Friday, October 02, 2015

Shakespeare and Translation: Thoughts on OSF's "Play On!"

I have been following the controversy over Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s translation initiative and wanted to write down my thoughts about it.  Arguments against this project have a tendency to make several assumptions. I do not find these assumptions especially surprising, but from my perspective they should be questioned (as most assumptions should).

Assumption 1: There is a unified version of Shakespeare (generally the First Folio), and companies with “Shakespeare” in their names are obligated to uphold this standard version.

Here is OSF’s mission statement: "Inspired by Shakespeare's work and the cultural richness of the United States, we reveal our collective humanity through illuminating interpretations of new and classic plays, deepened by the kaleidoscope of rotating repertory." This project strikes me as falling squarely within their mission.

You can argue that their mission statement has de-emphasized Shakespeare by reframing their work as “Inspired by,” and you’re welcome to be upset by that. But this is not unique among Shakespeare companies. The Utah Shakespeare Festival “presents life-affirming classic and contemporary plays, with Shakespeare as our cornerstone." The Illinois Shakespeare Festival uses “the artistry and humanity of the Shakespearean canon as our constant touchstone.”  There are dozens if not hundreds of Shakespeare companies, and these companies take a range of approaches to Shakespeare. Almost all of their missions emphasize connecting with audiences or making Shakespeare live for today. I found two that use the word “preserve” in their mission statements, and only the Colorado Shakespeare Festival uses it in reference to preserving the works of Shakespeare.

In theatre practice today, there are multiple Shakespeares. This does not even go into the instability of Shakespeare’s texts, as anyone who has read the First Quarto Hamlet can attest: “To be or not to be—ay, there’s the point.” Anthologized and paperback versions of Shakespeare are heavily edited, and editors have made choices about language. Those editorial practices have changed over time. This project strikes me as a new kind of artistic editing.  

Assumption 2: The word “translation” must refer to linguistic translation; these versions should be called adaptations because they are being translated from English to English.

Some theorists of translation would use a much wider scope for the word: “cultural translation” and “intersemiotic translation” do not necessarily imply linguistic translation. Analysis of translation generally requires a transfer from a source culture to a target culture. I think that Shakespeare’s culture was significantly different from our own and requires cultural translation. Indeed, in practice we already translate Shakespeare to our own culture because the majority of productions do not use boys to play women.  

When Nick Bottom returns to his friends after his change in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Peter Quince says, “Bless me: thou art translated.” I hesitate to mention this because of the nature of Bottom’s transformation, but it is evidence that there are multiple definitions of “translate,” and Shakespeare used the word differently than we might.

I think the term “artistic editing” might be a better one, but I suspect that OSF chose “translation” in opposition to “adaptation.” I’m seeing a lot of lamentation that these playwrights have not been commissioned to do adaptations, which would be more interesting. Some of them already have! If you aren’t familiar with Shishir Kurup’s Merchant on Venice, go read it.     

I’m not a linguist, but I think there is some merit to the suggestion that Shakespeare’s English is not the same as contemporary American English. It has been 400 years since Shakespeare’s death. It has been 600 years since Chaucer’s death. We don’t expect the average person to read Chaucer in Middle English.  As Lue Douthit points out, it’s harder to catch all that beautiful, complex language while listening than while reading.

Assumption 3: These versions will be staged at OSF and will then be published and will become the new standard versions of Shakespeare and then the real Shakespeare will be lost forever!

This fear ignores some realities of the commissioning process and rights. Many plays get commissioned and are never produced by the company that commissions them.  These translations will presumably require a royalty fee.   Many productions of Shakespeare happen because Shakespeare is in the public domain. If these versions are bad, they won’t get done.  But I suspect they won’t be bad.  If they are good, I think the most likely outcome is that these versions will lead to more productions of lesser-known Shakespeare plays.

The first time I got excited about Shakespeare was in a visual and linguistic translation: I read a comic book version of As You Like It when I was in eighth grade. I have since read most of the Shakespeare canon, performed in several of the plays in college, served as a TA for a Shakespeare class, and now regularly teach Shakespeare in Theatre courses. If these translations provide a successful first exposure to Shakespeare, they may actually recruit Shakespeare enthusiasts, some of whom might even join the cult of the First Folio.

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