All the World’s a Stage, in Japanese

We recently went to see As You Like It at the Ahmanson Theater. I’m not a theater critic, so I’ll limit my comments to noting that Rebecca Hall, who played Rosalind, should get out of Shakespeare’s way. We don’t really need every single phrase to be accompanied by giggles, sighs, extraneous eye movements, pauses, hand motions, and pseudo-dramatic twirls.

What I want to write about is the Japanese translation of Jaques’ famous “All the World’s a Stage” soliloquy.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

(By the way, this speech later contains the first recorded usage of the word “puke” in the meaning of “vomit”.)

The Japanese translation we got our hands on, by Fukuda Tsuneari, goes like this in romaji:

Zen-sekai ga hitotsu no butai, soko-dewa danjo wo towanu, ningen wa subete yakusha ni suginai.

It’s amazing, although somehow not surprising, that a famous Shakespeare scholar could do such a bad job translating this passage. Given its visibility, it seems he could have spent at least a little more time on it. Here’s how I translate his Japanese back into English (a dangerous endeavor, as I am well aware, but sometimes inevitable):

The world in its entirety is one stage.
There, whether man or woman, all humans are nothing more than actors.

Our professor has managed to pack an astonishing number of bad translation decisions into such a short sentence. Here’s just a few:

  • “world” should not be “sekai”, which is a Sino-Japanese compound with nuances of “world of nations”; much better is the native Japanese word “yo”, a common word indicating the world around us
  • “all” of “all the world” is translated by placing the Sino-Japanese prefix “zen” in front of “sekai”, again yielding a non-colloquial, stiff result, but more importantly, the implication is of complete geographical coverage, rather than “all aspects” as Shakespeare presumably intended. The Japanese “issai” captures the correct meaning of “all” perfectly
  • whereas Shakespeare uses “men and women” just to indicate all the people in the world, perhaps liking the phrase’s meter, Fukuda reads too much into this and inserts the unwieldy “whether man or woman” into his translation
  • Fukuda translates the article “a” in “a stage” as “one, single”, although Shakespeare is certainly not emphasizing the singleness of the stage
  • after having gummed up his translation with “whether man or woman”, Fukuda ends up needing another word to serve as the subject of the next phrase, and goes with “ningen” (“human”), again too stiff, compared to the colloquial “hitobito” (“people”)

Here is Bob’s translation:

Butai da yo, kono yo wa issai. Hitobito mo mina, tan-naru yakusha.

A quantitative metric we can apply to comparing my translation with Fukuda’s is Bob’s Rule of Comparative Length, which states that bad translations are longer. Good editing, then, will tend to reduce the length of the translated text. In this case, the original English is 51 Roman characters; Fukuda’s translation 77; and mine a close match at 50.

4 Responses to “All the World’s a Stage, in Japanese”

  1. Hokai D Sobol Says:

    Thank you, Bob. Thoughtful as ever.

  2. Brian Richmond Says:

    All the world’s a restaurant,
    And all the men and women merely diners,
    They have their desserts and appetizers,
    And one diner in his time has many servings,
    His meal being seven courses.

    Brian Richmond.
    copyright 2005
    Permission to reproduce if credit to author and copyright notice is printed with reproduction of text.

  3. Elena Says:

    My translation of this monologue is quiet anticipating but not aS DRAMATIC..
    Shakespear lived in the Reneissance period. It was a time when poets were comparing life to a theatre… mainly because the first thetre was produced around then. I think that he saw the wrold as a stage with the men and women in it being only actors who come and go and play their parts and then be forgotten…when the play ends. He also emphesizes that life is a play with a beginning and an end to it ” they have their exits and their enterances.”

    Your analysis was also very helpful with my school essay THANK YOU

  4. Jeremy Fuller Says:

    I just randomly stumbled across this page while looking for Shakespeare quotes in Japanese. I often find myself wanting to use a Shakespeare quote even when I speak Japanese.

    I myself was thinking that “世ã?®ä¸­” or something similar would be a good translation of “world” in this case, but when I poke around on the internet all the quotes use the word “世界”.

    I have also noticed that phrases like “men and women” or “man” which are used in a sense that is supposed to mean “mankind” seem to be translated fairly literally… and strangely…

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