Shakespeare in Arabic: enduring appeal

It is hard to do justice to the Bard’s words in another language, so throw out the book and concentrate on his enduring themes of betrayal, beauty and love, say experts

The universal themes of Shakespeare’s plays – such as violence, rage, love and beauty – resonate across cultures and time to appeal to modern, Arab audiences despite the difficulties of translating his works into Arabic.

The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature session, Shakespeare in the Original Arabic, explored the enduring appeal of the ‘Bard of Avon’ and the challenges of translating his plays. Rather than a barrier, the problem of how to replicate the language instead frees actors and directors to put their own twist on the age-old themes to suit modern Arab contexts, said the panel.

"The frustrations with Arabic translations of Shakespeare liberated me to take a more iconoclastic approach,” said Sulayman Al-Bassem, Kuwaiti playwright and director. “It liberated me to burn the texts and boil them down to resonate with audiences in other parts of the Arab world.”

One of several sessions at the festival dedicated to the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare, with April 2016 marking the 400th year of his death. Other sessions include Shakespeare’s Villains, and Breaking Bard.

“Brilliant drama,” has kept the plays alive over the centuries, said Al-Bassem, who has adapted Richard III and Hamlet for Arab audiences. Still, getting the famous playwright’s meaning across is no easy task; whereas plays translate well into languages such as German, faithful renditions into others – like French and Arabic – are more troubling.

“Modern standard Arabic cannot comprehend the variety of registers and vocabulary in Shakespeare’s language. A queen doesn’t speak the same way as a servant, for instance,” said Al-Bassem. “In the adaptation work we did on Richard III, a big part of it was taking from different linguistic sources to try to get the language to sound interesting. We would take from Quranic texts, from official correspondence or from Bedouin poetry, which allows the text to become more like a palimpsest – made up of various tenors.”

In Al-Bassem’s trans-adaptation of the history play, he turned the original “as merciful as snow on harvest” into “as merciful as rain on mud huts”, he added.

The panel discussion also examined the links between East and West. In particular, Europe’s fascination with the Orient and the expansion of the Ottoman Empire inspired some of Shakespeare’s characters, such as Cleopatra, Othello and The Merchant of Venice’s Shylock, said historian John Julius Norwich.

The figure of Othello, the Moor of Venice, in particular was inspired by the Arab world, said Abdulla Al Dabbagh, Emirati English professor and author of Shakespeare, the Orient, and the Critics. Shakespeare’s knowledge of North Africa was most likely drawn from a book written by a captured Moroccan diplomat dubbed Leo Africanus, he said.

“There was a strong interaction between East and West, between Muslims and Christians – even intermarriage – in addition to political and economic relationships between the Muslim world and the Christian West,” said Al-Dabbagh. “[The Elizabethan era] was a globalised period, just like we live in the globalised world of the 21st century.”