Translate this! My take on #ShakesGate

October 1, 2015

The playwright Jenny Lane asked on facebook:

I have been thinking a lot about this [the new OSF commission Play on! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare] as peers and colleagues that I trust and admire have weighed in. But I have come to the conclusion that the ONLY thing I love about this project is that it’s work for lots of playwrights and dramaturges.

I think I’d be into it if the playwrights were given more freedom to play, but they’re really not. Here are the guidelines:

“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.”

Shakespeare’s language is what I’ve loved about Shakespeare. His stories are largely blatantly taken from elsewhere, so… is it Shakespeare if we’re no longer grappling with his language? I don’t think that it is. So then… what’s the point?

Someone argue with me and convince me this is a good idea because it just frustrates me right now.

And I wrote my thoughts which then disappeared into air as my metro went underground. So, I thought I would try again off of facebook in a space where I (hopefully) can articulate my thoughts.

I am very excited about Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s new commission project. If you haven’t been following you can read an article about it here and see the full list of artists commissioned here.

I have now participated in many discussions on-line and off and have more thoughts roaring through my head then I have time to write. So here’s the outline for a longer explanation.

A. Shakespeare would have dug it.

  1. People may disagree with me but I believe a couple of things about Shakespeare.
  2. His work rewrote older works – both stories but also made use of language.
  3. He cared about his audience understanding his work. It was theatre made for the people.
  4. He was a playwright – what playwright would’t want their work gone through with a fine-tooth comb arguing about what you were thinking by a team of artists 400 years after their death.

B. Maintaining original intentions. Not an adaptation.

  1. The motto for the project is “Do no harm.”
  2. They want to maintain the structure, artistry and content of these plays.
  3. Some of Shakespeare’s work is fully comprehensible some is not. This is translating the parts that for whatever reason are unclear and doing so in an artistic fashion.
  4. Just as in a language to language translation it is impossible not to impart some of the translators voice but the goal remains to tell the author’s story in the way the author would want it told.
  5. That’s why it is important that the writers stay apolitical or rather keep their own politics clear – they are not there to further their agenda but like a good translator to tell the original story in a different language.
  6. Yes, Shakespeare’s English is today’s English. We use the same vocabularies. That doesn’t mean we speak the same language. You and I reader use the same vocabulary, sometimes we do not speak the same language. If I was to travel back in time it would probably be a challenge to communicate meaning even with the same words. Language changes and shifts in time.
  7. This is not No Fear Shakespeare where the goal is to make the story clear. This is not about plot but about poetic language.
  8. Plus, the rules state that they only change the language where it is needed. This is not getting rid of Shakespeare’s poetry.

C. I like that they lack freedom.

  1. I’m a firm believer that structure and restrictions aid creativity.
  2. Adaption is relatively easy since the output comes directly from the artist – but to find the balance between intention and art takes brave, intelligent and creative people. It is a huge challenge.

D. These will never replace Shakespeare’s greatest works. But they may help understand them.

  1. As an part-time educator (and in conversation with my husband the actual educator) I think that it is helpful to have multiple texts to be able to compare and further understanding.
  2. Shakespeare has lasted 400 years. Why would we think a new play will overthrow his importance?
  3. And, if one of these plays does end up being so brilliant that it helps to clarify meaning that went over the heads of even the most erudite viewers/readers, then why wouldn’t we want that in the world?
  4. There is no clean text of Shakespeare anyway. All productions and published editions make choices about language to change and lines to edit based on either clarity or history. This just adds to that conversation. And like the individual writers of the talmud, it’s just another voice adding to the conversation about a central text.

E. I love an intellectual exercise.

  1. These lucky artists get to go line by line through the text and work to understand it. They get to do what few have the time to do. And then they get to take what they find and relay it.
  2. It is so important that Dramaturgs are included in the commission. And it’s exciting to see respected peers on the list alongside my teachers (including my Shakespeare teacher from Columbia). These are smart people who love Shakespeare’s language. I trust them to work to not only do no harm but elevate what is wonderful about the original.
  3. I’m a nerd. And I picture the dramaturg and playwright huddled together like hevruta (think Yentl and Avigdor). If people look at Shakespeare as so sacrosanct then doesn’t it make sense like the scholars of old for the texts to be explored in this way.

F. This is for everyone.

  1. Seeing facebook friends talk about how this is “dumbing the work down” or Shakespeare for people who are “lazy” or that it is “spoon feeding” makes me sad.
  2. Yes, Shakespeare’s language can be understood by anyone who has the time (or the teacher) willing to showcase it. Or if they see a great production, more on that below, but that doesn’t mean that if they don’t understand something they can’t have paths for accessing it.
  3. And really, some of Shakespeare’s texts are harder than others. Hamlet may be easy but even The Tempest has some real linguistic challenges. Some get the tools to understand and some do not.
  4. I love that I work in an education department that believes that Shakespeare’s language can be understood by everyone. I love that we strive for that. But, there are still plays we choose not to do with students because of the challenges that they bring up. There are parts of Loves Labours Lost that will always be cut because the language is so dense and dated. And that’ all okay.
  5. The mission of this project is to not cut but reevaluate the language. To open it up. For everyone not just those who don’t have access to a great education.

G: Sure, A good production is clear.

  1. A number of the comments have asked why we even need something like this. If the work is done by the director and actors then meaning can be imparted through action, visuals and context.
  2. Sure. But, then someone is doing that work and doing more than this is asking for.
  3. Words get cut and changed in every production, usually by a director. This is opening up the room to a playwright as well (though it should be noted some of the commissioned artists are directors & actors).
  4. There will be no cutting to make this clear. It is only adjustments to the language.

H: Shakespeare isn’t infallible.

  1. People love them that Shakespeare. But he was a writer. A person. Some work is brilliant. Some isn’t.
  2. He isn’t a deity. He doesn’t need to be worshiped.

H: It may fail.

  1. Isn’t that exciting?
  2. It’s art!
  3. New art in the world!
  4. And it could suck!
  5. Or be brilliant!
  6. And yet people get paid and something gets created. And that is the best part of all.

Okay, have at me naysayers.


RIP Harold Pinter & Eartha Kitt

December 26, 2008

The two have nothing really in common. A Jewish British playwright known for his brutal, simple, haunting and influental plays.  A singer actress known for her gravelly voice and over sexualized persona. I guess they both got in trouble for making political statements in public places. And they both died on the same day.  And they both were/are inspirational to me, so there’s that too.

NY Times on Pinter
NY Times on Kitt
Pinter’s speech when receiving the Nobel Prize

some words

December 22, 2008

yesterday was a day of mourning and celebration. Funny how those days hit at once.  Shane’s death was sudden and tragic.  I found out about his death through facebook, I saw the status messages of friends all through the day change to reflect their shock and sadness as the day went on.  I posted the picture below, a shot taken at last years Helen Hayes party, and realized how many people felt connected to Shane by how many people have visited my page.  In the last two days over a hundred people have visited my blog looking for more information. It’s both a tribute to Shane and what a role he played in so many lives and an amazing look at how we are all connected.  Theater J, where there will be a memorial service Dec 29 at 7 pm, and Rorschach theater have also posted memorials on their blogs.

Shane’s sudden death makes me think about a lot of things. I’ve been thinking  about how strange it is to know you will never see someone again.  I’ve been thinking about the last time I saw him after seeing Honey Brown Eyes. I caught him on his way out after the show and we quickly caught up.  We said that next time we would hang out, next time properly catch up. Maybe that’s what I’ve been thinking about most ‘next times.’

It’s now Chanukah  and when you think about it Chanukah is a holiday of remembrance. We light candles every night remembering how the oil lasted in the Temple. Like many Jewish holidays it is about memory and its about survival.  To celebrate the first night of the holiday I had friends over last night to eat latkes.   Hearing of a friends death and entertaining other friends makes for an interesting mood.  The thing is, life is short. Even if we live for a hundred years it’s still short. And is possibly much shorter than we ever planned.  So we should cherish every day, every friend, every smile. Through this holiday of remembrance, I will remember not only Jewish survival, not only the power of faith, not only Shane but all of you, her friends whom I cherish.

Happy Chanukah and may your memories be for a blessing.

RIP Shane Wallis

December 21, 2008


there are no words. you will be missed.

RIP Robert Prosky

December 9, 2008

I just heard that the actor Robert Prosky died. I got the chance to spend some time with him and his sons last March during Theater J’s production of The Price. He was a kind, funny and supremely talented man.  I wish I had the chance to work with him again. All my sympathy goes out to his family.

An appreciation from the Washington Post
Ari’s notes on the Theater J blog.
An appreciation from the New York Times

RIP Paul Newman

September 27, 2008

what’s there to say. He was a brilliant actor and a good man. I always hoped that someday I would meet him, but I guess that’s not to be.

Paul Newman and James Dean screentest

public service announcement

September 21, 2008

I found out today that a friend of a friend of a friend died. Someone I only met once and even then didn’t say more than a couple of words to. He was young, late 20s, early 30s, somewhere in there. He was overweight, didn’t take good care of his body and had a heart attack this morning while playing basketball.

People, please, please, take care of yourselves. Understand what you are putting into your body, don’t think that just because you are young you’re invincible, you should know better. Know what you’re at risk for and just don’t risk it.