Translating Shakespeare

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has launched an ambitious project: over the next three years a team of playwrights and dramaturgs will translate all 39 of Shakespeare’s attributed plays into modern English. The goal is to create a set of performable texts that make the stories easily accessible to every theatergoer.

I could not be more supportive of this endeavor. Like many people with degrees in the liberal arts, I feel Shakespeare is one of the best writers in our language. But of course it’s not really the same language anymore. Elizabethan English is becoming more foreign to our ears every day. The majority of the words are the same, but the context in which they were spoken was quite different, as different as Chaucer’s Middle English was to the Elizabethans. The slow decline in comprehending undiluted Shakespearean text has been playing out for a long time already. OSF’s translation project is a direct response to that: it’s a deliberate and thoughtful attempt to keep Shakespeare vital.

Lue Morgan Douthit, OSF’s director of literary development and dramaturgy, said, “‘Translate’ is an inadequate word because it implies a word-for-word substitution, which isn’t what we’re doing. I’m going for something much more subtle. But I like the rigor that ‘translate’ implies… we are asking [the playwrights] to go in and look at what the plays are made of.” (source)

The power of Shakespeare lies not in the words but in the ideas the words create. A play is its story, not its plot. I think that’s an important distinction because, as Marjorie Garber wrote in Shakespeare After All, “Shakespeare’s plays are living works of art. Their meanings grow and change as they encounter vivid critical and theatrical imaginations.”

The main draw of Macbeth, for example, is its story of ambition gone wrong; of paranoia, fate, revenge, war, and so on. Those themes are immutable. If the play for the audience member is just the words, i.e. filler scenes between some well written monologues, then the problem lies in the inaccessibility of the original text, not the mind of the audience member. Blaming inaccessibility on bad productions or poorly informed audience members addresses the symptoms, not the central issue, which is that if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.

What’s important about these translations is that it makes the plays accessible to everyone who’d go to the theater. The evolution of English has reached a point where people with the best educations cannot understand all the text in a single performance. The perception of Shakespeare’s elitism comes from that dissonance. We question our lack of comprehension and assume the people who enjoy it are just more intelligent.

There’s certainly more to understand than not; it’s not a you-get-it-or-you-don’t issue. But the things that are hard to understand are distracting and we shouldn’t be ashamed to admit that. Insisting the language come first sells short everything that makes Shakespeare work and ignores the central problem, which is that Othello and Henry V won’t get easier to understand as time goes on.

The actor, even after she has gone through extensive preparation, cannot expect the audience to have done the same. It exhausts the mind to play catch up with the characters as it’s continually side tracked trying figure out why the operative verb came at the end of the sentence or which version of a homonym was heard. This article about the project states, on average, one out of ten words in Hamlet might be unfamiliar or contextually distracting to a modern ear. That’s not the fault of the actor, or even educators or theatermakers. It’s just what it is.

There’s also the fact that no version of the plays exists as Shakespeare intended them to be published. From the wildly differing 17th-century editions, cobbled together from memory and prompt books, to (for example) the two very different currently published versions of King Lear, one of which has a bizarre alternate ending where Cordelia doesn’t die and happily marries Edgar, reevaluating the text until we find something we like is part of a long literary tradition. Attempting to discover the authorial intent of a man who died 400 years ago, about whom we’ve uncovered about as much as we ever will, is a poor use of our time.

The translation project is supervised by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which produces some of the world’s most highly renowned productions of Shakespeare’s plays in addition to much of the modern dramaturgy that’s used by other companies to mount those plays. One of the stated goals of the project is to inspire audiences to return to the original text with greater understanding and enjoyment.

In approaching the task OSF has established two basic rules. First, do no harm. There is language that will not need translating and some that does. Each team is being asked to examine the play line-by-line and translate to contemporary modern English those lines that need translating. There is to be no cutting or editing of scenes and playwrights may not add their personal politics. Second, put the same kind of pressure on the language as Shakespeare put on his. This means the playwright must consider the meter, rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, rhetoric, character action and theme of the original. These translations are not adaptations. Setting, time period and references will remain unchanged. (source)

According to OSF, more than half the playwrights are female and more than half are writers of color. (Check them out! There’s serious talent there.) Shakespeare’s works could not be made more vital than this.

Translation would make immediately accessible the 30 or so plays of Shakespeare that are almost never performed. I would pay to walk backwards over broken glass to see a good production of The Winter’s Tale or Troilus and Cressida. And let’s be honest—they’re not his best plays. Sure, a third-rate Shakespeare is still better than a first-rate modern playwright blah blah blah, but the fact remains: these plays aren’t done very often because they are hard to understand and audiences, unsurprisingly, don’t like that. I’m reasonably sure I understand Winter’s Tale but only because I’ve read it a bunch. But that shouldn’t be a prerequisite for its production. A newly translated Winter’s Tale might be the only chance a casual theatergoer has to see it. Otherwise it’s just a historical curiosity: Bill Shakespeare’s late-career problem play with all those puns that don’t make sense anymore.

If you went to the kind of school that teaches classical Greek, you’d hear Antigone as it would have sounded to Sophocles. Or, if you went to a really expensive school, you’d also learn Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin and hear biblical scripture as it originally sounded. Outside of that, you’d learn from a modern translation. Anything else is impractical and requires a tremendous amount of effort from the non-scholar. Translations are made with the intention of communicating the ideas inherent in the text in the most potent form possible for the reader. Because that’s why old texts are studied in a modern context at all: what were the artists of other eras preoccupied with? How does that support or contrast what we are preoccupied with now?

OSF’s Play on! is a tangible step in the direction of making classical theater more accessible. Non-English productions translate the text directly into modern syntax, typically to great response. English-speaking productions attempt modernization by falling into the well-meaning though tedious tradition of “It’s set during the fifties! Because the play’s about racism kind of! Quick, sink our budget into Brylcreem and A-line dresses!”

At this point we have nothing to lose by reimaging the text. We can, in T.S. Eliot’s words, only hope at this point to be wrong about Shakespeare in a new way. Through the respectful work of these scholars and writers, the riches of his stories will once again be there for the taking.