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Главная INTER-CULTUR@L-NET Выпуск 1/2002 The Cross-cultural Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets


 The Cross-cultural Interpretation of Shakespeare's Sonnets


Edward S. Neather (UK)

We know that there are no total translations. Each language represents an aggregate of values, socially and historically determined. And it is in translating poetry that the translator comes face to face with the most intractable problems. For it is in poetry that the genius,  the essence of a given language is achieved. For me, that supreme achievement of the English language has long been represented by Shakepeare’s Sonnets Great poems such as these are culturally, socially and linguistically unique. The translator must obey both meaning and form.  Every poem is a problem of unity. The original poet found it; the translator must find it too. In addition, there is a cultural gap between the languages, a gap created by different ways of thinking, feeling and by different material objects and conditions.

II would like to concentrate on the notion of equivalence, which is not ‘sameness’. The reader, as Barthes pointed out, is a producer as well as a consumer of the text, and may focus on various aspects of the text to find equivalence. Nida uses the term ‘dynamic equivalence’ to mean equivalent effect. A number of commentators suggest four versions of equivalence:

Linguistic (= word for word)

Paradigmatic (=elements of grammar)

Stylistic (= expressive identity)

Textual (= form and shape)

This framework leaves out of account the cultural elements of interpretation.


The cultural context

Sapir states that “no two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality”. The truth of that statement is underlined when the social reality is rooted, not just in another society but in another historical period. We may say that all reading of poetry, even in one’s mother tongue, is a form of translation and intepretation. For the English reader approaching Shakespeare’s sonnets, the fact that most of the language is familiar may obscure changes that have taken place in words, puns which are no longer meaningful and certainly a world  which  view is very different. The reader who wishes may become soaked in the period, may even recognise otherwise obscure contemporary references. This is to place such an emphasis on meaning that the approach sometimes forgets the poem as an aesthetic experience. What is required is what Hartmann called ‘Rьckeinfьhlung” or retrospective empathy. The lapse of time of course makes the translator’s job that much more difficult.


Cross-cultural poetic themes

But if some aspects of the cultural context are distant, there are other themes which are familiar because they occur and reoccur in all European poetry.


Poetry as immortalisation

Let us take first the idea of poetry as immortalisation; the poet’s conceit that his literary fame is eternal. Perhaps the most famous classical version of this theme is the epilogue to Horace’s third book of Odes: “Exegi monumentum aere perennius”, rendered by Pushkin as: Я памятник себе воздвиг нерукотворный, and by Shakespeare as: “Not marble nor the ancient monuments Of princes shall out-live this powerful rhyme.” Ronsard, who died some 35 years before the printing of Shakespeare’s sonnets, changed Horace’s bronze to iron, when he wrote “Plus dur que fer j’ai fini mon ouvrage” and reminds us constantly in his verse that his work will stand for ever.

Devouring time and fading beauty

The theme of transience which runs continuously through the sonnets has been one of the major themes of European poetry. Shakespeare gives us a series of constantly changing variations on the theme of the brevity of human life, the transience of youth and beauty, the devouringness of time. There are significant variations in Shakespeare’s treatment, which there is no time to explore here. His main theme is: ‘how can what time threatens be preserved and perpetuated? Later in the sequence it is above all Love which defies time, particularly in a couplet such as: “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle’s compass come.” And the incomparable (116): “Let me not to the marriage of two minds Admit impediments…” Let us turn to examples of the Sonnets and some efforts to find both linguistic and cultural equivalence in other languages. Given the limits of time, I have chosen just two sonnets for more detailed study. Firstly, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, the most familiar of the poems. And then, the meditation on time and eternity “When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced…”


Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

If I can give one very simple example, at this stage, of a cultural element at a low level of interpretation. Sonnet 18 begins with one of the most-quoted lines in English literature, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,”. I asked a Japanese student how she felt about this line, and she said it made her feel ‘hot and sticky’! This is not the idea conjured up to an English reader by Shakespeare’s “darling buds of May”. What view of  summer’s day does a Russian reader have when Marshak translates:
Сравню ли с летним днём твои черты?
You could answer my question better than I, but I do know that Pushkin refers to the northern summer as карикатуpа южных зим, so I assume that Russian views of summer are not in line with English. Another Russian translator actually changes the season to spring:
Сравню ли я тебя с весенним днём?

Is this a cultural matter or simply a question of choosing a season that fits the chosen metre?

A French translator does the same thing: «Te vais-je comparer un beau jour de printemps?». Do these examples indicate that spring for a French or Russian reader might have more of the characteristics that summer has for the English?

The poem makes a common cultural contrast between the transience of our existence here and the eternity of verse. But Shakespeare begins with what seems almost a trifling and inocuous question. The tone is easy and conversational. Apart from the use of "thee", it could be modern. The comparison that follows – more lovely, more temperate maintain the light tone, and it is not until “too short a date” that a more sombre note is struck. The summer day is approaching the end of the season. From a natural simile the poem moves in the space of a few lines to notions of transient human life, spent in the shadow of death. But eternity is granted by the poet, and his “eternal lines”. At the end, however, the poet concedes that the eternity of art is limited by the end of humanity. It will exist no more when men no longer breathe and eyes no longer see.

In discussing the opening simile, Helen Vendler asks the question “What is the most beautiful thing in an English world?” She answers her own question “a summer’s day”. So the author takes this pinnacle of perfection as a comparison, only to see the faults inherent in it, the rough winds, the decline of the season. The lightness of the initial question is darkened by the decline of all that is fair, until, the verse sounds a note of triumph: “But thy eternal summer shall not fade..Nor shall death brag…”. But the triumphant future tenses are muted by the present tenses of “can breathe…can see”. The succession of human readers is ultimately finite.


“When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced…”(64)

The sonnet is rhetorical in tone, unlike the simple beginning of “Shall I compare…”.  Here there is a build up of statements: “When I have seen” is repeated thee times, and examples piled up of two forms of ruin: state confounded to decay and interchange of state. And this splendid rhetorical flourish comes an end with a play on ruin/ruminate, this last a word of Latin grandeur, followed by a line of naked simplicity: “That Time will come and take my love away”. Often in the English of the Sonnets, the philosophical complications of Latin vocabulary culminate in a simple monosyllabic truth. The first quatrain tells of the ruin of lofty towers, of state confounded to decay.  The second quatrain shows interchange of state, with the sea gaining on the shore and vice versa. The ravages of Time comes to represent personal loss. Time takes love away. The last line shows a striking parallelism: “weep to have”….”fears to lose”.  Having is already a subject for sorrow because loss is already implicit.



This is the slightest of introductions to a subject of endless depth and interest. I have not even scratched the surface, and have especially not gone into detailed analyses of the linguistic parallelism of the poems. But I hope this was a beginning.


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