To be or not to be


Hello, and welcome to SoundCzech – part Czech language programme, and in part a tool with which to unravel man’s deepest philosophical queries. Forsooth, today we delve into the most quintessential of them all, as Shakespeare asked, být či nebýt, “to be or not to be” – pondered o’er not only by the poets but also by the band Pražský Výběr in the song Big bít či nebýt.

It may be hard to translate Shakespeare, but it’s even harder to translate Pražský Výběr in this case. Big bít či nebýt is a play on words, být či nebýt meaning “to be or not to be”, and Big Beat being a somewhat anomalous genre of Czech pop music, the kind that has a really heavy beat, or nářez, as today’s Czech youths would say. So how do you translate the name of the song? To je oč tu běží– that is the question. “Big beat, or not to beat”? It does lack something of the poignancy of the original, but after all, what’s in a name? Co je po jméně? This song by any other name would have the same “nářez”.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
Co růží zvou i zváno jinak, vonělo by stejně. Literally “what they call a rose would smell the same even if called differently” – a nice translation that sticks to the poetics of the original. But not all poetry smells as sweet in translation, and some of the great bard’s best-known quotes fall rather flat in Czech, as in “Ach Romeo, Romeo... Proč jsi Romeo?” or simply, “Why are you Romeo?” Likewise, “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players” gets the straightforward translation, celý svět je scéna, a muži, ženy, všichni jsou jen herci.

Other key phrases from Shakespeare though have the same nice ring to them as in English. Není zlato, co se třpytí, for instance: “all that glitters is not gold”. Or křehkosti, tvé jmeno je žena: “frailty, thy name is woman”! And now, tak sladký žel je loučení– parting is such sweet sorrow!