], it becomes a lot easier to integrate students into that process.” Saenger says bringing undergraduates into those interdisciplinary research projects is rewarding because the students get to pursue what they’re interested in and he gets “to learn something that I didn’t know about.”
Translating the conference experience
As one of those undergraduates who has been engaged in such bridge-building thinking and research, Ingram was the ideal student to help Costola and Saenger coordinate the seminar in Rome. Saenger made sure that during her independent study, she had a role in choosing the contextual readings so that she could more deeply explore her intellectual interests, intentionally prepare for the conference, and therefore develop a greater sense of confidence while participating in the proceedings. He was impressed that the SU undergrad was mistaken for a Ph.D. student by one of his European colleagues. “Kayla is just particularly fun to work with,” he remarks. “She’s very constructive and just disciplined and positive, and so she actually participated in the Q&A of the conference and was completely comfortable in that environment.”
For Ingram, one of her favorite parts of the experience was getting to watch a rehearsal of The Taming of the Shrew in Italian at Il Silvano Toti Globe Theatre, a recreation of Shakespeare’s theater situated in the Villa Borghese in Rome. “I couldn’t understand the words—I don’t know much Italian—and they were having very complex conversations,” she remembers fondly, “but they all sang and spoke very beautifully, [and] the physical choreography was very visually satisfying. To see everything slotted together so perfectly and on beat, I was very impressed by how lovely it was. And the theater itself was beautiful.”
In addition to getting to see a translated Shakespearean production in rehearsal, attending the conference sessions beyond the Costola–Saenger seminar occasionally resulted in Paideia moments. One paper, for instance, reflected Ingram’s interests in both literature and computer science, she recalls, because the presentation focused on making Shakespeare more accessible through a video game, and Ingram is interested in the effects of translating the plays through digital production and performance.
One paper, for instance, reflected Ingram’s interests in both literature and computer science, she recalls, because the presentation focused on making Shakespeare more accessible through a video game, and Ingram is interested in the effects of translating the plays through digital production and performance.
But she most appreciates her independent study and the seminar for enriching her knowledge of Shakespeare and the early modern period, which she plans to specialize in during graduate school. “I can honestly say that studying translation has deeply informed my opinions in my queer and lesbian studies,” she reflects.
For example, throughout her research and conference experiences, Ingram often encountered the argument that any version of Shakespeare beyond the actual writing of the plays or their performance during the Bard’s own time could be considered a translation or interpretation. “That idea has really informed my understanding of the history of same-sex female desire: is it not there in the records, or was it just not interpreted properly?” she continues. “As a queer woman, as a lesbian, I have read lines of Shakespeare and been struck by how queer it is from a modern perspective. I think the idea of that as translation informs a lot of how I understand reading.” Ingram says that she values being able to bring her contemporary and personal identity and background to the academic pursuits of reading and interpreting the literature of the past. “It’s a translation of experiences,” she says cannily.