The Problem of Shakespearean “Translation” and the Timelessness of the “Tomorrow” Speech

By Katherine Pisarro-Grant

“How the days stretched out – each one the same as the one before, and they would continue to do so, tediously, until the end of history. And every day we have lived has been the last day of some other fool’s life, each day a dot of candle-light showing him the way to his death-bed. Blow the short candle out: life was no more than a walking shadow – a poor actor – who goes through all the emotions in one hour on the stage and then bows out. It was a story told by an idiot, full of noise and passion, but meaningless.”

Ring any bells? It’s a “translation” of a monumental Shakespeare soliloquy from one of his most famous tragedies – except it’s missing the line by which people who know of it tend to identify it – “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” Here’s the original:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

It’s not quite “to be or not to be,” in terms of cultural ubiquity, but it’s perhaps the most famous speech in Macbeth and certainly one of the most remembered passages of Shakespeare’s canon. I stumbled upon the former version (or bastardization, if you will) on the “No Sweat Shakespeare” website, and immediately winced.

Admittedly, I like Shakespeare a lot more than your average reader, and even a lot more than your average English major. I understand both sides of the spectrum of non-fans – those who find Shakespeare archaic and irrelevant and those who, even after learning more about the plays, still find them dull or repetitive or overwrought. As a lifelong bookworm and former theater kid, I’ve actually enjoyed Shakespeare from a young age. I expected to hate the political- and male-centric “Julius Caesar” when we read it in tenth grade, but found myself enthralled in the plot’s pathos; I still shiver at the resounding sting of “et tu, Brute?” In middle school, I watched a production of the underrated “Measure for Measure” at an amphitheater in the chilled, foggy Oakland Hills, and was enraptured and deliciously disturbed by the play’s particular streak of dark comedy and irony, involving nuns and whores and bribes and a masquerading mayor.

I took the prerequisite Shakespeare class for the English major at UC Berkeley this past spring and became even more awed by Shakespeare’s inventive, playful, and profound command of language. I learned to always second-guess footnotes; certainly there are instances when a word’s meaning has changed beyond all recognition, or when the thing the word describes has ceased to exist, but often the editors gloss words that are simply being used creatively. For instance, in Act I, Scene iii, Line 117, Macbeth, upon receiving news that he will inherit the title of Thane of Cawdor, pronounces: “The greatest is behind.” Stephen Orgel, editor of the version found in the Complete Pelican Shakespeare, includes the footnote “still to come” to explain “behind.” Quite a counter-intuitive switch; and one that, to use a term favored by many of my professors, attempts to “explain away” an ambiguous and problematic usage. Even if, indeed, “behind” can stand in for “still to come,” its immediate association, “in the past,” holds more weight. And of course, as we learn, Macbeth’s greatest is indeed in the past from that moment on. A few lines later, he intones, “Two truths are told,/As happy prologues to the swelling act/Of the imperial theme.” “Swelling act” is glossed as “developing drama,” which certainly makes sense, but does the reader need such a simplification? The thematic tie between “prologues,” “act,” and “theme” all make his meaning, and the linguistic play, clear enough to the keen reader.

Editors have an enormous challenge in attempting to discern which words or phrases to annotate so as to make the overall reading experience smoother. There are plenty of plays whose plots are both incomprehensible and un-compelling, and there are plenty of passages of Shakespeare whose meanings are utterly baffling. So what pains me most about seeing this rendition of the tomorrow speech is that I happen to find it one of the most lucid and direct Shakespeare passages I’ve ever read. In all seventy-five words, the Pelican complete Shakespeare glosses only two: “a time” as “i.e., an appropriate time” ( itself, I think, an unnecessary clarification). The speech jumps out on the page in the red, dictionary-sized volume: amid cluttered blocks of minute-font text, it is flanked only by that single footnote number, the blank margins a glowing marquee for its candor, its poignancy.

The “No Sweat” translation – author not cited – beefs up the volume to a much less concise 104 words. It manages to omit all the “yesterdays” and “tomorrows” of the original, and curiously changes the tense of the last sentence from present to past. Its most glaring failure is its second sentence, which manages to wildly over-complicate and make redundant its source text by tripling the amount of words in play. The “brief candle” has simply become “short,” transforming my conjured-up mental image from a flickering and only partly physical candle to a wholly un-metaphorical pile of wax. It’s still not a bad passage, all told – but it’s not the original.

It doesn’t contain the nuanced and subtle references to other speeches preceding it in the play: notably, Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damn’d spot!”, as echoed in “Out, out, brief candle!” Likewise lost in omitting the three tomorrows is the connection to the many threes of the play: the three witches, three spirits, three murderers, three apparitions. Sonically, the link between that line and many others is lost: ominously, Lady Macbeth’s final words, “To bed, to bed, to bed,” Macduff’s “O horror, horror, horror!,” as well as the witches’ “Hail! Hail! Hail,” “Show! Show! Show,” and thrice-iterated “Double double, toil and trouble….”

The bottom line is that Shakespeare wrote poetry. Poetry is essentially much more interested in the sound than the sense, as I found out firsthand when I got involved in a project of Russian poetic translation – I’m lucky I still have any hair left to pull out. With that experience in mind, I found myself wondering what a back-translation of a Russian translation of Macbeth might yield. Here are some samples:

If only tomorrow, still tomorrow, tomorrow…Lo and behold: already “yesterday” is your entire life. You’ve reached the epilogue of your tragedy. The candle has burnt out. Life is a specter, the foulest farce: puppets dance, and then they’re cleared away into a box. Life is a novella rehashed by a lunatic: delusion and madness. -A. V. Florya

Another tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…the days drag on with petty steps to the last words in the book of our life. And all yesterdays illuminated the road for fools to decaying death. Out then, candle! Life is a walking shadow; a wretched actor, who swaggers through his hour, smolders on stage, — and then is silenced forever; it is a tale recounted by a cretin, with ardor, with sound, but meaning nothing. -A. Radlova

Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, picked at by paws, it hurries to the last date in life’s calendar, where “tomorrow” is no more, and all “yesterdays” have decomposed into dust, — the candle has burned out. Life is a bodiless shadow, an actor who created an image in the course of an hour, only to leave it again; its subject was invented by an idiot – it is full of sound and fury, but you grasp no meaning. -V.R. Poplavskiy

Of the three, the second seems the most faithful to the original imagery and word choice, but my favorite is the first one. Its Russian rhythm (unfortunately not replicable in writing) and simplicity (it’s the most concise of the three) are quite reminiscent of Shakespeare’s. I appreciate the creative imagery introduced – puppets and boxes – and the interest in interpretation, rather than replication. Clearly, Florya was more concerned with conveying the sound and mood of the original than the words themselves. As a translator, making leaps like that takes chutzpah.

Which brings me back to the “No Sweat” rendering – it reads like a pretty decent back translation. It’s close enough to the imagery of the original to evoke it pretty unmistakably, but it sacrifices sound and soul. This isn’t an Old English elegy, which literally needs translation for a modern English speaker, or even Chaucer, who is readable with heavy glossing and a briefing on Middle English pronunciation. On the other hand, it is quite probable that Shakespeare’s language was hardly common speech, something that a lot of teachers of his work tend to under-emphasize. He invented a whole litany of words, or at least originated their use in print, and the parts of his work that we continue to quote are much more likely his ingenious turns of phrase than any kind of widely spoken idiom: think “the green-eyed monster,” “there’s the rub,” “dead as a doornail,” “in a pickle,” “salad days,” “the world’s my oyster.” Translation of these phrases becomes redundant (“jealousy,”), un-enigmatic (“therein lies the problem,”) un-alliterative (“dead,”), un-imageistic (“embroiled in a problem,” “the best days,” “the world is mine”).

It was never the what of Shakespeare’s plays but the how. Although incidentally I find Macbeth to comprise one of the most clear, intriguing, and positively riveting plots and character arcs of all his works, without Shakespeare’s language, it wouldn’t have merited all these translations and this author’s essay. I watched a clip from an interview in which Patrick Stewart retells the advice given to him by Ian McKellen about how to deliver this soliloquy. He says that he took his time to think through each and every word and really consider what he was saying. That’s what I love about watching or reading a Shakespeare play – the passages that merit that kind of slow sinking-in. This monologue is stark and simple, and then the more you think about it the less it makes sense – first we’re asked to envision the personified “tomorrow” moving “from day to day” to the “last syllable of recorded time.” “Last” could mean either “final” or “most recent,” so movement both to the past and the distant future are simultaneously invoked. “Tomorrow” moves to both ends of history while all past “yesterdays” facilitate the road to death; it’s boggling, but its beauty outweighs its enigma. When translating or summarizing such a passage, one needs to consider just what the author is actually trying to say, which becomes a serious problem with poetry. But when you hear it, you don’t stop to sort out the temporal logic. You don’t stop to wonder what the candle is. You don’t even register the echoes of the beginning of the play; they’re just there when you dig deeper, little Easter eggs that Shakespeare himself might not have even been conscious of.

If students are bewildered by the language or content of Shakespeare’s plays, they should probably be watching them and not reading them, for one. If they’re uninterested, there’s not much to ameliorate the apathy. But is it overly optimistic and litero-centric to believe that there isn’t one English speaker who wouldn’t be able to relate to the sentiments of at least the tomorrow speech, whose soul wouldn’t be cut straight through by the words binding the 20th century’s existentialism to parallel pathos of half a millennium before? Reading works in translation is a process of consumption requiring many grains of salt, since we can never be sure what journey the text has taken. English speakers should enjoy the privilege of reading poetry in our native tongue, and teachers of Shakespeare should remind readers not to get caught up too much in plot or meanings, but to sit back and let the language take over.


Soliloquy translation

“Macbeth Soliloquy: Tomorrow, And Tomorrow, And Tomorrow.” Shakespeare Resources: Modern English Shakespeare Translations. Web. 16 Aug. 2011. .

Russian translations

Florya: “Русский Шекспир | АКТ ПЯТЫЙ. Макбет. Перевод А. В. Флори.” Русский Шекспир. Web. 16 Aug. 2011. .

Poplavskiy: “Русский Шекспир | Финал «Макбета». Перевод В. Р. Поплавского.” Русский Шекспир. Web. 16 Aug. 2011. .

Radlova: “Русский Шекспир | Трагедия о Макбете. Перевод А. Радловой.” Русский Шекспир.
Web. 16 Aug. 2011. .

Shakespeare text
Shakespeare, William, and Stephen Orgel. “Macbeth.” The complete works: the new Pelican text. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2002. 1622-1648. Print.

Russian-to-English translations
Author’s own.

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