At the age of sixty-three, Surjit Hans began a bold project: Translating all of Shakespeare’s works into Punjabi. After sixteen years, the former head of a university history department in India, has nearly completed the task. But rather than gaining a deeper appreciation for the Bard, Hans finds the playwright’s worth to be exaggerated:

[T]he years of translation have left him slightly disillusioned with Shakespeare, and his iconoclasm comes to the fore once again as he explains, “Ullu de pathhe nu anvain dang te chadhaiya hai, plot te labda nahin hai (that owl-taught oaf has unnecessarily been put up on a pedestal, he hardly has any semblance of a plot).” He believes colonialism and the work of men such as William Hazlitt, the nineteenth century essayist who wrote the first comprehensive study of Shakespeare, came together to make him the icon he is today.

Self-improvement, he admits, more seriously, is not the only reason he took up the translation. “English da khaira chhudana hai (we have to break the shackles of English),” he says. The hegemony of ideas, and his years as a prominent Leftist in Punjab surface as he says this, has come to us through English—ideas such as globalisation and liberalisation. The young in Punjab need a vocabulary that rids them of this hold. His objection to the language, he qualifies, is not literary but political.

Ay, there’s the rub. The hegemony of the Dead White European Males must be broken and the best way to do that is . . . to make their works available to even more people?

The reasoning may not make a lot of sense but I think Hans is right about the language. As the linguist Edward Sapir wrote in “The Status of Linguistics as a Science” (1929):


Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (p. 69)

Because Shakespeare’s works have had such an enormous role in shaping not only the English language but the imagination of the Anglosphere, it would be difficult to overestimate his literary, cultural, and political influence. Those of us whose primary language is English do not live, as Sapir noted, in an objective world but a reality that is in many ways created, or at least bounded, by Shakespeare. How then can the true value of his work be translated into another language? What remains after the treasures of his language have been lost in translation?

It may be considered unseemly in our multicultural world to even make such a suggestion, but is it possible that some works of literature should never be translated from one language to another? I would put the works of Shakespeare and Milton into this category. What would you put off limits to translation (even if you agree that it isn’t an idea that should be taken seriously)?

(Via: The Browser )

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