Shakespeare in IsiXhosa, Afrikaans, Swahili, Juba Arabic, Shona and Yoruba

Really excited by this – opens next weekend. Productions from South Africa, Kenya, South Sudan, Zimbabwe and Nigeria come to the UK to perform as part of the ‘Globe to Globe’ festival at the Shakespeare’s Globe in London, each presenting one of Shakespeare’s plays in IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, SeSotho, Setswana, Afrikaans (language = ‘South Africa’ on the website), Swahili, Juba Arabic, Shona and Yoruba respectively.

You can find the plays by country/language on the website, here:

“These ambitious productions are part of an unprecedented programme of multi-lingual Shakespeare productions. 37 international companies will present every one of Shakespeare’s plays in a different language over six weeks: Afrikaans,  Albanian, Arabic, Armenian, Bangla, Belarusian, British Sign Language, Cantonese, Dari, French, Georgian, German, Greek, Gujarati,  Hebrew, Hindi,IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, Italian, Japanese, Korean,  Lithuanian, Macedonian, Mandarin, Maori, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Shona, Serbian,  SeSotho, Setswana , Spanish (Argentine, Castilian and Mexican), Swahili, Turkish, Urdu,  Yoruba” (Out of Africa UK).

Opening up these language things, and I am embarrassingly and astonishingly monolingual – all the more regretful about it, too, because as a very young child, I apparently had as much Sesotho and Xhosa as I did English. But I feel really excited by the idea of watching Shakespeare without understanding the language it is being performed in – and the kind/s of theatre – surprises, cadences, embodiments – this might afford the experience. I wonder if there will be sur- or sub-titles…and whether they will be a blessing or a curse.

I’d be particularly interested in going to the one in ‘South African’ (Venus and Adonis performed by the amazing Isango Ensemble from Cape Town) and also the Shona play (The Winter’s Tale), primarily because of my relationship to both of those places, as well as my research interests currently being there; when I was growing up in Zimbabwe in the early 80s, so close to apartheid South Africa, the speaking of Afrikaans, at school as well as amongst adults, was deeply politically inflected, often furtive, always troubled and difficult. I was not at all interested in learning it. My relationship to it, though, is now radically changed and I’m delighted by this: it’s almost like welcoming it back, having never had it, and now without the inarticulable distress and rage it once held and represented. I like its sounds now, and how it speaks (in translation only, of course – sadly – Leon de Kock is a wonderful translator of Afrikaans in my opinion, as, I think, is Antjie Krog who translates her own work). And in the freshly independent Zimbabwe, I did not learn Shona, although I still love its cadences as part of my formative years – I was at primary school in Zimbabwe – and this I do not hear now, haven’t for many years. And then there is Shakespeare… a kind of a linguistic diet it wasn’t possible to avoid – school/s (Africa and the UK), university (UK)…

‘Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice’ says Polonius.



For more on the Globe to Globe Festival 2012 see AiW’s An African Play?
AND Huff Post Books for an update – ‘Shakespeare’s Globe Theater takes ‘Hamlet’ around world‘ (posted 16 July 2013)


Categories: Announcements, News, & Upcoming

3 replies

  1. Wow Shakespeare in 37 languages – that sounds amazing! Sad to be missing this.

    And what you say about your own personal relationship to different languages and the role of language in relation to identity and art is really interesting. On Monday I went to see a play at the Ishyo Arts Centre in Kigali called ‘Breaking the Silence’. ‘Breaking the Silence’ is one of the few plays written about the genocide in Cambodia that has been performed there. The theatre company behind the play came to Rwanda and collaborated with Rwandan theatre artists on a re-working. In this two Rwandan actors became part of the piece, translating sections into Kinyarwanda and mediating the production for a Rwandan context and audience. Staged during the week of the 18th commemoration of the genocide in Rwanda, the fact that this play was being performed in two languages neither of which I could understand actually presented very little barrier to communication. Seeing the dynamic and interaction between the Cambodian and Rwandan actors it was almost impossible to believe that linguistically the two parts of the cast couldn’t understand each other.

  2. oh, I would love to go see the one in Yoruba! My Yoruba is baaaad, really baaaaaaaad. But as Kate says, I don’t think they will be a big barrier to understand the play. A couple of months ago I decide to watch Hamlet with Patrick Stewart (I am a big fan of him on ‘Star Trek’), and the English was so difficult for me that they could have been speaking in Yoruba all the time it wouldn’t have made any difference.
    Since I am not Charlie Brooker (he wrote an article to the Guardian promising that he would not write about his experiences as a new dad on his column – silly him), let me bring my motherhood to this debate. Every morning, I am forced to watch endless cartoons with Samuel (I am not wake enough to resist to it). And the cartoons I like most, coincidentally, are not spoken. The little animals make sounds, but they are not speaking in English. This is the case of Timmy Time (an spin of Shaun the sheep), Mio Mao (an Italian cartoon) and Pingu (that I am sure you have watched as well). But recently, I realised that (really annoying) narrations were introduced to Mio Mao and Pingu! They are like subtitles to the cartoon: ‘oh, Pingu ate the fish!’ I think that this has to do with a concern that kids may not be understanding the cartoon without the annoying voice explaining the obvious. I think this is an ‘(north) americanisation’ of the cartoons, or of the parents demands. The american show ‘Law and Order’, for instance, explains everything to the minimum detail, again and again, to the point that the dialogues get boring. ‘Paul, the father of our client….’ and everytime Paul appears on the scene, someone will say: ‘Paul, the father of our client’. It is so repetitive that you can go to the toilet, come back, and you will follow the story like you never left. Which is not the case of the British version of Law and Order. (Ok, I am watching too much tv!)
    Back to the topic: my point is that it is not only about the language, but also about the level of interaction with the public and the kind of attention you are expecting from them. Shakespeare is a really good author to translate, because he was writing to an audience that not only was going to interfere on the play but also, not pay a total and undivided attention to it.
    Katie, 25th of May, let’s go?


  1. An African play? The RSC’s Julius Caesar, Africa Utopia, and the World Shakespeare Festival « Africa in Words

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