The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is currently producing a massive project. They are commissioning 36 playwrights and pairing them with dramaturgs to, as they put it, “translate” 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare into contemporary modern English between now and December 31, 2018. Their website reads :
“By seeking out a diverse set of playwrights (more than half writers of color and more than half women), we hope to bring fresh voices and perspectives to the rigorous work of translation. Each playwright is being asked to put the same pressure and rigor of language as Shakespeare did on his, keeping in mind meter, rhythm, metaphor, image, rhyme, rhetoric and emotional content. Our hope is to have 39 unique side-by-side companion translations of Shakespeare’s plays that are both performable and extremely useful reference texts for both classrooms and productions. We are also excited about the potential for a highly engaging national conversation about language that this project could prompt.”
They have been getting a lot of press on this project, which I’m sure is a major part of the agenda. Well, in answer to their call, I would like to join their conversation. Here is my take…
OSF recently posted an example of this work that they are doing on their “Play On” Facebook page. The following excerpt illustrates perfectly how terrible the foundations of their project really are.
Please read this excerpt from their own post..
“Although the Cavander version is written as dramatic verse, it is not penned in iambic pentameter. Working line by line, Cavander strives to honor the meaning of each line rather than strictly adhering to Shakespeare’s original meter.
For example, here are five lines, written in verse, where Timon finds that the servants have locked his doors to keep out his creditors:
TIMON: What, are my doors opposed against my passage?
Have I been ever free, and must my house
Be my retentive enemy, my jail?
The place where I have feasted, does it now,
Like all mankind, show me an iron heart?
And here are the same five lines from the Cavander translation, written in free verse:
TIMON: What’s this? My doors locked—to shut me in!?
Haven’t I been always open with my friends,
And now my own house turns against me,
Becomes my jail? Does my home, where I heave feasted,
Show me, like the rest of mankind, an iron-heart?
Shakespeare uses the common and easily understood English word FREE in this instance not for the purpose of just ONE interpretation, but for MANY. Even the sounds of the word itself evoke an experience.
Free – unencumbered
Free – liberal
Free – liberated
Free – complimentary
Free – for nothing
Free – gratuitous
Free – with love
Free – generous
Free – unshackled
Free – open
Free – limitless
It goes on and on. Every person reading, or listening, could add three or four more interpretations of what “free” means to them in the context of the moment.
You see, there are so many personal experiences in the word FREE that an audience is afforded an opportunity to participate, to build it for themselves when listening to the word in context of the story. That’s the genius of great writing. Shakespeare trusts the imagination of the listener. These “translators” strip the opportunity for such a wide breadth of experience and eliminate an economically beautiful word like “free,” which aspirates with the construction of a lip and the teeth into an elongated, potentially endless, “eeeee,” like the squeeeeeze of a lemon. They strip the listener of an opportunity to experience any of this and replace it with mundane and pedestrian interpretations like Cavander’s of Timon being “open with his friends.” This forces a narrow, limited interpretation on the audience, under the guise that this is Shakespeare’s own intent. It’s not translation they are engaging in, it’s vandalism.
On another note, the word: TRANSLATION
OSF and their writers continue to call this work a “translation.” Shakespeare is already in ENGLISH. It doesn’t need a “translation.” That word alone, being thrown around willy-nilly over this project, is evidence enough that no one supporting this endeavor knows what they are really talking about. Words have meaning and if this project is an exploration of the meaning of words, why not start there? These are not “translations,” they are at best adaptations and at worst interpretations. Unfortunately, if this is a shining example of the work they are doing, the latter is probably more likely.
If people want a better practical understanding of the more archaic passages, there are already plenty of books out there that offer up what OSF is doing. Instead of wasting all this talent and resource on this nonsense, why not commission these talented playwrights to write entirely new interpretations or adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays (like West Side Story is of R&J or Lion King is of Hamlet, or any of the exciting work done by the Q Brothers)? Adaptation is what Shakespeare did himself, so it would be entirely in the spirit of his work and at least we’d have some new plays. Perhaps they could even expand them to involve more women and different ethnicities.
By doing something that is the equivalent of the well-intentioned elderly woman updating the 19th century Spanish fresco, “Ecce Homo” by painter Elias Garcia Martinez, and representing these works as “translations,” reveals that OSF doesn’t even fully understand the language of our own time. How can we expect them to reliably interpret Shakespeare’s language better than the bard himself? Coming from an organization of this level of prestige, this is a disappointing and shameful representation of the state of classical theatre art in America.
Shame on OSF.
Special thanks to Marnie Bullock Dresser for reminding me of the Spanish fresco debacle.