Emily Dickinson

Efforts to translate a text within the same language, from, say, the French of Molière to the present-day language of immigrants in Paris, are common today. Not long ago, I got a copy of  Andrés Trapiello’s faithful modernization of the entire Don Quixote, all 126 chapters. His argument is that today’s readers, especially young ones, no longer read Cervantes’s novel. Since its antiquated language might be one of the causes, why not render it it in 21st-century Iberian Spanish?

Even more common is what has come to be known as “transadaptation,” the effort to freely re-create an established narrative in a new context. I cherish, for example, my copies of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, by Ian Doescher. (You can look it up in Wookieepedia.) In one of the episodes, Luke Skywalker, holding a stormtrooper’s helmet, announces: “Alas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not,/ yet have I taken both uniform and life/ From thee. What manner of a man wert thou?/ A man of inf’nite jest or cruelty?/ A man with helpmate and with children too?/ A man who hath his Empire serv’d with pride?/ A man, perhaps, who wish’d for perfect peace?/ What’er thou wert, goodman, thy pardon grant/ Unto the one who took thy place: e’en me.”

I don’t like the word itself: transadaptation. But I’ve come to accept it because neither translation nor adaptation explains the phenomenon on its own. Of course, this is an ancient practice, repackaged for our derivative, self-referential, merchandise-driven times. Throughout Don Quixote, the narrator frequently says that the story of the Manchego hidalgo who lost his wits to become a knight errant has been told in numerous ways, yet his is the real thing. Something similar might be said of Shakespeare. Some among his 37 solo plays might be described as transadaptations of a sort. King Lear is based on an ancient folk tale, of which a number of versions are available, including The True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters. Romeo and Juliet is also a transadaptation of an Italian tale translated by Arthur Brooke into verse in 1562 as The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, then rewritten in prose by William Painter in 1566 as Palace of Pleasure.

In other words, the fine line between creativity and inspirational source is treacherous. Plagiarism isn’t too far away. Then again, basing one’s work on previous sources was common in the Renaissance, and a kind of homage. Originality is a tricky business.

In “Translating the Classics,” a course I am co-teaching this semester, we invited the students to reimagine, with a more contemporary perspective, Macbeth’s famous soliloquy, “She should have died hereafter” (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28), delivered as he learns of the death of Lady Macbeth, with the English troops under the command of Macduff and Malcolm fast approaching the castle:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
— To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

The echoes of this soliloquy are infinite, from William Faulkner to Robert Frost to Kurt Vonnegut to the Broadway musical Hamilton.

Toying with the idea of transadaptation (and maybe also ventriloquism), one student, Robert Croll, who for his senior thesis has completed a new full translation of Julio Cortázar’s collection of stories Secret Weapons, reimagined Macbeth’s soliloquy in 19th-century New England — as a poem by Emily Dickinson, who lived a few blocks from our campus in Amherst.

It’s like a Walking Shadow — Life —
A Player — poor — who struts,
And frets away his hour
Upon the Stage,
And then is heard — no more —

It’s like an Idiot’s Story — full —
Of Sound — and Fury yet,
Devoid of Meaning in —

The End —

The layers create an enchanting effect: Dickinson’s idiosyncratic punctuation, her upper-case nouns, the syncopated rhythm of the poem, the cathartic end, and her philosophical—perhaps epileptic—delves into the infinite, are all here. So are Shakespeare’s words, and his ethos.

A parody, a rereading, an adaptation, a reinvention, a tribute.



[[Image courtesy of Amherst College Library; Macbeth rendered as Dickinson poem courtesy of Robert Croll]]


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