What was Nick Nicholas’ process to translate Hamlet into Klingon?

By: | Post date: 2017-01-31 | Comments: 1 Comment
Posted in categories: Artificial Languages

I thank you for the question, ’erIq qaDye qaH! I’ll answer a bit more broadly than your details ask, but I may get a big vague; it was after all 20 years ago.

I learned Klingon in 1994. I had enough arrogance and free time, that I knew I’d be the one to write the Holy Grail of Klingon, the translation of Hamlet. So I set out preparing for it.

I started with 9 Shakespearean sonnets (http://www.opoudjis.net/Klingon/…), then worked my way up to Much Ado About Nothing (http://www.kli.org/activities/kl…). By the time I’d pummelled Much Ado out, I was ready to tackle Hamlet.

And I then did something uncharacteristic of me. I made sure I would not have the Holy Grail to myself. I solicited the help of someone I thought I could work well with, and who also had enough arrogance and free time: Andrew Strader, then a high school student in Columbus OH. I agreed with him that I’d do the verse and he’d do the prose. (I then had to teach him how to recognise the prose. 🙂 I also solicited two expert Klingonists, Will Martin and Mark Shoulson, to proofread the text and improve it. I had arrogance enough not to, and enough of a sense of responsibility to anyway.

The translation is pretty straight. References to Renaissance artefacts are swapped out with Space Age artefacts, where there are no equivalents in the Klingon dictionary. Earth nations are replaced with Star Trek races. So the “sledded Polacks” that Hamlet Sr fought in I.i are replaced with “the Kinshaya in their armoured vehicles”. All such instances were noted in endnotes; indeed, they are the bulk of the endnotes. And since very few people who bought the book read Klingon, they are the bulk of what most people read.

But I really did try not to do too much violence to the argument of the text; we did not change the text, just individual words. The dialogue was not made more brusque or anti-intellectual; in fact the foreword revels in this: the civility of Elsinore and the self-doubts of Khamlet makes the play come across to Klingons as a Kafkaesque nightmare, and a sad commentary on the degradation of Klingon morals.

We never felt at liberty to create new words. The Klingon movement does reward outstanding Klingonists with a new word from the language creator; and I did request a word I needed sorely for Much Ado. The word I asked for, with a twinkle in my eye, was cousin. Marc Okrand, being a linguist after all, had a twinkle in his eye right back: we both knew of the insane variety of kinship systems that “cousin” can invoke cross-linguistically.

We did feel at some liberty to coin compounds. Not all the compounds were felicitous; my coinage of QoQDIr “music skin” for “drum” has been mentioned by Mark Shoulson as an example of How Not To Do Things. By the time of the second edition of Khamlet in 2000, the vocabulary had expanded a little (including animals and musical instruments), so the more egregious of these coinages could be dispensed with. Okrand’s The Klingon Way had also come out by then, and its proverbial expressions were a big help in making Khamlet’s Klingon sound more culturally grounded.

I got gazumped on publishing Khamlet; a splinter group published their Hamlet first. (It wouldn’t be a conlang without a splinter group, after all.) De mortuis nil nisi bonum (Obituary: Glen Proechel). But… his translation did take all the shortcuts and liberties mine avoided.

I haven’t revisited our translation since 2000. I remember, back when I first encountered Zamenhof’s Hamlet (his own proof that Esperanto was a real language, 7 years after creating it), thinking that it flowed well, and was arresting stylistically—but that it had none of the subtlety of Shakespeare’s English: that in such a young language, there was something fairy-tale about the rendering. (Newell’s rendering, decades later, was maybe more scholarly and sophisticated, but certainly nowhere near as poetic.)

I don’t think the verdict on my Khamlet should be anywhere near as generous. The Klingon vocabulary is much more blunt than 1894 Esperanto’s. The Klingon iambic pentameter I used has no finesse, and a lot of clumsy suffixes to pad out the metre. I used crude puns and assonances rather than any genuine wit. I don’t think it flowed that well.

But of course, I’m a harsh critic of myself. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. And whether or not it was that bad, I’ll tell you what, it was a hell of a lot of fun.

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