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So threatening, so possibly tragic, is this little comic scene that even the most loving, the most charmed audience, Titania herself, cannot bear to listen to Bottom’s speech, to his frenetic riffing on the senses of her retinue’s proper names, Cobweb, Peaseblossom and Mustardseed, names suddenly translated into Ass, as it were, by Bottom, demoted from proper names to descriptions of different mechanical or natural functions much as the name “cuckoo” passes from the bird that utters the plainsong note in cuckoo, to designate the object it calls to and who marks himself in it. So disturbing is what the Queen of the Fairies hears in her beloved Bottom’s voice, a voice she praised absurdly not a hundred lines above, a voice whose angelic notes she wished to hear again and again; so shaken is fair Titania that (whether out of fear some like fate will befall her own name or perhaps out of fear or awareness that her “love” for Bottom will indeed produce at least one more “cuckoo”: Oberon himself, cuckolded by the Ass-headed weaver) the Fairy Queen orders Cobweb, Peaseblossom and Mustardseed to “Tie up my lover’s tongue, bring him silently.”26 Titania, deprived of the sweet neighs of her lover’s voice, thus confirms for herself, in compensation, that it is she who gets to determine what functions her servants have, and not their names, and not the translating voice of a mere mechanical Ass—and that she will be able to cuckold Oberon with an Ass without having the Faerie King’s shame designated and neighed about openly, in Cuckoo, in Ass or in English.

So disturbing is this mad scene that the crowned king of Shakespeare’s translators, August Wilhelm Schlegel, that Fairy-King on whom the plays, and this one in particular, exercised a charm with far-reaching consequences in European modernity, finds it impossible to translate Bottom’s translation literally. About the transformation scene Schlegel writes, in the Lectures on Dramatic Art, that

The extremes of fanciful and vulgar are united when the enchanted Titania awakes and falls in love with a coarse mechanic with an ass’s head, who represents, or rather disfigures, the part of a tragical lover. The droll wonder of Bottom’s transformation is merely the translation of a metaphor in its literal sense. (Das scherzhafte Wunder der Verwandlung Bottoms ist eigentlich nur die Uebersetzung einer Metapher in ihren buchstäblichen Sinn.)27

The translation of a metaphor. This is promisingly abyssal, easily reversed into the metaphor of a translation, a translation of a translation and a metaphor of and for a metaphor, and these nice reversals immediately throw into question the notion that the Ass-head’s “literal sense,” buchstäblichen Sinn, can be determined rigidly.

In Schlegel’s words, we appear to be, in other words, very much in Shakespeare’s threatening lexicon and wood, where the antic widget of intra-linguistic translation between discursive and metadiscursive statements threatens to lead to silence, or to tragedy. But when Schlegel translates the scene he tends to silence this strange and threatening aspect of Shakespeare’s text. Snout’s “Changed” is rendered, unexceptionably, verwandelt (“O Zettel! du bist verwandelt!”), but the not-quite-synonymous (because immediately and dangerously metalinguistic) “translated” with which Quince translates “changed” is translated not through übersetzung, as the Lectures on Dramatic Art would seem to urge, but through the slightly different transferiert:

ZETTEL: Warum laufen sie weg? Dies ist eine Schelmerei von ihnen, um mich fürchten zu machen. (Schnauz kommt zurück.)
SCHNAUZ: O Zettel! du bist verwandelt! Was seh ich an dir?
ZETTEL: Was du siehst? Du siehst deinen eigenen Eselskopf. Nicht? (Schnauz ab. Squenz kommt zurück.)
SQUENZ: Gott behüte dich, Zettel! Gott behüte dich! du bist transferiert. (Ab.)
ZETTEL: Ich merke ihre Schelmerei: sie wollen einen Esel aus mir machen.

Transferieren does mean, Grimm tells us, “verteutschen,” an archaic form of verdeutschen, “in ein andere sprache setzen,” and it’s used, for instance by Luther, to designate “translation.”28 But Grimm tells us that such metaphoric—translated—meanings are distinctly secondary to ein ding von ein ort zum andern tragen, the literal sense, “to carry a thing over from one place to another.” And as if to confirm that this translation, willy-nilly, ties up Bottom’s tongue, Ass and Bottom become Esel and Zettel. Each of these transformations is amusing in its way, the Ass-Esel perhaps echoing in Titania’s word about the music that she hears, the word Angel, Engel; and Zettel, which Schlegel gets from Wieland’s earlier translation, losing much of its physicality, its association with stupidity and doltishness, its synonymy with Esel, but gaining a peculiar compensatory metatheatricality, a Zettel being, not just a piece of paper or a chit, but also a play-book or a script. The metalinguistic function of our weaver’s “Nay,” opened by the linguistic sense of the word “translation” in the English, is absent from the German—Bottom’s little cuckoo song now goes: “Der Kuckuck, der der Grasmück / So gern ins Nestchen heckt / Und lacht darob mit arger Tück / Und manchen Ehmann neckt—.” The German for neighing is wiehern—so although “necken” may sound like neighing to us (speakers of English), and to Schlegel’s readers and audience, the word’s function of naming its onomatopoeic function is lost, as is, of course, the play on negation and expression we saw in the English “Nay.”

All of this goes far to paint Schlegel as a latter-day Titania, a translator who ties the tongue of Shakespeare’s play, and seeks to keep at bay the English play’s riotous transformation of statements, syntax, lexicon, and names into functional elements taking as their designation and object the ensemble of statements, syntax, lexicon and names from which they derive—and back. Schlegel appears to silence Bottom-Zettel as Titania does, Bottom’s tongue chained to the chit of paper or to the playbook, speech become writing, the play become a playbook, the translation-machine become a sort of transcription machine. But this is not quite right, or not sufficient to this strange translation scene, where instrument and aesthetic enjoyment meet Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals.

Schlegel, and before him Wieland, marvelously captures something that is almost silent in Shakespeare’s text, but which the German gives us loudly: it gives us the connection of “change” and “translation” to the practical and repetitive crafts of the mechanicals—precisely under the aspect of the machine. For a Zettel or Zettelmaschine is also the name of the weaver’s and the carpet-maker’s so-called “warping machine,” the cylinder or framework on which the thread or the cord is turned so as to make it into the warp for the woof to cross, themselves the support and structure of the textile.29

This translation of Bottom’s mechanical “bottom” into a full-fledged machine, we might say, is the widget of machine-translation that Schlegel’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream discloses for us—and discloses precisely where the translation fails to translate Shakespeare’s own translation machine. This disclosing of the translation machine, however, is not to be conceived as the appearing of a historical invariant, a general equivalent, or a universal index of value that would apply across markets, like the word of archaic being in language, Logos in its lying-before-to-be-collected, Logos flashing forth in Glossa. In Shakespeare a translation-machine moves the hand of the weaver, the eye and ear of the Faerie Queene and the ear and the eye of the audience, bottom to Bottom, “nay” to “Neigh,” cuckoo to Cuckoo, word to the eye-machine and to the ear-machine. There, as in the early industrial lexicon, the translation machine translates the material supports of linguistic expression, warp to the woof of expression—but always conditioned by the surplus enjoyment, and the conceptual risk, posed by its produced or scrambled, “I see a voice: now will I to the chink, / To spy an I can hear my Thisby’s face.” It is a different matter in our days than it is in Cicero, in Heidegger himself, or today, where I have been giving it the strange and indeterminate name of a “widget.”

To return in conclusion to my charge, to thinking translation as a political concept in the age of credit-capital and Machine Translation. To tell the history of the differences I’ve been charting—the history of the literalizations of the translating machine and of machine translation—is to tell the history of post-war, post-colonial capitalism over, in a peculiar, even queer way. This history allows us to give a longer arc than has previously been possible to the seemingly post-modern phenomenon of the dematerialization of labor; this history allows us to rethink and distress, transversally, on a bias, the informing foci of the labor-value ellipse, instrument and aesthetic enjoyment; it allows us to account for labor-time differently, by bringing into our accounting the inhuman spidering-work of translating-machines at different times; it allows us to think differently the nature of laboring-machines.

But most importantly, reworking the nature of political thought and association through the concept of translation conceived in this way allows us to disengage the language of the “possible”—in the modal, philosophical sense and in the revolutionary sense—from the silencing binds in which the post-colonial export-labor imaginary has tied it, as Titania’s laborers once bound Bottom’s tongue.


Jacques Lezra is Professor and Chair in the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of California—Riverside.


Published on July 19, 2017

26. William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3, Scene 1, Line 201.

27. August Wilhelm von Schlegel, A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, trans. John Black and A. J. W. Morrisonn (London: H.G. Bohn, 1815), 329; the German is from A. W. v. Schegel, Kritische Schriften und Briefe, Volume 6, ed. Edgar Lohner (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1962), 159.

28. Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm, Leipzig 1854-1961. Online at, accessed March 2012.

29. Anston Bosman notes the problem of Bottom’s translation into German as well, though he does not work through the oddities of the moment. Note the persistence, in even so astute a critic, of Venuti’s “domesticating” and “foreignizing” lexicon: “An obvious problem is how to translate the name ‘Bottom’, which evokes the character’s profession by denoting a weaver’s implement—the spool on which yarn was wound—but also has bawdy connotations, even if different in the Renaissance from those picked up by modern ears. No translation could capture this double-entendre. Günther’s word Zettel designates the warp in a woven fabric, but lacks bodily resonance . . . Both choices [German and French translations of Bottom] yield losses and gains. They exemplify opposing strategies of translation: the German option domesticates the source in the target culture while the French marks the source as foreign. Most choices in translation fall between these extremes, and the diffusion of Shakespeare’s texts depends on innumerable compromises made by editors and translators between the poles of alienation and acculturation.” Anston Bosman, “Shakespeare and Globalization” in The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare, eds. Stanley Wells and Margareta de Grazia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 293.

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