Does Shakespeare Need to Be “Translated” for Contemporary Audiences?

A theatrical company, The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is embarking on a somewhat controversial project: commissioning 36 “translations” of Shakespeare plays, pairing each play with a dramaturge and a playwright (many of them women or people of color) who are charged with lightly, gently updating the Bard’s plays to make them more accessible to modern audiences.

This isn’t the kind of Sparknotes “No Fear Shakespeare” vernacular translation you’d find in classrooms as a teaching tool; the plays are being tweaked specifically for performance. Meanwhile, the company will continue to produce the plays in their original form as well as offering performances of the new versions, whose creations are being guided by two 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.

It should be noted that many theatrical performances of Shakespeare keep his language intact but cut lines and scenes liberally. Furthermore, over the centuries these “canonical” plays have been shortened, lengthened, rewritten, reimagined, and re-edited dozens of times. So it’s certainly not fair to say that this project is unprecedented butchering or a major threat. And it’s important to note that the OSF is offering these new plays as a chance to bring in a new audience while still offering the traditional productions for others; this is a supplementation rather than a replacement.

In a Wall Street Journal article about the project, linguist John McWhorter (a longtime advocate of admitting that Shakespeare is “medicinal” and difficult to understand) applauds this decision. He thinks that about one in ten words in a typical Shakespeare play are so unintelligible that they could use an updating, noting that either the meaning has completely evolved or the word no longer exists. And he thinks that this project will open the Bard’s oeuvre to a new audience. McWhorter writes:

It is true that translated Shakespeare is no longer Shakespeare in the strictest sense. But are we satisfied with Shakespeare’s being genuinely meaningful only to an elite few unless edited to death or carefully excerpted, with most of the rest of us genuflecting in the name of “culture” and keeping our confusion to ourselves? Should we have to pore laboriously over Shakespeare on the page before seeing his work performed?

Of course, it would be foolish to condemn the newly commissioned productions without seeing how they’re written, mounted, and received by audiences. They could be huge hits and attract school groups in droves, for all we know.

My main concern is the idea that understanding every word is somehow the goal of watching or even reading Shakespeare. First of all, a decent Shakespeare performance is far from impossible to understand. If you prepare yourself with a basic plot summary and allow some of the musical language to wash over you without obsessing over every detail, you can fully enjoy even an amateur production. Heck, my second-grade teacher read us a summary of Macbeth to prepare us for when the sixth graders performed the original play. We went nuts for the production and understood what was happening quiet well, even though these were 12-year-old thespians stumbling through their monologues.

How many angsty preteens and teens, uninterested in school otherwise, have fallen in love with the Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann film versions of Romeo and Juliet? Thanks to the latter, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes became sex symbols for my generation, and I doubt any of us understood every word they said. I confess that I swooned over Ethan Hawke as Hamlet in high school, even if I didn’t, as McWhorter notes, comprehend exactly what Polonius meant when he said, “look thou character” (in this case, character is a verb).

I also taught Shakespeare to ninth graders in New York City public school, as well as tutoring many more students through Othello, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. While teaching them the language was often difficult — and I found the vernacular translations useful as a tool —   the performances the kids saw almost always entertained them and kept them interested, on their own merits.

The beauty of Shakespeare, at least to me, lies in the gaps. We can watch a play and marvel, and know that even though some words are archaic or some speeches fly over our heads, the things that make human beings laugh, weep, make fatal errors, pursue power, and fall off our perches have remained shockingly similar over time.

The combination of emotional force and poetic language found in Shakespeare can, if the viewer lets go of the need to follow every little thing, be absolutely transcendent — and create another level of understanding.

In general, it feels important that people — young and old — be exposed to artistic works that they can’t fully comprehend, but find beautiful and meaningful nonetheless. Today, we can Google intellectual concepts we don’t know or use an app to figure out what song is playing, what a foreign words means, where we are, and what is happening everywhere around us. Sitting down for a thoughtful and spirited Shakespeare production is a wonderful antithesis to this aspect of our culture, one worthy of preserving.