Different translators have different motives—to preserve, to condemn, to apply, to illuminate and so on—which are helped or hindered by the different opportunities and obstacles presented by the conventions of a given literary mode. This paper will seek to elucidate the unique opportunities comedy presents to a translator, in this case William Shakespeare, of a play, The Brothers Menaechmus by Plautus. Due to the rules that govern comedy, Shakespeare was afforded the ability to move beyond creating a copy of Plautus and merge his work with the original: The Comedy of Errors is an adaptation of Menaechmus, but it is also a continuation of its predecessor. Shakespeare’s play should not be viewed as simply a separate and original work; it is that, but it is also the second part of a single, larger whole. By looking at how wordplay and repetition function in the world of comedy, simple devices like punning and the running gag can provide a template for addressing more complex issues like the contiguity of thematic concerns across both works.
It is common knowledge that a joke imported from one language to another loses something in the translation, and, like all common knowledge, this is true up to a point. If the translator attempts to import the joke word-by-word into the new language, something will indeed be lost and the joke will almost certainly fail. That literal translation does not work for comedy, however, should not be viewed as a problem for translation but merely a problem for the literal-minded, for comedy is not the realm of the literal. Characters who adhere too closely to the literal rules of words and customs tend to find themselves in dire straits, and translators of comedy should take their cue from this. Comedy is the world of the figurative, it relies heavily on the confusion of the name and the thing, on using words that are similar to juxtapose things that are not. Consider a pun: When E. Dromio responds to S. Antipholus’s request for marks, money, by saying:
I have some marks of yours upon my pate,
Some of my mistress’ marks upon my shoulders,
But not a thousand marks between you both.
If I should pay your worship those again,
Perchance you will not bear them patiently. (I.ii.11)
E. Dromio is simply pointing out that one word is used to signify both money and bruises. The fact that the name is the same but the thing named is not is at the core of joke. When E. Dromio’s audience realizes he is marrying the “wrong” definition to S. Antipholus’s word, the comedic effect is created. Punning is simply one example of comedy’s desire to create illegitimate marriages; metaphor, another. The act of translation can thus be seen as part of the tradition of comedy, as long as the translator does not attempt to hide the differences but instead plays upon them. To marry the words of one culture to another’s in such a way as to not only acknowledge the differences but highlight them for comedic effect is to take...