OSF project translating Bard into modern English stirs international debate

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has sparked an international debate with a recent announcement that it has commissioned playwrights to translate William Shakespeare's plays into modern English.

With its ambitious three-year Play on! project announced on Sept. 29, OSF has commissioned translations of 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare. The work will be carried out by 36 playwrights paired with dramaturgs — behind-the-scenes theater professionals who research the history and context of plays to provide insight to directors and actors.

The project has drawn international media attention and comments from people around the world, with some praising and others condemning the idea.

An Oct. 7 opinion piece in the New York Times by James Shapiro, Columbia University professor of English and Comparative Literature, lambasted the idea, saying it sets a "disturbing precedent" and will lead theater companies to stage plays using the modern English translations of Shakespeare.

"The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has decided that Shakespeare's language is too difficult to understand," he wrote.

Shapiro predicted the project — which is being funded by the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hitz Foundation — will prove to be a waste of talent and money.

OSF Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy Lue Douthit, who is spearheading the project, was quick to offer reassurances that the translations are a side project and will not lead to the demise of plays in Shakespearean English at the festival.

"We are not replacing Shakespeare at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival," she said.

OSF officials declined to say exactly how much the Hitz Foundation has donated, other than to say the gift is a very generous seven-figure donation. About three-quarters of the gift will cover Play on! expenses, including playwright commissions, dramaturgs, development work, project staffing and travel.

The remaining one-quarter will go toward general operations for OSF, including artistic salaries and sponsorship of a play annually, OSF officials said.

OSF created a Frequently Asked Questions page on its website about the Play on! project. The page states OSF will produce readings and workshops of the translations across the country.

As to whether the translations will replace traditional Shakespeare plays, OSF answered, "Absolutely not. We view these translated texts as complementary, as companion pieces for Shakespeare’s original texts, not as replacements. Even when the translations get performed on their own, we expect and hope that they will inspire audience members to return to Shakespeare’s original texts, ideally with much greater understanding and enjoyment."

Douthit said other theaters already have committed to staging the translated plays, and they could possibly be performed at OSF, but the theater company currently has no plans to do so.

The translated versions will be shared in theaters, schools and other venues across the country, she said.

Douthit noted that people have been translating and adapting Shakespeare for centuries.

Shakespeare already has been translated into modern English, but the results can sometimes be awkward.

SparkNotes has its No Fear Shakespeare series of the Bard's plays. Each page of traditional Shakespeare from a play is paired with a page translated into today's English.

However, the use of informal language in the series is occasionally jarring.

For example, in traditional "Macbeth," the character Duncan says:

What bloody man is that? He can report,

As seemeth by his plight, of the revolt

The newest state.

In the translated version, Duncan says:

Who is this bloody man? Judging from his

appearance, I bet he can tell us the latest news about

the revolt.

OSF already has experimented with translating Shakespeare into modern English. Several years ago, it commissioned playwright Kenneth Cavander to translate "Timon of Athens" using funding from the Hitz Foundation.

The play was chosen because it is one of Shakespeare's least known, least produced and least understandable plays, according to OSF Director of Company Development Scott Kaiser, who wrote an essay about the effort that is available on his website at scottkaisershakespeare.com. Kaiser has written Shakespeare adaptations of his own.

Kaiser noted that Cavander left many lines in "Timon of Athens" intact, but switched some sections written in iambic pentameter into free verse, used modern words such as "you" rather than "thou" and made other changes to clarify the play.

In the traditional Shakespeare version, one character cursing another declares, "Now the Gods keep you old enough, that you may live Only in bone, that none may look on you!"

Cavander's translated version reads, "May the gods preserve you past old age, to live As skeletons that none can bear to look at."

As for Shapiro's criticism of OSF's project, his New York Times opinion piece generated hundreds of comments.

A retired Connecticut teacher said students loved the challenge of grappling with Shakespeare's language.

"We have 'dumbed down' so much in this country, afraid that people are no longer up to the challenge. This is just nonsense. Shakespeare's language is not easy but it is not a foreign language, and doesn't need to be translated," the retired teacher wrote.

A New York state resident wrote, "If you are going to change the brilliant language of Shakespeare you might as well just read the Cliff Notes."

But another New York man commented, "This would only be a bad thing if it were to replace the original. It won't. How much more will people get out of the original if they've seen the modern English version first? Quite a bit, I expect. This can only help."

Closer to home, people attending a Shakespeare play at OSF's campus in Ashland this week had mixed views.

Three generations of a Central Point family went to a play together. The grandmother, Kathleen Lindsay, said she thought people would understand Shakespeare's plays better if they were performed in modern English.

"But it wouldn't seem like Shakespeare," she said.

The mother, Sally Lindsay, noted, "Personally, I have trouble understanding Shakespeare. I'm open-minded about it. I think it might be helpful."

Daughter Lindsay Gasik said she didn't think it was right to tamper with Shakespeare's plays, which she called "ageless stories."

"I probably wouldn't go to a modern English version. A lot of the joy of Shakespeare is in the sound of the language," Gasik said.

A Talent woman, Marcie Kaminker, said she would prefer to see a play in Shakespearean English, rather than a modernized version.

"I wonder if it would lose something in translation. Shakespeare is not only about the meaning, but the poetry," she said.

Three boys who were part of an Ashland school group were intrigued by the idea of modern versions.

"That would be pretty cool to see how the plays would change," said Dane Reynolds.

Cole Schmidt added, "I like the idea of translating Shakespeare. I feel like I would still want to see the original plays."

The boys said they would be interested in seeing traditional and modern versions staged back-to-back or on consecutive days.

Douthit said OSF welcomes the debate and discussion stirred by the announcement of the project.

"If we wanted to prove Shakespeare is still relevant and alive and well, we've done it," she said. "People are passionate."

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.








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