“Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds, / Toward Phoebus’ lodging; such a waggoner / As Phaeton would whip you to the west, / And bring in cloudy night immediately.” (R&J, 3.2.1-4)
I spent the past week working through Juliet’s “Gallop apace” soliloquy with two of my ninth-grade sections; it’s one of my favorite pieces of text to teach even under normal circumstances, and it’s been a particular balm this year. We’ve been tracking Juliet’s shift from practical to exuberant and figurative language throughout the play so far, so it was especially lovely to see how my students jumped right on the things that make her language so ardent here, from the very first sentence: the imperative and apostrophe of “Gallop apace,” the enlivening image of “you fiery-footed steeds,” the classical allusions to Phoebus and Phaeton. We talked about the plosives in Juliet’s first two words, stressed syllables in unexpected places, the thronging alliteration of “f” and “w” sounds; it was great fun.
Perhaps it was my giddiness, after all that, that made me remark to them that the No Fear Shakespeare translation of that first sentence does away with everything they’d noticed, in favor of a spiritless “I wish the sun would hurry up and set and night would come immediately.” I’ve always felt this sentence is too “boiled-down” to be actually useful: how would a student relying on this translation, without the requisite classical knowledge, be able to get from Juliet’s allusive language to the idea of the sun? (Something like “Hurry up, you horses of the sun,” while still ungainly, would be closer to what Juliet is actually doing in her first line – and so, presumably, more useful to a student reader who is trying to figure out what is going on in the original text.) But this time, I also found myself wondering about the decision to strip Juliet’s original sentence of its apostrophe: Juliet talks directly to the horses of the sun, commanding them in her eagerness; why turn that into an anemic “I wish”?
It turns out – as I discovered when I went back to the NFS website to check – that this isn’t a one-off decision. In the original text, Juliet uses apostrophe over and over, bringing the night sky to life as teacher and confidante. Repeatedly, NFS chooses to do away with any sign of that life: Juliet’s “Spread thy close curtain, love-performing Night, / That runaways’ eyes may wink” (3.2.5-6) becomes “When the night comes and everyone goes to sleep”; her “Come, civil Night, / Thou sober-suited matron all in black” (3.2.10-11) gets reduced to “I wish night would come, like a widow dressed in black”; her “Hood my unmanned blood, bating in my cheeks, / With thy black mantle” (3.2.14-15) dwindles into “Let the blood rushing to my cheeks be calmed.” As with the disappearance of Juliet’s steeds above, I find this a baffling decision – since beyond anything else, a translation that stuck more closely to the original text would be more helpful to students – and I wonder whether Juliet’s apostrophe here, like so many things, has fallen victim to No Fear Shakespeare’s need to present a rationale for its own existence: the less their translation looks and sounds like the original (even when that original is perfectly clear on its own), the more it seems like a reader actually needs each line to be translated. The gulf between the translation and the original “proves” that there is an insurmountable gap between Shakespeare’s language and our own – one that No Fear Shakespeare, of course, stands gallantly ready to fill.
I want to go back to that second absence of apostrophe in the paragraph above, though: “I wish night would come, like a widow dressed in black.” One of the other things that frustrates me about NFS’s “translate every word” practice is that in doing so, they often make interpretive decisions but hide them under a semblance of merely conveying the basic meaning of the original. Here, they’ve swapped Juliet’s “matron” for “widow,” as though the words are synonymous – but those two words are not the same! I can only assume that they’ve jumped to the conclusion that only widows would be clad “all in black” (in Juliet’s phrase), and therefore opted for this sloppy substitution. But Juliet’s diction here matters, because she wants something specific from the night: a matron is an experienced, dignified married woman, not a mourner. Unexpectedly (to me, anyway), the word is found in Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall of 1604; Cawdrey defines “matron” as “an auncient, sober, and a discreete woman.”  That idea of discretion mingles nicely with the privacy Juliet longs for with the night’s arrival (“Spread thy close curtain…”) – but more to my point, a matron is a woman who knows the world, a stable, knowledgeable presence. That makes her the perfect figure for Juliet to conjure up to ask for advice on her wedding night: “And learn me how to lose a winning match, / Played for a pair of stainless maidenhoods” (3.2.12-13). Changing “matron” to “widow” changes Juliet’s image entirely – and in a way that makes no sense: why would Juliet want a mourner now, in this almost delirious moment of anticipation?
This perplexing swap seems to be particular to the NFS translation of “Gallop apace”: another Shakespearean use of “matron” that came immediately to mind was Hamlet’s “If thou canst mutine in a matron’s bones,” so I decided to see what NFS did with the word there, and they’ve rendered it as “old mother.” Again, this is an interpretive decision masquerading as mere definition: since Hamlet is talking to Gertrude here, this word must mean “mother,” right? The rest of the translation of this line, though, is even worse: Hamlet’s “Rebellious hell, / If thou canst mutine in a matron’s bones, / To flaming youth let virtue be as wax / And melt in her own fire” (3.4.82-5) somehow turns into “If evil can overtake even an old mother’s bones, then let it melt my own.” I suppose it’s something that they’re consistent, in getting rid of Hamlet’s apostrophe here too. But Hamlet, with his scholarly cast of mind, frequently defaults to aphoristic language, as if attempting to find general principles from specific circumstances – which we see in his language here of “flaming youth” and “virtue.” To claim that Hamlet is talking specifically about himself here is an interpretation, not a fact. Also, why are Hamlet’s bones melting, anyway??? Inexplicably, NFS has dropped the thing that’s actually supposed to be doing the melting in this sentence, virtue, and cobbled together a translation that doesn’t actually work.
I feel as if I should have some sort of conclusion here, so I leave you with this: it may be unrelated to either Juliet or matrons, but I find it hilarious that NFS translates Hamlet’s use of “Nay” a few lines down as “Yes.” It feels symbolic, a miniature version of this entire post.
Texts: Romeo and Juliet, New Cambridge edition (ed. G. Blakemore Evans); Hamlet, New Cambridge edition (ed. Philip Edwards).
NFS translations found at <https://www.sparknotes.com/nofear/shakespeare/romeojuliet/page_154/ > and <https://www.sparknotes.com/nofear/shakespeare/hamlet/page_200/>. Accessed 19 December 2020.
 The First English Dictionary, 1604: Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabetical (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2006, 2015), p. 111.