Translating Shakespeare: how to familiarise students with his language

Author: Francis Gilbert
Published: 10/02/2014

Here are my suggestions for improving students' engagement with and understanding of Shakespeare's language through modern translations. Further details, links and suggested resources to support this approach are provided in the resource below.

1 Starting off

A good introductory lesson gets students familiar with Shakespeare's language. Before you ask the students to translate a chunk of text, they'll need to have a grasp of:

  • the overall plot of the play
  • the personalities of the characters and the settings of the play.

To help, you could give them a decent plot summary, character profiles and an outline of the setting. Alternatively, you could show a filmed version of the play if there is one.

2 Translation

Once students have secured the basics, you can give them a section of the text to translate.

Start small. Choose a speech and explain the situation of the speech to them if they're not clear about it. This includes when, why and where it happens in the play.

You'll also need to provide explanations of the really difficult phrases (an educational edition of Shakespeare should do this).

Ask students to work in pairs, reading the speech and annotating it carefully, picking out phrases that can be translated and phrases they don't understand.

David Crystal's Shakespeare's Words will help with translating any tricky words/phrases.

3 Tricks of the trade

The secret to a good translation is to make it sound natural: an extremely difficult thing to do!

After a rough draft of the modern translation has been written, ask your students to consider updating the setting, the characters and the plot and 're-translating' their rough translation into this modern setting.

For students who are struggling, giving them a 'No Fear Shakespeare' version of the text can help.

Once students are happy with their translations and redrafting, they should get their work ready to perform to the class.

You and the class can then critique it!

4 Variations on a theme

Get your students to work in groups on performing a version of their script, bringing in costumes and learning lines they have written. This really brings the play alive.  

Set up a debate about whether modernising Shakespeare is a good or bad thing entitled: Modernising Shakespeare: sacrilege or saviour? (For further ideas on this, refer to the full resource.)

Get your students writing their own 'teenage versions' of Shakespeare, or creating a comic version of a scene.

(This article was first published on 10.02.14 as a newsletter.)

Download the teaching resource now.

Francis Gilbert