Word of the Day - Translating Shakespeare into Romanian

| by Anca Tomus, Alexandru Calin, Andreea Ioana Șerban, Dana Badulescu and George Volceanov

Romanian translators taking part in A Great Feast of Languages workshop in Cologne blog on the most challenging word(s) of the day, when translating texts from Shakespeare's plays.

Word of the Day 3: 'prick'


Day 3 of our workshop was dedicated to Falstaff’s famous speech on honour. Before we started to translate the selected text we had an introductory discussion about Falstaff’s place in the Shakespeare canon, with references to Harold Bloom (The Western Canon) and Jonathan Bate (The Genius of Shakespeare). We also discussed the way in which Shakespeare handles various stylistic registers to present the characters living at the Court, in the London underworld, and in northern England. 1 Henry IV is probably the Shakespearean play with the largest number of curses and swearwords, while 2 Henry IV abounds in bawdy terms.

After this background warm-up, we moved on to the text and translated Falstaff’s speech in short, colourful phrases. The word of the day was prick, which generates the pun based on prick on and prickoff (meaning urge and mark one for death, respectively). We were aware that prick in this context had no sexual connotation whatsoever. We contrasted this word to another famous bit of speech from the same play, Hotspur’s “it is no time to play with mammets and tilt at lips”. We reached the conclusion that tilt at lips does not mean to kiss on the mouth, as Eric Partridge (in Shakespeare’s Bawdy) and David Scott Kastan (the editor of the latest Arden edition) claim. In our reading, tilting suggests a spear or a lance (a phallic symbol) that attacks the “nether” lips, that is the vulva.

Back to Falstaff’s prick, we decided, after some deliberation that what we should do is to look up two Romanian idiomatic phrases constructed around the same verb and having the same meaning as the English word. It was rather easy to find them: “a da ghes”, meaning to urge / to be urged; and “a da in cap” – the literal meaning of the latter phrase is to knock smb. on the head, but its figurative secondary sense is to kill, destroy, do away with. In a fit of enthusiasm we then overdid things by trying to create our own pun by further using the word head (“cap”) in another idiomatic phrase meant to translate “when I come on”. After some more deliberation we decided that the repetition of the word “cap” impinged on the overall effect of the passage, so that we dropped the second “cap” and kept things simple translating come on as “ies la atac”, i. e. attack, or charge. After these alterations the whole passage reads as follows: “În fine, onoarea îmi dă ghes. Da’ dacă îmi dă în cap taman când ies la atac?” The Romanian actor working with us, Mr Ioan Pascu, proves to be an excellent Falstaff and our translation fits him like a glove – we were relieved to see that our translation needed no brush-up and rewriting.

by George Volceanov

Word of the Day 2: 'You kiss by the book'


The phrase became the subject of heated debate among team members mainly for three reasons:

Firstly, it was challenging enough to translate because it is only a half-line.  Moreover, it is part of an exchange between the two lovers –  in the first half-line, it is Juliet's reply to Romeo's request for another kiss. It is also part of a rhyme scheme that had to be preserved in the Romanian version. This posed another challenge to each work group, mainly because we were also trying to avoid resorting to solutions used in previous translations.

Secondly, it is so ambiguous that it invites several possible interpretations and, therefore, translations: does it mean “|you kiss by the rules” –  i.e. observing all codes of propriety and rules of gentlemanly courtship –  or “your kiss feels just like those I've read about in books”? Since Juliet is only 13, going on 14, with no first-hand romantic experience and since we have reasons to assume that she has only vicariously experienced love-making and kissing by reading about them, some of us went for the second reading of the phrase and proposed the Romanian equivalent ”Săruți ca în cărți.” In terms of prosody, however, the only difference between the two Romanian readings, rendered as “ca la carte” / “ca în carte,” respectively,  lies in the choice of prepositions, which probably would have made our work much easier than it usually is in other target languages, because it entails no change in the rhythmical pattern. The choice that we had to make was between two different interpretations, none of which would have had a significant impact on the meter. That being said...

Thirdly, when one has to render the whole half-line, “kiss”-es included, and verbs come into play, things get a little bit more tricky. As mentioned earlier, its possible literal translations would be ”săruți ca la / în carte.” Well, when a verb is added, none of them seems to meet the rhythm anymore! In the verb (i.e. “săruți”) the stress falls on the second syllable, while in “carte” it falls on the first. One doesn't have to be a maths genius to notice it doesn't fit.

So, in a way, this phrase posed a double threat to us. Even in prose, we weren't exactly sure what “kissing by the book” would translate to in Romanian. While the above-mentioned literal translations retain the original ambiguity of the line, they fail to meet the meter. On the other hand, an adaptation of this phrase meant we would have had to settle for one of its two possible meanings.

The two versions our team eventually came up with reflect both these solutions: the first slightly adapts the original to ”săruți meșteșugit” (which more or less means “you're a damn good kisser,” derived from the first of the two possible readings); the other one, “Săruți chiar ca la carte” - which, thanks to an extra monosyllabic word, added there for metrical reasons, translates as “you really kiss by the book” – manages to capture both meanings and, at the same time, to preserve the ambiguity of the original.

by Anca Tomus & Alexandru Calin


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Word of the Day 1: The Romanian team on translating the phrase from Hamlet: 'shuffle off this mortal coil'


In the Romanian group, we (George, Radu, Dana, Bogdan, Loredana, Anca, Eliana, Violeta, Andreea, and Alex) started the translation of this problematic phrase towards the end of the final session in day 1. We first discussed the meaning of the individual words in English.

The entire line “When we have shuffled off this mortal coil” is an image that reinforces Shakespeare’s approach to everything there is in maritime terms. Of course, what accounts for this metaphoric propensity is a cast of mind forged by the culture of an island. If life with all its hardships is “a sea of troubles”, death is “shuffle[ing] off this mortal coil” – a metaphoric image which suggests that the body unwraps its coils of rope as a ship would. The syntagm is based on a contrast which contains in a nutshell the series of oppositions in Hamlet’s soliloquy: while “shuffl[ing] off” implies the idea of getting out of or avoid a responsibility or obligation, “coil” is a word which in Latin (“colligere”) means gather together. Therefore, “When we have shuffled off this mortal coil” is an extremely strong visual expression of Hamlet’s mind tugged between conflicting thoughts.

As regards translation, we first tried some more religious versions as equivalents, all of them centering on the soul leaving the body (e.g. “cand sufletul se desprinde de trup”/ “when the soul separates from the body) but we found them all inadequate because they did not render Shakespeare’s original idea. We knew that Shakespeare used several sea-related metaphors, and the “coil” itself is one of them, so we also considered Romanian equivalents such as “parama” (“rope”, “coil”) and Alex promised to tell us a joke related to this at the end, when we have found the best option.

Then we looked at old translations, which used a more archaic and poetic language, but we also found them inadequate because they particularly used the word “hoit” (“corpse”), which has an undesired connotation of decomposition. We finally decided on “trup muritor”/ “mortal body” and played with collocations related to it: “cand trupu-ti lasi in urma”/ “when you leave your body behind”, or “cand te desprinzi de trupul muritor”/ “when you detach from your mortal body, only to finally settle on “cand scapi de-a trupului povara”/”when you get rid of your body’s burden”, which seemed to best fit the iambic pentameter rhythm and was in accordance with the rest of Hamlet’s soliloquy.

And now, the joke we promised. [We assume it’s an actors’ dry joke, which would probably make more sense in Romanian.]

Two sailors are talking. The one on the dock yells in Romanian: “Throw me the coil so we can tie the ship”. The one in the look-out position, high up on the mast, replies in English: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying. I don’t speak Romanian.” The one on the dock gets irritated and says “Throw me the damn coil so we can moor the ship”.  The other one replies “What? I don’t understand what you’re saying.” The former one gets really angry and he shouts back: “Do you speak English?” “Yes, of course I do.” To which the former answers in Romanian again: “Then throw me the damn coil so we can moor the ship.”

Our conclusion to this joke would be that, in performance, what you say is less important than how you say it. So, if we were wrong in any of the versions we suggested, it’s the actor’s job to mend it. [Wink, wink; nudge, nudge.]

by Andreea Ioana Șerban and Dana Badulescu 


Read the German translators' blog here.

Read the Polish translators' blog here. 


The bloggers are taking part in A Great Feast of Languages workshop in Cologne. A Great Feast of Languages is a year-long international focus on translating Shakespeare for performance, involving a series of translation workshop programmes and a chain of public panel discussions between British and international translators, writers, academics and practitioners. Find out more below.

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