Acts of Discovery
Translating Shakespeare’s poetry is a 160-year-old tradition in the Netherlands. It is not a given that a new translation should ask readers to re-evaluate their knowledge and interpretations of his poems. Bas Belleman’s resistance to traditional narratives around the Sonnets and their audiences creates space for conversations between readers, speakers, and writers. A review essay by Kristine Johanson.
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March 2008: Dallas, Texas. I am a second-year PhD student at my first Shakespeare Association of America conference, nervously excited to sit in on Stephen Booth’s ‘Close Reading Without Readings’ workshop. Professor Booth’s 1977 edition of the Sonnets is renowned, a key text not only for Sonnet students but for would-be editors, and Booth’s star successors – John Kerrigan, Colin Burrow, Katherine Duncan-Jones, Helen Vendler – are indebted to his work. During his seminar, Booth conducts an experiment. He asks the participants not to read a given passage from a play line by line, or all in one go, but to practice what we might now call Slow or Micro-Reading, in an attempt to arrive at ‘Reading Without Readings’. To read a passage (or a poem), a participant reads aloud the passage’s first word and then the group discusses it, turning it over and analysing what it does aurally, orally, and semantically. The reader then continues to the next word, scrutinizing it on its own terms, and then discussing its relationship to the previous word. And so on, through the entire passage.
Booth (1933) is charmingly sensitive to us auditors who line the walls of this non-descript hotel conference room and surround the long table where he sits with participants. It is the conference’s last day, and he asks those of us leaving early (did he notice my carry-on?) to connect with him when we slip out. A smile, a mouthed ‘thank you’; something to assert our own presence. In that moment Booth metamorphoses from academic giant to fellow reader. His workshop changes the way I read.
In insisting on each word’s, each syllable’s significance, Booth was effectively reminding his peers – and through them, legions of students – that reading is an act of discovery that unfolds in time. Booth’s edition of the sonnets acted as a discovery of the poems’ sensuality and (homo)eroticism, which critical tradition had largely rejected, neglected, or ignored for centuries. His close reading enabled readers to see how that sensuality and eroticism persisted throughout the poems, particularly those addressed to a young man, the ‘Fair Youth’. Reading Sonnet 87’s first line, unfolding it, demonstrates how sex and intimacy are essential elements of Shakespeare’s obsession with linguistic possibility.
Farewell thou art too dear for my possessing,
Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate.
[Ik ga, jouw liefde kan ik niet meer dragen] [Nu jij weet hoeveel men van jou verwacht.]
The line suggests both that the lover is aware of their value, and that they know at what price to sell themselves. The erotic intimacy and suggested physicality of ‘possessing’ (its potent sibilance defused across ‘know’st’ and ‘estimate’) translator Bas Bellemans captures in dragen, in the senses of bearing and wearing. Indeed, dragen captures the speaker’s paradoxically powerful and submissive position, while rendering in an explicit (English) pun what Shakespeare keeps implicit: the beloved’s relationship to men.
As a translator, Belleman applies the poetic principles he sees at work in Shakespeare: experimentation; playfulness grounded in an inexhaustible interest in wordplay and the multiplicity of meaning even in a single syllable. When that syllable is ‘you’ or ‘thou’, ‘u’ or je’, Belleman makes a choice that imagines an almost unfaltering intimacy between the speaker and the Beloved(s). Belleman employs ‘je’ for the Beloved, and this is a crucial element of his translation. Of his predecessors, only Verstegen translates ‘thou/thee/thine’ to je/jij/jou/jouw, and he maintains that choice throughout – for him, there is no u/je shift. He switches to ‘u’ for the Beloved only once, in Sonnet 135. He doesn’t explain this choice, but follows Helen Vendler’s interpretation of this poem as a prayer-parody, noting that the poem sounds as if the speaker is talking to God [‘klinkt alsof hij [the speaker] God aanspreekt’]. This is true from line 5 onward, but Belleman begins with ‘u’, so that the poem stands out in the sequence for its mock formality. Here, ‘u’ works as a poetic device that reaffirms the intimacy of the two, since now the speaker lampoons the idea of the Beloved as a distant divine.
I wish that Belleman had discussed his je/u choice. With respect to the second person subject form, modern Dutch grammar enables a closer proximity to Shakespeare’s English than modern English does. In early modern England, ‘you’ was formal, used toward social superiors, parents, strangers. ‘Thou’ was informal: intimate and close, familiar. Shakespeare switches between these subject-forms at key moments in his works. When Romeo and Juliet first meet, for example – a meeting that takes place in sonnet form and which they write together – she tells him: ‘Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much’. Ten lines later, having just kissed her, he boldly uses the informal: ‘Thus from my lips by thine my sin is purged’. It is only when she believes she is alone on her balcony that Juliet sighs, ‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ This switch is meaningful, and it would have been noticeable for Elizabethans; modern Dutch can allow readers to hear this change in intimacy, which is noticeable in the poems. The poems begin with ‘thou’, but Sonnets 13 through 17 all rely on the more formal ‘you’, which is then notably discarded in the monumental 18. Sonnet 17 concludes, ‘You should live twice in it and in my rhyme’; 18 begins, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ Using u/je would enable a reader to hear that the relationship between speaker and beloved is changing, indeed has changed. Sonnet 18’s initial question, together with the awareness of the you-thou shift, sparks the reader’s imagination. What has happened between these two?
But does this u–je/you-thou shift matter to the contemporary Dutch reader? As van Elden noted 60 years ago, a translator has to make choices to ensure the poems’ accessibility – some elements have to be sacrificed for the good of the whole. This is a possible reason for Belleman choice not to use u, and likely explains why his introduction doesn’t bother much with a discussion of form (e.g. quatrain or couplet and their functions). Like any good sonneteer, he enthusiastically plays with the rules in order to achieve his desired sense, and the liberties he takes demonstrate his own poetic prowess. Even as he can command Shakespeare’s style and put it to work in his translation, he also frees himself from the original. He reworks end rhymes and often lets go of the English form’s iambic strictures. While readers accustomed to iambs and feminine endings might initially hear that excess as discord, Belleman’s lines work, and he uses form meaningfully. In Sonnet 19 (‘Devouring time, blunt thou the Lion’s paws’) the first quatrain’s lines decrease in length, reducing just as time reduces the young man. In Sonnet 60, Belleman’s penultimate line, ‘Maar hoop houdt tegen de tijd mijn vers in stand’, possesses a beautiful movement that returns the reader to the poem’s initial and dominant image: waves crashing on the ‘kiezelstrand’. ‘Stand’ returns the reader to this word, linking the immortality of the poet’s verse to that of nature, figured in the image of the pebble beach.
For all Belleman’s successes in this translation, there was one crucial miss. In Sonnet 20, one of the sequence’s most famous, ‘the Master-Mistress of my passion’ transforms to ‘Meester-Meisje van mijn ode’. ‘Meester-Meisje’. ‘Meisje’. That sexless diminutive. The poem begins:
A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the Master-Mistress of my passion[.]
‘t Gezicht van een vrouw met kracht van natuur gekleurd
Heb jij, het Meester-Meisje van mijn ode[.]
Belleman transforms the woman’s face of the first line into the young girl bound to a greater ‘meester’ in the second– there is no sense in modern Dutch in which ‘meester’ does not signify control, power, or superiority. Where in the language does ‘meisje’ signify any of those things? Belleman transforms the phrase into an articulation of inequality that isn’t supported by the poem. He notes other possible translations in his commentary and says nothing about his motivation for ‘meisje’, focusing rather on the hermaphrodite as an alchemical symbol. He implies that he’s chosen ‘Meisje’ because it alliterates so nicely with ‘Meester’ (like Master-Mistress), creating an aural balance in the repetition of two syllables.
Belleman’s attention to form is impressive throughout the translation, but it backfires here as it sacrifices a power balance. The balance is a crucial one both for this poem, and for thinking about the fair youth as man and woman – for considering the way that a ‘master’, a ‘mistress’, and a ‘master-mistress’ emotionally overpower the poet in the course of the sequence. Sonnet 20 uses misogynistic ideas (women’s eyes and hearts, respectively ‘bright’ and ‘gentle’, are ultimately inconstant and ‘false’) to assert the youth’s superiority to women. But as the poem unfolds, these ideas arrive only after the poet creates the master-mistress balance and praises women. However much of a ‘master’ the Beloved is – he dominates men as well as women – he was created by Nature, a female force, as a woman. As the speaker says, it’s only his ‘prick’ that Nature bestows on the youth that makes him a man, and the speaker imagines, regretfully, the Beloved enjoying women sexually. He is, then, master-mistress, man-woman. He is not a girl.
A valuable constant in Belleman’s commentary is his attention to the poems’ relationships to each other (including A Lover’s Complaint), and such attention reveals to the reader how closely they are connected. Providing historical context, glosses, and editorial history, one primarily gets the sense that the commentary reflects Belleman’s own interests. At times he provides a clear opinion or interpretation of a poem, at others a summary and then glosses of particular words. One consistent frustration as a reader was his habit of making observations without explaining significance. So indeed, in Sonnet 18 ‘summer’s lease’ mirrors ‘summer’s day’, but Belleman says nothing about the connection of that ‘lease’ to all the other lease/financial/house imagery that the speaker attaches to the young man. Like Booth, his glosses also highlight just how diffuse sexual imagery and puns are in the sequence, but he rarely follows through with a consideration of what such imagery does in a given poem. His notes to Sonnet 82 highlight the poem’s potentially sexually-charged diction [‘seksueel geladen woorden’], found in words like ‘attaint’ and even ‘book’. But why does it matter that they’re there? In early modern England, ‘to die’ could mean ‘to have an orgasm.’ But not every use of ‘die’ means ‘orgasm’ in the literature of the time: context is essential. So when Belleman observes that a word could be sexual, but doesn’t pursue why that sexual meaning is important or relevant in the poem, the reader feels short-changed. The early modern obsession with alchemy also interests Belleman, and as with his identification of sexuality, he consistently points out the potential alchemical connections, without reflection. Arguably, Belleman is not alone amongst Shakespeare editors in using a mix of observation, glosses, and silence, but he seems to hold back, perhaps from a result of his position as translator, poet, and critic-but-not-critic. Oddly for someone who has published two translations of Shakespeare, he does not include himself amongst ‘the professional readers’ or Shakespeare experts [‘de professionele lezers’] whom he discusses in his notes to Sonnet 145. Belleman appears to want to position himself outside of this group, a false positioning that superficially, at least, undermines his interest in offering a credible alternate identity for the Dark Lady, and one that distances him from Shakespeare editors such as Booth alongside whom, I suspect, Belleman would happily be placed.
As one such professionele lezer, I found myself in constant dialogue with Belleman’s ideas, nodding along one moment and disagreeing the next. Such engagement is a testament to the work’s bold choices and its smart, serious reflection. Translating Shakespeare’s poems is now a 160-year-old tradition in the Netherlands. It is therefore not a given that a new translation would ask its readers to re-evaluate both how they read these poems and what they know about them. Belleman’s resistance to the standard narrative about the Sonnets’ addressees opens up space for questioning what we imagine not only about the Beloveds, but about the speaker as well. If Shakespeare’s speaker, his ‘ik-figuur’, could ventriloquize a woman – precisely as he does in A Lover’s Complaint – why not imagine that he might do so in the Sonnets as well?