The Problem with the Shakespeare “Translation” Controversy

There has been some fiery controversy around Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s announcement that they’re commissioning “translations” of all 39 Shakespeare plays into “modern English.” It was the rollout that launched a thousand screams of condemnation.

People were either condemning the idea that Shakespeare needed “translating” at all, or condemning the people who were protesting the “translations.” It was either “This is the death of art” or “People against this need to stop being so damn precious,” as if there was no room for mixed feelings or thoughtful discussion. I was a little disappointed in the terms of the discussion being set up as a battleground. I was asked to comment no less than ten times before I had even read the PR myself.

At first, I will admit, I was shocked that OSF would sponsor something that seemed so obviously horrible. Then I read OSF’s PR and realized what the problem was. In the PR, OSF referred to the project as modern language “translations,” and then went on to describe a project that couldn’t be further from that. The PR quotes OSF director of literary development and dramaturgy Lue Morgan Douthit as stating that the texts won’t be line-for-line “translations,” but much more subtle. Douthit is quoted as saying that she used the word because she likes “the rigor that ‘translate’ implies.” I have some skepticism about that quote. Considering that the most famous “Shakespeare translation” is the appallingly bad “No Fear Shakespeare,” the word “translation” in this context implies exactly zero rigor. It was a deeply unfortunate choice.

OSF has instructed its list of playwrights and dramaturgs– all of whom are leading national voices– to first, “do no harm.” Lines that are already clear are to be left intact. But what, exactly, does “clear” mean?

Let’s start with the bad news.

The pilot for this was Kenneth Cavander’s Timon of Athens. In it, Cavander sets the clarity bar incredibly low, and the resulting updates are problematic.


TIMON: What, are my doors opposed against my passage?
Have I been ever free, and must my house
Be my retentive enemy, my jail?
The place where I have feasted, does it now,
Like all mankind, show me an iron heart? [Arden 3.4.77]


TIMON: What’s this? My doors locked—to shut me in!?
Haven’t I been always open with my friends,
And now my own house turns against me,
Becomes my jail? Does my home, where I have feasted,
Show me, like the rest of mankind, an iron-heart?


CUPID: Hail to thee, worthy Timon, and to all that of his bounties taste! The five best senses acknowledge thee their patron and come freely to gratulate thy plenteous bosom. There taste, touch, all, pleased from thy table rise, They only now come but to feast thine eyes. [Arden 1.2.121]


CUPID: Hail to you, worthy Timon, and to all who savor the feast he provides…The Five Senses salute their patron, and gratefully honor your unstinting hospitality. I will now present…Taste…Touch…and the rest of them. Please rise, everyone…You have been well fed, so now—a second feast…For your eyes only!


While some of the “translated” lines above are stilted and clunky, I’m most concerned with accuracy and clarity. Cavander’s “Does my home, where I have feasted, show me, like the rest of mankind, an iron-heart?” is actually LESS clear than the original. Moving “show me” in the sentence order makes “like the rest of mankind” modify “me.” Now the house is showing an iron heart to Timon and all mankind, rather than the house joining mankind in showing Timon an iron heart. It’s not the only inaccuracy just in these two samples. “Have I been ever free” is rendered as “Haven’t I always been open with my friends,” which is a huge change to the meaning of the line. At the end of the second quote, “They only come now but to feast thine eyes” becomes the inaccurate (and trite) “so now– a second feast. For your eyes only!”

While I’ve only seen a handful of samples, in every one, Cavander’s “translation” is much deeper than it needs to be, discarding words and phrases that are clear on their own, and inserting stilted or inaccurate substitutions. So I respect the alarm some had when they discovered that OSF was commissioning like “translations” of the rest of the works.

Those who had no experience of the Cavander were alarmed by the word “translation” because, up to this point, it primarily meant uniformly awful modern updates like No Fear Shakespeare. No Fear is not only badly written, its “translations” provide a superficial understanding of the lines, and sometimes even inaccurate ones. A few examples: “sighing like furnace” becomes “huffing and puffing like a furnace”; “Bless you, fair shrew” becomes “Hello to you, my little wench”; “Two may keep counsel, putting one away” becomes “Two can conspire to put one away.”

There are excellent reasons to have legitimate concerns about a “translation” project. It’s not about being “precious”; it’s about the deep problems evident in previous “translations.”

But let’s look at the good news.

The Cavander “translation” is troubling, yes, but for the rest of the series (apart from The Tempest, which Cavander is also writing) OSF has commissioned a phenomenal group of writers: Christopher Chen, Sean San Jose, Octavio Solis, Luis Alfaro, Lloyd Suh, Migdalia Cruz, Aditi Kapil, Marcus Gardley, Naomi Iizuka, and Taylor Mac, just to name a few, supported by dramaturgs like Joy Meads, Nakissa Etemad, Julie Felise Dubiner, and Desdemona Chiang. These people are some of the cream of the crop of modern American theatremaking.

Most importantly, they’ve been instructed to leave language that’s clear intact, and I trust them to make good choices about what “clear” means. None of these writers could ever be accused of imagining audiences can’t understand difficult language. I also trust them to know the difference between “poetic” and “stilted,” and I trust those dramaturgs to prevent misreadings of lines that would wind up “translated” incorrectly.

Given the “do no harm” instructive and the focus on clarity, what’s surely happening here is not much different than what we all already do for production. The meanings of some of the words in Shakespeare’s texts have changed so completely in the past 400 years that performing them as is becomes, essentially, vandalism of the author’s intent. If you’re producing As You Like It, you can’t perform a phrase like “the humorous duke” and expect a 2015 American audience to understand that it means “unpredictably moody” and not “funny.” There are literally hundreds of words and phrases whose meanings have changed, and there are even more that are just no longer in use. Some are clear from context, particularly when seen acted on stage (prithee, anon, varlet, belike, wherefore), others, not so much (sack, doubt, shrift, horns, jointure, French slop). There are some words whose definitions are hotly debated (pugging, wappened). When we produce Shakespeare, we all make decisions about which words we leave intact, believing the audience will get the gist in context, and which need to be changed to preserve the meaning of the line. It’s rare to see Shakespeare completely untouched because it’s a foolish way to perform it.

And don’t forget that there’s no one definitive Shakespeare text. Every published edition, and many performance texts, are the result of a series of decisions made by an editor with every past edition, folio, and quarto open on their desks. With no definitive text, absolute purism is indeed just preciousness.

But the problem wasn’t precious purism. The problem with Shakespeare “translation” is not in what these playwrights will actually do– they haven’t even done it yet– but in the word “translation” itself. It’s one hell of a trigger. If OSF had used a less unfortunate, more accurate word, there wouldn’t have been a controversy.

We’ve covered the good and the bad– now it’s time for the ugly.

What if the doomsayers are right, and every one of these plays is as bad as the worst No Fear?

Well, so what?

There are already eleventy splatillion “translations,” adaptations, deconstructions, and the like of these plays. If Macbeth can survive Throne of Blood and Scotland PA, if Romeo and Juliet can survive West Side Story and Romeo Must Die, and if Hamlet can survive Strange Brew and The Lion King, then I think the plays will survive some of the best playwrights and dramaturgs in the country having a whack at deciding what to do about “horns” and “Barbary cock-pigeon.”

And I get that it’s upsetting to a lot of people that OSF, one of the stewards of Shakespeare’s work in the US, seems to be endorsing something you’re imagining as a combination of No Fear and Forbidden Planet, but if someone handed you a gigantic check, told you that it was only for this project, but that you could hire any playwrights and dramaturgs you liked, you would JUMP at the chance. This is EXACTLY what we want one of our flagship American theatres doing– paying artists to art. This is something to be celebrated. If you don’t like the results, well, don’t stage them or go see them. OSF has no plans to stage them either, apart from the developmental readings. Just be glad that these enormously deserving artists landed this fantastic gig.

Personally, I’d be FAR more excited by full adaptations from these writers, engaging with the texts rather than “translating” them, but I wasn’t the one writing the check and telling OSF what to do with it. That honor belongs to Dave Hitz from the Hitz Foundation. Honestly, it’s wonderful that they’re supporting the work of all these artists. I think that should be the main focus here. People you admire– some of them your friends– are getting paid to do what they love. That’s a great thing, whether you love the resulting texts or not. Either way, Shakespeare will be fine.

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5 thoughts on “The Problem with the Shakespeare “Translation” Controversy

  1. THANK YOU, BG, for this excellent analysis and conclusion– most reasoned/reasonable approach to this topic I’ve seen yet!

  2. danpinkerton says:

    My objection — and the objection of a number of my fellow playwrights — is that this is a gigantic waste of time and money, and a terribly uncreative project. First, as Michelle Hensley has shown, you can take unadulterated Shakespeare to people with little education and no experience with live theatre and completely enthrall them. So the “translations” are not needed. Second, Rauch has said these “translations” may never be staged. So why commission them? Third, the PR said that the writers would NOT be allowed to inject their own personalities into the “translations.” How utterly boring! Why not commission Aditi Kapur, Alison Moore, Octavio Solis, and all these great playwrights to write modern adaptations — plays that start with the issues, characters, or plots of a given play and then jump off into whatever universe the writer wants to take it to? I would be very excited to hear about a new series of plays that would be in a dialogue with their original Shakespearian counterparts. But this project . . . feh.

  3. Dave Hitz says:

    You captured the intent of our project so perfectly.

    My favorite thought was this: “What if the doomsayers are right, and every one of these plays is as bad as the worst No Fear? Well, so what?”

    Every translation is a new work of art. If we are lucky, some of our translators may create art worthy of respect. I don’t expect us to replace Shakespeare or to surpass him. I do expect to learn something and go back to Shakespeare’s original words with new eyes.

    Thank you!

  4. Yeah, I agree with your sentiments expressed in the final paragraph.As for “translations,” please, I know we all want to bring down the Master, but…the “great” playwrights assigned to “translate” that Master” are, despite our cries to the contrary, students of his work. An audience that does’t understand–or care to–the meanings of the language as used then, should, perhaps, see another play.

  5. Larry says:

    Those of us who want to see Shakespeare performed in the original texts are not snobs or hysterics or precious keepers of some mythical sacred flame. We are instead intoxicated with the beauty and grandeur of his language, and we want to hear his actual words unmediated by other hands.

    I’m 67 now and have seen and read Shakespeare for 50 years, but it’s been only recently that this fad of “translating” Shakespeare has started. I can go back to the Richard Burton Hamlet from 1964, the Polanski Macbeth, or any of the BBC telecasts, and while there are some cuts, none of the retained language is altered. Now I know Gertrude (Bitter, that is, not Shakespeare’s queen) feels the word “translation” is itself causing unnecessary difficulties, but that’s exactly the word Mr. Hitz uses in his reply above, and exactly what one seems to get in the excerpts from Timon of Athens I’ve seen. Moreover, even though “do no harm” is supposedly the watchword, the Cavandar translation was in fact approved for production and does its share of harm, thinking for example that something as simple as “Do’t in your parents’ eyes” must be rendered “And do it while your parents watch,” and offering such howlers as “You can bet your portfolio they won’t forget me again.”

    BG tells us, “While some of the ‘translated’ lines above are stilted and clunky, I’m most concerned with accuracy and clarity.” But clarity is only part of the picture, and the stilted and clunky tin-ear rephrasings do away with the metaphor, cadence, music, and rhythm that make Shakespeare a great poet too. As Dan Pinkerton points out in his excellent post above, “you can take unadulterated Shakespeare to people with little education and no experience with live theatre and completely enthrall them.” Of course! and this statement by G. Wilson Knight, which Camille Paglia considers the “most brilliant thing ever said about Shakespeare’s plays,” tells us exactly why: “In such poetry we are aware less of any surface than of a turbulent power, a heave and swell, from deeps beyond verbal definition; and, as the thing progresses, a gathering of power, a ninth wave of passion, an increase in tempo and intensity.” As Paglia continues, stressing the non-verbal power of Shakespeare’s language: “It is the wave-motion within Shakespearean speech which transfixes the audience even when we don’t understand a word of it.” Remember that next time you bet your portfolio.

    If the new Timon is the approved prototype, who’s to say what other mayhem is to ensue? I have no idea if this approach will draw new audiences, and I’m highly skeptical of Mr. Hitz’s claim that these same audiences will then want to confront the original. Why on earth would they, when they know they can always find a crib? Moreover, every production that translates Shakespeare also crowds out one that could use his own language. But one thing you can be sure of: a lot of people who know and love Shakespeare for who is he are going to be royally pissed off by these rewritings. Then again, we of course don’t matter because we’re just purists, poseurs, and hysterics.

    Rewritings are already seeping into other productions, and the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet, broadcast in movie theaters from London, shows some of the problems with the approach. This staging was a cumberbotch for many reasons, but let’s just stay with a couple of the rewordings. For example Laertes’ “He may not, as unvalued persons do, / Carve for himself” became “choose for himself,” clarifying nothing but overwriting the metaphor with a flat and colorless verb. “Would drink up eisel?” became “Would drink up poison?” So what if “eisel” means “vinegar.” But what’s the point of changing a word that flies by in half a second and whose import is obvious enough in context, to a modern word that is totally unrelated in meaning?

    On the other hand, the approach used was inconsistent, as it was impossible to understand why other difficult words were allowed to survive. While “hugger-mugger” was changed to something I can’t recall, “see thou character” (where “character” is a verb meaning “inscribe”) was saved, as were the Nemean lion, “make Ossa like a wart,” “thunders in the index,” and “may color / Your loneliness,” although the sense of “color” as “justify” is long obsolete.

    Dealing with Shakespeare in the original takes some adjustment, but people have been doing so for generations. Maybe it takes a great teacher, or a great production, or just a little effort. The worst thing, I think, is to slog through the text line-by-line while fussing over all those pesky little notes, thus losing the “turbulent power, the increase in tempo and intensity” that make the greatest of the plays such incredible experiences. I remember at 15 taking down Henry IV/1 from the shelf and giving up after a few pages. But then a year or two later I was taken to a performance of Lear, the 1965 Stratford CT version with Morris Carnovsky and Ruby Dee, and the experience was so overwhelming that I stayed up all night reading the play again, and by age 18 I had read almost all of Shakespeare. Without notes.

    But if the language is still a concern, the best way I’ve seen of handling it was taken by a recent community college production of As You Like It, which kept all of Shakespeare’s words but included a glossary in the program of the most significant problem spots. No muss, no fuss, no commissions, no expense, no long list of playwrights and dramaturgs, no PR, no position papers, no 10-page document of instructions. Them as wanted to could consult the glossary, and them as didn’t just watched the play, which was cut to a 90-minute but lively, deft production that kept the action moving, understood the characters and their relationships, and set a comic tone that the audience seemed thoroughly to enjoy, without a syllable of the retained text having been changed. This is an excellent approach for small theaters, while larger ones might consider using supertitles such as are found in most opera houses today, and video releases can easily offer optional subtitles.

    Dan Pinkerton also answers very well BG’s attempt to justify the OSF project in that it will give work to numerous well-known writers and dramaturgs. Admirable in itself, for sure. I don’t know all the names, but Taylor Mac for example, playing the title role in Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan two years ago, gave one of my greatest theatrical experiences ever. But as Dan reminds us, not only do these new OSF versions offer no room for creativity, but we don’t know if they’ll even be staged, so what’s the point? BG too admits she’d “be FAR more excited by full adaptations from these writers,” and so would I. Besides West Side Story, The Lion King, and Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Ran, one could add Sherwood Hu’s marvelous Prince of the Himalayas, which transfers Hamlet to medieval Tibet and completely alters the Hamlet-Claudius relationship, or for that matter Cassavetes’s Tempest, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, Rodgers’ and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse, the two great Shakespeare operas by Verdi, and many more. These works take Shakespeare as a basis and create something independent and original; however, that’s not what we’re getting.

    But the ultimate failure of the rewriters’ approach is the apparent assumption that Shakespeare will suddenly become miraculously clear if we just treat his texts as verbal puzzles to be solved. Not so: the real difficulties with Shakespeare are conceptual, in the complexities of responses we are expected to bring to his characters and situations. Even some of Shakespeare’s greatest villains (Iago, Edmund, Shylock, Goneril) have traits that command respect, and some of his most admirable people (Hamlet, Othello, Cordelia, Prospero) have severe shortcomings. The real questions that make the plays endlessly fascinating – is Shylock a victim or a villain? what is Iago’s motivation? why doesn’t Hamlet act sooner? what is The Tempest saying about colonialism? is Henry a brutal warmonger or “the mirror of all Christian kings?” – are not to be solved by “translation,” if indeed they can be solved at all. That is the real challenge of Shakespeare, not some fine points of evolving language.

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