We just began reading William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in my English class. It’s been over a year since I last read Shakespeare and the language seems kinda foreign. I find that because I spend so much time figuring out what the text means, I’m missing out on metaphors and symbolism etc. Is it ever possible for the “casual/inexperienced reader” to understand all the nuances of Hamlet? Probably not, but I’m hoping that my English class enlightens me a bit on the subject.
Similar problems are bound to arise in literature translated from other languages. Editors can translate word for word even if the final product seems less poetic than the original, or editors can create the same mood of a piece while altering the original words. Altering words or meaning could conflict with the author’s intentions.
Readers of translated texts might have no idea they’re missing out on interesting sentence structure or a cultural allusion. That seems like a pretty dangerous risk for readers.
Ralph Waldo Emerson has some words of wisdom on language, especially language over the ages. In his famous essay Nature, Emerson says, “As we go back in history, language becomes more picturesque, until its infancy, when it is all poetry; or all spiritual facts are represented by natural symbols.” I took this quote to mean that when languages first emerge, they seem foreign, new, exciting, and poetic. Looking back at languages, they can seem just as foreign (like my experience with Shakespeare).
As for “language becomes more picturesque,” either language today has become more dry/boring and therefore less picturesque or today there is an urge to say that all language from the past is precious and poetic. Not all historic literature is as great as we make it out to be. Take the bad quarto for instance; it’s basically a bad copy of Hamlet that is one of the original few transcriptions of the play. Should readers always give such high esteem to historic literature?
The glimmer of hope from Emerson’s quote: natural symbols. I think the threads that ties history to the future are symbols and archetypes. Their meanings are timeless and are subconsciously embedded into our brains. Hopefully, while reading Hamlet I can draw upon these natural symbols to more easily connect my experiences to the text.
This post is just my intro to a potentially long list of Hamlet posts.