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Appropriating Shakespeare in communist Romania: a case study in the distortion of women's identities in translation.

In a paper given at the 2011 ESRA Conference held in Weimar, the Egyptian scholar Sameh Hanna discusses the notion of retranslation as an act of improvement of an earlier translation that is thought by the retranslator to be "blind" and "hesitant." With the benefit of hindsight, the retranslator is generally seen as the one who rectifies the textual deficiencies of earlier translations, filling in the left gaps and "putting right" what is thought to be a misunderstanding or mistranslation in earlier renderings of the source text. This "blindness" of earlier translations has one of two senses in discussions on "retranslation:" either the earlier translations were blind to the meaning and stylistic intricacies of the source text, or they were oblivious to the needs and expectations of their target readership (or spectators in the case of drama translation). In the first case, an earlier translation is branded adaptive, domesticating or even unfaithful to the source text. In the latter case, the translation is condemned as literal or inarticulate. In both cases, one's understanding of retranslation is often based on a linear idea of progress. This line of progress leads either towards the source text or towards contemporary readers' imagined expectations. The act of "betterment," which is associated with "retranslation," is then seen either as making up for earlier textual deviations from the source text or as producing a text that is more accessible to consumers of translation at a certain point in time. In either case, retranslation is seen as a linear movement towards a better and more "accomplished" translation.

I would like to add a third sense in my discussion on the recent retranslation of Twelfth Night: earlier translations may be not just blind or oblivious--they may also be acts of appropriation, of deliberate misreading, in which the translator turns a blind eye to the linguistic facts in the source-text and deliberately distorts them for various reasons. In the General Introduction to the new series of Shakespeare's Works issued by Paralela 45 Publishing House in 2010 I claimed that the new Romanian edition of Shakespeare's works would be 100 per cent un-, or rather, de-censored from a political, social and religious point of view; it is, likewise, un-, or de-bowdlerized (i.e. no longer censored as regards the use of obscene, bawdy erotic terms) (Volceanov: 7).

Mihnea Gheorghiu had his version of Twelfth Night published in the ESPLA (the acronyms stand for the state-controlled publishing house specialized in issuing translations of foreign literary works) edition of Shakespeare's Works. As the 1955-1961 ESPLA edition had almost no critical apparatus (each play was preceded by a one-page commentary stating the approximate date of composition and its main sources; each commentary inevitably contained a quote from Marx, Engels, Lenin, or some the fashionable Russian or Soviet scholar), Gheorghiu wrote the only piece of critical work to accompany this "red" edition (a clear example of Communist appropriation via translation and editing!): the introductory essay Un Shakespeare al oamenilor (A Shakespeare for the People).

Gheorghiu reconstructed or, to put it bluntly, reinvented Shakespeare's biography in accordance with the ideological context of the 1950s. He concocted references to Will's humble origin, calling his grandfather "a peasant from Smitterfield" and his father "a ploughman's son" (1955: 6-7). He depicted the rural landscape of Stratford via quotes from Friedrich Engels. Shakespeare became a sixteen year-old teenager who had to earn a living by hard work due to the material hardship his father suffered at the time. Will's wife was likewise the descendant of a yeoman's family whose main virtue was poverty. Anne Hathaway became a synecdoche in Gheorghiu's rhetoric, being described as "an extra mouth to feed." Gheorghiu did not miss the opportunity to present the anecdote of Shakespeare's poaching on Sir Thomas Lucy's lands (currently rejected by historians, who have documented the fact that Sir Lucy's park held no game in Shakespeare's time) as an exemplary episode of class struggle (7-8). In Gheorghiu's falsified biography Shakespeare had to get away from Stratford in order to escape justice. His "lost years" (1585-1592) were conveniently assigned to his apprenticeship in Richard Field's printing workshop in London, Shakespeare being thus once again reinvented as a working-class fellow (11).

According to Gheorghiu, Shakespeare's sole reason for writing plays was his progressive view, reflecting the highest aspirations of his entire nation (5). This is the greatest possible lie, one that is substantiated with further distorted considerations: "the time is out of joint" is nothing but a metaphorical representation of Shakespeare's concern about the evils of both capitalism and feudalism. The outlaws of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and As You Like It are proclaimed the symbols of struggle for social liberation, etc., etc. Gheorghiu's critical sources are confined to the following list of illustrious names: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Belinski, Dobroliubov, V. Uzin (?) and the Academy of Science of the Soviet Union.

In 1988, Peter Levi was desperately writing: "God forbid that some lunatic should suggest Anne Hathaway was the Dark Lady!" (40). But back in 1958, in his "red" biography, titled Scene din viata lui Shakespeare (Scenes from Shakespeare's Life), Mihnea Gheorghiu had already proclaimed that in the Sonnets there was no Dark Lady other than Anne Hathaway, the tender, loving mother and wife. Gheorghiu even took the pains to explain that the less than flattering physical description of Sonnet 130 perfectly fitted the condition of a woman who, having given birth to three children, was no longer in her prime.

In a biographical essay included in an anniversary volume dedicated to Shakespeare and his work in 1964, Gheorghiu once again strongly insisted on Will's working-class background. He contended that Shakespeare spent the "lost years" as an apprentice in Dick Field's printing workshop. (The 1958 biography claimed that Dick Field married Vautrolier's daughter, but its second, 1964 edition made the necessary correction and the "daughter" was turned into Vautrolier's widow.) Shakespeare's apprenticeship and menial duties provided the Romanian writers with a perfect example. They had to know "the aspirations of the people," to descend from their studies to the farms and factories where the working people were building the new world.

It seems that even Gheorghiu must have realized how stupid his identification of the Dark Lady had been, so this time he came up with another contender. He proposed Jane Davenant as Will's mysterious mistress. In the 1964 revised edition of his Scenes from Shakespeare's life, Gheorghiu, who had also become a novelist and film script writer, invented a love affair between the Bard and Jane Davenant that may be construed both as the colourful fiction of a brilliant narrator and the hallucinations of an insane person. The passages referring to this illicit affair have a cinematographic quality. Jane is described as a "beautiful city-dweller, coquettish, with refined artistic tastes, who played the virgina." Shakespeare had first met her in Bath, a fashionable resort some years before. To his surprise, he met her again quite accidentally, on his way to London, when he stopped at an inn. All these details are pure fiction although Gheorghiu takes pains to quote Sir Walter Scott as his source (2008: 121). An adulterous husband involved in an illicit affair, Shakespeare appeared as a "tormented soul, devoured by a grave passion" opposed to the woman's "frail and whimsical love" (122). Gheorghiu turns pathetic when he claims that all Shakespeare "wanted to get from this woman was truth, honesty, the strange loyalty disloyal husbands crave for." (ibid.) He wrongly and falsely argues that on September 23 1592 the Earl of Southampton, the Lord Admiral Charles Howard, Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, Shakespeare and Jane Davenant shared the same banquet hall in an inn. Gheorghiu freely labels Mrs. Davenant as "bovarist." The Romanian biographer even concocted a portrait of a lady with a fashionable low-cut dress, and Levantine make-up!!! After she had betrayed him with the fair youth of the Sonnets, she "wept and probably fainted like Cleopatra" when he confronted her with her betrayal and sin. In order to whitewash Shakespeare's irreproachable morals, Gheorghiu had to paint the woman black (123). (British and American biographers have recently reached a consensus that Jane Davenant was, unlike Gheorghiu, indeed, a person of irreproachable morality).

Next, I shall excerpt a few passages from Twelfth Night that speak volumes about the way in which Mihnea Gheorghiu, in his translation, did alter Maria's identity. WS, MG, and P/V are abbreviations for the names of Shakespeare, Gheorghiu and the latest co-translators of the play, Popa and Volceanov. I shall substantiate my allegations against Gheorghiu's deliberate distortions in the translation of the play with the Arden editor's footnote accompanying the selected fragments.

1. SIR TOBY: My niece's chambermaid. (WS, I, 3, 49)

SIR TOBY: E camerista nepoata-mii. (MG)

SIGNOR TOBY: Pe domnitoara de onoare a nepoata-mii. (P/V)

Keir Elam's footnote: "chambermaid not in the sense of a woman who cleans bedrooms, but in the socially more elevated (and now obsolete) sense of a lady's maid" (174n).

My commentary: Mihnea Gheorghiu erroneously translates chambermaid as chamber cleaner; the most recent British scholarly editions (Arden, Oxford, Cambridge, and New Penguin) unanimously agree that in Shakespeare's time this term described a lady of high birth, belonging to the upper classes. Gheorghiu conveniently reinvented Maria's social status, her humble origin, to introduce a Cinderella-type, an upstart that ends up in a misalliance thanks to her wit or, on the contrary, to her lack of morality. At the time when he was translating Twelfth Night the upper classes had been practically done with in Romania in the penitentiary system and forced labour camps. The whole country was ruled by people with "healthy" origins, like those assigned by Gheorghiu to Maria, who becomes Malvolio's opponent. In the 1950s, in the East-European Communist countries, Malvolio came to embody the reactionary bourgeois individualist (Zdenek Stribny: 167); he had to have an antagonist in Maria refashioned not as a member of the parasitical feudal world, but as a working-class girl that could easily climb up the social ladder just like the communists did after the Red Army had practically occupied half of the European continent

2. OLIVIA: Let him approach. Call in my gentlewoman.

MALVOLIO (goes to the door): Gentlewoman, my lady calls. Exit.

Enter Maria. (...)

Enter Viola (as Caesario).

VIOLA: The honourable lady of the house, which is she?

OLIVIA: Speak to me, I shall answer for her. Your will?

VIOLA: Most radiant, exquisite and unmatchable beauty--I pray you, tell me if this be the lady of the house, for I never saw her. (WS, I, 5, 158-167)

OLIVIA: Lasaji-l sa intre. Cheam-o pe camerista mea.

MALVOLIO (goes to the door): Cameristo, te cheama doamna. Iese.

ReintraMaria. (...)

Intra Viola.

VIOLA: Care este preacinstita stapana a casei?

OLIVIA: Vorbeste cu mine; iti voi raspunde eu in numele ei. Ce poftesti?

VIOLA: Aleasa, radioasa si fara de pereche frumuseje, spune-mi daca tu esti doamna casei acesteia, pentru ca ochii mei nau cunoscut-o vreodata. (MG)

OLIVIA: Spune-i sa pofteasca inauntru. Cheama-mi domnicoara de onoare. MALVOLIO (de langa uca): Domnicoara de onoare, va cheama stapana.

Iese Malvolio. Intra Maria. (...)

Intra Viola.

VIOLA: Care dintre domniile voastre e slavita stapana a casei?

OLIVIA: Adreseaza-mi-te mie, am sa-ji raspund eu in numele ei. Ce doresti?

VIOLA: Stralucita, desavarsita si nepereche frumuseje--te rog, spune-mi daca esti cu-adevarat stapana casei, caci eu n-am mai avut prilejul s-o intalnesc. (P/V)

Keir Elam's footnote to Viola's question "Which is she?" reads: Probably ironical, since Olivia should be recognizable from her veil, although some productions have made Viola's confusion genuine by having Maria and other attendants wear veils as well" (195n).

My commentary: Viola's genuine confusion only emphasizes Maria's status, visible in her apparel, too. Gheorghiu translates Olivia's gentlewoman as "chambermaid." In Gheorghiu's version, Malvolio addresses Maria quite rudely, with the word servant in the vocative case. Popa and Volceanov emend his mistranslation by using the proper term of address and the verb in the plural second person, which in Romanian is politely used for one's superiors or as a polite form of address.

3. VIOLA: Good gentle one, give me modest assurance if you be the lady of the house, that I may proceed in my speech. (...) Are you the lady of the house? (WS, I, 5, 174-6; 180)

VIOLA: Preagingasa doamna, avefi bunatatea sa-mi spunefi daca dumneavoastra suntefi stapana, ca sa-mi pornesc discursul? (...) Esti stapana casei? (MG)

VIOLA: Preaiubita domnita, spune-mi daca esti stapana casei, sa-mi pot rosti discursul. (...) Esti stapana casei? (P/V)

My commentary: This passage once again lays emphasis on Viola's genuine confusion. Due to Gheorghiu's translation, Maria's part has been played for decades by stout actresses wearing an apron and a white cap. But such stage dress is obviously ridiculous in the light of Viola's confusion.

4. MALVOLIO: Mistress Mary ... (WS, II, 3, 118)

MALVOLIO: Madam Mary ... (MG)

MALVOLIO: Signora Maria ... (P/V)

Keir Elam's footnote: "Malvolio is calling Maria to order, reminding her of her role as Olivia's gentlewoman" (221n).

My commentary: Mihnea Gheorghiu's "Madam" once again points to Malvolio's "bourgeois" background in the Communist age when the play was translated. "Madam," a term of French origin, was vastly used as a form of address in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the Romanian modern state was founded and Romanian was very much under the influence of the French language just like it is today under that of English, especially of American English. In the days of Communism, when everyone addressed everyone else with "Comrade," regardless of sex or social position, "Madam" had a strong pejorative tinge. The very use of the term suggested that both the user of the word and the referent may be tainted with residues of bourgeois ideology.

5. SIR TOBY: Good night, Penthesilea. (WS, II, 3, 172)

SIR TOBY: Noapte buna, regina a amazoanelor. (MG)

SIGNOR TOBY: Noapte buna, amazoana mea viteaza! (P/V)

Keir Elam's footnote: "Both an admiring reference to Maria's combative spirit and a probable comical allusion to the boy actor's diminutive size" (225n). Elam assumes this not the first allusion to Maria's size. At I, 5, 199, Viola ironically says: "Some mollification of your giant, sweet lady." Elam reads this sentence as follows: "There is probably also an ironical reference here to the diminutive size of the boy actor" (197n).

My commentary: All of Shakespeare's irony regarding Maria's diminutive size is lost in Gheorghiu's translation. For five decades on, Maria has been interpreted by stout, burly actresses, noisy and broad in the beam.

6. SIR TOBY: She's a beagle true bred, and one that adores me. (WS, II, 3, 174-5)

SIR TOBY: Buna si calda ca o salteluta, si ma adora, nu alta. (MG)

SIGNOR TOBY: E-o catelusa beagle cu pedigriu, care, pe de-asupra, mai si da din codita in fata mea. (P/V)

Keir Elam's footnote: "Small hunting dog: a further allusion to Maria's size and to her spirit in 'pursuing' Malvolio" (225n).

My commentary: Maria actually seems to illustrate the Romanian proverb "mic, dar al dracului" ("small, but nasty"). I think that Elam should have also underlined Sir Toby's genuine affection for Maria. Dog owners know that the relationship between a she-dog and her male master is the epitome of devotion shown by Man's best friend, and in this case, Sir Toby seems to reciprocate the feelings of his "beagle true bred." Quite surprisingly, Mihnea Gheorghiu, the prudish apparatchik and bowdlerizer of the 1950s, turns out to be a misogynist who chooses to use vulgar language where Shakespeare's character uses innocent metaphor. In Gheorghiu's translation, beagle is replaced by "sahelufa," the diminutive form of the noun "saltea," signifying "a small mattress." The word has a strong sexual connotation in Romanian, describing woman as the object of man's sexual desire. Gheorghiu kills two birds with one stone: he graphically depicts Maria as an immoral woman, ready to gratify Sir Toby's sexual desires and turns the drunkard knight's genuine admiration for Maria into mere lust and lechery. Popa and Volceanov's translation preserve the original's canine metaphor, emphasizes Maria's aristocratic origin by rendering true bred as "cu pedigriu" (with pedigree) and translates adores me using a phrase that in back-translation means wags her tail (affectionately).

7. SIR TOBY: Here comes the little villain. (II, 5, 11)

SIR TOBY: Vine si dracoaica noastra. (MG)

SIGNOR TOBY: Uite-o si pe strengarita noastra. (P/V)

My commentary: Gheorghiu literally translates villain as "she-devil," when, in fact, Sir Toby's phrase again points out an affectionate attitude.

8. SIR TOBY: Look where the youngest wren of nine comes. (WS, III, 2, 63)

SIR TOBY: Ia uite ca vine puicuja noastra. (MG)

SIGNOR TOBY: Iat-o sosind pe cea mai gingasa pitulice din lume.

Keir Elam's footnote: "The smallest chick of the smallest bird: an allusion to Maria's diminutive size" (267n).

My commentary: as Elam points out, this time Sir Toby's remark is an allusion not to the boy actor's but to Maria's size. It implies the same affectionate attitude as earlier. Gheorghiu once again forgets about his prudishness and vulgarizes the translation. The Romanian Explanatory Dictionary (DEX) assigns the word "puicuta" the following meanings: 1. female chicken 2. mistress, beloved 3. (pejorative) strumpet, prostitute 4. homosexual, queer. Even if the translator had in mind the first sense, the word itself is strongly connotative of sexual activities and a deeply offensive attitude of the speaker toward the reference.


In translating Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in the 1950s, the socialist zealot Mihnea Gheorghiu deliberately distorted feminine identities (whether in Shakespeare's biography or in his works) in order to construct a false image of his "Shakespeare for the people." While the Bard was, in his opinion, an immaculate soul even when he (allegedly) engaged in an affair with a married woman, women, in general, appeared to be no more than objects of sexual desire always ready to gratify men's lust. This prejudiced view contributed to a history of stage productions that consistently used misleading clues as regards the character of Maria from Twelfth Night; moreover, it established a pattern in the casting of actresses in this role that will be hard to supplant in the years to come, albeit the 2010 Paralela 45 edition has already been shortlisted for two important literary awards.


Gheorghiu, Mihnea (1955), "Un Shakespeare al oamenilor," ("A Shakespeare for the People"), Shakespeare, William. Opere, Vol. I, Bucharest, ESPLA: 5-51.

--(2008), Scene din viata lui Shakespeare (1958). Fourth edition, Craiova: Scrisul Romanesc.

--"Replici si scene din lumea lui Shakespeare," Shakespeare si opera lui. Bucharest, ELU: 595-608.

Hanna, Sameh F. "Retranslation as Struggle over Symbolic Time," paper given at the "Shakespeare's Shipwrecks" ESRA Conference, Weimar, 28 April-1 May 2011.

Peter, Levi (1989), The Life and Times of William Shakespeare. London: Papermac.

Shakespeare, William. (1959), A douasprezecea noapte, translated by Mihnea Gheorghiu, Opere, Vol. VII, Bucharest: ESPLA.

Shakespeare, William (2008), Twelfth Night, Kei, Elam. (ed.), The Arden Shakespeare, London: Cengage Learning.

--(2010), "A douasprezecea noapte," translated by Violeta Popa. George, Volceanov, Opere, Vol. III, Pitesti: Paralela 45.

Stnbny, Zdenek. (1995), "Shakespearean Rates of Exchange in Czechoslovakia, 1945-1989)," Shakespeare Survey 48, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 163-9.

Volceanov, George. (2010), "Studiu introductive," Shakespeare, Opere, Vol. I, Pitesti, Paralela 45: 5-101.


Spiru Haret University

George Volceanov is Associate Professor of English Literature at Spiru Haret University in Bucharest. He is a distinguished translator and lexicographer. He has translated works by William Shakespeare, Thomas Heywood, John Webster, Lawrence Durrell, David Lodge, John Updike, Philip Roth, Gore Vidal, etc. He is the recipient of several translation awards. He has written dozens of articles and essays on Shakespeare's life and works, contributing, via critical texts and literary translations, to the enlargement of the Shakespeare Canon in Romania. He is the general-editor of the new Shakespeare series launched by Paralela 45 Publishers in 2010.
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Author:Volceanov, George
Publication:Journal of Research in Gender Studies
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EXRO
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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