When Lue Douthit, longtime literary director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, told me that she had hired 36 playwrights to translate Shakespeare’s scripts into contemporary English, I didn’t get it. We were chatting at a gathering of dramaturgs in Portland in Fall 2015, a few weeks before the Play on! translation project was to be announced. Douthit laid out its parameters: Do no harm. Keep the verse, the rhyme, the heightened language, the metaphors, the imagery. Don’t cut anything. Don’t change the period or setting. Don’t fix the plays’ trouble spots. If the language works, don’t mess with it. Don’t dumb it down. Only adjust what’s necessary to let a 21st-century audience experience the plays with the emotional immediacy that a 16th-century audience would have enjoyed.
I was skeptical. Unlike some critics, who found the very idea of the project shocking, even heretical, I thought it sounded too conservative. The playwrights on the payroll were dazzling: Ellen McLaughlin, Marcus Gardley, Hansol Jung, Taylor Mac, Migdalia Cruz—the majority of them women, the majority artists of color. Why not let their talents loose? Scholars already dig through obscure phrases, searching for intelligible equivalents, as I’d done when I worked on editing the Norton Shakespeare, trying to concoct glosses for lines like “Aroint thee, witch, the rump-fed runnion cries.” Directors and dramaturgs often do it too, choosing from early publication variants and swapping out archaic words for performance. I’ve heard “stale” from Antony and Cleopatra rendered, aptly, as “urine,” and “gamut,” a musical term in The Taming of the Shrew, quietly updated as “scale,” without anyone in the audience demurring. Why constrain innovative playwrights to that lexical spadework?
Douthit saw it differently. OSF already had a commissioning project, the American Revolutions cycle, that funded artists to create 37 new plays on the scale of Shakespeare’s canon. (Count Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, Paula Vogel’s Indecent, and Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way among its successes.) Play on! would take the scope, diversity, and cohort model from American Revolutions and invite artists instead to dive into Shakespeare’s plays. Douthit called it “spelunking with Shakespeare.” There was something radical, she thought, about asking dramatists to work through every choice in Shakespeare’s lines and bring their feel for style, scene, character, and structure to help those 400-year-old scripts sing anew. They’d have companion dramaturgs, too, but playwrights would be at the center. Funding came from the Hitz Foundation, run by a tech entrepreneur who learned that Shakespeare is often translated into contemporary speech in other languages and was curious to hear how that would sound in English. The project combined Douthit’s expertise in new play development with a Silicon Valley taste for experimentation. Douthit seemed excited to find out what playwrights would learn on their spelunking expeditions. But she also recognized the risk. “This might end my career,” she said, with a shrug. “It might even end Western civilization as we know it.”
Three and a half years later, New York audiences can judge for themselves. Over the next month, Play on! will present staged readings of all 39 translations at Classic Stage Company in the order Shakespeare likely composed them, from Two Gentleman of Verona (translated by Amelia Roper) on May 29 through Two Noble Kinsmen (Tim Slover) on June 30; complete schedule below. (Seven of the translations have already been produced at Shakespeare theatres from San Francisco to Prague, and the translation project, which started as Play on! under OSF’s auspices, has since become an independent nonprofit called Play On Shakespare.)
I’ve heard two of these full translations (Ranjit Bolt’s Much Ado About Nothing and Jeff Whitty’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) in readings at the Portland Shakespeare Project, where I’m the scholar-in-residence, along with snippets of others (Amy Freed’s The Taming of the Shrew, Mfoniso Udofia’s Othello, Alison Carey’s Twelfth Night, Kenneth Cavander’s The Tempest, Ellen McLaughlin’s Pericles, Douglas Langworthy’s Henry VI trilogy, Octavio Solis’s Edward III) at events around Oregon. I went in with trepidations: Would Shakespeare’s complexity be lost? Would my favorite lines disappear? Could the translator’s voice still come through? To my surprise, however, I came out a Play on! convert.
The first stage of my conversion was to the process. In fall 2016, Douthit invited me to join a convention of Play on! playwrights and dramaturgs at OSF to discuss translation challenges and talk about my research on the history of updating Shakespeare’s language—standard practice from the 17th century well through the 19th. The questions I heard were fascinating. How informal can the language get? (Would Shakespeare ever use the f-word? The c-word?) What should you do with terms whose resonance has changed for us? (What’s the equivalent of a “Moor” today—a term that can serve as a category or a slur? Ayanna Thompson, the Othello dramaturg, asked if “Arab” would do the same work.) How should you handle contrasting voices in plays that were likely co-authored? (Shakespeare and John Fletcher, say, in Two Noble Kinsmen, or Shakespeare and George Wilkins in Pericles?) How can you convey shifts in register and form? (What do you do when Romeo and Juliet speak in a sonnet?) And where’s the line between translation and adaptation? (Amy Freed and Ellen McLaughlin did more or less straight versions for the Play on! assignment and looser adaptations for extra credit.) These are the same questions a scholar might pose, but here, artists were pursuing them with creativity and humility. No one was trying to one-up Shakespeare; everyone was trying to learn from him.
Seeing scenes from early drafts in performance helped me realize that these translations are intended for the ear, not the eye. It’s tempting to scrutinize a translated passage and question its choices: Is a “swill-fed swinelet,” in Migdalia Cruz’s Macbeth, quite the same as a “rump-fed runnion” in Shakespeare’s? Perhaps not, though no one’s quite sure what Shakespeare’s line means, and Cruz captures the alliterative gusto, the rhythmic pulse, and the barnyard insult in a phrase that’s a bit clearer to the listener, while still operating in a heightened register. (And it’s a lot more dramatically potent than either a scholarly edition’s lengthy paragraph on possible Jacobean slang sources or No Fear Shakespeare’s bland paraphrase, “fat woman.”) For Douthit, the goal was to produce scripts that could play in real time, not ones that would withstand a graduate seminar. “That 16-rpm analysis has never been my goal,” she told me recently. “There is literary and poetic merit in the translations, but they are designed to work at 78 rpm.”
In performance, the translations zip along. The “two hours’ traffic of our stage” that the prologue to Romeo and Juliet promises might, for once, describe a realistic running time. I heard audiences laughing at wordplay—at the words themselves, not at illustrative gestures actors have to find to make outmoded puns land—and, perhaps more unusually, reacting to shifts in form: a sudden pivot into rhyme, a break in meter, a change in register, which the more contemporary language brought out with greater clarity. “When Iago shifts from verse to prose, it feels like getting dumped with an ice bucket,” Mfoniso Udofia told me. “The language becomes so coarse and vulgar.” In her first draft, Iago’s warning to Desdemona’s father, “A black ram is tupping your white ewe,” became “A black ram is tupping, shtupping, topping your white, white, white ewe.” She planned to dial back “Mfoniso style” as she revised, but she wanted to make sure the lewdness of Iago’s bestial metaphor came through.
Mostly, however, the translators’ touch feels remarkably light. Douthit estimates that around 80 percent of the language is still Shakespeare’s; the other 20 percent feels like fresh spots of paint newly applied to make faded colors pop in the present. As a Shakespeare professor, I like to think that I can understand the plays pretty well in performance, but I’ve come to realize that’s only true of the ones I’ve edited, researched, taught, and reread dozens of times. On first listening, a passage from Troilus and Cressida, say, can float past me. Here’s a simile that Agamemnon, the Greek commander, uses to explain battle plans gone awry:
As knots, by the conflux of meeting sap,
Infects the sound pine and diverts his grain
Tortive and errant from his course of growth.
I get the gist—something’s diverting the pine tree’s growth—but without looking up some words (tortive?) and spending a bit of time thinking through what exactly the sap is meeting, I find the lines as twisted as the tree. That’s fine in the study or the classroom, where I can linger over an interpretation, but if I stop to ponder in performance, I’ve lost the rest of the speech.
Here’s Lillian Groag’s Play on! translation:
As wood-knots in the trunks of growing pines
Affect the tree’s up-thrust, divert its course,
Twisting and bending a straight and forward growth.
It’s the same simile, but placing “wood,” “trunks,” and “pines” in the first line helps clue us in to the basis for the comparison, and “twisting and bending” convey the “tortive and errant” kinks with 78 rpm comprehension. I’ve seen actors perform a Shakespeare passage, followed by the Play on! version, and the effect was like hearing a fuzzy radio station come into focus.
Is a little sap lost in the conflux? No doubt. But Shakespeare’s scripts aren’t going anywhere. There doesn’t seem to be a danger of replacing them with translations, nor is that Douthit’s goal. She wanted companion pieces—perhaps to aid in rehearsal or the classroom or to prime an audience for Shakespeare’s own language. (She’s thought about publishing the translations online, or in an app, or in a series of workbooks or audiobooks.) Sometimes the translations have foregrounded aspects of the script that can get glossed over. Taylor Bailey, the project’s producer, remembers the cast of OSF’s 2015 Pericles production reading from Ellen McLaughlin’s translation in a rehearsal and stopping, stunned, at a brothel keeper’s remark about the heroine. McLaughlin had translated his off-hand line, “I must ravish her,” more directly: “I must rape her.” That arresting choice helped to clarify the stakes of the scene when the cast turned back to Shakespeare’s script. Dramaturgs have told me that when they ready a translated script for performance, instead of spending the table work figuring out what they’re saying, the actors can jump right into conversations about why they’re saying it.
And audiences, too, have been engaging directly. Elise Thoron, who translated The Merchant of Venice, told me that the best payoff for her was seeing audiences at a workshop react directly to the play’s “timely hate,” with any linguistic remove stripped away.
The lasting value of the translation project, however, might be as great for the artists as for the audiences. “The real thing is not what these writers do to Shakespeare but what Shakespeare does to these writers,” Amy Freed explained, using a rhetorical figure of inversion that Shakespeare might have approved. Octavio Solis told my research assistant, Melory Mirashrafi, that Edward III taught him to give glorious speeches to minor characters, even a messenger who only appears once. Migdalia Cruz said that digging into Macbeth reconnected her with the poetry of her own work. Taylor Mac, who translated Titus Andronicus (though it is Amy Freed’s version that will be read this month), praised the project for “paying playwrights to research and learn from the Bard. That’s the best thing about it.” Mac’s new play, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, opened this spring on Broadway and was nominated for seven Tony Awards. It’s a comedy in iambic pentameter, with a generous helping of soliloquies, rhyming couplets, and puns. The legacy of Play on! may come not only from the translations in performance at Classic Stage Company next month, but from the plays these dramatists write next.
A complete list of readings at Classic Stage Company is here and below:
Wed., May 29, 8 p.m.: Two Gentlemen of Verona, translated by Amelia Roper, with dramaturgy by Kate McConnell and direction by Lisa Wolpe
Wed., June 26, 7 p.m.: Coriolanus, translated by Sean San José, with dramaturgy by Rob Melrose