Global Japanese StudiesWaseda University


Report for Online Symposium: Translation and Performance of Shakespeare – Translating for the Stage

Online Symposium: Translation and Performance of Shakespeare – Translating for the Stage


  • Date: July 3rd, 2021
  • Time: 14:00 – 15:30 (JST) GMT+9
  • Speaker: Nobuhiro Nishikawa, director of Bungakuza
    Koshi Odashima, Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, School of Culture, Media and Society, Waseda University
    Seiji Oshio, Masters course student of Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University
  • Moderator: Hiromi Fuyuki, Professor, Letters, Arts and Sciences, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Waseda University

The current symposium addressed the translation of Shakespeare’s plays into Japanese and the problems that arise when using that translation as a script. Held with the purpose of developing future prospects in the field, the symposium brought light to the problematic points in the translation and performance of Shakespeare, and it generated debate about such difficulties from the standpoints of each translator, director, and performer.

During the symposium, moderator Professor Fuyuki first explained the outline and the purpose of the event and introduced the speakers. Then, the speakers contributed jointly by giving their commentaries and opinions from each of their respective standpoints. Finally, there was also a question-and-answer session in which a heated debate took place. Running over the scheduled time, the symposium lasted for 1 hour and 50 minutes.

In her role as lecturer, Professor Fuyuki first presented various translations of Shakespeare from the Meiji period to contemporary times and proceeded to outline issues concerning translation and performance that arise in each of them. She presented the translations of Shōyō Tsubouchi, Tsuneari Fukuda, and Kazuko Matsuoka. Then, following a chronological order, she specifically pointed out their implications in performance. Shōyō was the first Japanese person to make a complete translation of a play by Shakespeare. His splendid contributions include, together with the accuracy of the translation, the insertion of stage directions that prioritized stage performance and the strong emphasis put on keeping the rhythm, all of which exerted a great influence on subsequent translations and performances of the English playwright. Professor Fuyuki also exemplified Fukuda’s translation which shows his concept of “Speech as Gesture,” with the other translators’ examples. Furthermore, she raised Odashima’s translation and its great consciousness of modern colloquial language as example of how to transmit the essence and rhythm of dialogue even if the translation deviates from the original text. Finally, Professor Fuyuki deemed Matsuoka’s translation as the most suitable for staging. She also explained that Matsuoka emphasized that Shakespeare’s original text did not actually use feminine language, and she decided not to use feminine style of speech in her translation.

Following this, director Nishikawa pointed out that Shakespeare’s plays are different from contemporary plays, but still many things are familiar to us today despite the characters’ use of rich language and long speeches. This is indeed a difficult issue for young actors not used to complex lines, though one that has to be weathered, as it is precisely in the exchange between actors and audience that language, the greatest strength in Shakespeare’s plays, can bring forth the enjoyment of his theatre. In addition, Nishikawa explained that the true charm of directing Shakespeare’s works and his utmost concern is that they could be adapted as contemporary plays in many different ways, and the crucial point would be how to make them successful as contemporary drama. Furthermore, Nishikawa recalled the enthusiasm of the performance of Hamlet using the Yūshi Odashima’s translation by the Bungakuza Theatre Company, and the great number of spectators gathered to see the actor of the title role, Toru Emori, adding that surprisingly Emori remembered not only the Japanese but the English lines. Shakespeare’s lines are often long and difficult, but it would be unsatisfactory if the actor’s lines are not understood, so one must think, explained Nishikawa, not of the tempo or pace, but of properly transmitting the keywords to the audiences and of properly conveying one’s lines to the opposite role. This is linked to the fact that Tsuneari Fukuda does not divide the verse lines, implying that words should follow the action. Additionally, Nishikawa explained that in the UK the word “audience” literally means “those who listen,” which implies the audial component is very important. Still, he tries to transmit to the actors that the sense of touch is equally important and that believing that words heard are the most important of things applies uniquely to the director.

Professor Odashima picked up on Nishikawa’s words about the importance of hearing and stated further that such is a characteristic of the theatre in Shakespeare’s times; he pointed out that spectators standing on the ground floor of the venue (groundling) would actually not hear much, while the aristocratic seats were closest to the stage from which lines could be heard clearly. The long and poetic dialogues of Shakespeare’s plays contain references to time and season, as well as non-realistic explanations (for instance, in the narration that Gertrude does of Ophelia’s death), which show that those dialogues were composed already presuming that they could not actually be performed on stage. In this sense, Professor Odashima said that the most important concept behind Yūshi Odashima’s translation is the fact that it was made for performance. As such, the difference with Fukuda’s translation lies on the fact that Odashima’s does not translate the original as it is, but rather incorporates exchanges and puns in a way that the situation of the characters on stage is made clearer for the Japanese audience. Taking on the notion of translation-for-performance as the main point, he also lined up a history of the translations of the verse “To be, or not to be,” emphasized the importance of rhythm in the passage, and commented on the specificities of Yūshi Odashima’s translation that incorporated the ambiguity of meaning of that line. In addition, Professor Odashima explicated with examples that different translations lead also to different performances of a character like Hamlet. About that, Nishikawa continued by saying that the casting of actors indeed depends on the way in which the director envisions the characters. He added that, depending on the times or translators, Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” would be suitable to be translated as the meaning of “to live, or to die,” which could be explicitly understood, as the Japanese language is ideogrammatic.

Mr. Oshio, a graduate student, also gave his opinions about Shōyō’s and Odashima’s translations based on his experience as an actor. He expressed that the lines “To be, or not to be” comprise a debate as to whether they are to be interpreted in a realistic or a symbolic way. He continued that Shōyō’s translation includes words that are difficult to understand in modern times, but that is because of a predominance of the symbolic interpretation, so that performance style may change accordingly. Furthermore, because actors utilize the script as a solid ground to eliminate their anxiety toward the stage, suggested Mr. Oshio, Shōyō’s translation transmits to them a sense of security that they are in a fictional world where such a dialogue could take place. In consonance with that, Nishikawa brought up the case of an English actor who didn’t understand and for that reason disliked Shakespeare, adding that a Japanese translation can make the original easier to comprehend. Nishikawa also recalled his own experience in the UK as a director’s assistant. He explained that at that time he was able to comprehend the relationship between dialogue and movement, something that the English director himself didn’t fully understand, through the use of Japanese translations. Professor Odashima still highlighted the importance of mirroring the verse style. He pointed out that the Japanese seven-five syllable rhythm, which is typical in Yūshi Odashima’s translation, almost reproduces the rhyme of the original. He also introduced the case of the contemporary play King Charles III by Mike Bartlett as another curious example of properly done blank verse rhythm and use of irony that intersects with reality.

After that, in the question-and-answer session, a participant asked about the training of actors, to which Nishikawa explained that there is no unified system belonging to a drama training center in Japan and that Japanese actors do not learn basing on any specific method. He also pointed out that theatre is often neglected in Japanese basic education, for which reason it is necessary to have a decent instructor to work solidly on it. In regard to performance, he further commented that there are times in which a performance is staged by inviting a native English director, which raises the issue as to whether that person can comprehend the script in Japanese. Because communication problems arise in such times regardless of the presence of an interpreter, Nishikawa wondered if the reason is that actors are unable to express the points of the script that they find questionable. Nishikawa did mention, however, the case of the English director David Leveaux who, when directing a Japanese actor and sensing something is not clear for either side, always requests for immediate interpretation and for confirmation with the crew. In this way, he tried to illustrate that it is still possible to carry on fruitful performances despite the language barrier. The same participant inquired about instruction books for performing Shakespeare and commented that in rural areas of Japan there are few productions and almost no opportunities for training. Finally, while making reference to his experience co-directing a contemporary play for a Japan and UK production, Nishikawa restated that the difference between the English and the Japanese in phrasing, interpretation and notions of movement are clear and distinct, so that he realized that bridging the differences between the original and the translation would be a big problem.

Despite not reaching a definite conclusion, the event put forth the difficulties that lie in translation when prioritizing performance and confirmed that the ways of translating change according to the standpoint from where it is done. In addition, it was possible to corroborate the richness of words and the depth of interpretation that arises from translation. The symposium closed with room for further debate about performance and translation and with an invitation to delve into the potentials of translating while putting the performance on stage.

Please click here for the event video.



Page Top
WASEDA University

The Waseda University official website
<<>> doesn't support your system.

Please update to the newest version of your browser and try again.


Suporrted Browser