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And so, when Quince says to Bottom’s Pyramus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art translated,” the poor ass-headed weaver, Nick Bottom, hears, we presume, that he is “transformed” as well as “translated,” even though he does not realize just how translated, or in what ways transformed, he is (and this perhaps should be a sign to his audience that Bottom is, at bottom, already and always an Ass, although and because he is unable to recognize himself as one).17 This, after all, is the double sense Shakespeare’s audience has learned to expect in Midsummer Night’s Dream, Helena having told Hermia that, “Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated, / The rest I’d give to be to you translated.”18 Quince’s famous line follows, as if glossing or translating it, Snout’s much less famous exclamation, to the same effect, “O Bottom, thou art changed! What do I see on thee?”19 Shakespeare’s audience might well have heard the same synonymy of “change” or “transformation” in “translation,” though they, unlike Bottom, would have also heard the linguistic “translation” of “change” into “translation” and of “Bottom” into “Ass,” and they might well have registered the additional metalinguistic value of Quince’s word, “translated,” which also designates and describes what has happened between the partially synonymous expressions “O Bottom, thou art changed!” and “Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art translated”—as it also designates and describes what has happened between the terms “Bottom” and “Ass.” (Analogues? Translations of each other?)
For a contemporary public, a public at the Public Theatre in New York in the year 2012, for example, the archaic sense of “translated” as “changed or metamorphosed” would be largely lost, as would the old sense of a “Bottom” as a “skein” or ball of thread, or a nucleus on which thread or cord could be wound in order to produce the warp of a fabric. Today’s public would render “translation” “conformable to our manners,” as Cicero might say, verbis ad nostram consuetudinem aptis, and hear, minimally, the flicker of an interlinguistic pun opening from the scabrous play on ass-bottom onto the wonderful resonances between the transformed Bottom’s human speech and a donkey’s braying.20
To us today, as to Shakespeare’s audience but not to Bottom himself, or not yet to Bottom himself, or not in a way that the play registers as the character’s “knowing” this, to us and to Shakespeare’s audience Bottom’s words from this point forward sound in both registers, in English and in Ass, though of course without our being in any way able to say what, precisely, Bottom’s words or near neighs designate in Ass. (Rather, to the extent that we understand Bottom’s words we find that we may be able to understand, not just English alone but Ass as well—with the consequent rather demoralizing realization about our own intelligence.) As for what it is that Titania hears when she’s roused from sleep by the sounds of Bottom’s singing, before she sees him even, plucked from her midsummer night’s dreams by an “angel” who “wakes [her] from [her] flowery bed”—this remains forever foreclosed to us. We, and Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience, hear the mechanical sing, and some of us hear also the extraordinary metalinguistic surplus-value that “translation” adds to “change,” and Ass to Bottom—but who among us is “[moved] perforce / On the first view,” or on first hearing the weaver, “to say, to swear, I love thee” to an Ass?21 His Ass-head having scared away the other “mechanicals,” Bottom sings to scare away his fright just after his translation, “The finch, the sparrow and the lark, / The plain-song cuckoo grey, / Whose note full many a man doth mark, / And dares not answer nay. . .”22
We hear Bottom’s “nay” not once but twice, here and in answer to Titania’s professions of love: “Nay, I can gleek upon occasion.”23 But what do we hear? Onomatopoeically, some sort of utterance in Ass, of course—a “neigh,” what man “dare not answer,” an expression of a man’s asininity, what one might call an example or a use of the language Ass. (A man “dare not” “neigh,” because he understands a “neigh,” whatever it may designate in Ass, to be uttered in Ass, and to designate collectively the natural language I am calling, rudely and mechanically, Ass. To answer “nay” is to “neigh,” or to be an Ass: the “neigh-ness” of “neigh” removes “nay” from the language human animals can use without losing their humanity, in whole or—like Bottom—in part.)
But “nay” lines up also, syntactically, in the parallel shape the little ditty takes, with the “plain-song” of the cuckoo, an adjectivized noun-phrase first characterizing the cuckoo (the bird that sings in plain-song) and then becoming, tremblingly, the antecedent, with that cuckoo itself, of the cuckoo’s “note.” A man’s “nay” is not just what he dare not answer: for example, I’d like to say “Nay,” or no, to the note that the cuckoo-cuckold calls to me, but I dare not answer “Nay” to that call because in my heart I believe or fear myself to be a cuckold, to be a cuckoo. That is, I fear myself to be the bird that calls its own name and calls me by that name, a name that names and describes me. A man’s “nay” is not just what he dare not answer, it is the name of the language in which he dare not answer: either the “plain-song . . . note” of cuckoo, which makes him out, as the utterer of notes in the language onomatopoeically named “cuckoo,” to be a cuckold himself; or the plain-song note of “Neigh” or “Nay,” which designates him an Ass for denying, in Ass, that he is, indeed, a donkey and cuckold to boot.
It’s hardly a coincidence that Titania refers to Bottom’s speech in the same way as Bottom does to the Cuckoo’s “note”: “I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again, / Mine ear is much enamored of thy note.”24 Here much of Shakespeare’s humor stands upon the uncontrollable translation between discursive use and metadiscursive mention, between languages—the English language of weavers and other mechanicals, the languages of Asses and Cuckoos, of Fairies and spirits like Puck—and metalinguistic terms designating languages, English, Ass, Cuckoo, “Neigh,” note, plainsong, or language uses. Extraordinarily threatening humor, however, and not just for the poor man, unmanned at finding himself unable to say “Nay” to being cuckolded—unable to say “Nay” for fear of losing his tongue and speaking “Neigh” in Ass, and thus, silent, assenting to the plainsong of the cuckoo, which not only calls to but also names him: “Cuckoo,” cuckold, it calls to him.
If Nick Bottom’s man answers “Yes,” he has agreed to the cuckoo’s designation and to the bird’s description of himself, and the man thus answers in cuckoo, with his name. (“Cuckoo!” says the bird. “Yes?,” answers Bottom, or any other man—“Yes, that’s me, I am Cuckoo, a cuckoo, inasmuch as I understand your call, in the language that calls me and to me that calls itself ‘Cuckoo,’ inasmuch as I understand that your call designates me. And it is in that language that I answer you, cuckoo to cuckoo or Cuckoo to cuckoo, my ‘Yes?’ in English serving to confirm that yes, I am (a) Cuckoo, that my English is also the natural language called cuckoo, spoken by cuckolds and cuckoo-birds alike.) If he answers “Nay,” he answers in Ass, and reveals that he is an ass for not knowing that he is, at heart, a cuckold, who should have answered, also or instead, in cuckoo. Bottom must, perforce, keep silent—and what sort of theatre is it that enjoins silence upon its characters, that calls upon them to “Love, and be silent,” for example, as Cordelia calls upon herself to do?25 The designation of a language as a language, that rigid condition on which translation among possible worlds stands or falls, frays: is “Neigh” a word in Ass or in English? (Is a “word” in Ass even a word? Is it not, rather, a “neigh”?) Is “neigh” a word in both, as Bottom seems to be both human and Ass? Does “Cuckoo” designate the language, the bird-speaker, the husband, the Ass-Man? Among the first things to fail: the identity of the designation “natural language,” parasitized by the language of birds, donkeys, to say nothing of Fairies.
17. William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3, Scene 1, Line 119. The reading of this famous scene that most closely resembles mine is in John Sallis’s On Translation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 25-31; see also 94. Sallis’s excellent, brief analysis of Schlegel’s translation of the scene stresses the paradoxical need to translate proper names—which might be considered, strictly speaking, untranslatable. He is concerned, as are most critics who write about the encounter between Schlegel and Shakespeare, with ways in which Schlegel “compensates” for the necessary “losses” (94) in his translation—and to this extent Sallis is very much at work within the economic register that organizes conventional theories of translation. For a helpful review of the scene’s intertexts see also Madeleine Forey’s “’Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou Art Translated!’: Ovid, Golding, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” The Modern Language Review, 93:2 (1998): 321-329. More pertinent in a sense is Margaret Tudeau-Clayton’s “Scenes of Translation in Jonson and Shakespeare: ‘Poetaster, Hamlet,’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’,” Translation and Literature, 11:1 (2002): 1-23. Tudeau-Clayton uses Shakespeare’s play to suggest the limits of Lawrence Venuti’s notion that translations can be “domesticating” or “foreignizing.”↩
18. William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 190-191.↩
19. William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 114-115.↩
20. Marcus Tullius Cicero, “De optimo genere oratorum” in De inventione. De optimo genere oratorum. Topica, trans. H.M. Hubbell (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 364.↩
21. William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 137-141.↩
22. William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 130-133.↩
23. William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 146-147.↩
24. William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 137-141.↩
25. William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 1, Scene 1, Line 62.↩