Translating the Bard

What Does a Modern Shakespeare Look Like?

Lue Morgan Douthit, longtime director of literary development at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), commissioned a translation of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens into contemporary modern English in the fall of 2015, beginning OSF’s Play On! project. With the Bard still continuously the most-produced playwright in America, one purpose of the project was to ask why so many companies produce Shakespeare year after year after year. “What are we saying when we say, Here’s this writer who’s ‘universal’?” Douthit asks. “Because some of these plays are hugely problematic. Are we just saying, Well, it’s a reflection of that time and, gee, we’re not that bad now? We’re re-upping every year, and what are we re-upping?”

Over the course of three-plus years, Play On! evolved from an OSF program to the freestanding nonprofit organization Play On Shakespeare, which Douthit now runs as executive director. In its giant experiment, the project commissioned thirty-six playwrights to translate the entire corpus of Shakespeare into contemporary modern English, hewing faithfully to the plot, characters, and structure of the originals without sacrificing their heightened language, metaphoric richness, or verse. As part of the commission, each piece received a series of developmental workshops, leading up to a June 2019 festival that presented staged readings of all thirty-nine translated plays, in chronological order.

One could argue there’s nothing particularly radical about this approach to the Bard—it’s not like there’s a definitive, authoritative version of most of the plays. Some of them appear to be missing chunks of text anyway, and an uncut script is almost never produced. Not to mention that, for the first several hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, his language was frequently deemed dusty and outdated, so it was adjusted for audience sensibilities. Doing so is much rarer in our era—setting, context, and casting are more likely to be imagined afresh than the words.

The project’s most radical aspect may be in the writers selected: one of Douthit’s main commitments, beyond strict respect for the original text, was that the writers be at least 51 percent women and 51 percent artists of color.

woman in dramatic lighting.

Jessica Boone in Prague Shakespeare Company's production of Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare, translated by Lillian Groag. Presented in association with the Czech National Theatre. Photo by Kaja Curtis.

To Bury Shakespeare, or to Praise Him?

Responses to the project from many corners have been skeptical, to say the least. Douthit notes that she’d predicted a certain amount of outrage at the audacity of rewriting Shakespeare, but not that people would be so quick to judge without reading or seeing a word of any of the pieces. Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro was one of the most vehement naysayers, even appearing on a radio program with playwright Tim Slover, Play On’s translator of The Two Noble Kinsmen, to criticize Slover’s work. For Shapiro, “the only thing Shakespearean about [Shakespeare’s] plays is the language,” and the appropriate approach to increase audience comprehension of that language is not to strip it away, but to better train actors and directors to fully understand it.

Ellen McLaughlin, who translated Pericles and also directed Hamlet in the culminating festival, thinks the academic community is rushing in on a false crusade to defend an artist who does not need protection from the likes of herself or any other modern writer. “Nothing I do is going to hurt Shakespeare,” she says. “I think some of [the reaction] is racism and sexism—[like,] ‘What are you doing messing up my writer and changing the way he’s always been done?’”

The project’s most radical aspect may be in the writers selected.

As a dramaturg and theatre critic, I started my own investigation into Play On, curious to see how this assortment of playwrights (especially those whose contemporary work I know and love) interacted with the Bard’s texts, and how the resulting translations worked. But, as someone drawn to inventive new playwriting, I was also a little concerned that cloaking Shakespeare in modern English and pairing him with a diverse array of contemporary American writers might kick the “what are we really saying” question downstream and work as a machine to entrench Shakespeare and his work further. I feared that if Shakespeare were made easier and more comprehensible for audiences, he would get more air and more space in already limited season budgets, where there are already scant opportunities for new work that might reach new audiences and speak trenchantly to our present moment. And that while meeting the challenge of rewriting Shakespeare’s inimitable words, these gifted playwrights would have their hands tied by being committed to retaining every detail of stories and characters that might not have much relevance to a modern audience beyond the beauty of their language, and to the mores and sometimes retrograde attitudes of four-hundred-year-old texts without the freedom to interrogate their ideas.

In reading many of the scripts and talking to a cross-section of the playwrights, I did find some of those concerns echoed. Caridad Svich, who translated Henry VIII and has also worked as an intralingual translator of Spanish Golden Age plays, notes that focusing reverence and attention on this single, dominant English-language playwright tends to reinforce colonialist ideas around language and culture, privileging one very specific historical tradition. “I would also say that Lope de Vega is universal,” she says, “but those plays aren’t being done.”

two actors in a staged reading.

Actors Chinaza Uche and Mark Bedard in a staged reading of Othello by William Shakespeare, translated by Mfoniso Udofia, at the 2019 Play On Festival. Photo by Matthew Hagemeier.

On the other hand, Aditi Brennan Kapil, translator of Measure for Measure, feels that the way we tend to place Shakespeare on a pedestal is itself inauthentic, and that reinterpreting him in this way puts him in his proper place: adjacent to and in conversation with contemporary texts. “The idea that we should be prohibited from experiencing that to put him in a museum feels rude and very elitist,” Kapil says. “I don’t think the act of translating him is so much vesting him with more importance—it’s vesting him with the right kind of importance alongside the other version that has graced our stages [for all these years].” Kapil also felt a strong sense of ownership over her translation; the play belongs to her now, as well as to Shakespeare.

The Play’s the Thing

While I found doubts about the ideological ramifications of the Play On project, I also found, in almost every writer I spoke to, a new appreciation for the intrinsic elegance of Shakespeare’s craft: in building dramatic structure and purpose, in reusing and adapting old stories. As Slover says, “I think the translation project revealed and highlighted the bones of Shakespeare, the structure that is also glorious.”

McLaughlin used the metaphor of window cleaning: in clearing away twisted syntax and archaic language, the playwrights laid bare for the audience the complex relationships and societal structures being portrayed. This layer of transparency helps actors, too, which in turn aids audience comprehension. Elise Thoron intentionally cast the developmental readings of her translation of Merchant of Venice with an ensemble that included a wide range of backgrounds and experiences with Shakespeare. One performer was a spoken-word artist who had always felt “Shakespeare was not for him and his people.” But, with the translation, he felt like it was “an open door that had not been open to him in the past.” McLaughlin also notes that the actors “no longer have to work to make clear the things that would have been clear to a Shakespearean audience.” She noticed, especially when directing the staged reading of Lisa Peterson’s Hamlet translation, that “there was a kind of clarity about what the actors were doing because they no longer had to muscle through really difficult passages to make them clear to the audience.”

Perhaps most interesting is that almost all of the playwrights identified a major underlying theme across Shakespeare’s work: the use and abuse of power. That topic came up over and over again in my conversations, and can also be seen in the translation scripts, in the comedies as much as the histories or the tragedies. Part of the ability to zero in on a specific theme may simply come from the enhanced clarity. But I also think the playwrights’ intensified sensitivity to the power dynamics of the plays is aided by their distance from them, by being an “other” to the play’s originating point of view. You can see, in many of the translations, the writers struggling with their inability to intervene or take a stand on thorny issues about power, autonomy, prejudice, and politics—which may enrage any modern writer, especially one who’s had to grapple with such issues in their own life and work. As Brighde Mullins, translator of King John, concludes, “In the end we just had to let the difficult revelation stand and not judge the attitudes or the time. We had to let it stand in its own painful reality.”

You can see, in many of the translations, the writers struggling with their inability to intervene or take a stand on thorny issues about power, autonomy, prejudice, and politics.

You Know Not Gold’s Effect

The gender dynamics in Taming of the Shrew, translated by Amy Freed, feel perhaps even sourer in contemporary language. At the same time, I’ve never been as conscious of the way the female characters are bought and sold, in explicitly financial terms, with dollar amounts attached. Similarly, Svich describes Henry VIII using that idea: “It’s a transactional play on every level including how the women were treated. This actually feels really contemporary in that sense; the audience understands this kind of world.”

In Merchant of Venice, too, the way in which the play’s world is motivated by financial exchange is clearer than I’ve ever experienced it—and so is the nasty, brutish nature of almost all of the characters and the world in which they live. “The audience feels that they’re listening to Shakespeare but their brain is going at the speed of the text in terms of comprehension,” says Thoron. “You can actually understand and find how brutal and trenchant and contemporary the play is about race and prejudice and wellsprings of that.”

two actors performing in a staged reading

2019 Play On Festival. Photo by Matthew Hagemeier.

Outside the financial aspect, though, Merchant is a play whose engagement with race and prejudice actually still reads pretty clearly to modern ears; the epithet “Jew,” used as a vicious insult, is sadly still very much with us today.

Some of the other plays showed more precisely the way in which that “clean window” allows an understanding of the operations of power and the axes of gender and race that’s both subtler and more brutal. In Othello, it’s hard for us to know how to take the word “Moor,” something that to modern ears describes mainly an architectural style. The word could be as innocuous as “Frenchman,” identifying a foreigner without aspersions, or it could be a racist epithet. Mfoniso Udofia’s translation keenly parses every use of the word (more than sixty of them) to draw that distinction, replacing it frequently with insults and slurs that hammer in our ears: “ape,” “monkey,” others. The racism embedded in the play shifts from dog whistle to front and center, giving a new context to Othello’s heroism and Iago’s malice.

In talking about Troilus and Cressida, its translator, Lillian Groag, notes that the “vulgarity” and the “venom” became shocking to an audience when they really understood, for example, that Thersites was “telling the audience to go get VD.” McLaughlin mentioned that one particular choice she made in a brothel scene in Pericles caused great discomfort to the actor playing the role. Where the original has the Bawd and Bolt discuss the need to “get [Marina] ravished or be rid of her,” McLaughlin uses “raped.” The actor balked at delivering the line, though he had no issue with standing over a cowering woman and unbuckling his pants—as long as a different term was used to describe his action. She said to him, “Maybe you should look at the fact that you are comfortable doing the thing but not saying the word.”

Kapil’s Measure for Measure takes great pains to translate the humor of the play—to make the jokes funny and the trenchant satire legible. Her first draft, she says, was truer to the literal prose in Shakespeare’s original, but it wasn’t funny. The actors told her, “We have to do all this weird extra work, pointing at our penises to get the joke [to land], and that’s not funny.” In rethinking the approach to instead “translate to the experience the audience would have had four hundred years ago,” she was also able to draw a clear connection between chummy masculine bonding over syphilis jokes and dick jokes, and the way women in the play are treated.

This project enabled a spectrum of America’s diverse theatrical talents to embrace Shakespeare as a colleague.

Kapil draws a direct connection between the thematic focus on power and the precision of Shakespeare’s craft. “Everything is an investigation of power, and the responsibilities and dangers of power, and of legislating morality given human nature,” she says. “Every dumb joke, every weird bit, is all pointing in the same direction. That’s brilliant craft.” She also felt that working inside of Shakespeare’s structure opened up her own boldness with narrative.

Kenneth Cavander, who translated both Timon of Athens and The Tempest, notes:

You become very conscious of the technical dramaturgical work that went into the original. And you become very aware of how Shakespeare—or in the case of Timon, Shakespeare and his collaborator—were solving problems that every dramatist had to solve about plot twists, character development.

For McLaughlin, these discoveries made Shakespeare feel like a colleague, which was exciting. “I never expected to feel like I understood him as a person of the theatre,” she says. “To see him working to keep a plot moving, to find the telling metaphor at the moment that it is needed, to bring in a character who will bring in a different perspective. I understood him as a playwright in a way that I never could have.”

row of people seated in chairs onstage.

2019 Play On Festival. Photo by Matthew Hagemeier.

The Two Hours’ Traffic of Our Stage

The new scripts are beginning to spread out into the world and receive full productions outside of the auspices of Play On itself, mostly at Shakespeare companies—including Alabama Shakespeare (Timon of Athens and The Tempest), Orlando Shakespeare (Pericles), San Francisco’s African-American Shakespeare (Macbeth)—but not entirely (Measure for Measure recently premiered at the NOLA Project, for example, and Douthit predicts that regional theatres will begin to program the plays). And they’re meeting with mixed reviews—everything from “border[ing] on the miraculous” (Montgomery Advertiser) to “occasionally veers toward Dr. Seuss” (Orlando Sentinel).

But the purpose shines through: review after review notes that the audience is obviously more engaged—they are understanding the text better, having an experience closer to what Shakespeare’s audiences might have enjoyed, and even getting the jokes.

This project enabled a spectrum of America’s diverse theatrical talents to embrace Shakespeare as a colleague—a gifted and respected colleague, to be sure. And it’s enabling contemporary audiences to have a more visceral appreciation of Shakespeare, while also engaging with the work of the thirty-six translators. Maybe that is the happy medium, the “right kind of importance” for Shakespeare: in partnership with a modern writer. That allows, as Kapil says, “something of the soul of the writer and what they want to say in there.”

I still worry a little about Shakespeare continuing to take up too much of the air in the room, but I also recognize that Shakespeare isn’t going anywhere. Play On has created the opportunity for writers, theatre institutions, students, actors, and audiences to take stock of what’s really in the plays and how they are relevant to our world, which can make us more conscious in our engagement with Shakespeare as both makers and viewers of theatre. We can choose to interact with his work because it’s meaningful, rather than just because it’s classic. Slover called the translations “a gateway drug” to Shakespeare, laying the groundwork to fully understand and appreciate his plays. I hope that the gate can swing the other way too, opening audiences to the contemporary work of all the modern writers who translated him.

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Thoughts from the curators

An examination of theatremaking as a collaboration between HowlRound and the League of Professional Theatre Women.

League of Professional Women in Theatre 

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