OSF is going to translate the Shakespearean canon. Here’s what I said.

Updated: At the bottom, there are links to updated stories including OSF’s statement on the project. Overall, it sounds like they are doing this carefully and with stringent standards.
“The Oregon Shakespeare Festival will announce next week that it has commissioned translations of all 39 of the Bard’s plays into modern English, with the idea of having them ready to perform in three years. “
From the Wall Street Journal and Playbill.com
My response to a friend who asked for my opinion (and to one who didn’t!) is below, just for posterity’s sake. 

I generally believe that if you are going to do Shakespeare in English, actually do Shakespeare’s language. If you’re doing an adaptation, thoroughly and clearly ADAPT it.

However, we update the work in so many other ways in productions, so…

I am heartened by the idea that it will be people who actually work in the theater who will be overseeing the OSF translations. One of my biggest problems with other translations is that they are so often done in a void by academics who never work with the language as actors and dramaturgs/directors do, so it tends to get less muscular, less concrete, and less direct than the way Shakespeare is used in a talented actor’s body. Shakespeare’s rhythms and word choices set up a breathing in the body that propels the actor to act (or not act, if needed) in any given moment. I fear that could be lost if not heeded.

I also don’t agree with the writer’s assumption that without the updates, Shakespeare will go the way of the dodo. Shakespeare has been the most produced playwright in the English speaking world for the last 35 years running. People are filling OSF’s houses for PERICLES, for god’s sake.

I also take issue with the writer’s assumption that complex and nuanced art needs to be changed or dumbed down for us modern-day plebeians. If the complexities are presented cleanly, clearly, and specifically, everyone can receive it.

Despite his being a linguist, his examples actually speak to the minute quibbles of people who don’t deal with spoken language. No, folks don’t always understand every word in Shakespeare. They have to fill in with context and assumptions. They also don’t understand or even register every word in a modern language play – they fill in with context and assumptions. That’s just how audiences LISTEN to and take meaning from spoken language of any kind.

So, to sum, I think a translation can have artistic merit if it is high quality, intended for the use of actors and audiences (not academic readers), and may be of use to some groups.

However, I don’t think it is for us to bring Shakespeare down to “our level”. It is for us to rise up to its sphere.



36 Playwrights Named to “Translate” Shakespeare Plays into Modern English; See Who’s Doing Midsummer Night’s Dream

Oregon Shakespeare Festival page for “Play On!” (includes a link to an FAQ). 


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