It’s heavy, very heavy. Not the simple slur of calling a humble author ‘Sir’.
Rather, the act of turning the clichés of a good ole William Shakespeare’s play into vernacular.
Such is the silent burden Stanley Onjezani Kenani has had to bear since last year.
A poet and short story writer, one-time Caine Prize nominee Kenani has churned out a Chichewa version of Romeo and Juliet—becoming the first Malawian to translate an entire book of Shakespeare into a local language.
Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare early in his career about two young star-crossed lovers whose deaths ultimately reconcile their feuding families.
It was among Shakespeare’s most popular plays during his lifetime and, along with Hamlet, is one of his most frequently performed plays.
Today, the title characters are regarded as archetypal young lovers.
According to Kenani, what began as a mere request from Amy Bonsall, a PhD student and theatre associate at Bilimankhwe Arts in England, has amounted to a fledged book to be published by Dzuka in March.
As a starter, a play based on the one-off translation will premiere at Mzuzu University (Mzuni) in April—a marriage of cultures involving the country’s theatrical chameleons and their London-based counterpart.
In an interview from Hague, Netherlands, Kenani revealed: “Miss Amy Bonsall Redston asked me if I could translate the entire book, Romeo and Juliet, to Chichewa, which I agreed, and I decided to have the translation published here in Malawi.”
“The play will be a short version of the full translation and is being adapted for stage by Nanzikambe Arts in conjunction with Bilimankhwe.
For the author, the play was some work.
He spoke of surmounting several brain-crackers in the process of translation.
The upcoming book testifies to the translator’s resolve having refused give in to complexities of Shakespeare’s “ancient English” though “most of the words fell into disuse scores, if not hundreds, of years ago”.
The sayings and metaphors used were not only particular to the age in which the book is set, but could also better be understood by someone familiar with foundations of the western society.
“How, for instance, can one translate Cupid in a way that a reader at Chamama in Kasungu understands?” Kenani asks.
Romeo and Juliet is a tragicomedy in which acts of prodigious love, known too late by Juliet and reportedly springing from her only affinity for a loathed enemy, carries seeds of great sorrow. It is a tale of suicidal affection as violent delights transport readers to a violent ending.
Love and death of any manner is the stuff of oxymorons–and they are a staple in the newly translated classic marking 400 years since Shakespeare’s death.
“The sweetest honey is loathsome in its own deliciousness. And in the taste destroys the appetite. Therefore, love moderately,” Friar Lawrence warns.
Birimankhwe director Kate Stafford—who produced another Shakespeare, African MacBeth for Nanzikambe in 2003—said the live performances are slated for April 8 to 10 at Mzuni.
“My friend Amy is currently undertaking PhD research into the impact of Shakespeare in Malawi and this is a major part of the study,” Stafford said.
The initial study was done at Chancellor College in Zomba, and the focus has since switched to Mzuni where Stafford and Bonsall have teamed up with former Nanzikambe artistic director Misheck Mzumara, now a lecturer in at Mzuni.
Said Mzumara: “This promises a no mean experience for drama enthusiasts. You have heard about Nanzikambe, but this is a collaboration with a prominent theatre outfit with two brains that know theatre like no other.” n