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Shakespeare in Other Tongues: Examples of Shakespearean Texts

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One of the very unique ways in which the application of Shakespeare ‘s universality is manifested is the gregarious desire to translate , adapt and perform in languages other than the English Language but through local languages through which his works and the ethos they contain is made available to local readerships and audiences.

African Adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays have been done over three centuries. According to Rebekah Bale two Shakespeares plays Richard II and Hamlet was performed around Sierra Leone as far back as Wilson- Lee thinks it actually was around the north-west of Madagascar). Thereafter , Africans began to translate Shakespeare’s work into African Languages. Some early examples include an Arabic translation of Othello and performance of Othello in Egypt in 1884. This history of translation cannot be complete without the mention of the worls of Solomon Plaatje’s who is the first African to translate Shakespeare’s works into an African Vernacular  in the early 20th century. 

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It is on record that Sol Plaatje during his lifetime translated six of Shakespeare’s play into Setswana , his mother tongue. Four of the plays : Mashoabi-shoabi, Dintshontsho-ncho tsa bo-Juliuse Kesara, Diphosho- Phosho ( the comedy of errors) and Matsepa-tsapa a Lefeala were titled in Setswana while the remaining two: Othello and Romeo aand Juliet even though translated retained their English titles. Of this six titles only Diphosho- Phosho (1930) and Dintshontsho-ncho tsa bo-Juliuse Kesara were ever published. Why the other texts were never published remains a mystery till this day.

In the middle of the 20th century, Julius Nyerere the first president of the republic of Tanzania translated Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (Mabepari wa venisi) and Julius Caesar (Juliasi Kaizari) into Swahili (mhando 307). Bale suggests that Nyerere’s translation fell into the nationalistic narrative that seemed to insist on the Africanization of western literature and thus make it culturally compliant in a post colonial state . Southern and Eastern Africa thus became the epicenter then and subsequently for the translation of Shakespeare’s work into vernacular languages in Africa . Langauges into which Shakespeare has been translated and adapted include isiZulu, isiXhosa, Setswana, Sesotho and Afrikaans.

The trajectory of the translation and adaptation of the works of Shakespeare in West Africa however did not begin till 1964 when Thomas Decker translated Julius Caesar into Krio, an effort that not only widely promoted the language but which showe that vernacular west African languages could also engage with the complexities that a Shakespearean text convey.The first known translation of any of Shakespeare’s work in West African is E.T Johnson’s Iwe ere (Play) Ti Julius Caesar ti Shakespeare kọ ti a yipada si Ede Yoruba lati ọwọ alufa E.T. Johnson, ọga agba ile-iwe New High Class School, Eko, Nigeria ; a translation of Julius Caesar into Yoruba believed to have been published in 1931. There is no other translation known to have been published during this period of colonial presence. The period after 1960 when most African countries began to get independence saw a re-awakening in the reception of Shakespeare’s work and consequently in the need and desire to share it and make it available to a wider readership and audience through translations and performances. Also rather than engage in direct translations of Shakespeare these post independent translations and adaptations sought to project the continent onto the structures of the Shakespearean plays they choose to work with.

Shakespeare as iconic writer , playwright and poet has been a subject of discourse in the Nigerian Literary landscape from post-colonial times to the present . Indeed, while the origin of the introduction of Shakespeare into the Nigerian education curriculum is as a result of colonization by the British , the continued sustenance of interest in the writings of Shakespeare at different levels and in varying degrees overtime especially in the last sixty years after Nigeria’s Independence has been because of the uniqueness of the approach of Shakespeare to basic life issues and controversies as well as the universal nature of themes which he incorporates into much of his writing. It is a consequence of this nature that has led to a resurgence of attempts by Nigerian writers to claim Shakespeare as many other nations have attempted to. 

There’s a plethora of adaptations of Shakespeare’s work into Nigerian and African settings. Examples include Femi Osofisan’s adaptations of William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet as Wesoo Hamlet! Or The Resurrection of Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice as Love’s Unlike Lading: A Comedy From Shakespeare, other playwright’s who have adapted shakepeares plays include Ahmed Yerima’s adaptation of Othello as Otaelo, however these adaptations which were all written in the late 20th century were all written in English.

Even though, English is the official language and language of education in Nigeria, it is also true that the three major languages; Yoruba (spoken largely in the south west of the country) , Hausa (spoken largely in the Northern part of the country)and Igbo (spoken largely in the south east of the country)remain significantly important for trade , commerce and communication. Each of these languages are regionally relevant and ironically have provided a majority of the national leadership in the political sphere. While there are very many adaptations of Shakespeare’s writings to Nigerian settings , the number of his plays adapted for performance or translated into Nigerian local languages are very few indeed. Among the many Nigerian languages Shakespeare plays have been translated or adapted only into Yoruba and Hausa, hence the focus on Translations and adaptations of Shakespeare into Yoruba and Hausa.

Incidentally, unlike the Igbo Language both Hausa and Yoruba are also regional languages spoken widely within the west African sub region. While Yoruba is largely spoken in countries such as Benin Republic, Ivory Coast, and Togo, Hausa is largely spoken in countries such as Niger Republic, Ghana, Sudan, ivory coast, Cameroon, Benin , Chad.

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