How Are We Editing Shakespeare in Spanish?


Chilean writer and academic Braulio Fernández Biggs.

1. Introduction

It’s a very peculiar experience to begin addressing the theatrical and hermeneutic problems of the so-called “Nunnery Scene” in Hamlet by telling your students: “Turn to page 57.” It seems trivial; in the end, the goal is to get to the text and analyze it. But, since this is a play, the matter is more complex. This is, of course, because the texts by Shakespeare we conserve were designed to be performed on stage. This implies that, for any example, there is not only a dramatic and scenic context, but also a theatrical purpose, which becomes a key element—if not the definitive element—when undertaking their interpretation.

Evidence does exist to affirm that the division of plays into acts and scenes was a relatively late phenomenon of the Elizabethan period. But this only serves to prove the point: dramatic texts were conceived to be performed, and the way in which we conserve them also expresses this intention. We could say there is a “geography” of the Shakespearean text that lies in the division of acts and scenes, and that is essential in order to understand the text itself.

It seems to me that the way in which Shakespeare has been edited in Spanish in the past few decades presents problems for pedagogy as much as performance. There is a baseline issue related to the mode of translation (beyond its intrinsic challenges, of course): almost always in prose, eliminating poetic verse and navigating around its syntactic difficulties with twists and turns that often alter the original meaning. What’s more, a good part of our publications suffer a lack of the minimal critical apparatus that, nonetheless, is the norm in other parts of the world: verse numbers; markers of act, scene, and verse at the heading of each page; critical, historical, and philological footnotes; indications of the edition used and textual variants; a table of abbreviations; complementary notes, bibliography, etc.; the least that could be asked of an academic edition.

Although Spanish America has a far from contemptible history of translations, in general I think there is still work to do. I would like to propose a few simple matters that I believe can help us to substantially improve in our task; and, at the same time, to empower our pedagogy and performance of the works of Shakespeare in our countries.


2. The Mode of Translation

As I was saying, there exist a good number of translations of Shakespeare in Spanish America, which would be too many to list here. Without entering into the complex question of translation—a problem in and of itself—there are a few elements I believe should be taken into account and that could be better materialized. Of course, what follows is a generalization; not everything applies equally in all cases.

Our translations tend to be in prose. It is evident that Elizabethan blank verse is untranslatable, and that it is not the best solution to transfer it into some equivalent metric system in Spanish. But this is just one part of the problem: a part that, of course, has no solution. The other, and this does have a solution, is that, in Shakespeare, the distinction between verse and prose is a central element used to develop the characters. The nobles and members of elevated castes almost always speak in verse, and the vulgar folk in prose. This is the general rule. But in intimate or family relationships, this varies, and the dialogue passes from prose to verse or from verse to prose with great dynamism. There are also changes that reveal states of mind, conspiratorial intentions, or peculiar motivations. The Elizabethan audience grasped this perfectly. By translating only in prose, we lose this element and the characters are diluted in informal and indistinct language, too “neutral.” As Brian Vickers has said, “we must approach words not as abstract entities, but as the expression of the very attitudes of different characters in equally different dramatic situations.”

The same could be said of pronouns. Unlike modern English, we know that Elizabethan English used ten pronouns instead of four. And the rule was “though” for the Spanish “,” close and colloquial, and “you” for the Spanish “usted,” more distant and formal. But this also changes according to the situation in which the characters find themselves, and this is tremendously important in building their characters and understanding the meaning of a scene. In The Tempest, for example, Antonio and Sebastian, who are nobles, speak in verse and call each other “you.” But, when they set about conspiring to kill the king, they switch to prose and use “thou.” In the same work, Caliban is another example: he speaks in verse with Prospero, but in prose with Stephano and Trinculo. And this is very relevant to their configuration as characters. And what to make of Lear’s rage toward his daughters, when he passes from “you” into an irascible “thou” and an inflamed, rough, and sometimes brutal prose?

Word games, or puns, form another aspect that should be improved in our translations of Shakespeare. It is true that they tend to be untranslatable, at least literally (especially those that are more phonetic than semantic, or where the the phonetic dimension comes first); but it is also true that, if there are no notes or notes are very scarce, the reader loses them altogether. Again, this is just one aspect of the problem. Puns tend to contain hermeneutic keys that are much deeper than a mere game of cacophony or double meaning. There are several examples, but I’ll just mention one: in Hamlet, when the performance of “The Mousetrap” begins, in the brief and incisive dialogue between the prince and Ophelia, they say to each other: “Ophelia: You are keen, my lord, you are keen. Hamlet: It would cost you a groaning to take off mine /edge.” Ingberg and Canto translate: “Ophelia: Sois filoso, señor, muy filoso. Hamlet: Os costaría un quejido quitarme el filo.” Fair enough. Juan Cariola: “Ophelia: Sois agudo, señor, muy agudo. Hamlet: Con un solo quejido me embotarías la punta.” Fair enough. Pujante: “Ophelia: Estás muy mordaz, señor. Hamlet: Quitarme el hambre os costaría un buen suspiro.” What’s up with that? The fact that, at this point, Hamlet should say such a thing to Ophelia, sarcastically or seriously, becomes a key element not just to build up the full picture but also to understand the relationship between them in the work, especially after the terrible “Nunnery Scene” in which she betrays him. And so, it is essential to take into account the word game, as well as the decision to change its meaning, if this is the case.

Finally, I think there is also an important issue in the translation of characters’ names. There is a theatrical tradition that we cannot ignore, whether we like it or not. Bottom is Bottom, like the Fool in King Lear, and not “Madejas,” “Lanzadera,” “Fondón,” “Canilla Telares,” or any other example from the whole exotic etcetera. Shakespeare is a classic, and he deserves this sort of respect for the sake of the public and the audience’s understanding. Although I hasten to say that this point is debatable from more than one point of view.


3. Indication of acts, scenes, and verses

I mentioned a certain geography of the stage play. In order to find your place in it, it becomes essential not only that the acts, scenes, and line numbers be indicated, but also that they appear on the page headings: on the left or the even-numbered page, the act, scene, and number of the first line on the page; on the right or the odd-numbered page, the act, scene, and number of the last line of that page. Any other way one gets lost, or is forced, as I was mentioning at the start, to refer the students or actors to a page number alone. Indeed, these indications are also key to measure the scenic timing of a play, in the so-called “table work.” I appreciate Andrew Gurr’s observations on “maximal and minimal texts,” where he suggests that what we conserve today might be the longest versions of the plays approved by the Master of the Revels, which were adapted for functions of a little over two hours; but, for the same reason, if we mean to adapt the longest possible version, we cannot do so blindly. Besides, one of Shakespeare’s greatest talents is precisely his scenic rhythm.

Of course, all of this is standard in the English-speaking world. Why do we continue obstinately to another line? Without these references, how can we cite Shakespeare in Spanish? How can we compare sources (in Quarto or Folio) or editions (Arden, Oxford, or Cambridge, for example)? This nomenclature is also vital to distinguish the use of verse from that of prose; put if we don’t use it, how can translations be contrasted? How can they be compared? As it happens, numbering the verses forces us to be much more rigorous in translation. I suspect it is sometimes avoided in order to get around problems that tend to be generated by syntax… Not to mention overflow or enjambment.

I want to give a simple comparative example comparing the translation by Nicanor Parra and the Arden edition by R.A. Foakes. Parra’s in an intensely personal version—Shakespeare’s name does not even appear—and in the translator was very honest about this, but it is useful for demonstrating what I wish to show. Parra numbers the lines cover to cover, act by act, without restarting in each scene. Nonetheless, and as you will appreciate, we are faced not only with a problem of nomenclature but also with a problem of translation:


Lear Rey & Mendigo

King Lear (Arden/Foakes)

Act I


Scene 1: 1-457


Scene 2: 458-680


Scene 3: 681-721


Scene 4: 722-1193


Scene 5: 1194-1254


Total verses: 1254

Total verses: 912


There are 33% more verses in Parra’s text! How can an academic work with this? How to compare and relate the two? It should be noted that the Parra’s edition of Lear Rey & Mendigo has no clarifying or explanatory notes related to this or any other formal aspect. The recent translation of Hamlet by the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, Premio Nacional de Literatura 2000, lacks a preliminary note, preface, or prologue. He adds nothing. And, nonetheless, Act 1 has 13 scenes, and 3 has 28 (the famous monologue of 3.1 is in 3.4), and Hamlet’s fight with Laertes at Ophelia’s tomb takes place not in 5.1 but in 5.3 (this act has ten scenes instead of two).

When we translate, I think we can do almost anything, but always making it clear; even if only in a brief introductory note: text used (Folio or Quarto), edition, year, translation options/strategies, etc.


4. Notes

Idea Vilariño is a writer with great academic and literary prestige. Her translation of King Lear reads very well, as does her translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her Lear has 62 notes for 3,225 verses; one edition of Dream that I looked over has not a single note for 2,186 verses. I’ll give an example of the complications this creates: at 1.12.100 there is a case of malapropism from Bottom. As we know, this represents a sort of linguistic nonsense, an error in which a word is used other than the correct one, but that has has a similar sound and whose semantic frame of reference retains a certain harmony. In this case, what’s more, Shakespeare does not dance around the joke. Scene 1.2 is ending, and Quince reminds the company of their rehearsal the next night in the forest, to which Bottom responds: “We will meet, and there we may rehearse most / obscenely and courageously.” With the slightest academic rigor, we would note that the use of “obscenely” by Bottom is, precisely, a malapropism of “unseenly.” That is, tomorrow night they will be able to rehearse privately, all alone. Besides, Quince has already said: “For if we meet in the city, we shall be dogged with / company, and our devices known,” which is confirmed in 1.3. And we know that Bottom is dopey, he trips himself up, he mixes up his words… Probably, as Brooks points out, and beyond its phonetic similarities, Bottom must have felt the word “obscenely” was appropriate in context, since “the obscene is that which must only be done in private, and the location of their meeting is meant to assure that the rehearsal will be in private.” But Ángel-Luis Pujante translates thusly: “Nos reuniremos y podremos ensayar con todo libertinaje y sin temor.” Juan Cariola: “Ahí nos juntaremos y podremos ensayar con más libertad.” Idea Vilariño: “Allí estaremos y allí podremos ensayar más obscenamente y más temerariamente.” All without notes!

Is this a matter of philological daintiness? I think it might be more complex. How could a director and an acting company understand, with no precedent, that Bottom and his group will rehearse “obscenamente” [obscenely] in the forest, with “libertinaje” [debauchery]? It is true that Shakespeare’s plays are sufficiently open in certain aspects to admit creative variations, but it is also true that any interpretation must start with the text. So, in a work that is so remarkably erotic and sensual in so many aspects, a literal interpretation could be tragic—or ridiculous. And that’s the importance of the note. Its importance to the everyday reader goes without saying, as well as to the reader perhaps more accustomed to and wary of the word games and ambiguities of Shakespeare.

Another example: there is an attention-grabbing moment in the edition of The Tempest. As we know, in 4.1.123, one of the most controversial philological issues of this work emerges. Ferdinand says: “So rare a wondered father and a wise / Makes this place Paradise.” There is no agreement among editors as to whether the original word in the 1623 Folio is “wise” or “wife.” While in the four successive folio editions we can more clearly read “wise,” in 1708 Rowe changed it out for “wife,” assuming that the reference to Miranda was better adapted to the context and that a typesetter had confused the long “s” (ʃ) for the lower-case “f” (ʄ), letters that were almost identical at the time. From then on, editors have tried to reach a consensus with no success. Feminist readers have favored “wife,” to reaffirm Miranda’s importance. In 1978, Jeanne Addison Roberts guaranteed that the apparent “ʃ” was no more than a badly printed “ʄ.” The mobile type with which the letter was set could have been damaged, or there could have been insufficient pressure in the printing process and the ink could have marked the character wrong, missing the horizontal line. Nonetheless, as the Arden edition points out, in 1996 Peter W.M. Blayney affirmed that the letter seems to be an “ʃ” under all possible circumstances. He added, what’s more, that if it had been confused for an “ʄ,” this had been only because of the inkstains, and not because of a possible breakage of the letter’s crossbar. Although the line’s syntax is still strange with “wise,” this is not unusual in Shakespeare, who sometimes puts an adjective after a noun. As far as rhyme goes, “wise” forms a couplet with “paradise” in the next line, as is common in the playwright’s later works. Other alternatives to this issue are that Ralph Crane make a mistake while copying the manuscript, that the typesetter who received the copy didn’t understand the letter, or that his apprentices changed the “ʃ” for an “ʄ” upon printing, since these letters sat beside each other in the type box. In the end, of the Spanish translations I checked, Astrana Marín, Ingberg, and Pujante opt for “wife.” Our translation with Paula Baldwin, following Arden, opts for “wise.” The bilingual Cátedra edition takes a very singular path: in the English text it uses “wife” (with a pertinent note on this debate included), but in the translation it says: “Hija hermosa y sabio padre hacen / de este lugar un santuario…”

I believe translating Shakespeare in our times implies inevitable philological and editorial responsibilities. What’s more, if to translate is to interpret, it is only just for the reader/actor/director to be aware of his own decisions and of those of the translators.

I think it would not be difficult for we academics and publishing houses to agree upon a few minimum standards for editing translations of Shakespeare, like the ones I have laid out here. And there will be others. Without a doubt, this will contribute to a greater comprehension and interpretation of the texts, not only for educational purposes, but also so they can be better staged in our countries. I believe these “technical” aspects of the edition of a translation are bridges that allow us to approach, closer and more correctly, the work of Shakespeare.

Read at the “Shakespeare 400: Recepción, transmisión y recreación de su legado en América Latina” [Shakespeare 400: Reception, transmission, and recreation of his legacy in Latin America] International Conference, Instituto de Literatura, Universidad de los Andes (Chile), September 1-2, 2016.

Translated by Arthur Dixon


Latin American Literature Today No. 10
Number 10

In our tenth issue, we question the values of literature and journalism in the post-truth age through the words of Mexican writer Juan Villoro and we explore new territories of digital literature in a dossier curated by Scott Weintraub. We also feature memories of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre told through graphic narrative, new perspectives on the translation of Shakespeare into Spanish with an essay from Braulio Fernández Biggs, and Wayuu literature from the Venezuelan side of the border than runs through their ancestral lands.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Juan Villoro

Dossier: Digital Literature


Indigenous Literature






On Translation

Graphic Narrative

Nota Bene