Translating Shakespeare and its popularity in Japan

“Japanese Shakespeare has undergone a long process of becoming naturalized through performance, translation, and critical engagement.”


Translations of Shakespeare in ever-increasing numbers have formed a large part of the popularization of the plays in non-English speaking countries. In Japan, there have been countless publications and performances of Shakespeare's plays in the Japanese language, and Shakespearean films attract large audiences; all of which would not be so popular without the process of translation.

However, a fundamental question is necessarily raised: can Shakespeare be understood in Japanese, and not in the original English? The answer may be both yes and no. Most Japanese translations of Shakespeare are faithful to the original, but it is almost impossible to re-create his blank verse in Japanese, and various adaptations may be needed to suit different cultures. Tsubouchi Shoyo, a professor at Waseda University and a pioneer in the study of Shakespeare, was profoundly conscious of these problems. Tsubouchi completed the translation of the entire Shakespeare canon in 1928 for the first time in Japan. It is noteworthy that his purpose in translating Shakespeare was not only to popularize the plays, but also to enrich and innovate the quality of Kabuki. Perhaps because of this, Tubouchi's translations, similarly to the dialogue in Kabuki were written in the older forms of Japanese, a form which was archaic even in those days.

Since Tsubouchi's translations, Shakespeare has been naturalized with translations into modern Japanese and further disseminated through stage productions. As a result of this popularization, Shakespeare's stories and characters have become very appealing to Japanese people. A number of novelists have adopted the troubled heart of Hamlet as their own, and Hamlet's philosophical questions are well known as a significant and real issue for many people. Nowadays, Romeo and Juliet is also often adapted in various Japanese films and TV dramas as a tragic story of modern young lovers separated by some uncontrollable force such as war, discrimination or disease.

Furthermore, in the process of extending Shakespearean works to mass public audiences and domestic theatre through translation, the contribution of translations to critical engagement is also worth mentioning. Engaging in translation requires close reading of the original texts. Especially Shakespeare's original texts (Folio and Quartos) contain a lot of disputed words and phrases, and, following a series of creative decisions and criticism, translators are required to choose one explication amongst various possible interpretations. This work is similar to that of editing a text not only for readers but also for actors.

The endeavours of the translators from a hundred years ago have also had occasions to add perspectives to textual studies and stage productions as well. For example, in Act I, scene 3, of Hamlet, an actress playing Ophelia remarkably pointed out that her first lines to Hamlet must be forced on her by her father Polonius. The translator at the time, Matsuoka, was surprised to hear this point and clarified this in her essay. This interpretation was innovative in terms of textual criticism, and it was subsequently adopted in a performance directed by Ninagawa.

When Japanese Shakespeare is discussed, Japanized performances such as the "Ninagawa Macbeth" may come to mind. Indeed, there have been many performances in the Japanese style along with modern productions in Westernized settings, and Ninagawa is undoubtedly a distinctive director of Shakespeare in Japan and indeed the UK as well. However, as I stated earlier, Japanese Shakespeare has undergone a long process of becoming naturalized through performance, translation, and critical engagement. Regrettably, among these three fields, performance and academic studies seem to have diverged, but more than ever, translation might be able to contribute to closing this gap. Taking these aspects into consideration, it may be said that the translation of Shakespeare will continue to serve an important function on both page and stage, both inside and outside of Japan.

Homepage banner image from Macbeth, Ninagawa/Senoh, Ninagawa Company, Tokyo, September 1987 (Photographer: Donald Cooper)