Skilled ‘Shakespeare-translators’ like Margaret Atwood and Howard Jacobson should produce fascinating work


No doubt Shakespeare purists will be livid at the very idea of someone fiddling with the sacred texts. But I can’t wait to see what Atwood and Jacobson do with such glittering raw material. Atwood has form for reworking a classic, after all: The Penelopiad, her version of the Odyssey, which focused on Odysseus’s patiently waiting wife, is exquisite. And if you aren’t intimidated by Homer you can probably stand up to Shakespeare.

My favourite Man Booker winners have always been the novelists who at least make a nod to dramatic structure; who don’t disdain tension or dramatic irony because of a mistaken belief that those belong to the low arts. Shakespeare had no such snobbery: to watch Romeo and Juliet is to agree to try not to bellow “Stop!” at various characters for at least an hour and a half.

Atwood and Jacobson are among the most poetic of Booker-winning novelists, which is hardly a surprise in Atwood’s case, since she also writes verse. Jacobson, meanwhile, chooses his words with the care of a comedian, knowing that word placement is as crucial as vocabulary if you’re going to make someone laugh. It’s not just what he says, but the way he says it.

When Shakespeare is performed in other languages, or when we see an English-language production of Sophocles, Racine or Lorca, we’re happy to embrace a translation. The only difference this time is that the translation will go from stage to page.

Natalie Haynes is judge for the Man Booker Prize 2013.