Choosing the Wrong Casket

Ideology and Inaccuracy in Translation

In The Merchant of Venice, the Prince of Morocco, a tawny Moor, steps to centre stage and speaks:

Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadowed livery of the burnished sun,
To whom I am neighbour, and near bred.
....I would not change this hue,
Except to steal your thoughts, my gentle queen. 

The gentle queen to whom he addresses his plea is the fair Portia, a lady richly left with her father's wealth. To gain her hand in marriage, Morocco (in Shakespeare's appellation) must choose, from among three caskets fashioned from different metals, the one that has a portrait of Portia in it. If he chooses wrongly, he must never again ask for a lady's hand in marriage. The conditions of the casket choice were stipulated by Portia's father in his will. Morocco doesn't know that Portia, moments before his arrival, said about the prospect of marrying him:

If he have the condition of a saint, and the complexion of a devil,
I had rather he should shrive me than wive me. 

After Morocco chooses the wrong casket, Portia ushers him out with the words:

A gentle riddance, -- draw the curtains, go –
Let all of his complexion choose me so. 

Shakespeare's characterization of Portia as a woman who dislikes the racial Other is one of the mechanisms by which he problematizes this comedy. The fair lady of Belmont – sunny-locked and "fairer than the word" – will get her comedic wedding at the end of the story, but to achieve this, she must dismiss the Muslim suitor, defeat the Jewish villain, and manipulate her final suitor Bassanio's obedience away from his former homosocial love, Antonio. In doing so, she displays some qualities not becoming of a fair heroine in a standard comedy. She is racially prejudicial, and, if she were our contemporary, we might call her a racist.

However, a different picture emerges when one reads the play in August W. Schlegel's 1799 German translation. As in the original text, Morocco pleads for Portia to not mislike him for his Farbe, the German word for colour standing for Shakespeare's word 'complexion'. Morocco would not change his Farbe, Schlegel's translation of 'hue'. Yet, in Schlegel's version, Portia never says 'complexion' as she does in Shakespeare's original. Instead Schlegel translates her lines as:

Hat er das Gemüt eines Heiligen und das Geblüt eines Teufels,
so wollte ich lieber, er weihte mich, als er freite mich. 

means blood, not skin colour or complexion. Later, when Portia sends Morocco away, Schlegel renders her lines as:

So wähle jeder, der ihm ähnlich sieht!

The translation reads, "So choose me everyone, of his similar looks". By not translating 'complexion' as skin colour, Schlegel softens the original straightforward characterization of Portia as racially prejudicial.

Two possible reasons for Schlegel's word choice must be explored first. The word 'complexion' underwent a transformation from its medieval sense meaning temperament or constitution of humours to an early modern sense denoting skin colour. The O.E.D. lists Morocco's lines as one of the first uses of the word to mean skin colour. Portia's answer to his plea for racial tolerance is clearly meant to indicate her rejection on the basis of his colour, as evidenced by the context of her words. Schlegel displays that he knows what is at stake in this scene when he translates Morocco's word 'complexion' as Farbe (colour), yet, he does not implicate Portia in the racism when he translates her lines without direct reference to colour.

The second possible reason for Schlegel's translation choices may have been that he wanted to retain Shakespeare's poesy. Portia's lines are poetically symmetrical due to the alliteration of 'condition and 'complexion' and the rhyme of 'shrive' and 'wive'. Her lines later in the play follow the same pattern with the alliteration of 'curtain' and 'complexion' and the rhyme of 'go' and 'so'. Schlegel maintains this alliteration with 'Gemüt' and 'Geblüt' and the rhyme of 'weihte' and 'freite'. Also, 'Ähnlich sieht' rhymes with the ending of the previous line, 'den Vorhang zieht' (draw the curtains). If retaining the poesy was the reason for Schlegel's translation choices, then he has sacrificed meaning for style. Yet this does not get to the heart of the intentions of this translation. There may be a clue in Schlegel's writings on literary criticism about why he chose to change Shakespeare's depiction of Portia.

In Schlegel's 1809 Vorlesungen über Dramatische Kunst und Literatur, he writes that, of all the characters in the play, "Portia and Bassanio are both most deserving of love". He reads the play as a comedy in which the hero Bassanio achieves his goal of marrying his beloved after removing the obstacles to this match: Portia's rival suitors, Bassanio's rival relationship with Antonio and the legal bond that the villainous Jew has on Antonio's life. Yet this is not the play that Shakespeare wrote. The Merchant of Venice is a problem play in which Shakespeare constantly undermines his heroes' attempts at appearing gracious. This tightly drawn hostile society of merchants and usurers, anti-Semitic Christians and revenge-seeking Jews, and homosocial male friendships and patriarchially-controlled wealthy girls cannot produce any satisfactory comedic ending. It cannot produce any character that is deserving of our love. Schlegel's translation is more faithful to his own conservative Romantic view of this drama than to Shakespeare's radical early modern original. In Schlegel's Romantic translation, the reader can witness his ideology – the state of his socio-political consciousness.


Examples like the one above are frequently found when looking for intertextual relationships between texts of different languages. Interlingual intertextual research relies on accurate translations. However, the notion of accuracy is inappropriate when speaking about translation, because languages do not fit each other seamlessly and translation is not joinery. Instead, it may be useful to explore inaccuracies in translation when conducting intertextual research. These inaccuracies, like Schlegel's above, can uncover instances of translation serving as interpretation. Two further examples below illustrate this point.

Dorothea Tieck's translation of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens features an interpretation that, similarly to Schlegel, reveals her critical reading of the play. In the second half of this tragedy, Timon the misanthrope, who has left the inhumane society of Athens for the wildness of the woods, digs for edible roots, but finds gold instead. He indicts the gold for its foul effects on society:

Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold?
No, gods, I am no idle votarist -
Roots, you clear heavens! Thus much of this will make
Black white, foul fair, wrong right,
Base noble, old young, coward valiant.
Ha, you gods, why this? What this, you gods? Why, this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,
Pluck stout men's pillows from below their heads:
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed;
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves
And give them title, knee and approbation
With senators on the bench: This is it
That makes the wappen'd widow wed again;
She whom the spittle-house and ulcerous sores
Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices
To th'April day again. Come, damned earth,
Thou common whore of mankind ...

There is a controversy among critics about what the words 'damned earth' refer to here. Some hold that the earth/soil is the whore because people tread it and plough it – both actions that can be sexual metaphors. Others feel that the gold from the earth is the whore because that is what Timon is speaking to; the gold is the antecedent for the pronoun 'this' in the anaphora of this soliloquy. Karl Marx famously quoted these lines in all of his economic writings to describe the ill effects of the money economy. He reads the gold/money as the common whore because, as the representation of exchange value, it has intercourse with all commodities.

Marx first read Timon of Athens in Dorothea Tieck's German translation. Tieck's interpretation is clear from the words she uses at the end of the soliloquy:

Verdammt Metall,
Gemeine Hure du der Menschen

She changes Shakespeare's line from 'damned earth' to 'damned metal', clearly interpreting the gold to be the whore. Before Marx, Tieck read these lines economically and her ideological translation choice presented Marx with a text that was somewhat different than Shakespeare's. That difference influenced Marx's reading.

The third example of translation as interpretation comes from James Strachey's 1958 translation of Sigmund Freud's writings in the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, Vol. 12. In 1913, Freud wrote an essay that presents his reading of The Merchant of Venice and used this reading to develop his theory of the death instinct. Freud titled his essay 'Das Motiv der Kästchenwahl'. When the essay was translated into English by C. J. M. Hubback in 1925 and subsequently published by James Strachey in 1958, the title became 'The Theme of the Three Caskets'.

The first thing to notice is that the translation is wrong. The German original says, 'The Theme of the Casket Choice'. Since the word Motiv translates both as theme and as motive, this renders a second possibility for the title as 'The Motive of the Casket Choice'. Either of these two translations would be much more appropriate as titles for an essay in which Freud posits that Bassanio's choice of the lead casket is an act of reaction formation. In Freud's reading, the caskets represent women, and the third woman/casket represents death, which Freud also found in Atropos, the third fate of Greek mythology, and Cordelia, Lear's third daughter over whose body he dies. Bassanio's conscious choice of the lead casket, which he thinks will win him the fair Portia and all of her wealth, is, according to Freud, a reaction formation for his unconscious desire to choose death. That is the motive of his casket choice.

Strachey does not give any explanation as to why he published the essay using Hubback's erroneous title. While the essay was already known in English under Hubback's title, this is not a probable explanation for Strachey's re-use without comment, as Strachey is meticulous in his editorial remarks throughout the Standard Edition. Strachey has been criticized for translating some of Freud's words into unnecessary neologisms. One example of this is his rendering of Freud's simple word Besetzung (filling up) as cathexis. However, the mistranslation of this essay's title does not fit in the same category of translation choices as do the neologisms. 'The Theme of the Three Caskets' as an alternative to 'The Theme/Motive of the Casket Choice' does not offer the advantage of scientific terminology as does the Greek word cathexis for the notion of filling or loading with energy.

Another explanation may shed more light as to why Strachey favoured Hubback's translation. Freud stands alone in his reading of The Merchant of Venice. Shakespearean literary criticism has not supported it. Strachey was aware of this and may have unconsciously favoured a title that takes the spotlight away from Freud's reading of Bassanio's motive of the casket choice and spreads it over the general theme of the three caskets. This would not have been the only time that Freud's editors and translators intervened to soften the effects of his theories on his reputation among English-speaking readers. Ernest Jones begged Freud to drop his insistence that Shakespeare's works were written by the Earl of Oxford and was especially concerned that the surname of the author who constructed this theory was Looney. Jones also asked Freud to think twice before printing some of his thoughts about telepathy.

In all three examples, the translators use their critical reading of the original text to guide their translation. Exploring the differences in words and meaning between original texts and their translations brings this critical reading into relief. Their critique arises from their ideology which is rooted in their socio-political consciousness. Translators can thus be seen as authors in their own right, with their own textual agency and tendencies. Their translation choices betray any attempt on the part of translator to remain in the background. They enter the intertextual fray and add to the multiplicity of readings. Their readings deny their innocence and instead depict their ideology.