Cultural Learnings Of… Swedish Shakespeare

So last night we were sitting around with friends, having a right old good dinner party and one of them mentioned they got tickets to Hamlet for Christmas. “oohh how very exciting” I immediately thought to myself, lets go see something fresh and modern! Then a question struck me

“Hamlet is done in Swedish?”

“yeah huh”


I have a problem with translating some things at the best of times. Like city names. Göteborg (Swedish) and Gothenburg (English). The Gothenburg city council tried to refer to the city by its original Swedish name in Tourism marketing but recently gave up as it turns out, humans are stubborn old creatures and we will call a town what we want to call a town. Even if it makes it sound like a place you might expect to see Batman.

How exactly do you go about translating Shakespeare into another language? Wasn’t the whole point that this old English guy had such an amazing grasp of his language and had such a knack for creating new words which seemed to fit better than any existing word? This isn’t just an English thing either, how does anyone go about translating the great, artistic works in any language? Do you need another great writer to bring life to the play or will Google Translate do?

“Hey Anders, after you have done translating the next episodes of The Simpsons and Family Guy, can you get onto that Hamlet thing in the corner which we have been avoiding forever?”

This example diminishes The Simpsons and its subtleties. Sometimes the subtitles include little hints so viewers get the joke. When the Flanders kids happily pronounce “we are gay!” using the double meaning in English, the subtitles included “(gay = glad)”, “glad” meaning happy in Swedish. This all flashed across the screen in about 5 seconds but I am a quick one and forever on the prowl for such a facinating cultural learning.

One might ask however, “Swedes have an advantage, they all understand English, let them watch the original and eat cake”. Sure. Its that’s easy. Except Shakespeare, while sharing a similar name to pop idol Brittany, does not speak the language of MTV or was a member of the Pepsi Generation. And what about the made up words old Willy was so fond of inventing?

When I was 17 I met a lovely young lady and we went to the movies. Now she came from the right side of the tracks so the choice of movie was her’s: “Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet”. The 4 hour version. Coming from a modest, Australian public school education, I sat through that entire thing not understanding at all what the hell was going on. I remember something about a ghost in the forest and a few people getting killed but mostly the experience was akin to me watching a Swedish film today without subtitles, I understand sentences here and there but all in all, the plot remains a tangled literary mess. However when I was 17, the mere fact that this young lady had agreed to sit next to me, willingly, of her own accord, for a total of 4 hours, more than compensated for any lack of cinematic understanding I may have had.

So I wonder about Swedish Shakespeare. Who got the translation job? Is there s definitive translation of it? Does the Bard care or would he be worried Hamlet is now a 6 foot blond? It is as equally difficult to understand in another language?

By Louis Zezeran

Louis Zezeran is an Australian Stand Up comedian and comedy promoter based in Tallinn, Estonia. He was the co-founder of Comedy Estonia, Comedy Finland and Comedy Latvia. Louis writes, does gigs and performs at private events through the Baltics and Finland

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