New “Translations” of Shakespeare’s Plays

Shakespeare “Translation” Project  — OSF Commissions 36 Playwright/Dramaturg Teams to Make New Works of Old Plays

Ready for some controversy?  There is some, but you won’t get much from me.  I think this project is great! Play_on_logo (1)

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon has commissioned easier to comprehend versions of each of the 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare from 36 playwrights (Douglas Langworthy will do all three Henry VI plays), each playwright paired with a dramaturg.

The three-year commissioning project, supported by the Hitz Foundation and inspired by long-time patron Dave Hitz’s passion for Shakespeare, is titled Play on! , and will be led by Lue Morgan Douthit, OSF’s director of literary development and dramaturgy. With the hope of bringing fresh voices and perspectives to the works of translation, the diverse playwrights include many award winners as well as new and emerging artists; more than half are women and more than half are writers of color. (A chart listing the plays, playwrights and dramaturgs appears at the end of this post.)

What does “translate” mean in this context?

“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 goal is to keep all of the structure of the language intact, and the setting intact,” says OSF artistic director Bill Rauch, “but to actually take words that may have lost their meaning, or may have different meanings today, and look at translating those words.”

“It’s an experiment,” says Rauch. “And the experiment is about deep, deep, deep respect of the language, and it’s about the playwrights that are working on these texts being in dialogue with Shakespeare in the most rigorous way possible.”

When I told my  friend Carl about this project yesterday he was dismayed, and thought we would all be better served if these gifted playwrights used their limited creative time writing something new.  “The beauty of Shakespeare IS the language!” he said and, of course, he’s right. Often the very best parts of the experience of seeing a terrific production of a Shakespeare play are those moments when I want to say  – Stop!  Let me absorb that.  Those amazing words – that subtle wit, that shocking turn of phrase, that poetry.  Let me hear it again before you go on. –  But even Shakespeare didn’t succeed in writing beautifully,  or even understandably to a 21st century audience, all of the time.

In his article after his voice interview with OSF September 28, Aaron Scott from Oregon Public Broadcasting quoted a good example from last year’s pilot translation of Timon of Athens by British playwright Kenneth Cavander who is well-known for his translations of ancient Greek tragedies.

“It was less of a translation than what I like to call a transcription,” said Cavander. “On the basis of what happens in music, when Liszt transcribes a Beethoven symphony for the piano, it’s still the same melody, it’s just a different instrument. That’s more like what we’re doing.”

Take, for example, this excerpt from Timon’s soliloquy railing against the city’s corruption. Here is the original text:

Slaves and fools,
Pluck the grave wrinkled senate from the bench
And minister in their steads. To general fliths
Convert o’th’ instant, green virginity,
Do’t in your parents’ eyes. Bankrupts, hold fast;
Rather than render back, out with your knives
And cut your trusters’ throats! Bound servants, steal:
Large—handed robbers your grave masters are
And pill by law.

Here is Cavander’s translation.

And clowns, kick the grizzled old senators
Out of their offices and legislate in their place …
Innocent virgins, turn sluttish now – why wait? –
And do it while your parents watch … Bankrupt?
Keep your money, and if your creditors demand
Payment, pick up a knife and cut their throats.
Workers, steal – your bosses are crooks
In fine suits, gangsters raking in their loot,
Legalized pirates.”

I don’t know about you, but I read the original twice with a fair amount of confusion.  Cavander’s version made me feel like I should have understood it in the first place. (But didn’t change the fact that I didn’t.)

According to OSF, 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.

How much can the playwrights change the plays?

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.

Regarding some of that beautiful language that needs no fixing, I was happy to see this among the FAQs about this project:

“Are we saying “To Be or Not To Be” is not good enough as written?

The writers are empowered to leave any text alone if they want to, and we expect they often will.  The goal is not to reinvent the plays, or make changes for their own sake. It will be interesting to see what each playwright does with Shakespeare’s best-known passages; we will engage in deep dialogue with them about all their choices, while of course leaving the final artistic decisions to them.”

In OSF’s press release about the project,  patron Dave Hitz was quoted as saying  “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.”black playon It is our hope that Play On will reach Shakespeare aficionados, providing them another way into beloved texts and new appreciation of this master writer.  We also hope to help make Shakespeare more accessible and inclusive, especially to audiences who have little to no experience with early modern English.


Each play will have a reading and workshop with a director and actors to provide further insight into the work before the final drafts are submitted. OSF will produce readings and workshops of these translations all over the country. In addition, an annual convening will be held to facilitate dialogue and shared discovery among the writers.

This patron is intrigued.  I was in Ashland just last weekend on my annual bookgroup trip. Nothing beats a great production of Shakespeare under the stars in the beautiful Elizabethan Theatre or the stunning sets in the Bowmer (I still remember scenes and lines from the amazing Othello and MacBeth from a few years ago).  But as a companion piece, a learning tool, a way in to some of the harder to access language, this might be fun — not a replacement; an adjunct to the experience.  I’m open.

To learn more about this project check out the Play On! Facebook page or follow on Twitter (@PlayOnOSF).

All’s Well That Ends Well Virginia Grise Ricardo Bracho
Antony and Cleopatra Christopher Chen Desdemona Chiang
As You Like It David Ivers Lezlie C. Cross
The Comedy of Errors Christina Anderson Martine Kei Green-Rogers
Coriolanus Sean San Jose Rob Melrose
Cymbeline Andrea Thome John Dias
Edward III Octavio Solis Kimberly Colburn
Hamlet Lisa Peterson Luan Schooler
Henry IV, Part One Yvette Nolan Waylon Lenk
Henry IV, Part Two Luis Alfaro Tanya Palmer
Henry V Lloyd Suh Andrea Hiebler
Henry VI, Parts One, Two, Three Douglas Langworthy Mead Hunter
Henry VIII Allison Moore Julie Felise Dubiner
Julius Caesar Shishir Kurup Nancy Keystone
King John Brigdhe Mullins Katie Peterson
King Lear Marcus Gardley Nakissa Etemad
Love’s Labor’s Lost Josh Wilder Jeanie O’Hare
Macbeth Migdalia Cruz Ishia Bennison
Measure for Measure Aditi Brennan Kapil Liz Engelman
The Merchant of Venice Elise Thoron Julie Felise Dubiner
The Merry Wives of Windsor Dipika Guha Christine Sumption
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Jeff Whitty Heidi Schreck
Much Ado About Nothing Ranjit Bolt Lydia G. Garcia
Othello Mfoniso Udofia TBA
Pericles Ellen McLaughlin Alan Armstrong
Richard II Naomi Iizuka Joy Meads
Richard III Kwame Kwei-Armah Gavin Witt
Romeo and Juliet Hansol Jung Aaron Malkin
The Taming of the Shrew Amy Freed Drew Lichtenburg
The Tempest Kenneth Cavander Christian Parker
Timon of Athens Kenneth Cavander Lue Morgan Douthit
Titus Andronicus Taylor Mac Jocelyn Clarke
Troilus and Cressida Lillian Groag James Magruder
Twelfth Night Alison Carey Lezlie Cross
The Two Gentlemen of Verona Amelia Roper Kate McConnell
Two Noble Kinsmen Tim Slover Martine Kei Green-Rogers
The Winter’s Tale Tracy Young Ben Pryor


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1 Comment

  1. Kate
    Oct 5, 2015

    I’m excited and intrigued to hear about this and see what happens. I personally like the idea. Certainly can’t hurt and might get more people into it, or at the very least experiencing the festival in Ashland

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