No one debates that Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers in the English language. What is debatable, however, is just how much today’s audiences actually understand that language.
“I'll be really honest to say I can't understand all of it all of the time,” says Lue Douthit, the director of literary development and dramaturgy at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — and she makes her living studying theater.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced today it plans to bridge that comprehension gap with an unprecedented project underwritten by the foundation of tech entrepreneur David Hitz. “Play On” will commission 36 dramatists to translate the Bard’s entire canon of 38 plays into contemporary modern English. Ranging from award-winning playwrights to up-and-comers and translators, the writers represent a wide diversity of voices: more than half are women and more than half people of color.
“The goal is to keep all of the structure of the language intact, and the setting intact,” says artistic director Bill Rauch, “but to actually take words that may have lost their meaning, or may have different meanings today, and look at translating those words.”
Each playwright will be partnered with a dramatist and given leeway in how far they go in translating those words, although the project’s guiding precept is “do no harm.”
Douthit and Rauch initially questioned Hitz about his proposal that they clarify Shakespeare’s language. “It was an ‘Isn't it already in English?’ kind of thing,” says Douthit. But she brought on British playwright Kenneth Cavander, well-known for his translations of ancient Greek tragedies, for a pilot translation of “Timon of Athens.”
“It was less of a translation than what I like to call a transcription,” said Cavander. “On the basis of what happens in music, when Liszt transcribes a Beethoven symphony for the piano, it’s still the same melody, it’s just a different instrument. That’s more like what we’re doing.”
Take, for example, this excerpt from Timon’s soliloquy railing against the city’s corruption. Here is the original text:
Slaves and fools,
Pluck the grave wrinkled senate from the bench
And minister in their steads. To general fliths
Convert o’th’ instant, green virginity,
Do’t in your parents’ eyes. Bankrupts, hold fast;
Rather than render back, out with your knives
And cut your trusters’ throats! Bound servants, steal:
Large—handed robbers your grave masters are
And pill by law.
Here is Cavander’s translation.
And clowns, kick the grizzled old senators
Out of their offices and legislate in their place ...
Innocent virgins, turn sluttish now - why wait? –
And do it while your parents watch ... Bankrupt?
Keep your money, and if your creditors demand
Payment, pick up a knife and cut their throats.
Workers, steal - your bosses are crooks
In fine suits, gangsters raking in their loot,
Despite the controversy they knew would ensue (Louthit jokes that Cavander and she initially considered it a career ender), Douthit, Cavander, and Rauch were excited and intrigued by the result.
“It's an experiment,” says Rauch. “And the experiment is about deep, deep, deep respect of the language, and it's about the playwrights that are working on these texts being in dialogue with Shakespeare in the most rigorous way possible.”
Douthit and Rauch are quick to point out that all Shakespeare productions are adaptations of some sort. None of Shakespeare’s original texts remain, and various versions of each play exist with significant differences. In addition, most productions cut difficult passages and edit down scenes for the contemporary attention span, to say nothing of the concept productions that change the settings to places like Nazi Germany or the 60’s.
Nonetheless, the project has been met with skepticism and even cries of blasphemy.
“Shakespeare is about the intoxicating richness of the language,” says James Shapiro, a noted Shakespeare scholar and English professor at Columbia. “It’s like the beer I drink. I drink 8.2 percent IPA, and by changing the language in this modernizing way, it’s basically shifting to Bud Light. Bud Light’s acceptable, but it just doesn’t pack the punch and the excitement and the intoxicating quality of that language.”
Rauch and Douthit agree that nothing can match Shakespeare word for word. They say that their goal, however, isn’t to replace Shakespeare’s texts; it’s to create companion texts that allow audiences to dig even deeper into the themes, characters, and ideas by not getting derailed from the most incomprehensible and antiquated language.
And, at least in pilot form, it seems to have worked. Playwright Kenneth Cavandar says that people came up to him after the world premiere of “Timon of Athens” at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2014 to say this was the first time they’d fully understood the Bard. And more audiences will soon get the chance. Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Orlando Shakespeare, and the University of Utah have already agreed to produce future translations.