M1: Unit 4: Chapter 2 – Hamlet lives and sings in Arabic: Is that what Shakespeare really meant?

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Chapter 1: Introduction Chapter 5: Capital: are translators disinterested?
Chapter 2: Hamlet lives and sings in Arabic: Is that what Shakespeare really meant? Chapter 6: Habitus and trajectory: the agency of translators
Chapter 3: Translation as a field: rethinking ‘social context’ Chapter 7: Conclusion
Chapter 4: Positions: naming the foreign Chapter 8: Bibliography

Chapter 2: Hamlet lives and sings in Arabic: Is that what Shakespeare really meant?

2.1 In 1901 the Cairo-based theatre troupe of Iskandar Farah produced Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Arabic. The translation was done by a Levantine immigrant named Tanyus Abdu (1869-1926). It became a box-office success and remained the only staged Arabic version of Hamlet in Egypt until 1918. In 1902 Abdu published his translation which went into a second edition a few years later.

Tanyus Abdu

Tanyus Abdu

2.2 Despite its remarkable success when it was first produced in both its stage and published versions, Abdu’s translation did not go down well with historians of drama and drama translation. Abdu, who besides this translation produced a wide range of translations of both plays and popular fiction, subsequently went down in the history of drama translation as the icon of ‘infidelity’. One historian has this to say about him: The undeniable fact is that the translator availed himself of all the means of distortion, which he brought to his translation … The translator pioneered a school known for deformation and distortion in translation practice. No story or play he translated was left unchanged. (Najm 1956: 241, my translation)

2.3 You may agree with the view of this historian, especially if you know that Abdu gave theatre-goers and readers at the time a version very different from the original. The plot structure of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was changed: the title hero does not die in Abdu’s version, and the play is given a happy ending, with the ghost of the late king appearing in the last scene to hand the throne to Hamlet. The curtain falls when Hamlet ascends the throne, while the ghost of the father disappears into the depth of the earth, and the whole nation is chanting outside in celebration of restored justice.

2.4 Giving Egyptians a happy ending of Hamlet was not the only change Abdu introduced in Shakespeare’s text and for which he was considered the ultimate ‘translator-traitor’ figure. The generic character of Shakespeare’s play as a tragedy is almost entirely lost in this translation. Although some tragic elements were kept in Abdu’s version, the changes he introduced in the text ultimately neutralized the tragic effects of the play. Abdu’s translation of Hamlet’s monologues is one example where the tragic is infused, and sometimes replaced, by what I would call the lyrical. The tragic effect in Hamlet’s monologues is achieved through underscoring the divided identity of the speaker. This divided identity is the outcome of a conflict between the tragic hero’s private and public selves, a conflict that is played out in the blurred area between the conscious and the subconscious. This bifurcation of identity finds expression in a bifurcated language that teeters between meaningfulness and meaninglessness. As a number of Shakespeare scholars observe, Hamlet’s monologues are characterised by distorted syntax, pauses and frequent use of the interrogative (see Hussey 1982: 10 and Levin 1959: 17-43). In Abdu’s translation this fractured language becomes fluent and smooth. Abdu also versifies the prose monologues and uses a regular rhythm throughout. The whispered speech in the monologues, which is impeded by pauses, question marks and repetitions, changes into the declamatory language of traditional Arabic singing in turn-of-the-century Egypt.

Olivier playing Hamlet

Olivier playing Hamlet

2.5 In addition to changing the original plot and compromising the generic character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the language used by Abdu in his translation was criticised by theatre and translation historians as a mix of both the conventional language of neoclassical Arabic, with its characteristic rhymed prose, parallel structures and archaic lexis, and the plain prose characteristic of modern Egyptian Arabic. The fact that Shakespeare has generally been associated in the public imagination of the Egyptians with standard literary Arabic is another reason why Abdu’s version of Hamlet is not very much appreciated by historians.

2.6 For all the above-mentioned reasons Abdu’s translation of Hamlet is considered, according to one historian, “an awkward translation” marked by such  “deviations from the source text” that it ends up offering only  “a ghostly resemblance of the original” (Alshetawi 2000: 78).

2.7 The place of Tanyus Abdu’s version in the history of drama translation in Egypt is obviously premised on the assumption that translation is merely a linguistic act in which the translator’s only task is to transfer the content of the original as ‘faithfully’ as possible. In the following chapters, an alternative reading of this version of Hamlet is suggested in which translation will be primarily viewed as both a social act and a cultural product. This reading draws its inspiration from Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology of cultural production. Before attempting this alternative reading, the key concepts of Bourdieu’s sociology will be outlined in chapters three and four.

Further reading: Alshetawi 2000; Badawi 1988; Enani 2006; Hanna 2005

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