Hamlet is, as are all of Shakespeare’s plays, a work based on appropriations and translations. A rough historical sketch would show, over the course of half a century, a Scandinavian legend set down in Latin then translated into French before finding its way across the Channel to become Thomas Kyd’s now lost “Ur-Hamlet,” the most likely source for Shakespeare’s version. Despite this mongrel past,
Hamlet’s über-canonization and its pervasiveness in literature and popular culture make it seem, at least in the familiar scenes, to be
the original, without translation.
But something else happens, no matter how many times I read it, when I wander into the miraculous strangeness of the language and behavior in the play. I sense not only the conflict in the main character, but in the language and play as a whole. A product of “mistranslations” that occurred along the way?
During the time I wrote these poems, this effect was heightened by approaching
Hamlet with fresh-eyed undergrads in a composition course through the use of film versions. So the words of Shakespeare’s
Hamlet, as well as the film translations, and mistranslations as my students and I would often label them, of Franco Zeffirelli, Kenneth Branagh and Michael Almereyda, were in mind. From this place, I started writing what became a four-poem series of “mistranslations” based on the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia.
Of the two poems published here, “Hamlet’s Meditation” came out of an attempt to write a terza rima in the middle of January in Oklahoma, and the brooding voice set in a contemporary world could just as easily be Ethan Hawke’s version of Hamlet in Almereyda’s film as Shakespeare’s “original.” “Hamlet’s Letter from Exile” draws from the moment in Shakespeare’s play when Hamlet is sent abroad with hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, mixes that moment with the more graphic sexual relations Branagh adds to his film version, and draws its vocabulary from a mix of whaling lore and the Ozark Mountains river system exhibit at the local zoo.
In this sense, both poems are my translations, and by design, mistranslations, of a mélange of interpretations, which is really just a polite word for “mistranslations.” It seems, given the history of
Hamlet and the relative successes and failures of the film versions, that only through purposeful mistranslation can one arrive at something worthwhile.