Paula Baldwin: „Translating Shakespeare is to recover the beauty and meaning of his language”


Dr. Paula Baldwin is a Researcher and Associate Lecturer at the Institute of Literature, Universidad de los Andes, Santiago, Chile. She holds a BA in English Literature (Catholic University of Chile), a Master of Studies in English (1550-1780) from the University of Oxford, and a PhD in Shakespeare Studies from The Shakespeare Institute at The University of Birmingham, England.

Interview by George Volceanov, in Gdansk, Poland
Interview by George Volceanov, in Gdansk, Poland

Her publications include articles on the translation and adaptation of William Shakespeare’s works, as well as chapters on Shakespearean criticism, as for example: “Chilean Translations of Shakespeare: Do They Constitute a National Shakespeare Canon?” in Tradução em Revista 12: “Shakespeare’s Plays in Translation” (2012), and “Exploring the prominence of Romeo and Juliet’s characters using weighted centrality measures” (with V.H. Masías, S. Laengle, A. Vargas, y F. Crespo), in Digital Scholarship in the Humanities (Oxford: Oxford University Press (2016), among others. She has co-translated with Dr. Braulio Fernández Biggs, Shakespeare’s The Tempest (2010), Twelfth Night (2014), and King Lear (2017) into Spanish, and is interested in developing methodologies for the academic translation of Shakespeare’s plays. Her research focuses mainly on the development of privacy in early modern England and the configuration of the private sphere in relation to female characters’ process of identity in the works of Shakespeare. She is also interested in early modern spaces of representation and their impact on the composition and interpretation of the plays.

Q: Does the academic precede the literary translator or vice versa in your career? When did you embark upon lit translation and what stimulus urged you to try your hand at translation? And, also, do you translate only drama, specifically, drama in verse, or also poetry and fiction?

The translation and the academic coexist in my professional life. I think that translating a literary text is one of the best ways to read it, interpret it, and understand it. I started translating Shakespeare’s plays in 2010 when a colleague invited me to form part of a project that changed my perspective of early modern drama in many ways, especially regarding the importance of editorial work and the selection of the appropriate version when teaching.

One of my main objectives when translating Shakespeare is to recover the beauty and meaning of his language for teaching and for performance. Very few Spanish translations (almost none), include the number of verses within an act and/or scene, which makes it difficult to work with in class when you want to compare the text to its original version and to find out the verse you are looking for.

Q: What authors / texts have you translated so far?

I have translated William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (2010), Twelfth Night (2014), and King Lear (2017) into Spanish. All of these texts have been published. I have also translated some of C.S. Lewis’s essays and some poems by English authors, such as John Donne, W. H. Auden and others, but I haven’t published those.

Q: Do you think that literary translation and, especially, Shakespeare translation is mostly a matter of talent plus enthusiasm, or the sum total of methods and procedures learnt from the theorists of translation studies? Can any good theorist automatically produce a good translation? To my knowledge, there is a huge division between theorists and practitioners…

I think that becoming a good literary translator is a big challenge. People think that translation is just a question of transferring a text from one language to the other, but in the case of literature, translation goes beyond that. It involves translating meaning, punctuation, cultural elements, among other issues, which, in the case of translation for the stage, includes the spatial dynamics that are at the centre of drama. I think that a translator who wants to succeed in his/her work should not only know Shakespeare as a poet and playwright very well, but also the Elizabethan cultural and theatrical context. In this way, he/she will have more resources to reproduce meaning, particularly when he/she is confronted with the task of translating a joke, a proverb or saying, a cultural element or an idiomatic expression.

Paula Baldwin
Paula Baldwin

I wouldn’t say that a good theorist will automatically become a good translator. His/her theoretical knowledge may help him/her, but translation is also a matter of practice, of immersing oneself into the author’s world and life, into his culture, and the type of language and expressions he used.

Q: In your presentation you mentioned that drama translation is a collaborative process and I know too well what you mean. What is your personal contribution to it and what does your co-translator put in the project before you give the script to a director or theatrical company?

With Dr. Fernández, we have developed our own translation methodology and we think it has worked. First we read the play and discuss it. We analyze each of the characters, their relationships, and the play’s main conflicts. Then we read seminal articles on the play apart from the Introduction of the Arden, Oxford, and Cambridge editions, which are very helpful. Then we set the English text (until now, we have followed Arden’s scripts). Then we start the process of translation with working meetings of at least three hours a week at the beginning and more often at the end of the process. While we translate we write draft notes on philological, historical, cultural, etc. issues. Once we have the whole play translated into Spanish, we proofread it separately and we have one or two consensus meetings to reset it. After that, we invite a group of people, including actors and theatre directors, if possible, to an oral reading session. We assign characters to each person and we read the whole text aloud. With their comments, we introduce changes to our translation when necessary. After that we usually send the final version of the text to two literature academics who give as their feedback regarding style, grammar, etc.

After that, we write an Introduction or critical study that we include at the beginning of the translation. We divide topics and then we put our texts together. The idea of this section is to help teachers, students and theatre practitioners to understand the play.

Only one of our translations, The Tempest, has been adapted for the stage in 2010. We hope the others will be used in future performances.

Q: I know that our distinguished fellow-translator Alfredo Modenessi has had the opportunity to work with directors and actors but this does not always happen. Not in Romania, at least. How about you?

At Universidad de los Andes (Chile) where I work, there is an Academy of Performing Arts, so I am usually in contact with one theatre director and with some actors. This is very helpful to exchange ideas and discuss about a specific translation. Despite the fact that we have not been entrusted to make a translation for the stage, we have always made them with this idea in mind. In 2010 we had the opportunity of staging our Tempest and we only adapted and cut some passages, but we did not need to change the text itself because it worked on the stage.

Q: Are your Shakespeare translations situated in-between the page and the stage, or, while translating, you never forget that you are doing it primarily for the stage?

We never forget that Shakespeare’s plays are scripts to be performed; they were composed for the stage. Therefore, we try to reproduce the rhythm and musicality of words.

Q: In our Gdansk translation seminar you justly emphasized the importance of the paratext attached to a Shakespeare translation. There are two basic types of translators: the academics with creative skills versus renowned poets or directors who claim they ‘have translated’ Shakespeare thanks to their innate talent or genius. I think they are impostors and play-botchers more often than not. What’s your opinion in this respect? To put it otherwise, what are the qualities a Shakespeare translator and editor should have?

The main qualities a translator/editor of Shakespeare should have are: honesty, textual and theatre knowledge, and the ability to share his/her work, so that it can be discussed collaboratively. When I say honesty, I mean to acknowledge the fact that he/she is not the author of the play that is being translated and must respect the ways in which the author, Shakespeare in this case, said what he said. Evidently, the translator is an authority and in the process of translating he/she becomes a second author, but if he/she decides to omit a verse or to change something, he/she must acknowledge this in a note or in the Introduction. A different thing is when what he is doing is a version or an adaptation. Then he has more freedom, but must also be honest and let the reader know that he has changed the text.

I consider that paratexts in translations are very important because sometimes they are the only key to open the door to meaning for a contemporary reader. They offer the possibility of explaining words, expressions, or passages that have no possible linguistic equivalent in the translated language; for example, sayings and proverbs, cultural elements that do not exist, jokes, puns, etc. Linguistic, philological, historical, and theatrical notes are very useful when reading the text because they help interpretation and choice when teaching or performing the play.

Q: A question that is hard to answer: what is your favourite translation? In which one do you think you best captured the spirit of the Bard’s original writing? And which one suits best the Chilean culture?

My favourite translation is King Lear because that is also my favourite tragedy, and because it was the third I worked with and I felt more confident in my work. Lear’s universe is so vast and contradictory, that you need to find very precise vocabulary to describe nature, stars, birds and animals, but most of all, to choose the right words to express suffering, denial, madness, forgiveness and redemption. However, The Tempest is very dear to me because it was the first and it meant a lot to me in many ways! I also like the humour in Twelfth Night.

The second part of the question is hard to answer…The Tempest has been quite successful with teachers and students; King Lear has had a very good reception…Perhaps people feel identified with the family conflicts and the decline of the old king.

Q: What is your work in progress and what are your future plans as a Shakespeare scholar and translator?

Usually, after I publish a translation I take one or two years to start another. It is a very demanding and time-consuming job that needs a methodical, careful, and systematic work. As a translator, I would like to translate one of the Histories, but I still haven’t decided which. Maybe Henry V…or Richard III

I’m currently working on a collaborative Latin American translation of The Tempest with a group of people from Argentina, Mexico, and Venezuela.

As a scholar, in November I will start with a government-funded project on female spaces in Shakespeare’s four major tragedies: Hamlet (1600-1), Othello (1603-4), King Lear (1605-6), and Macbeth (1606). This is an extension of the research that I’ve already carried out in my doctoral thesis in which I studied some female characters regarding the configuration of their identity in relation to space in a selection of comedies.

Wish you good luck and thank you for your kindness, which made possible this interview.

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