Why “Translating” Shakespeare for the 21st Century Is a Bad Idea

In News by Dennis Abrams

A new series of “translations” of Shakespeare’s plays will change the language to contemporary, colloquial English — losing something essential to the text.

By Dennis Abrams

cobbe_portrait_of_shakespeareThe Oregon Shakespeare Festival has announced the launch of a 39-play, three-year long commissioning project, Play on! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare. Supported by a grant from the Hitz Foundation and inspired by OSF patron Dave Hitz, the project is led by Lue Morgan Douthit, director of literary development and dramaturgy for the OSF.

“We began this project with a ‘What if?,’” Douthit said in a press release. “There are differences between the early modern English of Shakespeare and contemporary English. What if we looked at these plays at the language level through the lens of dramatists? What would we learn about how they work? Would that help us understand them in a different way? ‘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. What excites me the most about this is who will dig into these texts. We have paired 36 playwrights with dramaturgs, and we are asking them to go in and look at what the plays are made of. The writers get the great joy of tagging along with the world’s best poetic dramatist. It will be the geekiest exercise ever.”

Geekiest indeed. Play on! has brought in some of the nations’ leading playwrights, dramaturgs, theater professionals, and expert advisors to work on the project. Among its stated goals is to increase understanding and connection to Shakespeare’s plays for contemporary audiences, as well as to engage and inspire theater professionals, students, teachers and scholars. Play on! will provide translated texts in contemporary modern English as “performable companion pieces” for Shakespeare’s original texts in the hope that they will be published, read and adapted for stage and used as teaching tools.

The project has commissioned a playwright and dramaturg for each of the 39 plays generally attributed to Shakespeare (including both Two Noble Kinsmen and … Edward III?). By using diverse playwrights (more than 50 percent women and more than 50 percent “writers of color”), OSF hopes that will bring “fresh voices and perspectives” to the work of translation. (See the complete list here.)

According to the OSF, there are two basic rules. First, to do no harm. “There is language that will not need translating and some that does.” Each of the teams will be asked to look at the play on a line-by-line basis and to translate to “contemporary modern English” those lines that they feel need translating. No cutting or editing of scenes will be allowed, and playwrights may not “add their personal politics.” And second, playwrights are being asked to “put the same kind of pressure on the language as Shakespeare put on his.” Meter, rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, rhetoric, character action and themes of the “original” must be considered. “These translations are not adaptations.”

“My interest in the question of how to best create access to these remarkable works is life-long,” OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch said. “As a seventh grader, I translated Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream into contemporary English for my classmates to better understand it. I am delighted that the Play on! translations will give dramatists a deep personal relationship with Shakespeare’s words and that they will give artists and audiences new insights into these extraordinary plays.”

“I’ve been seeing Shakespeare plays since I was a child,” Dave Hitz said. “I love reading a play before the show, especially out-loud with friends, in order to understand the performance better. When I learned that foreign translations of Shakespeare are in modern language, I was jealous. I fantasized about seeing Shakespeare performed in contemporary modern English. I’m thrilled that OSF is taking on this project. No translation can replace the original, but it can broaden the audience and provide new understanding even for those of us who love the original language. I hope these translations will attract a new audience to Shakespeare and lead them back to his original words as well.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, reactions to the project have been decidely … mixed.

At the Wall Street Journal, John McWhorter argued in favor of the project, writing that “much of Shakespeare goes over our heads because, even though we recognize the words, their meaning often has changed significantly over the past four centuries.”

“We can piece these meanings together, of course, by reading the play and consulting stacks of footnotes. But Shakespeare didn’t intend for us to do that. He wrote plays for performance. We’re supposed to be able to hear and understand what’s spoken on the stage, in real time.

“It is true that translated Shakespeare is no longer Shakespeare in the strictest sense. But are we satisfied with Shakespeare’s being genuinely meaningful only to an elite few unless edited to death or carefully excerpted, with most of the rest of us genuflecting in the name of “culture” and keeping our confusion to ourselves? Should we have to pore laboriously over Shakespeare on the page before seeing his work performed?

“I suspect that Shakespeare himself, in his eagerness to reach audiences, would be perplexed by the idea that our job today is to settle for only half understanding his work. Let’s embrace Shakespeare for real and let him speak to us.”

But at the Huffington Post, author Lev Raphael was having none of it:

“The author of the WSJ article says plays will only be 10% translated (will there be Translation Meter?). But I don’t just go to a Shakespeare play to see it, I also want to hear it, enjoy Shakespeare’s word play, the rhyme, the rhythm, the assonance. Yes, I like the poetry. I don’t remotely think it elevates me. It’s entertaining, it’s beautiful music. It’s Shakespeare.

“Why should some well-meaning pedant be making decisions about what people do or don’t understand, rewriting great poetry and spoon-feeding them Shakespeare Lite?”

A very good question.

At opb.com, Aaron Scott showed an example from the first completed project – British poet Kenneth Cavendish’s “translation” of Timon of Athens, a soliloquy in which Timon cries out against the city’s corruption.

Here is the original text:

Slaves and fools,
Pluck the grave wrinkled senate from the bench
And minister in their steads. To general filths
Convert o’th’ instant, green virginity,
Do’t in your parents’ eyes. Bankrupts, hold fast;
Rather than render back, out with your knives
And cut your trusters’ throats! Bound servants, steal:
Large—handed robbers your grave masters are
And pill by law.

Here is Cavander’s translation.

And clowns, kick the grizzled old senators
Out of their offices and legislate in their place …
Innocent virgins, turn sluttish now – why wait? –
And do it while your parents watch … Bankrupt?
Keep your money, and if your creditors demand
Payment, pick up a knife and cut their throats.
Workers, steal – your bosses are crooks
In fine suits, gangsters raking in their loot,
Legalized pirates.

What is gained and what is lost?

The festival’s artistic director Bill Rauch said, “It’s an experiment. And the experiment is about deep, deep, deep respect of the language, and it’s about the playwrights that are working on these texts being in dialogue with Shakespeare in the most rigorous way possible.”

But for Shakespeare scholar and author James Shapiro, something major is lost along the way.

“Shakespeare is about the intoxicating richness of the language. It’s like the beer I drink. I drink 8.2 percent IPA, and by changing the language in this modernizing way, it’s basically shifting to Bud Light. Bud Light’s acceptable, but it just doesn’t pack the punch and the excitement and the intoxicating quality of that language.”


About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.