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.