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Spelunking with Shakespeare


The most anyone can hope for is to be wrong about Shakespeare in a new way.—T. S. Eliot

My name is Lue. And when it comes to Shakespeare, I’m afraid I might be just a little bit tone-deaf.

And after working at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for more than twenty years, I am grateful that there isn’t a competency test because I would not have had the terrific career I have had. But there is much relief in finally confessing my dirty little secret.

I am also a frustrated theatergoer. Because I know what I am missing: I have been in the rehearsal room and participated in the lengthy discussions that take place about what is being said; I have been involved in preparing texts which includes annotating; I have adapted two of the plays for small casts; I have written numerous articles for our publications and delivered as many lectures to our patrons. So of course I get the gist. It’s that I want more. I can hear it at 16 rpms, but not often at the zippy 78 speed that the language is designed to run. It can be as foreign to me sometimes as, well, a foreign language.

And oh boy, how I envy those of you who can hear it! My frustration (and confession) has led me to embark on a large-scale project to examine the language in Shakespeare. Thanks to the generosity of Dave Hitz, a longtime OSF patron, OSF is launching a new program called Play on! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare.

The translation is not to be a paraphrase, nor is it a literal explanation of what’s going on. The translations are not meant to be replacements of the originals. Our mission with this project is to learn a ton about the plays and to create performable companion pieces. They are new plays in that way.

We negotiated a five-play commission package over a four-year period. The commissions would range from a kind of literal to adaptations. I sought out Kenneth Cavander, who did the translation for The Trojan Women that we produced years ago. It was muscular and poetic and darkly contemporary. He seemed able to capture the spirit of the original and it was highly accessible for both actors and audiences. But what do I know, I don’t know ancient Greek either.

So I pitched the idea about translating a Shakespeare play into contemporary modern English to Kenneth. I knew the puzzle part of the assignment would intrigue that amazing brain of his, and so he agreed to take this on. And he did exactly as I hoped he would: he approached it as a translation. The idea I presented to him is that this is a kind of photo-negative of contemporary practice: instead of updating the historical period and retaining the Elizabethan language, the time period stays at 1600 and it’s the language that is updated.

He began by testing different kinds of language use in different genres—scenes in iambic pentameter, soliloquys, big group scenes, comedic scenes, scenes with lots of rhetoric and so forth. At the end of this experimental period, some general rules emerged:

First, do no harm. There is no word for the kind of subtle and rigorous examination of language that I am interested in. “Translation” is as close as I can find. There is plenty of the language that doesn’t need translating. And there is some that does. I expect the equation of this will vary vastly from play to play.

Second, go line by line. No editing, no cutting, no fixing, no personal politics, no regionalisms. The story and characters and time period stay the same.

Third, and most important, the language has to retain the same kind of rigor and pressure as the original. Which means it still has to have rhyme, meter, rhetoric, image, metaphor, character, action, and theme. Shakespeare’s astonishingly compressed language must be respected.

The translation is not to be a paraphrase, nor is it a literal explanation of what’s going on. The translations are not meant to be replacements of the originals. Our mission with this project is to learn a ton about the plays and to create performable companion pieces. They are new plays in that way.

After a series of discussions about which play to choose, we landed on Timon of Athens. For the most obvious reason: it isn’t a play that carries a lot of expectations. And there is some textual evidence that the play was co-authored with Thomas Middleton. Current Shakespearean scholarship is looking more into the collaborative nature of playwriting in late sixteenth century England. The idea of being in collaboration with Shakespeare has become a useful way to look at this project.

In April 2014, Dave and I flew to Montgomery, Alabama, to see a production of Kenneth’s Timon at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. It was incredibly well-received by critics and audiences. (I want to give a shout-out to Geoffrey Sherman, the artistic director, for producing and directing the production.) Its success was a revelation to me.

So, again with the support of Dave Hitz, we are commissioning 36 writers to “translate” 39 plays over three years. In additon, each play will receive dramaturgical support, along with funds to cover the costs of a reading and a four-day workshop.

There will be a dramatist’s perspective in the center of these plays for the first time in 400 years.

There are three things about this project that excite me:

First, understanding. Not only for those for whom English is a second language, but for those of us who want to understand more of the Shakespeare we hear.

Second, I wanted as wide and deep a “bench” as possible, and so I have committed to a pool of writers that is 51 percent women and 51 percent writers of color. There is a different reason for each writer chosen: some of the writers have theatre translation and/or adaptation experience; some of the writers are directors and actors; and some of them are writers that I wanted to get to know better. All of them have a deep relationship with language and an interesting connection with Shakespeare.

(For a listing of the writers and the dramaturgs attached to each play, please go to our website at www.osfashland.org)

Third, there will be a dramatist’s perspective in the center of these plays for the first time in 400 years. Typically, we rely on information about the plays from actors, directors, dramaturgs, designers, and scholars. I’m asking the writers to go into the plays (I keep joking about giving them coal miners’ hats) and see what they discover about how the plays work from within their structure. Compressing the length of the project to three years also was strategic. I just wanted a snapshot of “now,” how we think about Shakespeare now.

This is not the first time this has been done. It may be the first large-scale project involving so many dramatists and other theatre artists. We already adapt Shakespeare every time we produce the plays. And by that, I mean that we examine different versions (quarto versus folio), we edit scenes or move them around, we change words that have changed meaning over time, and we adjust language to fit casting choices and production concepts. (In fact, it’s a rare production of a Shakespeare play with everything intact.) But I’m curious to see what we learn about the language and how the plays work if we hold all the other variables in place.

I’m most often asked what will be done with these translations after they are completed. During the three-years of the program, I hope that they engender a deep dialogue about language in the theater. We also hope that they will be used as companion pieces to Shakespeare’s original texts. Just another version, in a way. Ultimately, we’d love to see them produced and OSF has a deep interest in facilitating that. I know of three other theatres that are already in conversation with playwrights to produce their translations. It will be interesting to have one or more of these translations produced at OSF at the same time we have committed to producing the entire canon in the original versions over this current decade.

I am aware that this might generate some, um, controversy, and I appreciate HowlRound giving me the opportunity to describe the project. I’m looking forward to any feedback here, in the comments, or at [email protected]

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Dear Lue,

Could you talk a little more about your choice of the term "translate"? Reading between the lines a bit, and noting your use of scare quotes, you seem to be somewhat ambivalent about using it--and for good reason. I find the idea that Shakespeare's language "needs translation" to be highly problematic. Even if it is just "some" of his language, as you say, that "needs translation."

The plain sense definition of "translate" is: re-expressing the sense of words that are in another language. But Shakespeare did not write in another language. He wrote in English. Which is not to say that his language is easy to understand. Far from it. Some of his language is difficult to understand because he uses words that have changed meaning or are not in use today. But let's be honest with ourselves: his use of archaic English here and there is not why we find Shakespeare inaccessible and hard to follow. Shakespeare's language is tough for all of us primarily because it is heightened language--that is, it is poetry. But poetry written in English does not need "translating" to be fully understood and experienced. Would we ever dream of "translating" Dickinson or Wordsworth? Changing poetry--thereby losing the connections between rhythm, sound, and sense--likely makes its full comprehension more difficult, while diminishing its power. By using of the word "translate," scare quotes and all, it feels as though you are suggesting to us--and, more problematically, to the young people you seem to be targeting with this work--that Shakespeare and his glorious poetry is comparable to a "foreign language." And that makes me very queasy. And sad.

Sincerely, Peter Richards

I am not Lue, but I am one of her partners on this project. We have struggled with the word “translate.” So far, though, we have not found a better one. Let me share some thoughts.

The word “translate” links to a tradition of wisdom that we want to tap. People regularly translate and perform plays from great authors like Sophocles, Moliere, and Chekhov. They face the same questions that we have with our Shakespeare project. How should a translation deal with verse? How should a translation deal with cultural references that a modern audience is unlikely to understand? These are hard problems, and good translators regularly confront them and solve them. Our experiment is to apply these same skills and methods to Shakespeare. That’s why we’ve chosen so many playwrights and poets who also have experience doing foreign-language translations.

It is weird to think of translating from English to English. On the other hand, we can certainly admit that Shakespeare’s 16th Century English is not identical to today’s 21st Century English. In some ways, our project is easier than translating from French because many phrases need no translation at all. In other ways, it is harder and more delicate precisely because Shakespeare is English. Will the translator of Hamlet dare change “To be or not to be?” (Perhaps she will! One never knows what an artist will do, and we have hired good ones. Art is an experiment. Good art often provokes.)

People worry that our translations will hurt the original somehow. I think Shakespeare is stronger than that. I don’t expect our translations to damage Shakespeare’s original words any more than West Side Story has. If they are bad, they will soon be forgotten. If we are lucky, we may create some new works of art worthy of respect. I don’t expect us to replace Shakespeare or surpass him. I do expect to learn something and go back to Shakespeare’s original words with new eyes.

Mr. Hitz,

Five years ago I began a translation of "Macbeth". I worked page by page as I read the play for the first time. It took a lot of experimentation to arrive at a proper method and style. After fully formatting it into a classroom-ready text I posted the pdf at a website called TeachersPayTeachers.

In July 2014 I sent sample pages to 91 theater companies across America, including Oregon Shakespeare Festival. A few responses were tepidly positive, some were downright hostile.

Last May I got an encouraging response from Ms. Douthit. I sent in the complete book. As you can now see, the translation project has decided to ignore my work. This is bizarre, since only one other person on the list (Kenneth Cavander) has done a full, meticulous translation of a Shakespeare play. Plus, my translation is completely ready for publication, and this has been mentioned as a goal of the project.

I don't think I'll ever find out why I was snubbed. This last week has been quite soul-crushing.

Anyway, I thought you might like to see a full translation of a Shakespeare play that someone did just because they felt like. My reasons for doing so are identical to yours. You have elucidated the problem perfectly.

I am almost finished with "Romeo and Juliet". If you have friends at any other companies that are interested in staging translations please let me know.

Conrad Spoke

Ancient Greek or foreign languages are not early modern english. He's essentially tasking the playwrights to paraphrase Shakespeare, which the No Fear books and several films have done to no discernible betterment. The result of 39 contemporary (American)? playwrights will be as discordant as if Edward de Vere had written the works. Way to go Ashland. Two memes in one. Authorship one side, Early Modern linguistic attrition the other. Spend the money better and promote the hell out of these playwrights' existing plays. (can anyone name one)? Promote modern 21stC theatre. Let Shakespeare be that 16th/17thC playwright we keep returning to. If you don't understand him read him and read him again. The play is the thing because the words were his thing. Lou Douthit you're riding a bandwagon called Shakespeare and not promoting playwriting and Shakespeare at all. Come on admit you're an Oxfordian too. Swiss German Thomas Platter who saw Julius Caesar in 1599 didn't comment on how little he understood. You Lou are being precious about Shakespeare demanding full comprehension. Your first point is condescending. Your second is misplaced Political Correctness. Your third is complete rubbish. Snapshot of NOW?! Who's now are you talking about? Yours?

Hi William, i appreciate your point of view. And perhaps i wasn't clear with mine. I am surrounded by some of the greatest shakespearean actors and directors and dramaturgs. And i have grown curious about the space between the words coming at me in production and my understanding of them. And so i wonder about if the 400 year gap has a little bit something to that. I don't want everything explained to me. I want to lean in and take great joy in solving the puzzle of the language in the moment of hearing it in production. But i believe that there are moments in the plays that an Elizabethan audience understand in the moment where i am struggling because of a change in how we receive oral communication and because of how we speak now. That's the tiny lens that i am asking playwrights to investigate.

I thought it would be interesting to take on all the plays at once -- examine every line -- and see what new things we might discover. I also wanted it in a compressed time frame, because language and our receptions seem to be changing more rapidly.

I dont know what the outcome will be with this experiment. But in the 4 examples that we have so far, we have learned something new about each of these plays. We plan on documenting the process as we go along, and as we get more such information, we will figure out how to share it with everyone.

Thanks for the opportunity to share a bit more context.

Play on!

Hi Lue,
Now i feel like a heel for being so forceful. You sound like a reasonable guy and your bottom line is a deep respect for the language. The problem (imho though not so humbly expressed) is that your brief throws a wide beam for such a narrow scope of your tiny lens. It divides the camps (to update the language or not). The 400 year gap has created a multi-faceted, multi-layered set of spaces. The language being the most central. I live in NL and have seen the same play done with translations using no words older than the 17thC and those wholly inclining to a more modern idiom. I fear your results will be no better. i.e. neither was and yet was Shakespeare. A question I find more relevant btw. That they will be interesting i have no doubt. That they will improve on the original I doubt. Looking forward to seeing your results. And keep contextualising. Play on backatcha!

Wonder how long it too them to come up with this spurious take on this misguided project? Now if OSF shares all the royalties they will be getting from theaters, schools and universities that produced these "translations" then that might be a nice gesture. Of course, you can buy the No Fear Shakespeare books, they've been "translating: Willy's plays into modern language for years.

Hi, John. I appreciate the point about outcome. For starters, these plays are the property of the playwrights. To that end, when they are produced they will be subject to the same kind of royalty negotiation as with any copyrighted material. OSF has no subsidiary rights to them. All we are doing is generating 39 base texts from which adaptations and side by side comparisons can be shared. Only with permission of the writers, of course.

My idea to commission playwrights is because i am interested to see what that experience and instinct might teach us about the plays. Which i think is going to be different than the useful work of other such investigations. Thanks for your interest. Play on!

Lue, thanks so much for the window into this initiative. My relationship with Shakespeare has always been like that of a younger sibling. I love, admire, look up to him, but I also think he takes up way too much of the backseat. This alone would make me cheer your PlayOn experiment. But beyond that, there are so many reasons to embrace it. First, Shakespeare himself was a translator, finding/inventing new language -- unearthing a new poetry of his time -- for the plays of Seneca and others. Second, we have extensive evidence in the world of music that masterpieces can beget masterpieces without harming the original or diminishing the offspring: where would we be if the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Joan Baez, Odetta, Fairport Convention, Bruce Springsteen, Buffy Saint-Marie, Lauryn Hill, U2, etc. didn't translate foundational folk, blues, and soul music for their audiences? Some adjusted just two or three words, others whole verses, but never were Woody Guthrie, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, the Child Ballads, etc. ever harmed by the endeavor. Listen to Ani Difranco's spin on Guthrie's "Which Side Are You On" or Tori Amos' version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and tell me why can't the Theatre take on the same enterprise of investigation, tribute, rediscovery, dialogue? Third, systemic institutional racism and gender bias must be tackled on all fronts in the American Theatre. In terms of opportunities. In terms of perspectives. The Kilroys raise attention, spur action with regard to the gender inequalities of new work, but nationally that is only a portion of the problem. The white male dominance of the copy written canon, of literary adaptation, of the revenue-generating bio-musicals throughout the regional programming landscape are key elements to the tilted scale. They join with a 20th Century conception of Shakespeare that is inherently ivory tower and make for a headwind against parity, diversity, and pluralism that is mighty difficult to combat. PlayOn takes this head on. Like I said, I think Big Willy deserves some kicks to the knees under the dinner table and our parents need to stop treating him like he walks on water, but my joy in OSF's announcement comes not from Bard-antagonism. Rather I herald what is possible when our great texts -- be they theatrical, religious, political -- live with us in motion, awake and alert. Harm may occur. So may harmony. So may a revelation.

Sincerely, and with all due respect to your good intentions, if the first rule is "do no harm," then the best way to accomplish that is leave the scripts alone. There is nothing wrong with them. There is something wrong with us; let's work to fix that instead. Thanks for listening.

I have great empathy for that sentiment, which may not seem immediately obvious given what we've just set up. My experience on preparing Shakespeare texts has been that we do a lot of editing -- we cut scenes, we cut gnarly bits, we re-arrange scenes, we conflate characters, and we emend according to time and place that each production is set. This is really fun work. And made anew each time out. What i'm asking the writers to do is to look at the whole play first before that. In some ways, this is like creative annotation work. I believe that these amazing writers will give us quite a few new insights to these plays. Thanks for your interest

When Shakespeare was originally performed , it was mass entertainment . Yes , in some cases the patron was a royal, but they were astute enough to understand the value of entertainment for all. As Lue (who is female, William Sutton, in addition to being one of the finest dramaturgs I know) is saying that it should be available to the masses again, rather than being something you dread reading in 10th grade and never go back to again. I don't know if this experiment will prove successful, or even what a measure of success would be - but if you go to the website Lue mentioned and look at the teams - there are many fantastic writers and dramaturgs working on the project . Personally , Taylor Mac taking on Titus Andronicus is a pairing I'm very excited to see . Also, these are some of the most rigorous scholars and keepers of the Shakespearean flame in America . By now , they should have earned the social and cultural capital to try this experiment .

Finally, if we don' t make Shakespeare accessible to a younger generation, if we don't unpack 'something as crass as the bawdy sexuality that runs rampant through the works, "I have bought the mountain of a love but not yet possessed it", anyone?, if we do not make the words resonate for today's audience as much as they did in Shakespeare's time, we will not only lose the Shakespeare you love due to a lack of interest by audiences 20 years from now , but those audiences will lose the gifts that Shakespeare , not just in his words but in his social and political commentary, provided us . I submit to you that making Shakespeare accessible to new audiences damages the integrity of Shakespeare exactly as much as making a building accessible to people who could not previously enter damages the integrity of the building. Thanks for listening .