Shakespeare translations in the UL

7000.e.100 - Hamlet, Prinz af Dannemark

7000.e.100 – Hamlet, Prinz af Dannemark

In observance of William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, the University Library has had cases with some important editions of Shakespeare displayed in the Entrance Hall, including the UL’s copy of the First folio which was bequeathed to the Library in 1894. In this post, we will look at the UL’s collection of Shakespeare in translation.

The UL has several thousand editions of Shakespeare’s works—a simple search the Library’s Newton catalogue reveals 4822 items written by him, dating from 1608 (apparently an incorrect attribution) to 2013. A search on Library Search, the Library catalogue that searches across all libraries in the University, reveals approximately 9,000 items attributed to William Shakespeare, including almost 3,000 items in college libraries. This search can be narrowed down based on the language of the item.

7720.c.29 - Hamlet : Tragedia de Guillermo Shakespeare

7720.c.29 – Hamlet : Tragedia de Guillermo Shakespeare

The UL’s collection of Shakespeare includes a significant number of works in translation: from Arabic (2 translations, from 1940 and 2012) to Welsh (1 item, published in 1960). Of the UL’s 4822 items, 344 are translations. The largest numbers of Shakespeare translations in the UL are in German (94), French (39), Russian (24), Japanese (21), Czech (20), Italian (18), and Spanish (10). The UL has eight 18th century translations of Shakespeare, 3 of which are of Hamlet. Among the other 18th century translations are King Lear, The Tempest, and an 8 volume set of Shakespeare’s works. This is indicative of the fact that in general, Shakespeare’s histories were translated later than his comedies and tragedies. (Manfred Pfister. Shakespeare’s History Plays: Performance, Translation, and Adaptation in Britain and Abroad (review). Shakespeare Quarterly (Volume 57, Number 1) Spring 2006. p. 92. (subscription database))

The German translations date from between 1775 and a 2014 edition of Hamlet purchased in 2014 and currently in the bindery. Of these 94 items, 24 were published prior to 1900, and 5 prior to 1800. German translations came much earlier and more frequently than French, as demonstrated by the general chronology of Shakespeare translations compiled at the University of Basel.

The nine volume German translation of Shakespeare’s plays by August Wilhelm von Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck was greatly admired, and quickly superseded the earlier translation of 1818-1829 by Johann Heinrich Voss and his sons (S724.d.81.1-9). Published between 1825 and 1833, this translation ensured Shakespeare’s importance for the German stage, and his plays came to be performed more frequently in Germany than in England. Hamlet exerted a particular fascination, exemplified by the Ferdinand Freiligrath poem of 1844 that opens “Deutschland ist Hamlet”. The Library’s first edition of Schlegel and Tieck stands at CCC.38.67-75, and was acquired as part of a transfer of German antiquarian material from the Beit Library in 1891. A third edition, 8002.d.157-162, was published in 1843-1844, and purchased by the Library in 2002.

The French translations date from between 1859 (a 16 volume set that was recently received and sent for conservation, along with a 17 volume set dating from 1871-1881) and 2013. 14 items are pre-1900. These include important versions such as Antony and Cleopatra and Hamlet translated by André Gide (Leigh.d.6.155 and Leigh.d.6.156 ) and a 1962 edition of Hamlet translated by Yves Bonnefoy (724.d.96.3), which is followed by an ‘Idée de la traduction’ including a historical sketch on Shakespeare translations into French. In this sketch, Bonnefoy calls Francois Victor-Hugo’s translation of Henry IV ‘une des plus soigneuses’ – two editions of Hugo’s translations have just recently been donated to the library (one stands at 8001.e.64-80, the other is currently undergoing restoration in the conservation department) by Professor Ruth Morse. Morse writes of the importance of reading and understanding translations of Shakespeare: “… Yet French can do things that English cannot. Translation may preserve what has been lost from the original.” (Ruth Morse. Reflections in Shakespeare Translation. The yearbook of English studies (Vol. 36, No. 1), Translation (2006), pp. 79-89).

18th-century Russian and Polish rulers also tried their hand at Shakespeare translation. Intriguingly and rather surprisingly the two plays translated, with significant adaptation, by Catherine the Great were Merry wives of Windsor (as Vot kakovo imet’ korzinu i bel’e (Now that’s what it is to have a basket and linen)) and Timon of Athens (as Rastochitel’ (The spendthrift)).  The first appears in an 1893 single-volume selection of her work (756:7.d.85.4).  It can also be found in volume 2 of the major 1901-1907 multi-volume set of Catherine’s collected writings (756:7.c.90.7-10,12-15 (the 6th of the 12 volumes was never published)), of which volume 3 also contains her translation/adaptation of Timon of Athens. The last king of Poland, Stanisław II August, translated the first three scenes of Julius Caesar into French, the language of his court. The Library has a 1925 edition at 758:55.b.90.5 (2nd volume). Initially we thought the Library had none of these texts, but our Slavonic colleagues proved us wrong. They are currently upgrading the existing cataloguing records, which were fairly rudimentary. When we start of writing a blog post, we are never entirely sure where our researches may lead and what extra work may be necessary…

Josh Hutchinson

5 thoughts on “Shakespeare translations in the UL

  1. I would also wish to draw attention to our set of the Eschenburg translation, the first complete one (in prose) into German, and to our set of the Schlegel. Of course Schlegel did not do anything like all of the plays. Ours is a made-up set, partly of the second printing, but it has Schlegel’s original versions, not those tampered with by Tieck in the so-called Schlegel-Tieck.

  2. The BL has posted a worthwhile piece about translations in French:

    Shakespeare in Paris in the 1820s

    During the early years of the 19th century Shakespeare was largely known in in France through the immensely successful versions of some of his plays by Jean François Ducis (1733-1816), which began with Hamlet in 1769 , followed by Romeo and Juliet (1772), King Lear (1783), Macbeth (1784), and Othello (1792). …
    – See more at:

  3. Did you know that one of the earliest translation of Shakespeare in French was made by Voltaire ? He didn’t translate a whole play, only an extract of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy in “Lettres philosophiques”, a collection of letters in which he compares France’s and England’s society and politics. Voltaire himself was a playwright and he does not so much translate as re-write the entire extract in his own style, so much so that you would never recognize the original text hadn’t you been told what it was. It goes like this :

    “Demeure ; il faut choisir, et passer à l’instant
    De la vie à la mort, ou de l’être au néant.
    Dieux cruels ! s’il en est, éclairez mon courage.
    Faut-il vieillir courbé sous la main qui m’outrage,
    Supporter ou finir mon malheur et mon sort ?
    Qui suis-je ? qui m’arrête ? et qu’est-que que la mort ?
    C’est la fin de nos maux, c’est mon unique asile ;
    Après de longs transports, c’est un sommeil tranquille ;
    On s’endort, et tout meurt. Mais un affreux réveil
    Doit succéder peut-être aux douceurs du sommeil, etc”

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