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Hilský - Shakespeare's England: Portrait of an Age

Professor emeritus of English Literature Martin Hilský is one of the country’s most prominent translators of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets into Czech. In 2011, his translations were published in a single volume The Complete Works (Dílo). Now, Academia has followed up with Shakespeare’s England: Portrait of an Age. It is a fascinating and extensively researched book that should give readers an even deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s work.

How did writing and preparing this book compare to The Complete Works?

The books are different in perspective. One is a translation of all his plays and poems and I had to deal with every word, including all of the definite and indefinite articles (laughs). One is focused on all of the details of language, whereas Portrait of an Age is rather a macroscopic, more global view. Each presented its own problems, but to put it very simply in one sentence, in the new book there is a radical change in perspective. Whereas Dílo was focused on Shakespeare’s plays and language, the new book is about Shakespeare’s time. But that time is defined broadly, not only Shakespeare’s lifetime from 1564 until his death in 1616 but I had to deal with the English Reformation, which came before but into which Shakespeare was born. The time scope is from 1485 to roughly 1623 when Shakespeare’s first folio was published. King James died just two years after that.

In an interview in the Melting Pot series, you suggested that you built up to writing this book over the course of 30 years.

That’s true. When you translate Shakespeare, you cannot deal only with the language but have to take into account the contexts of the English and European Renaissance and that is quite difficult. Without the knowledge of the “background” – I don’t like that word, by the way, although it is often used – but without the knowledge of that, the translation would suffer. And over the years, I dealt with those contexts. In the plays, they were the foil or the background and in Portrait of an Age they come to the foreground.

I did a lot of contextual study when I translated Shakespeare that helped me see important details and they allowed me to better see a landscape I had not fully known. However, it was a kind of personal discovery too, a pilgrimage. Still, work on the new book was immensely difficult I can tell you. Frankly, in writing a portrait of an age such as this, you realise that you can never write exhaustively or capture all of the aspects of any time because it is just too complex, and cannot be easily categorised. So it was difficult but also immensely rewarding. Because, you know, it reflects back upon the translations themselves. Now I can see Shakespeare’s plays in a slightly modified light. I am not saying that I was wrong in my contextual studies before, but I noticed certain perspectives in writing Shakespeare’s England: Portrait of an Age that I had not responded to previously.

It seems to me that you are offering to the reader a chance to deepen their knowledge and appreciation not only of Shakespeare’s time but also his work.

That is the purpose of the book. It is not for the specialist but for a general audience. Sociologists, theologians, political scientists, readers interested in things like alchemy, will certainly find that there are aspects that are “incomplete” but the value should be in its holistic approach: the “whole” in this case is what is interesting and in Czech there aren’t books in a single volume that would deal with so many aspects of his time.

The problem was twofold: on the one hand, I had to go into areas that are well known, such as the Reformation but on the other, when I dug deeper into context, the impact on all spheres of life including on imagination (not just religious but imagination as such) became clearer. The dominant theme of the book is people and their personalities. I wanted to write a portrait that would be peopled because you can never write an age with- out taking into account different groups, beginning with kings and queens and aristocrats and then going down the social ladder, to merchants and different professional groups, those who already practiced medicine, playwrights and writers and others. And of course, who was who, in the last section of the book, gives individual portraits of people then.

Above all, the book should show changes in mentality. The English Reformation is key to understanding the English mentality, even today. You cannot understand English civilisation, the Elizabethan age, and the changing mind-set without it. It is meant to be interesting and exciting and I wanted to write it well and craft it almost as if it were a novel. Although based on historic documentation, it is a work based on imagination: to write it, you had to imagine the age.

One moment described in the book is Hic incipit pestis – Here begins the plague. One can’t help but reflect on what we are going through now, although there are significant differences.

Those passages were written before the Covid−19 outbreak but there are parallels, I would say, in the psychology of the people. We now know how difficult it is to face a pandemic of this kind and it is a genuine crisis. At the same time, while the impact is similar, the plague was still much worse. It was worse because we simply live in better times: we have medical care that was not the case in Shakespeare’s time. I mean there was basic medical care but it was not systematic or always available and medicine has progressed in a way that is miraculous since then.

Shakespeare himself lived through the plague several times during his life. In April 1564, the month and year he was born, the plague broke out in Stratford-upon-Avon. It is a well-known fact that his family’s neighbours in Henley Street lost four children to the plague. Shakespeare survived. Later, when he was in London, the plague spread much more dangerously than in villages and in fact, almost every year from 1603 to 1610 there were plagues. The measures taken were quite similar to what we are going through today: the theatres were closed, as they are now, and were only reopened after the plague subsided. An interesting aspect is the different ways the plague was interpreted and this goes back to the Reformation and its impact on all facets of life: everyone viewed it through a different perspective.

The Catholic view – or more radical Catholics – would see the plague as a “curse from God”, punishment for the Reformation. All reformers, all English Protestants including Elizabeth I, were seen as heretics. The Protestants saw it as the opposite: as punishment for popery, still seen as alive in the minds of the minority. What you have really is a crisis of interpretation: if you ask the question “what was the plague about” you had two answers and not one truth but two kinds and that must have been extremely unnerving for ordinary people trying to find their way.

You had two opposite views, defended by strong arguments of faith. Today we know a bacterial infection was the real reason but in Shakespeare’s time they had no such knowledge. What happened with plague happened in every aspect of life. There was not one Christianity any longer and there is a marked difference between the Catholic Middle Ages that was homogeneous and the new age which anticipated pluralistic thinking in religion and politics.

There are parallels again in different interpretations of Covid−19: just how dangerous it is, whether it would be defeated ahead of a second wave, and so on.

For some people I have spoken to, Covid certainly is a scourge but this time for what we have done to the environment and the ruthless exploitation of the planet. Which is one view out of many.

To turn back to Shakespeare: you translated your first Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when you were 40 years old. Was 40 a good point at which to start?

I think it was. Being 40 meant that I had previous professional experience and also life experience, which helped a lot. I’d say it was just about right, not too early and not too late. I think that today my students would be more assertive and would try their hand at Shakespeare earlier, even during their studies, which would have been impossible for me. The advantage was that I had already translated British and American prose and I had also done a number of plays; Shakespeare, though, was a challenge of an entirely different kind. When I was asked to translate A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it was a genuine turning point in my professional career. It changed my professional life.

You could not have known at the time that you would eventually translate all of his work as well as the sonnets.

My approach was to translate each play as well as I could irrespective of the time that it would consume. The investment of time and energy was immense, you know, and I never hoped, I didn’t even think about translating all of Shakespeare, because one, it seemed impossible and two, it just wasn’t my concern. I wanted to do each play and each sonnet as well as I could and it was only when I had done about 30 plays that the idea of doing all of them became interesting. It was a kind of Mount Everest: halfway up, who wouldn’t want to reach the top? It’s also very difficult to go down at that point. So I did it and I think I was lucky.

It took a lot of work to do all 38 plays “and a half” – because there is now a 39th play incorporated by The New Cambridge Shakespeare into their editorial plans. The great scholar Giorgio Melchiori considered Edward III the thirty-ninth play that should be “canonised”, in a cultural sense. The play was written by six playwrights, Shakespeare one of them no doubt about it, and I translated the two scenes that were clearly done by him; all the same, I am not sure it should have been canonised. Thirty-eight is my definite number but Edward III is there as a definite option. For me it is an open and unresolved question.

Your love for the English language (as well as French) is well known, as is your love of dialogue. How do you capture the essence of Shakespeare in Czech? You said in the past that English is “untranslatable” and that translation itself is “an illusion”; could you elaborate?

That’s a difficult question but an important one. My point is, translating Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s English into Czech, is a very special kind of translation. By the way, I love the English word translation that is derived from the Latin root translatio, which means not only the literal translation but also change. When one character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream says “Bottom… thou art translated” he means “Bottom… thou art changed” – into an ass of course (laughs). In Czech, I think the word překlad is misleading because it means a transfer or transplantation of meaning and that is a different thing. The second meaning of “change” is absent in that Czech word.

The difficulty is mainly because the English language means things differently. It sounds differently but most importantly thinks and feels differently than the Czech language. Languages indeed condition our ways of thinking and feeling in ways that are immensely important. The difficulty is enormous because you translate the English Renaissance into present-day Czech. You translate from an age that was completely different from our own, and you translate Renaissance thinking and feeling into Czech. And that’s not easy. My credo is that translations of Shakespeare must never be literal; once you try to be literal, you make fundamental errors.

I advocate for a kind of free, no, creative translation. To put it into one sentence: for me to translate a sonnet, for example, means to first write a good Czech sonnet based upon and connected to the parent text. But there are differences: the music of the words is different. My attempt was to translate the music of Shakespeare’s language, which was extremely interesting, into Czech, as well. Not all translators, or even very few, attempt this. For me, the most difficult thing that happens in Czech translation is when you have a difficult, often paradoxical meaning combined with the inimitable music of English. You can’t imitate it, you must replace the music. So these are some of the basic problems of Shakespeare translation.

What is one example of an especially difficult verse to crack? Where you had to obsess and then leave a sentence or passage aside and come back to it later when you had found an answer? In the past, you have used Sonnet 86 as an example.

The answer to this question would take about three hours (laughs)! Sonnet 86 is interesting: in the first four lines there is a particular wordplay on the words womb and tomb. It is a difficult sonnet, about a rival poet, and Shakespeare in fact says because of the rival poet that his mind – the womb in the sonnet, in other words his creative mind – has now been transformed into a tomb because the very fact there is a rival poet changed the situation into the very opposite. The problem is, these are beautiful words with the same sound, and tomb signifies death while womb, birth and life. And it’s untranslatable. Because there is no possibility in Czech to combine the Czech words for womb and tomb – as well as the sound and meaning.

I gave up translating sonnets when I came across this one: it seemed impossible. But then I realised that there is one word in Czech, kolébka, which means cradle, and lebka, which means skull. One is inscribed in the other and out of this sudden in- sight (that happened at night and which I later developed into lines three and four) there was a happy solution that made sense. But very often, you do not find a solution at all. There are untranslatable passages that are usually based on beautiful music combined with multiple meanings.

Another example is from the comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost, which I love, the character Berowne says “Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile”. You know, this is difficult even for an English speaker I guess because light is used in three different ways. Moreover, it’s a concert based on this diphthong “i”. Since this diphthong does not exist in Czech, I substituted the “o” sound that is common in Czech and the music was somehow maintained and the paradoxical meanings were easier to match. Beguile does not mean to kill but my translation captured the essence: by reading too much you are ruining your eyes, therefore you ruin the light – not only in the sense of knowledge and enlightenment but also in a physical sense. There, it is necessary to add that the Elizabethan understanding of optics was different from ours: they thought that the eyes emanated some light and that if you killed that light you ended up in darkness. If you overdo studying, you ruin your eyes. These are details, but they are extremely important.

I don’t: after 53 years I decided to stop regular teaching. I still have public lectures and they are, to my pleasure, well attended, and I always take great care to prepare them and it’s very creative. I enjoy putting together the lectures and perform them the way I want but I don’t have regular classes. For me, it was simply a vocation but it was a great experience. I very much liked the discussions I was able to have with students and the same way we have Creative Writing, which is an established institution now, I called my seminars Creative Reading. Reading is not mechanical and it is a creative task because you look for the meanings. It was in fact a common pursuit with the students: I tried to discover with them the meanings of Shakespeare and I hope this sense of adventure and exploring was interesting for most of them. This was my philosophy of teaching Shakespeare.

Translating is clearly an immensely creative process. You are also a professor emeritus and Charles University was your academic home for a long time. Do you still teach?

It is stimulating when you have younger people who bring a different perspective or to see them discover something you also discovered yourself at some point.

Absolutely. I always invited differences of opinion and I sometimes had to revise my own axioms because of students’ fresh minds. You know, I was more experienced because I had read more, but their minds were fresh to new impulses. The one thing I was afraid of, and didn’t want, was for teaching to ever become a routine affair. I am grateful to my students for their views and it was give and take, it was reciprocal, helping me realise things that might not have occurred to me had I been sitting at home.

If we turn to theatre, it must be particularly fascinating when your words are given new life onstage; you have also admitted in some cases that it can be an ordeal, when a production fails to meet the bar. When it works, however, it must be fantastic.

It is. It is quite different from translating or from writing a novel. The difference is that in the theatre you can hear the responses of the audiences. Writing or reading a novel is a private affair where- as theatre is always public and always political, by the way. It’s always a collective effort. Audiences, to some extent, help to create the production. Actors will tell you that. Each production is different depending on who comes and how the audiences behave. I see the audience as a huge part of the play, hundreds of eyes hidden in the darkness, and I realised the responsibility I had when my words were put onstage and performed. And it either agrees with your ideas or it does not. When it does, it is a great joy. If it doesn’t, if the performance of language is not good it is perhaps because the director or actors do not believe in the importance of language and it fails. It’s a matter of belief and you have to believe. And I do.

Language, especially Shakespeare’s language, is important. When it fails in a performance, I am really defeated and depressed. But I must say I am grateful because translating is a solitary job and thanks to this I went to theatres, spoke to directors and to actors and again there was some kind of feedback which helped. I called it the “theatre of language”, which was again part of my personal journey and personal discovery. Shakespeare could write immensely good theatre but we are all involved in the theatre of language: whether daily conversations or the theatre, it is a fantastic thing.

Author: Jan Velinger

Photo: Vladimír Šigut

check out alumni profile of

Prof. Martin Hilský

This article was originally published by

the Charles University magazine iForum


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