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Critique: Schlegel’s & Günther’s Translations Essay

This critique compares the original version of the prologue of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to two German translations written by August Wilhelm Schlegel (1979) and Frank Gunther (1995). The prologue introduces the audience into the main storyline of the play and outlines that they will get to hear of the sad story of the heroes’ death-marked love, their parents’ ongoing rage and ultimately their tragic death. Shakespeare casts the prologue at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet in the form of a sonnet.

He uses the Elizabethan rhyme scheme of a sonnet, which is composed of three quatrains and a final couplet in iambic pentameter with the rhyme pattern abab cdcd efef gg. Both translators keep the original rhyme scheme in their translations. Shakespeare makes use of two structural devices to clearly separate the four parts of the sonnet from one another. He firstly uses punctuation deliberately and ends each quatrain with a full stop. Both translators basically maintain the usage of full stops.

Schlegel however; hyphenates the phrase ”-gleich an Wurdigkeit-“ in line 1, which has not been done by Shakespeare and further omits the word “both”. Yet, this instance of ellipsis is well placed in Schlegel’s version, as it is clear that this part refers back to the “two households”. Schlegel thereby manages to present a dense translation; whereas Gunther’s translation of this part contains twice as many words as Schlegel’s translation. Secondly each quatrain of the sonnet begins a different topic, moving the audience gradually through the storyline of the play to avoid confusion.

Within the first quatrain Shakespeare informs the audience about the principle theme of the play and what is the cause of it all. Shakespeare is talking about the two households, which are “both alike in dignity”; stating quite specifically that there is no difference in wealth or rank between them. Nevertheless there is this all along existing feud between these two families where no one actually knows why it still exists. In the translation of line 2 both translators omit the word “fair”, which is referring to the city of Verona, where the play is set.

This instance of ellipsis is a pity as this word carries a great importance in the original. Shakespeare deliberately refers to Verona as a “fair” city to stress the paradoxical situation of this prevailing feud between the two families who are living in an acceptable and decent city like Verona. In line 3 Shakespeare discloses that the families’ “ancient grudge” has just broken into a new round of fighting. Both, Schlegel and Gunther accurately translate this passage. The key word of the first quatrain is “civil”, and the phrase “civil blood” is a paradox.

Citizens of a town ought to be civil and show respect for one another. But in this play they engage in civil wars and shed “civil blood”, which would not happen if they were really civil citizens. This paradoxical situation exists in “fair Verona”. Both translators maintain this pun. The second quatrain then introduces the two heroes – Romeo and Juliet. They are referred to as “star-cross’d lovers”, a very poetic description which Frank Gunther successfully translated with the phrase “ein Liebespaar, von bo?

em Stern bedroht”. Schlegel’s translation just refers to “zweier Liebender” and thereby omits the original “star-crossed”- connotation. The stars predict their destiny of a “misadventur’d piteous overthrow”. Line 7 presents one of the three instances of elision that can be found in Shakespeare’s original, “misadventur’d”. Schlegel translates this word with “ungluckselges”, consequently with an elision too. Both translators repeatedly make use of elision by omitting a sound of a word.

This serves the function of shortening the naturally longer German words and further makes the text more appropriate for a performance on stage as elision is common in both English and German speech. In line 8 Shakespeare includes another pun by writing “Doth with their death bury their parents’ rage”. Obviously the parent’s strive cannot really be buried, in fact the heroes themselves are buried in the end- yet this expression bestows the passage once more the poetic and elaborate touch Shakespeare is so highly admired for.

Unfortunately none of the translators manages to reintegrate this pun in the translation. The principal theme of this quatrain is “good coming from bad”; as the parent’s strive could just be ended through their children’s death. The third quatrain repeats the message that the play will take us through the fearful passage of Romeo and Juliet’s love – but finally the lovers will have to die to end their parents’ feud. When Shakespeare talks about the “two hours traffic of our stage” he informs the visitors of the theatre that the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet will be shown within two hours.

As regards the final couplet Shakespeare uses it as a justification to exculpate any aspects the visitors might not like about the play. He states that if the audience feels dissatisfied about any part of the performance, the actors will try to improve this part in the future. Overall the elaborate thing about this prologue is that the whole cause of the play is neatly packed in it. Therefore one can hardly understand, why translators like Wieland did not translate the prologue at all.

All things considered I appreciate both translations, yet for different reasons: August Wilhelm Schlegel’s translation certainly has to be highly regarded for the successful imitation of Shakespeare’s style concerning the choice of words and the dense translation overall, but I personally prefer Frank Gunther’s version as I consider it more modern and thus easier to comprehend for today’s readers. Even while producing a modern version, Gunther succeeds in retaining most of the original’s motifs as well as Shakespeare’s eloquent style.

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