A Shakespearean Rosetta Stone

Take a controversial line from a controversial play, and then look at how that line is interpreted in 100 different languages.  That’s the goal set by Dr. Tom Cheesman of Swansea University.

The play?  Othello.

The line?  “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, Your son-in-law is far more fair than black”.

Perhaps somebody can explain to me the controversy in that line?

I suppose the idea is interesting, and it brings to mind that old Hamlet in the Bush story (which, until now, I thought was a real thing) where a researcher attempts to demonstrate the universal appeal of Shakespeare by reading the play to a bunch of African natives.  They don’t get it.  They don’t see the big deal of Claudius marrying Gertrude, because of course the wife of a deceased man marries his brother.  And why did Hamlet even think about listening to the ghost? The only concept of ghost in their language is “demon”, so of course it would have been up to no good.  And so on.  Does anybody know if that piece is legit, or was done as a joke?  I’d always assumed it to be real but when googling for it I found it linked on a April Fool’s Day site, so now I’m not so sure.

On a related note that combines both those stories I’ll point out my own little experiment in this arena.  I ran “To be or not to be” through a translator into a whole bunch of different languages to see how it differed, then made a poster out of it.  I think it came out pretty cool, and it’s been one of the better sellers in my shop.

3 thoughts on “A Shakespearean Rosetta Stone

  1. It's controversial because the Duke is being explicitly racist.

    The word "fair" can mean (among other things) both "beautiful" and "light-skinned."

    The Duke is saying that if there is beauty in virtue, than Othello is beautiful, but the choice of the word "fair" invites a play on the alternate meaning "light-skinned" when compared to "black."

    In other words, the content of his character outweighs the color of his skin. But the assumption is that there was something wrong with his being black in the first place.

    You could even take it a step further, and read it to mean something like "When you consider his virtue, your son-in-law is far more white than black." Ouch!

  2. Mrs. Woods says:

    FYI: The Hebrew on your translation has a transposition.
    I can send you the correct wording, if you would like. Email me if you want it.

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