When Hamlet Speaks Persian.

Samuel Tafresh writes for the Ajam Media Collective about a fascinating subject:

Reading Hamlet in Persian or seeing the play on the Iranian stage, one is struck by how little the characters resemble the 16th century Englishmen most audiences are familiar with. Hamlet and Ophelia might be called Siyavash and Mahtab, while Denmark might resemble Tehran. Over the last 129 years in Iran, Shakespeare and his characters have undergone a startling transformation in the process of translation and adaptation, one affected at each step by the movements of Iranian politics and the identities of the translators. […]

Shakespeare’s works have cultivated such a variety of interpretations partially because his works were not introduced in a single, authoritative form. When the plays reached Iran they were written in Arabic and French as well as English. If one wanted to read a Shakespeare play in 19th century Iran, Arabic or French was much more accessible than English. Prior to the existence of any Persian translation of Shakespeare, Azerbaijani and Armenian-language productions took place in Tabriz. Iranian tourists saw Shakespeare performed on Russian stages and wrote about productions in their travelogues and diaries. As a result of this multitude of influences, the English text didn’t possess an authority Iranian translators and directors were beholden to. Instead, Persian renditions of Shakespeare reflected translators’ relative freedom of interpretation and demonstrated the plays’ flexibility, allowing Hamlet to become Siyavash and many other unexpected transformations to occur.

The first Persian translations of Shakespeare took place as Western-style theatre was being introduced to Iran by Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar. Nasir al-Din Shah visited Europe on diplomatic trips in 1873, 1878, and 1889. […] In 1882, Nasir al-Din Shah established a theatre hall at Dar al-Fonun University and in 1885 ordered the creation of a translation bureau at the royal court in hopes of bringing to Iran the theatre he’d enjoyed in Europe. Nasir al-Din Shah considered adapting local theatre for the Western stage, but at the time many felt that traditional Iranian theatre couldn’t easily be adapted to this format. […]

Hosseinqoli Mirza Saloor, the eldest son of the ruler of Hamadan and eventual ruler himself, was the first to translate Shakespeare into Persian in 1900 in his translation of The Taming of the Shrew (Majliseh Tamashakhan: Be Tarbiat Avardaneh Dokhtareh Tondkhuy). As a Qajar educated in France, Saloor translated from French rather than the original English. Shakespeare would not be translated from English until 1914 when Mirza Abolqasem Khan Qaragozlu, or Nasir al-Mulk, began his translation of Othello. […] It was only in Nasir al-Mulk’s retirement, when Ahmad Shah Qajar came of age and was able to rule, that he turned to Shakespeare translation. While Nasir al-Mulk’s role in government was by far the greatest of the early Shakespeare translators [sic: something seems to have gone wrong here — LH], the group is defined by politicians and diplomats who witnessed or participated in the 1905-11 Constitutional Revolution that overthrew the Qajar monarch.

There’s much more at the link, including some great photos (not to mention a video clip of the Titowak Theater Group performing Ibrahim Poshtkuhi’s Hey! Macbeth, Only the First Dog Knows Why It Is Barking!). Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Not knowing Farsi, I put the title of Taming of the Shrew into Google Translate, which first transliterated “Majliseh Tamashakhan: Be Tarbiat Avardaneh Dokhtareh Tondkhuy” from the Roman alphabet into

    مجلسه تماشاخان: به تربیت آوردنه دختره تندخوی

    And rendered the translation as “Audience Assembly: Bringing up the spicy girl”. Are the first two words, in fact, not part of the actual title?

  2. It seems that dokhtar is cognate with ‘daughter’, but has a wider set of meanings in Persian. GT lists “girl, daughter, gal, maid, sissy, wench” for the bare word.

  3. I was expecting avardaneh to be the adjective, since there seems to be agreement with the noun, but not at all. If I cut and paste the Farsi title from Craig’s comment into GT and use linebreaks to look at it word by word, i get

    To upbringing to-bring the-girl spiteful

    So something like “Bringing the spiteful girl to education”

  4. My 1914 Persian-Russian Dictionary by M.A. Gaffarov (see this 2002 LH post) defines دختر as “дочь, девочка, девушка, девица” [‘daughter, little girl, (unmarried) girl, unmarried woman’].

  5. Вся восточная половина Арка в настоящее время разрушена. Это — археологический заповедник. Но здесь случайно сохранились два здания. В северной части — Чиль-Духтарон, связанный с преданием о сорока девушках, замученных и брошенных в колодец Насрулла-ханом.


  6. “Tamasha” means traditional show or theatrical entertainment (known all over Middle East, Central Asia and India).

    khane – means “house”.

    Tamashakhane then must be a neologism to describe European type of theater.

  7. “40 girls” seems to be a meme:

    В 256 км от Душанбе есть удивительное место “Чилдухтарон” с красивой легендой. Долина Чилдухтарон

    В южной части Таджикистана находится древнейшее место, которое получило в свое время необычное поэтическое название – Чилдухтарон. В переводе это слово означает «Долина Сорока Девушек». Существует одна легенда, которая объясняет значение этих слов.

    Согласно древней истории, представленные 40 каменных глыб, которые расположены одна за другой, – это 40 симпатичных девушек, которые жили беззаботной жизнью. Но когда пришли жестокие захватчики с намерением сделать из красавиц наложниц, девушки стали молить Аллаха о спасении.

    Единственным спасением они видели превращение в безмолвные каменные глыбы. Именно с того момента долина считается интересной достопримечательностью Таджикистана. Местные жители, время от времени, украшают эти глыбы цветами и лентами. Туристы любят слушать эту интересную легенду, посещая долину Чилдухтарон.


  8. Trond Engen says

    SFR: “Tamasha” means traditional show or theatrical entertainment (known all over Middle East, Central Asia and India).

    khane – means “house”.

    Tamashakhane then must be a neologism to describe European type of theater.

    So a straight calque of German Spielhaus?

    It struck me that the element majliseh is well known, but I can’t say if it’s used here to mean “salon (theater)”, “public (theater)” or, for that matter, “parliamentary (theater)”. Clinging again to the crutch of GT, I’m no wiser. It’s rendered as “assembly” as a modifier of tamashakhane but “parliament” on his own. Googling the word I see that it’s the name of an Iranian provider of content for cable TV, which might suggest “salon, front room”, i.e. a mild pun “the theater in your living room”, but it could also be a pun on less easily reconcilable meanings of majlis.

  9. David Marjanović says


    Didn’t know that existed.

    There are some Schauspielhäuser out there, but they’re signaling they’re not quite theaters.

  10. Trond Engen says

    It probably doesn’t. I first wrote Schauspielhaus.

  11. I do this all the time. I’m of two minds and too lazy to check. There must be at least as many cases were I guess correctly.

  12. Oh, I do it all the time too. I figure someone will correct me if I get it wrong.

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