So it seems that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has commissioned new versions of Shakespeare’s plays. They took 37 playwrights and asked them to rewrite Shakespeare’s plays, to translate them into contemporary language.
Why, you may ask?
Here you can read Bill Rauch, artistic director of the OSF, explaining the reasoning behind the project. He talks of an operation Shakespeare himself would have appreciated, considering the brilliant word-wizard he was. And he speaks of recovering the immediacy of the many references that were obvious to an Elizabethan audience but are not to us. “Removing the brown glaze,” he calls it.
Here instead you can read James Shapiro voicing his doubts for the New York Times. More than doubts, actually: Shapiro, who had a chance to read the pilot translation of Timon of Athens, calls it “dismal reading”.
Well, whether you are shocked or not, this is hardly news. Remember the Restoration authors revamping Elizabethan tragedies? And what about Alexander Pope, glibly rewriting or cutting off huge quantities of lines he felt were too ugly for the Bard? And then there was Garrick, tweaking Hamlet to “save it from all the nonsense in Act 5”. And let us not forget the Bowdlers, sanitizing characters and language for family consumption, and far more recently, I seem to recall, Julian Fellowes “rewrote” some parts of Romeo and Juliet for the screen – to much scandal and with questionable success.
What I mean is that the OSF is doing nothing new. Shakespeare seems to be a little like the Blue Water in Beau Geste: just looking at it doesn’t feel enough – it makes you want to do something with it. For centuries now writers, playwright, poets and translators, as well as directors, actors, scenographers and costumers, have felt a compulsion to change the Bard’s plays, to update them, to actualise them, to tweak them to suit the “modern” age. Actually, language tweaking is just as old as the practice of modern-dress productions – if not older.
Do I like it? I don’t know. While I’m not sure I’m buying Rauch’s rally against old-language elitism, I think I can understand the urge to “do something” with Shakespeare’s stories and language – just as Tate, Pope and all the others did before.
On the other hand, how can we be sure that it won’t become just… easier? The same day I found out about the Play On! Project, a friend told me that her ten-year-old child’s teacher had him and his class read a modern-language translation of Il Giornalino di Gian Burrasca. Nothing very literary, just a turn-of-the-century children’s book of the naughty-boy variety. It used to be very popular and, back in the day, no childhood was considered complete without Gian Burrasca. Then it rather faded away, and I’m rather surprised to see it brought up again. Except, my friend says, because the children did not like the antiquated language, the teacher recommended the “translation” and, lo and behold! now they are all enjoying it a good deal.
And I don’t know what to think. Now they will laugh over Gian Burrasca’s antics, told in a language that is not that of Gian Burrasca’s author. They will have fun, very likely, but wasn’t it worth it to try a little harder? Not for Gian Burrasca’s sake – but to make them appreciate how the antiquated language matched the story? On the one hand it is true that this way they will experience Gian Burrasca’s story in their own language – just like the children of 1907 did… On the other hand, they will not be quite reading Gian Burrasca, and they will have lost a chance for gaining some kind of historical perspective, and they most certainly will not go back to the original later. They won’t because frankly the book is nothing you can relish past the age of ten – but, even if that were not the case, how many would, considering how much easier it is to go with the translation?
Now substitute Timon of Athens for Gian Burrasca – and you’ll see why Play On! worries me a good deal: won’t the translations just feel easier? Won’t they discourage people from making the effort to tackle the original? What do you think?