OSF’s “Play On! Project” to Translate Shakespeare’s Plays Into Contemporary English
– by Lee Greene
Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Ashland, OR) announced today (Tue. 9/29/15) a new project, Play On! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare, to translate all 39 plays in the Shakespeare canon from the original 16th century Elizabethan English to contemporary English of the modern world. William Shakespeare, of course, is “the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist.” [Wikipedia, William Shakespeare, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Shakespeare] However, the dated and pointed geographic/culture laden language that he used in writing his plays can be difficult for the speaker of modern English to readily understand. What present day English speaking student hasn’t suffered through a high school or college English or Drama class, trying to decipher lines of esoteric Shakespearean English?
For example, here are the just the opening lines of merely four of Shakespeare’s popular plays, as written by Shakespeare:
- “I’ll pheeze you, in faith.” (Taming of the Shrew)
- “In sooth I know not why I am so sad.” (The Merchant of Venice)
- “Sir Hugh, persuade me not; I will make a star- chamber matter of it: if he were twenty Sir John Falstaffs, he shall not abuse Robert Shallow, esquire.” (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
- “So shaken as we are, so wan with care, / Find we a time for frighted peace to pant, / And breathe short-winded accents of new broils / To be commence.” (Henry IV Part 1)
It is more than occasionally difficult for the speaker of modern day English to understand exactly what Shakespeare is trying to say, without some considerable effort on the viewer’s part to try to decipher Shakespeare’s language. Although the typical audience of ordinary people in the theater in Shakespeare’s day understood him perfectly, the language tends to get in the way of comprehending and appreciating these great plays for an audience of ordinary English speaking people today. Which is rather unfortunate and sad.
What’s Shakespeare trying to say?
Did you know that when Shakespeare’s plays are translated into other languages than English, they are presented in the modern language. (Of course!, Who would go back and attempt to translate from Shakespeare’s English to a 16th century version of another language, and why? There isn’t a 16th century audience alive anywhere now to appreciate and understand it. Translating for a modern audience, translating to the modern language is what makes sense.) So speakers of any other language watching a Shakespearean play in their language have enjoyed a considerable advantage over today’s English speaking audiences.
To remedy this disparity and provide modern English speakers with easily understandable versions of Shakespeare’s plays too, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) has launched a three-year commissioning project, Play On! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare, to commission a playwright and dramaturg for each of the 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare to translate the plays into modern English. OSF has enlisted “diverse playwrights (more than 50 percent women and more than 50 percent writers of color), . . . bring[ing] fresh voices and perspectives to the work of translation.” OSF‘s press release announces that
“Play on! has engaged many of the nation’s leading playwrights, dramaturgs, theater professionals, expert advisors and emerging voices in the field. Among the goals of the project is to increase understanding and connection to Shakespeare’s plays, as well as engage and inspire theatergoers, theater professionals, students, teachers and scholars. Play on! also will provide translated texts in contemporary modern English as performable companion pieces for Shakespeare’s original texts in the hope they will be published, read and adapted for stage and used as teaching tools.”
The project is supported by a generous grant from the Hitz Foundation. and was inspired by long-time OSF patron Dave Hitz’ passion for Shakespeare.
“I’ve been seeing Shakespeare plays since I was a child,” Dave Hitz said. “I love reading a play before the show, especially out-loud with friends, in order to understand the performance better. When I learned that foreign translations of Shakespeare are in modern language, I was jealous. I fantasized about seeing Shakespeare performed in contemporary modern English. I’m thrilled that OSF is taking on this project. No translation can replace the original, but it can broaden the audience and provide new understanding even for those of us who love the original language. I hope these translations will attract a new audience to Shakespeare and lead them back to his original words as well.”
OSF‘s press release further elaborates that:
“In approaching the task OSF has established two basic rules. First, do no harm. There is language that will not need translating and some that does. Each team is being asked to examine the play line-by-line and translate to contemporary modern English those lines that need translating. There is to be no cutting or editing of scenes and playwrights may not add their personal politics. Second, put the same kind of pressure on the language as Shakespeare put on his. This means the playwright must consider the meter, rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, rhetoric, character action and theme of the original. These translations are not adaptations. Setting, time period and references will remain unchanged.”
OSF has been in the process of producing the complete cycle of all 39 of Shakespeare’s plays, between 2015 and 2025, using the original Shakespeare texts. This ambitious project of presenting the entire canon of the original Shakespeare plays will continue. But in addition, OSF may present one or more productions using the updated Play On! translations.
The Play On! project will be helmed by OSF’s director of literary development and dramaturgy, Lue Morgan Douthit.
“We began this project with a ‘What if?,’ Douthit said. “There are differences between the early modern English of Shakespeare and contemporary English. What if we looked at these plays at the language level through the lens of dramatists? What would we learn about how they work? Would that help us understand them in a different way? ‘Translate’ is an inadequate word because it implies a word-for-word substitution, which isn’t what we’re doing. I’m going for something much more subtle.”
The pilot play for the Play On! project, Kennenth Cavandar’s translation of Timon of Athens was produced at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2014. Three other translations are already scheduled for production: Pericles at Orlando Shakespeare, Two Noble Kinsmen at University of Utah, and The Tempest at Alabama Shakespeare Festival.
A list of the specific playwrights and dramaturgs translating each of the 39 plays, with biographical information, is available on the OSF website at: http://www.osfashland.org/en/experience-osf/upcoming/play-on.aspx