How Shakespeare Was Turned Into A German

An over 200-year-old German translation of Shakespeare’s works made him seem more German than he was. Later, the Nazis insisted that version be kept, says Shakespeare expert Hans-Jörg Modlmayr.

William Shakespeare portrait, Copyright: Getty Images

April 23 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The bard is widely known and enjoyed in Germany – but the translation of his plays and poems have been heavily influenced by the zeitgeist. DW’s Heike Mund spoke with Hans-Jörg Modlmayr, an author and English literature expert who has studied and lived in Cambridge, about Shakespeare in Germany, from the Romantics to the Nazis to today.

DW: Shakespeare’s works are translated into German time and again. But why do we need so many new translations?

Hans-Jörg Modlmayr: The German language changes. The Schlegel-Tieck translation of Shakespeare from the Romantic era was a child of its era. [Eds: The Shakespeare translations by August Wilhelm Tegel and Johann Ludwig Tieck, together with others, appeared around the turn of the 19th century.] It was a particularly prude time, a time that romanticized. And the vital, all-around Shakespeare, who, so to speak, played all the registers on the organ, was tuned down to a volume suitable for a living room for the bourgeoisie.

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Why did that early Schlegel-Tieck Shakespeare translation come about? It’s still considered a classic. The late German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki recommended it as the decisive Shakespeare edition in German.

It’s the classic edition because it was made sacrosanct for the educated German bourgeoisie. And that’s the only reason. Through the Schlegel-Tieck translation, Shakespeare gradually became a classic of the German Weimar era. Goethe and Schiller are well and good, but we didn’t have anything like Shakespeare.

It was through the strange “Germanization” of Shakespeare that he was added to the cannon. And it also has to do with World War I and the feud with England. People maintained that the British were neglecting Shakespeare and the true protection of Shakespeare was happening in Germany.

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