Shakespeare gets modern

Ambitious project aiming to translate Shakespeare's language into modern English has divided critics and arts practitioners

An undated handout photo of an Orlando Shakespeare Theatre performance of The Adventures Of Pericles, a production of Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince Of Tyre with a modern language translation by playwright Ellen McLaughlin.
An undated handout photo of an Orlando Shakespeare Theatre performance of The Adventures Of Pericles, a production of Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince Of Tyre with a modern language translation by playwright Ellen McLaughlin.PHOTO: NYTIMES

ASHLAND (OREGON) • Since 1935, this mountain town has been home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, whose guiding spirit is present not just on stage, but also in the names of businesses such as Oberon's Tavern and the All's Well Herb and Vitamin Shop.

So it was perhaps fitting that on a recent Sunday morning, actors were in front of a rapt audience in a small lecture hall, reading from the local equivalent of scripture: the plays of the man from Stratford- upon-Avon. Or were they?

Yes, there were passages from The Tempest, Pericles and Henry VI, Part 1, spoken much as they might be from the stage of this festival's outdoor Elizabethan theatre across the street.

But the rest were the parallel versions resulting from Play On!, an ambitious - and controversial - three- year project that asks 36 diverse playwrights to translate Shakespeare's often knotty language, line by line, into "contemporary modern English".

"I was very sceptical when they announced this project," said Mr Jim Wolf-Pizor, one of the curious local residents who had turned out to see just how far the project was straying from the True Word. "We're taught that Shakespeare is a sacred thing, with the iambic pentameter and all that stuff. But they really kept it all in there."

Shakespeare regularly undergoes shape-shifting in today's theatre, whether it is transporting the plays into new settings (the festival's current Twelfth Night is set in a Golden Age Hollywood movie studio) or freely recasting them in contemporary vernacular, as in the hip-hop "add-rap-tations" by the Q Brothers.

But among many Shakespeareans, the announcement last year that one of the leading theatre companies in the United States was asking writers to reconsider the entire canon, line by line, was greeted like a potential extinction-level event.

Columbia University scholar James Shapiro, writing in The New York Times, said it set a "disturbing precedent" and threatened to gut "the only thing Shakespearean about his plays": the language. One post on a Shakespeare e-mail list compared the project with "the current temple-smashers of the Middle East".

Temple-smashing was not on the agenda when nine participating playwrights, and 15 dramaturges, gathered here last month to compare notes on what some jokingly called a career-ending assignment.

"I always thought the reason Shakespeare's plays are good is because they are by Shakespeare," said Ellen McLaughlin, a New York- based playwright whose translation of Pericles, one of the first completed, was presented last winter at Orlando Shakespeare Theatre.

"Failure," she said of the project, "is absolutely built into it."

But many in the group - more than half of the playwrights are minorities and more than half are women - expressed impatience with what they saw as the elitism of the criticism, as well as hope the translations might help reach younger and more diverse audiences, along with those that find Shakespeare intimidating.

"The challenge of trying to understand the language is part of the experience you want," said Marcus Gardley, who is translating King Lear. "There could be more of a bridge to what Shakespeare is saying."

Building that bridge, of course, is what any production of Shakespeare tries to do, through deeply considered acting, judicious use of props and, yes, changes to the language.

Mr Bill Rauch, the festival's artistic director, said Play On! - while it requires the translators to weigh the understandability of every line - was just an "amplification and extension" of the kinds of cuts, restructuring and other textual tweaks that happen all the time.

"The idea that there is some sacred text an audience is receiving is a fallacy," he said. "Every production we do here is an adaptation in some way."

While he hoped to produce at least one of the Play On! translations at some point, he said, the festival - which has announced its commitment to performing the entire Shakespeare canon in the original language over the next decade - was hardly throwing Shakespeare's English out the window.

"You can't go in with the illusion that you're improving Shakespeare," he said of the project. "But I do think these translations can help shed light on the originals."

There were frequent invocations of the project's first rule - "Do no harm" - and debates about whether to keep "thees" and "thous" and whether it was kosher to include more rhymed couplets.

The project forbids inserting "personal politics" or "fixing" structural or other problems. But for some, the task of translation led to the most fraught questions posed by the plays.

Mfoniso Udofia, who is translating Othello, recalled how the two dramaturges she is working with, Ayanna Thompson and Alex Barron, pressed her on why her first draft left the word "Moor" untouched.

"Moor is a big, big word," said Udofia, part of whose nine-play cycle about a Nigerian-American family will be produced next spring at New York Theatre Workshop. "I'm the product of a hyper-racialised time. I don't know any big, big words that do what Moor does."

Even with some less familiar, less obviously charged plays, the translation process uncovered some unexploded mines.

McLaughlin recalled a workshop reading of her translation of Pericles in Ashland last year by actors appearing in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production, which used the original Shakespeare.

Half the actors were open to the idea of translation, she said, while the other half thought it was horrible. One actor baulked when he came to the moment when his character announces the need to "ravish" - or, as McLaughlin's modern English had it, "rape" - a virtuous woman imprisoned in a brothel. "Afterwards he said, 'It just seems so ugly,'" she recalled. "I said, 'What was it about what you were doing that wasn't ugly, except the language, at least as we understand it today?'"

How much of a market there will be for the translations when they are completed in 2018, and just how theatregoers and critics will weigh the balance between beauty and comprehension, remain to be seen. The audience at the demonstration seemed to greet the translated scenes (read immediately after the originals) with more laughter and murmurs of response, but not all early notices have been kind.

Douglas Langworthy, translator of Henry VI, had decided to screen out criticism of the project and concentrate on the task.

"I'm lucky there aren't any quotable quotes in these plays, except 'The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers,'" he said. "And of course, that's modern English. It's safe, for now."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2016, with the headline 'Shakespeare gets modern'. Print Edition | Subscribe