Global Shakespeare: Translating Iambic Pentameter

Published on August 23, 2018

By Kali Faulwetter

William Shakespeare

Died 23 April 1616

“People tend to say he is a universal writer. It is more complex than that. What makes Shakespeare so mobile around the world is that they are hugely flexible texts. There is something in them that you can play around with. You can pull it apart and put it back together again and it still works.” Andrew Dickson, author of Journeys around Shakespeare’s Globe

Arguably the most thought-provoking English literary phenomenon, William Shakespeare has not only single-handedly redefined the English language but has been professionally translated with great difficulty and skill in many languages. Shakespeare remains unparalleled in style, and the quality of his translators must reflect that spirit in their work, as well. For example, translating Shakespeare into Zulu, Korean, Portuguese, Japanese, as well as many others require not only an expert level of English, but a creative, adaptive, and innovative attitude within the target language.

  • As with many of the early literary giants, translating Shakespeare was not without political upheaval and controversy. This seems to especially be the case with early English source language texts. During his time, Shakespeare was an extremely controversial writer and cultural figure in his own right, and this tension only grew as his work expanded into the global market. Shakespeare’s plays are famously left-wing, and in the context of real-life war and censorship, translation of Shakespeare’s genres can suppress or encourage a particular political ideology, as was the case in China, Japan, and the Soviet Union.

  • In the case of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, “Hamlet”, Japanese publishers decided to ban the play in 1932 when Japan was politically focused on challenging Western supremacy. Japan was concerned that the play as translated into Japanese would inspire protest and rebellion against the right-leaning government.

  • In interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays, often the plot points were changed to suit social conditions. In Britain, for example, the ending of Romeo and Juliet is a tragic one. However, in Japan, a dual suicide committed in love might be considered honorable. As it is almost impossible to translate Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, most translations are nonetheless faithful to the original. Thankfully, Shakespeare wrote in such a way that his subject matters are highly adaptable no matter the language or culture. Tsybouchi Shoyo, a professional Japanese translator, professor and Shakespearean scholar, being acutely aware of these socio-cultural difficulties, completed the Japanese translation of the entire works of Shakespeare for the first time in 1928 Japan.

  • Virtually impossible to translate, iambic pentameter is the poetic verse Shakespeare invented to give him his unique and iconic literary style. Few languages other than English have this “mono-syllabic” word structure, and translating word-for-word makes translating take twice as long. For example, “Sir Toby Belch” in “Twelfth Night” becomes “Sir Toby Hiccup” in Bulgarian, simply because the word “belch” is too long in Bulgarian. 

Shakespeare’s work is all about wordplay. A professional translator can transfer a story, characters, meaning, and ideas of a play, but a meticulously perfect translation of Shakespeare not only proves difficult but is nearly impossible. This impossibility creates a window of opportunity for translators of Shakespeare, allowing them to twist and turn their own language in the shadow of the playwright’s inspiration. Shakespeare’s genius is so pervasive that his work, to be translated, requires the kind of creative wordplay invented by the playwright and allows the translator to become Shakespeare himself.

William Shakespeare in numbers:

Number of Indian languages, using Indian names and settings, Shakespeare’s plays has been adapted and translated into. “Hamlet” and “The Merchant of Venice” have been translated more than 50 times. Over thirty versions of “The Comedy of Errors” exist in different languages in India.


Total number of unique word forms in all of Shakespeare’s work. 12,493 of the original words only occur once.


Number of countries Romeo and Juliet has been performed in over the last ten years. Performance languages include English, German, Spanish, Korean, French, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Finnish, Russian, Dutch, Estonian, Czech, Hebrew, Ukrainian, and Romanian, among many others.


For more detail on Shakespeare as translated into Chinese, Romanian, and Māori, click here.

For a list of the New York Public Library’s collections of translated Shakespearean films and books, click here.

To listen to Folger’s “Shakespeare in Translation” podcast series, click here.

Shakespeare famously borrowed phrases from other languages. For example, 'fat paunches make lean pates', was originally a Greek and Latin proverb by St Jerome. For our article of St. Jerome’s translation, click here.

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About This Article

Famous Translators is a MotaWord segment showcasing notable professional translated works and famous linguists from history to the present. We will be researching, compiling and sharing stories that matter to every translator on our blog.

You, too can be published right here on the MotaWord blog site. To help us make this segment more tailored to our community, contribute any comments, ideas for articles, or share your story please contact kali@motaword.com.

Citations: Shakespeare, URI, TheConversation, NoSweatShakespeare, GlobalLingo, OUP, NYPL, ALSWestmont